GDC 2010
Ensemble Studio Member Blames Crunch For Failure

Greg Tito | 15 Mar 2010 17:00
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Many people thought that Ensemble Studios was one of the good guys, and they were. "Everyone at Emsemble was a designer on our games. But everyone at Ensemble was also a workaholic," Bettner said.

"Nobody used the word 'crunch' in the early days at Ensemble. We didn't need a label for what was a natural instinct. We weren't going to go home at five or six or seven. Fuck that, we worked all night, we slept there," he said. Working that way, they made a great game called Age of Empires that everyone from kids to teachers loved to play. The adulation of the industry and the audience felt so good to them, it was almost like a high. It washed away any of the unpleasantness of working such ridiculous hours.

"We made a bunch more great games, and they were really successful and each time we tried to get that high," Bettner said. "But each time seemed to take a little more than the last, a little more crunch, a little more sacrifice. I watched this happen and I did almost nothing to stop it.

"As a manager, I peddled the drug just like everyone else. My friends who are here, my ex-ensemble coworkers who are in the audience, I ask for your forgiveness. I know that I could have done much much more. I was an Ensemble old-timer and that makes me uniquely responsible for letting it get as bad as it did.

"Crunch was institutionalized as it is with most companies in this industry," he said. It's just how it works, many told Bettner. But he knows now that crunch is a poison. "This is a horrible, vicious cycle. We burn out our best people. They leave [the games industry], after they have sacrificed the most important things in their life. These are the people with the knowledge and experience that we most desperately need, these are the people who know how to run teams and know how to keep on schedule, these are the people who know how to put pure fun in a box. We kill these people.

"We destroy these precious artists. We wreck their families. We sacrifice their youth."

Before Bettner could do anything to stop it, Microsoft shut down Ensemble, even though they still were shipping great games. The cost was just too high and Bettner thinks that it was crunch that was the problem. "Every single game we shipped took twice as long as we said it would take and cost twice as much," he said. "Our reliance on crunch and mandatory unpaid overtime become the norm at Ensemble. Our software defect rates went through the roof, our milestones bloated with feature creep, our games quality suffered."

Bettner has learned his lesson. At his new studio, Newtoy, "We don't crunch. We just don't. We work when we're at work." That's because he believes that people "are the most creative when they are sitting on a porch swing on a lazy Sunday afternoon, well-rested and daydreaming about what they're going to do tomorrow."

He went on: "I believe that brilliant sparks of inspiration happen not during a 15 hour work marathon but rather in the shower after a good night's sleep."

Bettner has made his quality of life his number one priority because he knows that is how he'll make the best games. He challenged the audience full of developers and designers to do the same. "Who's with me?" he asked to end his rant.

For the first and only time during my experience at GDC 2010, I witnessed the room give the speaker a standing ovation.

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