Ian Fischer ex Lead Designer at Ensemble Studios and now working in the same role at Robot Entertainment has responded to Paul Bettners rant at the GDC where Paul claimed the studio was expensive, in efficient with low staff morale. As I discussed before these are only one mans views and do not reflect the whole studio. Many ES employees were very happy with the management of ES and followed ex ES leaders such as Tony Goodman into Robot Entertainment and David Rippy into Bonfire Studios. If staff wernt happy they simply would not have formed these new studios.
However, Ian Fischer has taken the time to respond to each of Paul Bettners points at the GDC in an open letter on his personal blog. You can read the whole letter below however I recommend checking out the full posting on Ian’s website for comments.
An open letter to Paul Bettner
You and I worked together at Ensemble Studios for more than a decade. I respect your right to your own opinion and your right to state it. However, I take issue with the manner you have decided to speak about your displeasure with “crunch culture” at the 2010 GDC.
In several email exchanges, you seem to indicate that your comments are being taken out of context but you need only visit any of the summaries regarding your talk to see the message you have given people:
Eurogamer – Crunch Culture Killed Ensemble Studios
Edge – Crunch Brought Down Ensemble
Industry Gamers - Halo Wars Developer Talks About How ‘Crunch’ Destroyed Ensemble
Devlop Online – Crunch Culture Killed Ensemble
You have given people the impression that Ensemble was inefficient and expensive.
It is true that each of our games cost more to make than the last. This was not unique to Ensemble and had nothing to do with a “crunch culture”. Between Age of Empires in 1997 and Halo Wars in 2009, game development budgets, team sizes, and schedules increased across the board. This was primarily fueled by the maturation of 3D and publishers adopting portfolio strategies focused on big-ticket “blockbuster” games.
Ensemble danced to this tune and shipped five major titles (each of which gained membership into the million+ club) and four expansion packs (five if you count the one developed by Big Huge Games) during this period. I invite you to compare that to our peers — take a look at the number of games put out by Valve or Blizzard or Epic during the same time and speak with the people we know at these studios about their budgets and teams. The truth of the matter is, Ensemble Studios, while certainly fond of numerous inefficient development practices, was no costlier or less efficient than any other developer of our caliber during this period of operation.
You have given people the impression that Ensemble burned out our best people.
Your comments include statements regarding chasing people out of the industry, destroying “precious artists”, wrecking families, and causing people to “sacrifice their youth”.
Ensemble enjoyed a reputation as a place you didn’t leave. Our retention rates, including people who did not exit the company voluntarily, were in the vicinity of 90%. You will find few developers who can claim this at all and you will find none amongst the ones who actually “wreck families” or ask people to “sacrifice their youth”.
Of the people who were once in the studio, the vast majority are still in the games business. Of the people who worked at other developers prior to Ensemble, the most common complaint was that the studio was too lax, that we allowed our people too much freedom and did not hammer individuals for playing games or not being at their desks by the official start of the workday. There were certainly people at Ensemble who did not like working long hours for extended periods (all of them, in fact) but your implication that it was a place that used people up is wholly untrue and contrary to all evidence.
You have given people the impression that Ensemble accepted crunch.
The leadership of Ensemble Studios saw crunch as a failure. While it was certainly used, it was never “institutionalized” or accepted. Tony Goodman, Harter Ryan, Chris Rippy, and David Pottinger, in particular, worked to eliminate or at least reduce it constantly and we improved this with each game.
Prior to Halo Wars, which required what it did for the circumstances surrounding the closure of the studio, we had crunches that were scheduled in advance, typically for two weeks in duration, with extra hours (usually 10 until 10) four days a week, normal Fridays and weekends off, with chefs who came in to cook meals for the team twice a day, usually a family night during one of the weeks, with a month or so of extra paid vacation after a game shipped. That was a far cry from the do-or-die conditions during Age of Empires and the leadership was still upset about having to ask people to do it.
