Ensemble Studio Member Blames Crunch For Failure

Ensemble Studio Member Blames Crunch For Failure

Paul Bettner tells how he let crunch destroy Ensemble Studios after Halo Wars and Justin Hall admits all that he did wrong with his startup company, GameLayers.

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really interesting to read, and see how developers view the failures of the companies they lead

Amen. In the end you have to ask yourself... Do you work to live OR live to work?

Raises some intresting questions indeed. It's a shame, all the hard work and time put in and it all turned to ash

My immediate thoughts are that pretty much every industry is involved in so-called "Crunch". That's pretty much how things are nowadays. Indeed I'd argue that it's possibly the "Crunch" that kept them alive so long if they were making very little profit or losing money for a good portion of the time. One issue I hear about once in a while with layoffs and such is that employees are having to basically donate free time and such to companies to avoid being cut. Unfair or not, but the guy who comes in, works his 8 hours, collects his pay, and goes home is not all that valued. The guy who works extra hours but demands his time and a half for it isn't that valued. The guy who comes in and works an extra half a shift, is seen, and doesn't try and claim the time... well that's the guy who winds up being safest. With Salaary it's even worse since your looking at a culture of "the bottom line" where your basically expected to live your work. The creative industry is no differant.

Reading between the lines however I'd guess that Ensemble was one of those companies doing exactly what a lot of people are becoming concerned about: hanging out around the office, living extravagantly off of development money, and trying to milk projects for as long as they can.

I remember a while back reading an article that was making the rounds allegedly by an anonymous game designer who claimed he was basically blowing the whistle on the industry for the fans. It's one of the things I always think of when I make criticisms. It's not so much that we're talking about any kind of massive corperate evil in many cases, but simple greed or irresponsibility. I look at the comments about Ensemble not buying their gear and furnishings cheaply as examples of what that old article was talking about. I also think about things like how it was said that this anonymous "whistleblower" (of sorts) said that everyone on the design team would order out for food 3x a day on the development budget, as well in some cases considering things like cab rides or rental cars "development expenses". The basic point being that if every morning you order 100 Mcdonalds combo meals (with extra food), 100 large grinders for lunch, and 100 pizzas for dinner, all delivered with tips and where you have all the local businesses preparing your orders ahead of time each day almost like caterers, that's a MASSIVE expense over a couple of years. Not to mention the fact that if someone at a studio was to say wreck their car, they would then pay for repairs, and/or a replacement vehicle/transport out of the dev budget rather than out of the wages/salaary that they were getting paid to begin with. With a sweet deal like that, who WOULDN'T milk it as long as possible, since it's usually an unknown when the next big project is coming from.

The thing is that these expenses are passed on to us, the consumer. What's more producers are increasingly becoming irritated about such things themselves, though in the end there is little they can do when a project is underway. The most they can do is cut teams between projects unless they ant to lose everything they invested already (and I suspect this is how Duke Nukem Forever went on so long).

At any rate, in the end this type of thing is one of the reasons I am less than pleasant in criticizing the industry, and what it feels it needs to spend to develop games (and I'm only touching the tip of the iceberg here in how ridiculous this kind of thing apparently has gotten and still routinely gets). It's also why I think certain dev teams are getting cut even if they make (some) profit.

For example looking at the claims of having resteraunts basically cater for a dev team, I would think that the dev teams should bring their own food to work, OR an employee cafeteria should be set up which is going to cut costs substantially. When I worked Casino security for example they DID run a free employee Cafeteria, but this was practical because they ran like a dozen resteraunts to begin with and with the sheer number of employees and concerns about what people might be bringing in or out, was also a factor (you'd have to pay someone to search thousands of lunchboxes and such coming in and out, and trust me as security you would NOT want to do something like that along with everything else. As it was we banned female employees from having purses, and forced them to put the stuff they needed in a purse in transparent plastic bags). The bottom line here though (all rambling aside) is that while I don't think development of games needs to be run like a police state, but I do think it needs to be watched more for our sake as much as that of the producers.

It's a shame that every developer still does crunch, I was hoping that would be a thing of the past. I graduate with my CS degree in a month and a half hoping to get a game job, but I'm not going to do it if it needs to become my life.

Oh well.

The sad part is, all those people who stood up and applauded probably won't stand up against their management and demand that they not be pushed into a crunch mode. Having done project management, I've seen this before. Happens for many different reasons. Sometimes projects are just slow to start and get moving. Sometimes timelines and milestones are not realistically set. There is also the issue when the project itself changes or you get feature creep.

