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Crunch culture killed Ensemble Studios

While Pandemic's "own money" cursed it.

Former employees of Ensemble Studios and Pandemic Studios have blamed the developers' demise on their own company cultures, rather than the publishers that owned and closed them, Microsoft and EA.

Speaking at GDC, Paul Bettner, who worked at Ensemble for 12 years, refused to blame Microsoft for the studio's closure. "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."

In his impassioned talk during the "rants" session, Bettner, now working at iPhone developer NewToy, blamed himself for the cost, inefficiency and poor quality of life caused by Ensemble's dependence on long, "crunch" working hours.

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," Bettner said.

He mentioned the EA Spouse and Rockstar Spouse controversies, and quoted "devastating" statistics indicating that over a third of people in the games industry expect to leave it within five years.

"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."

Bettner's comments, which received a standing ovation from the GDC audience, were echoed by Carey Chico, formerly of Pandemic Studios which was recently shut down by EA.

It was the developer's culture - its lack of accountability and inability to hit milestones internally - that sealed its fate, Chico said. He said the problems began with the studio's venture capital windfall when it merged with BioWare.

"We were very good for a long period of time in the middle there," Chico said, referring to the time when the studio made titles like Full Spectrum Warrior and Mercenaries.

"Then, we got our own money. And that was probably the beginning of the fall."

Having to hit milestones for publishers and work to their schedules "are actually good restraints in a lot of ways", Chico said.

Once it had its own funding, Pandemic decided to develop its own technology and take games close to completion before trying to sell them to publishers, but lacked discipline, said Chico, now president of new developer GlobeX.

"When you have your own money, what happens is that you have to maintain your own accountability internally, and if you don't have that, you just f**k everything up."