You have given people the impression that the closure of Ensemble was somehow a “fiscally responsible decision” and that Ensemble is to blame for the closure.
Every single game Ensemble Studios made, across more than a decade, paid for it’s development and made a profit. Microsoft had it’s reasons for closing the studio but to imply that it was because we cost too much is fiction. ES enjoyed a long relationship with Microsoft (as many ex-Studios people now at Robot or Bonfire still do), first as a partner and then as part of the corporation after 2001 – if, at any point, the leadership in Redmond wanted to reduce the cost of making games in Dallas, they could have done so with a phone call.
You have given people the impression that you speak with authority.
By apologising for your inactions “as a manager”, you suggest that you were a manager and therefore imply that you have some insight into the operation of the studio or into the justifications for our closing. You were never a member of the management team at Ensemble Studios. For that matter, neither you, nor anyone else, was “Creative Director” at our studio. You were in no way involved in any of the conversations between Ensemble’s and Microsoft’s leadership regarding the closure of the studio.
As I said, I respect your right to have and state your opinion. I would request that you not suggest or allow people to assume that you speak from a position that you did not hold.
Since we’re on the topic of looking back on mistakes we made, I will leave you with this:
All of us knew what Ensemble was and we signed on for it willingly (including Microsoft, who purchased us in the middle of developing our third game with them and who knew what we were like). Of the “old timers”, none of us wanted to work at a factory, beholden to a rigid schedule, cranking out mediocre games to keep the lights on and we did our best to attract like-minded individuals. We wanted the freedom to try things, to experiment, and to set our sights on unreasonable goals (an attitude very similar to the “65% of the impossible is better than 100% of the ordinary” espoused by Google).
We exercised that freedom and certainly valued it far more than efficiency. With that independence came the responsibility to actually get things done on occasion so, yes, sometimes after we had steered hard left into the weeds, we needed to work long hours to get the car back on the road.
If you want to find mistakes with what we did, I’d suggest that those trips into the weeds, looking for new territory, with a partner who wasn’t fond of being there, was more our error. Had we decided to crank out RTS after RTS instead of chasing after the MMOs and FPSs and RPGs and RTS-differents we constantly had in prototype, I’m sure we would have been a more efficient studio that could have operated with zero crunch.
The vast majority of us didn’t want to do this. I’m glad for that.
Ian M. Fischer
Certainly a very insightful response into the runnings of Ensemble Studios. Sadly its a shame that comments in this letter is unlikely to make it into gaming news websites and the reputation of Ensemble may well have been damaged with the recent press. I hope that fans of the studio can draw there own conclusions from the facts above.
News is spreading around that Paul Bettner an ex Ensemble programmer has had a bit of a “rant” at the GDC explaining that Ensemble Studios should not of blamed Microsoft for the studios closure and should instead look at failings with the company culture at Ensemble Studios. In what has proven to be such a shock read from an ex-Ensemble employee which certainly damages the excellent working environment Ensemble was credited for he says:
“The reality is that every single game we shipped took twice as long as we said it was going to take, and cost twice as much to make.
“Microsoft is a public company, they answer to their shareholders, and we were simply too expensive.”
But wait, theres more:
“Ensemble had a company culture where everyone was a workaholic, developers worked late and slept at the office, and were addicted to the rush of success of the Age of Empires series.
I watched this happen and I did almost nothing to stop it. As an employee, and later as a manager, I didn’t take a stand. I just kept hoping for that next high”
“This is a horrible vicious cycle. We burn out all our best people. We destroy these precious artists, we wreck their families and we sacrifice their youth. So they leave, and they take all their experience with them.”
Some pretty shocking comments there which resulted in huge applause from the GDC audience, perhaps with other developers agreeing that there is way too much pressure in the industry with these “crunching” hours.
This is the first time we have had an Ensemble Studios employee almost attack the way the company was managed but we must remember on the other end of the scale that alot of people stuck with Ensemble once the studio was told it would be closed down and ironically Dave and Paul Bettner were one of the first employees to leave and start NewToy before Halo Wars was completed.