It's actually one of the things I like about Blizzard and ID. They start working on a game and the deadline is 'when it's done'. They seem to care more about getting the job done right then getting it done by some arbitary deadline.

Would be really interesting ot see developers stand up against their management and tell them: No, we won't work unpaid OT (which is BTW against the law), no we won't sacrifice our personal lives for a company that finds us to be easily replacable, no we won't put up with living in the office just so you can meet some deadline that you set because you didn't listen to us when we said things will take an extra 3 months.

More on these two speeches can be found at... http://www.sirlin.net/blog/2010/3/13/gdc-2010-day-3.html ...for those who are interested.

Therumancer:

While I can understand the point you're making, and it's a valid one...

When you're working a 15 hour day, doing anything at all at home (assuming you even go home) is unlikely to happen.

I'm sure many things could be improved in the industry; Better time management seems to be a big one at that.

However, if, as you say, "every" industry is involved in it's own version of 'crunch', then I would consider that a pretty big scandal.

Working hour limits exist for very good reasons, and it's taken a long time to get them. To throw that all away again really shouldn't be encouraged.

If there's one thing that gets on my nerves it's the 'because everybody else does it' argument.

It's deeply flawed, and should not be the basis of ANY decision making.
All it does is perpetuate the status quo, regardless of how undesirable it may well be.

Monshroud:
Would be really interesting ot see developers stand up against their management and tell them: No, we won't work unpaid OT (which is BTW against the law), no we won't sacrifice our personal lives for a company that finds us to be easily replacable, no we won't put up with living in the office just so you can meet some deadline that you set because you didn't listen to us when we said things will take an extra 3 months.

They get fired and no other publisher decides to put up with their shit.

Seriously, the guy is right about crunch in general, but as it relates to Ensemble...come on.

He said he had a deadline and despite the crunch, took double the time and money to finish. Put yourself in managements position. Would you keep them?

I'm a developer currently working a (roughly) 12-hour-day crunch mode (not for a games company, though). I can definitely say that it's not a good thing to keep up (fortunately crunches are very rare here), and both work and life quality does suffer as a result. Definitely something that management should be trying to avoid, not encourage. (And again, my managers do normally try to avoid it.)

Greg Tito:
...Fast forward two years and the game launched, but it was only generating $25/month while he was spending $75 thousand to keep his company running...

The chart on the sreenshot says $25/day, $750/month. You got that mixed up.

But very good article, btw.

There's a reason most games run something to the effect of "and thanks to our families for not disowning, divorcing, or killing us" at the end of the credits.

The financial side to video games is messy and ugly- we're not living in an age where 20 teenagers in a small cube farm can drum up a sprite animate game that lasts 15-20 hours in the course of 3-4 months.

Now days we're looking at games becoming massive undertakings- and the biggest ticket items tend to transcend the bounds of it being just a game. We're looking at massive environments like in WoW and sci fi operas in ME2. The realm between game and movie is getting heavily blurred as well, and graphically speaking, "keeping up with the Joneses" is getting more and more taxing. It's not just about having 32 colors anymore. What used to be done with 20 people might take an entire legion of programmers, artists, developers, and of course the people overseeing it, and then some.

So these games cost a lot of money up front. At best a game might take a year or so, less if things are already laid out like with games in the Halflife 2 engine. At worst you're looking at a Blizzard project that takes over 4 years to make, and as an investor you won't be able to help but think that you're watching someone with OCD being told that their curtains look just a little bit off.

And then what? What if the game doesn't sell well? What if it doesn't meet expectations? Over the course of a year many games more or less "fail" to some degree. Video games are not safe investments.

Wonder why we're seeing so many sequels right now? Its what people are willing to invest in. People know that people will buy another pokemon game, another WoW expansion, and another GTA game.

But Homeworld 3? Company of Heroes 2? Jet Force Gemini 2? Even a new IP? Not so much. The economy at the moment isn't exactly helping either.

I have to say, there's really two companies that stuck to me when I was a kid. Blizzard, and Ensemble Studios. If I wasn't nuking the zerg I was unleashing Mongolian hordes on poor, unsuspecting Vikings. If Microsoft really does just drop the Age of Empires Franchise I will be immensely disappointed. It's one thing to be sitting on a gem that they're not even going to pursue further, it's another entirely for the gem to be nestled on a veritable mountain of gold.

There's something about the Ensemble story that just doesn't quite sit right with me.

"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."

