Ensemble Studio Member Blames Crunch For Failure


The Rant at GDC is a chance for developers to air their grievances with no boundaries on decorum, but, instead of railing against “the man,” two developers told why it was their fault that they failed. Paul Bettner was at Ensemble Studios when they were at their best and worst. He was there when Age of Empires received multiple Game Of The Year awards in 1998, and he was there when Microsoft fired the whole studio 10 years later. But he doesn’t blame Microsoft, he blames himself for allowing a culture of crunch and inefficiency to continue even when he knew it was wrong. Similarly, Justin Hall rode a high of venture capital investment before he realized that his game and company couldn’t sustain itself.

“I started off as a journalist, I became a student developer of games, and then I had the chance to run my own studio into the ground,” said Justin Hall to open his rant. He had an idea to make a browser-based MMOG, at first called the Passively Multiplayer Online Game but later The Nethernet, where you create quests and leave treasure and bombs on websites for your friends to find. Hall built a working prototype while he was at USC for game design and around 1500 gamers seemed to the think that it was really fun.

“People said, ‘Wow that’s a functioning prototype with 1500 users of a new type of game. It’s 2007 and we’re all smoking the happy weed here in California, let’s give you some money to make this real!” Hall said. Even though he was still a student, Hall couldn’t resist the $2 million that was thrown at him to start his company.

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. Seeing that this was quickly going to fail, he crunched to make two Facebook games, Dictator Wars and Super Cute Zoo. “We were now making $50 a day, we doubled our revenues, we were up to $1500 a month but we still had about five employees and we were still burning about $75k a month,” he admitted.

“I was the CEO. I failed. I wasted time,” he said. Instead of searching for cheap printers and chairs to save money, “I should have been market-testing my fricking Firefox MMOG” that no one wanted to pay for. Finally, “I had many people, people who might be in this room, tell me that I should do these things and I didn’t listen to their advice because I had this picture of the game I wanted to build in my head. And we built it, but nobody came.”

“I didn’t make a market-ready product that could sustain the company.”

Hall said he spent a lot of time being depressed and sad at his failure and how it was all for nothing. But the story isn’t all bad: he’s releasing the backend of the The Nethernet to the world as open source. “So if you want to build a toolbar MMOG in Firefox, later this month you can go crazy,” said Hall to end his rant.

Paul Bettner from Ensemble Studios tells a much different story of great success and ultimate failure that stemmed from a problem that plagues many design studios these days, the culture of crunch.

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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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