Ex-Ensemble Studios lead designer responds to Bettner rant (update)

Aside from a very small handful of points, it would seem there's a major disconnect between two ex-Ensemble Studio employees over why the studio was shuttered by Microsoft last year. Ian Fischer (an ex-lead designer at Ensemble, now at Robot Entertainment) details on his blog the many disagreements he has with (claimed) ex-creative lead Paul Bettner's recent rant at the Game Developer's Conference in a panel called "Fired and Fired-up: Jobless Developer's Rant." We say "claimed," because even Bettner's job title is called into question during the response. "Neither you, nor anyone else, was 'Creative Director' at our studio," Fischer alleges.

Further, Fischer rebutes Bettner's claim that Ensemble shut down due to a "reliance on crunch" to finish projects that got more and more expensive by the year, saying it had more to do with "chasing after the MMOs and FPSs and RPGs and RTS-differents we constantly had in prototype." He also says that the communication with Microsoft never broke down and that if the publisher had wanted to lower the developer's operating costs, "they could have done so with a phone call ... 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."

So, according to Fisher, what was the reason that Ensemble shut down? "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," he suggests, referencing the aforementioned prototypes.

Update: You can find Paul Bettner's full response to Fischer's claims after the break.

Paul Bettner's response:

"Ian and I did work together for over a decade. I value our relationship and I appreciate his letter. At Ensemble there were times where our individual philosophies on game development led us to different perspectives on how things should be run, as is evident in his response. When I read Ian's open letter, it seemed to me that he was actually supporting many of the points I made in my talk (the usage of crunch, for example), even though we obviously disagree on how and why these factors contributed to Ensemble's demise.

That said, there is a message that I tried to convey in my rant that has still not gotten enough coverage:

In my opinion, Ensemble was one of the greatest game developers in the world. I loved Ensemble. I owe so much to the friends I was privileged to work with there for so many years. I am extremely proud of what we accomplished together and I said so in my talk. Our shipped titles and their legacy in millions of sales and numerous awards are an undeniable testament to Ensemble's industry-leading focus on quality and fun.

Ian points out:

'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... 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.'

This is the fact that is striking to me: Even at one of the highest caliber game development studios in the world, we still utilized these 'numerous inefficient development practices,' including the use of regular, recurring unpaid overtime. Yes we were way better about this than some. We scheduled it in advance. We catered meals and had family nights when spouses and children would come to visit their busy loved ones. We viewed crunch as a management failure.

But we still did it. On a regular basis.

I hope that my rant shines a light on the quality of life issues that were present even at one of this industry's greatest studios. I don't think we should accept these practices as a necessary evil of game development. I think we can do better. I can do better. This is a call to action: our industry-wide reliance on mandatory unpaid overtime needs to stop."

This article was originally published on Joystiq.