So far so good. Startup company consisting mostly of young single guys works late nights to make good. We're told why it's a good thing early in the company's history, and set up for how that leads to bad practices later and rising expectations.

"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.

It's easy to see how expectations rise over time: that newer games should sell more than previous ones. They need to because budgets go up and head counts go up. One would assume that if head count goes up high enough, you can make a better game in the same time with fewer hours per day. I'm thinking what the author means is that Ensemble failed to transition to this kind of altered schedule; I'm just not sure "crunch" or reliance on it is really what he means.

"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."

Crunch burns people out-- I think that's understood and self-explanatory. What I'm not sure of is how a company built on the crunch philosophy and staffed with people who are longtimers in that company-- people weaned on crunch-- know how to run teams and stay on schedule. It sounds to me like what he's saying is that the employees didn't know how to do that at all, because they had never done it. Certainly the company is losing its most experienced workers to burnout, and those employees know the evils of crunch best, but that doesn't mean they would know how to fix it.

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."

This is where I hear alarm bells go off. How does mandatory unpaid overtime make a game more expensive and take longer? I can see how a developer, or a publisher, would want to rely on crunch schedules to get more done in less time with fewer people, even at the risk of decreased quality. When he says that crunch is bad, I see that. However, I also see the converse: developers aren't usually always crunching. There's a non-crunch period, and then a crunch period. If the crunch period is bad and has to be avoided, then something has to be done: longer schedules, more resources, or work done on a more even schedule. If you want to work fewer hours during crunch, you have to do more work in non-crunch to make the schedule more predictable.

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."

Now I'm shaking my head. Is this magic? I can see where well-rested employees should be sharper, and this might well crack down on quality control issues, but I tend to think crunch cannot be completely eliminated without eliminating all deadlines. Any error early in development will end up needing extra effort to correct, or extra time. Valve gets to release games "when they're done" but hardly anyone else has that luxury.

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."

Is crunch time really about inspiration? Or is it about bug-hunting, bug-fixing, testing and optimization? If you're looking for inspiration during crunch time, isn't the problem really poor planning from the outset?

hansari:

Monshroud:
Would be really interesting ot see developers stand up against their management and tell them: No, we won't work unpaid OT (which is BTW against the law), no we won't sacrifice our personal lives for a company that finds us to be easily replacable, no we won't put up with living in the office just so you can meet some deadline that you set because you didn't listen to us when we said things will take an extra 3 months.

They get fired and no other publisher decides to put up with their shit.

Seriously, the guy is right about crunch in general, but as it relates to Ensemble...come on.

He said he had a deadline and despite the crunch, took double the time and money to finish. Put yourself in managements position. Would you keep them?

See I would have replaced the management instead. In my experience (yours may be different) management sets the deadlines and budgets. They rarely, if ever talk to the actual workers making the game to know if any of this is realistic. There always seems to be this disconnect between the workers and management, and in the cases I have seen in the companies I have worked in, the blame tends to fall on the management level not the worker level.

That story doesn't seem to sit right with me either:

Another ex-Ensemble guy comments?

http://insidevoice.com/?p=203

This is why Blizzard wins at everything, forever. There are no crunch periods, games are released "when their done" and not a moment sooner. Do gamers have to wait longer for Blizzard titles? Yes, but then again who the fuck cares? The quality of their games more than makes up for it. Also, the quality of life of Blizzard employees is among (if not the) highest in the industry. Coincidence? I think not.

You think there's no crunch at Blizzard???

Narcogen:
Now I'm shaking my head. Is this magic? I can see where well-rested employees should be sharper, and this might well crack down on quality control issues, but I tend to think crunch cannot be completely eliminated without eliminating all deadlines. Any error early in development will end up needing extra effort to correct, or extra time. Valve gets to release games "when they're done" but hardly anyone else has that luxury.

It really is surprising how much time people can waste while they are working in an office. The keys to keeping deadlines are things like enjoying your job, having direct job experience and having realistic goals. Crunch is more of a sign of chronic deadline problems than missing deadlines for a good reason. Crunch is a sign of a company with unrealistic goals that burns out employee motivation causing them to leave, taking their experience with them.

Hmm I'm gonna have to keep an eye out on that open source bit.

Who knew they would invent something so addictive. I just read a really interesting article about Newtoy Inc./WWF and the Bettner brothers. Check it, I think you'll find it interesting.

http://www.dmagazine.com/Home/D_Magazine/2010/June/Words_With_Friends_Tests_Your_Vocabulary.aspx

 

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