These are one mans comments and do not reflect the thoughts of the whole studio. 45 employees followed Tony Goodman to start up Robot Entertainment so there must of been confidence in the highest management. Perhaps lessons have been learnt about crunching hours and the new Ensemble startups are paying closer attention to how staff are looked after and how studios are run to ensure talent does not leave whilst at the same time balancing budget and hitting milestones. Now with studios like Robot and Bonfire being fully independent there may be less pressure to meet publisher demands, hopefully.
It should also be noted that Robot Entertainment sponsor the International Game Developers Association and therefore stands by the values and principles behind the IGDA “Quality of Life” white paper. If there were any issues at Ensemble these should now have been addressed with the management at Robot Entertainment. Robot Chief Operating Officer, Patrick Hudson comments on the IGDA website:
Robot Entertainment is proud to support the IGDA in its ongoing mission to make the game development community a better environment for all of us.
This comment is not related or a response to the Paul Bettner discussion and has been present on the IGDA website for quite some time prior.
As of March 1st 2010 343 Industries’ Halo Waypoint team will take over support of both Halo Wars and the Halo Wars Community at HaloWars.com. Community Manager Jon Goff from 343 has made his introductions in the general discussion.
As most of you know, Halo Wars and HaloWars.com are transitioning more closely into the Halo Waypoint family.
As of this weekend, Halo Waypoint will oversee both Halo Wars’ matchmaking and stat tracking servers, as well as HaloWars.com as we continue to bring the Halo universe together as never before.
Before I continue, the Waypoint team would like to thank the amazing group at Robot Entertainment, who have spent the past year working closely with the Halo Wars community, helping to build a vibrant, dedicated fan base, and we look forward to supporting the Halo Wars community as the Halo universe continues to expand and evolve.
Jon then continues to expand on some of the most frequently asked community questions – whether or not there will be a Halo Wars sequel of even any additional DLC. The response is as expected – no.
Will there be a Halo Wars 2?
There is currently no information to share about the possibly of future Halo Wars games. We understand the desire from the Halo Wars community for another installment of Halo Wars, but for now the focus in regard to Halo game titles is squarely on supporting Bungie as they prepare to launch Halo: Reach this Fall.
Will there be more Halo Wars DLC?
Likewise, there is currently no new information on additional Halo Wars DLC.
The transition from Robot Entertainment to Halo Waypoint indicates Microsoft’s reduced commitment to the title for the near future as Halo Wars loses its developer. It is currently unclear whether some small bugs outstanding from the last title update will be resolved. Two of these include the issue that units can use the Y-Ability across the entire map and secondly there are missing cut scenes in the Halo Wars game menu. Robot Entertainment has advised that these issues are now the responsibility of Halo Waypoint.
Whats next for Robot Entertainment?
Losing Robot Entertainment in the Halo Wars community is a sad thing. No one is better placed to support the game and its community than the games developer and Robot had the majority of people from Ensemble Studios working on the titles support. However, this is not the end of Robot’s community presence on other games. Robot will continue to provide support for both Age of Empires and the Age of Empires Community. Also expect Robot to be hard at work on a brand new community for thier upcoming video game project. Robot are expanding thier community team to no doubt make the future community as, or even more vibrant and exciting than ever before. Stay tuned.
Hot of the press from HaloWars.com. Today an announcement was made by Robot Entertainment Community Manager, Duncan “Aloysius” Stanley talking about the end of Robot’s primary involvement with the Halo Wars Community. The announcement reads as follows:
On February 28th, 2010, Halo Waypoint will be begin to officially support both Halo Wars and HaloWars.com. Waypoint staff will transition in over the next month to support operations of HaloWars.com and the Halo Wars matchmaking and stats servers. Over the past year, Robot was very proud to roll out 4 Title Updates for Halo Wars, provide technical support on the forums and provide a place for volumes of fan fiction. Robot was proud to be a part of this community for the past year, and we hope we served you well.
Along with supporting operations, Halo Waypoint has exciting plans for Halo Wars. Look for announcements in the near future.
So long and thanks for all the fish!
This was quite an unexpected announcement as in most cases the developer is responsible for the games communities. For example, Rare looks after Banjo and Lionhead looks after the Fable communities. However, it seems Microsoft is not so keen to continue having Robot watch over the Halo Wars community. Presumably, now a year on from Ensemble’s closure the agreement struck between Robot and Microsoft to look after the Halo Wars community has expired and possibly as a result of cost cutting Microsoft are bringing the management of the website in house.
Come February 28th a new moderation team will be drafted in from Microsoft’s, 343 Industries – the “Waypoint” team. Its been a bumpy road for Halo Wars fans having to go through another major change in the way the game is supported. First the closure of the original developer Ensemble, then the removal of the second developers community presence. Microsoft do not seem to be treating the strategy version of the Halo IP very well!
Although the announcement states “exciting plans for Halo Wars” are in the works, one must wonder how “exciting” these plans can be without a developer attached to the game anymore.
Hopefully there will be more details to follow about this announcement in due course.
What about Age Community?
Some good news is that the Age of Empires community will still be looked after by Robot Entertainment as before.
Bruce Shelley has been interviewed by a German online magazine GamersGlobal.de. Most of the interview talks about Settlers 7 and Bruce’s role in the games development. It looks like he’ll be bringing accross Ensemble game design philosophies such as playtesting and making the game easier to play for gamers. However if you listen to the first few minutes of the interview Bruce talks about the closure of Ensemble Studios where he believes it was a mistake and says that the studio was closed due to Microsoft thinking it wasnt a strategic studio anymore. He goes onto say that Ensemble were making different games outside of the genre but those games kept being cancelled by Microsoft. Clearly Microsoft did not give the studio a chance to explore titles outside of the RTS genre, a big shame on Microsoft.
Check out the video below:
Its been just over a year when Ensemble Studios closed its doors (29th Jan 2009) and we have seen lots of news where the developers have set up new companies such as Robot, Bonfire, NewToy, Fuzzycube and Windstorm and we have seen some of the developers join posts in other prestigious companies such as Paul Jaquays now working at CCP North America. However news has been scarce about iconic Ensemble developer and co-founder Bruce Shelley, until now.
Today it was widely revealed that Bruce Shelley has joined Ubisoft’s Blue Byte studio where he will be working as consultant on the RTS game “Settlers 7″. It looks like nothing can keep Bruce away from RTS video game development! You can find out more about the game and see Bruce in action as he describes the economy structure of Settlers 7 in the YouTube video below.
Also check out the high res download of the video over at BigDownload.com
Settlers 7 open beta now open
More good news is that the Settlers 7 game that Bruce is working on is now accepting beta signups so that you can get a first look at the game. More details about that available here: http://www.fileplanet.com/promotions/settlers-7. Note also that an ubi.com account is needed for registration so be sure to get that setup first.
Remember-EnsembleStudios.com will be following developments of this game closely and will update with any more Bruce Shelley blogs or vidlogs. Keep an eye out!
Dylan Cole an artist who worked with Ensemble Studios on the cancelled Halo MMO has made some concept art and paintings available from the project on his website. The incredibly detailed images show what the game environments may have been like if the project saw the light of day and Ensemble was still with us. Take a look at this outstanding image showing what a Forerunner City may have looked like in game:
And another showing a Halo City from a distance:
If in game graphics were 1/5 as good as these outstanding art pieces the MMO would of been a marvel to play. It is a great travesty that executives at Microsoft pulled the plug on such a promising game. I recommend that everyone check out Dylan Cole’s website for more Halo MMO art plus more incredible pieces from his other projects:
Microsoft has, bewilderingly released new copies of Age of Empires 3 and its set of expansions including the newly released Age of Empires 3 Collectors edition. One would imagine that Microsoft would be contacting Robot Entertainment so that they can prepare the Ensemble Studios Online (ESO) server to accept the new CD-keys enabling purchasers to play the game online. However it seems that Microsoft have been less forthcoming with Robot Entertainment about these re-releases by not informing Robot Entertainment about these new CD keys leaving purchasers bemused that copies of the game are invalid.
Perhaps someone at Microsoft is emailing the wrong person and has forgotten that the @ensemblestudios.com email address has been shut down.
One must worry from this news about the quality of communication from Microsoft to Robot Entertainment following the closing of internal studio Ensemble. It is sad that poor performance from Microsoft is potentially adversely affecting the reputation of Robot Entertainment who end users believe is offering the support for ESO. Community Manager for Robot Entertainment, Duncan Stanley says:
Microsoft, the publisher of all of the Age of Empires III games and expansions, recently released new copies of the game, and the expansions.
When they did this, they did not give us, Robot Entertainment, the cd-keys first to upload to our server so that people who buy the game can authenticate and create accounts. Because of this, users may get Error 100 [Bad CD-Key] when trying to create or upgrade an ESO account.
Microsoft and Robot Entertainment are aware of the problem, and we are working to resolve it as speedily as we can.
We will upload the cd-keys to the server as soon as we get them.
We apologize for the frustration.
We will keep you posted on updates with this unfortunate situation
NewToy’s Paul Bettner an ex programmer at Ensemble Studios was one of the first to start up a new games company out of Ensemble’s ashes. Paul is now talking to Gamasutra about the new start up company and how he in-visages the companies future. Paul hopes that NewToy can appeal to the unique iPhone market taking into account the platforms easy connectivity and user interaction. The Gamasutra article explains how well the “Chess with Friends” application has been doing since launch, although missing out on the Top 100 the game has had some excellent download numbers:
Chess With Friends came from that philosophy. The game got good support from Apple, which featured the game prominently on the App Store as Pick of the Week in March. The vote of confidence led to a nice jump in sales.
But it still didn’t break the top 100 Apps on the sales ranking list on the App Store, meaning visibility for the game would be low. For iPhone developers, making the top 100 is a crucial requisite for having a successful game.
Bettner said he didn’t pack up and go home. There is a life outside of the Top 100, and it involves sustained growth of a game’s sales and good consumer retention, two things possessed by Chess With Friends and its Scrabble-style counterpart, Words With Friends, he said.
Combined, Chess and Words, which both have ad-supported free and paid versions, have been downloaded 500 million times so far. They draw 50,000 active users daily, and are tracking 200,000 for September, Bettner said. The ratio of free to paid versions is 5:1.
Check out the full article on Gamasutura.
As NewToy continue development on new and exciting applications such as the much awaited “World War Robot” with acclaimed artist Ashley Wood.
Good luck NewToy!
The mysterious press folder found on a website which handles Microsoft press releases for the games division has finally been filled with Age of Empires content. Unfortunately it is not a new Age of Empires game as first hoped. Instead Microsoft will finally release all three Age of Empires 3 games (the original plus the two expansions). Until now only Age 3 and the Warchiefs expansion have been bundled together and players have had to purchase the Asian Dynasties separately. Now all the Age 3 content can be picked up in one handy box set.
Interestingly and sadly, this may be the last box art which we see bearing the Ensemble Studios logo having first thought Halo Wars may be the last.
So where does this leave the Age of Empires series going forward? It has been reported before in a gamesindustry.biz interview with Phil Spencer of Microsoft Game Studios that:
And we do have a plan for Age of Empires, and it is something we’ll continue to push, it just didn’t require that we had Ensemble Studios as an entity inside of MGS in Dallas, as full time internal employees, as a studio that would be the sole source of Age content going forward.
So hmm.. lets hope there is a plan for more new Age content going forward hopefully to be developed by ex Ensemble teams.