Just past the jump, we've highlighted three of our favorite presentations from the panel. Some of them get awfully, explicitly blue, so if you happen to find yourself reading this video game news site while at work, you might want to think twice about going beyond the break. (You should also get back to work, you lazy so-and-so!)
Former Company: Ensemble Studios
Current Company: Newtoy
Oh, Ensemble, you're likely thinking, he'll have a few choice words to say about Microsoft, I'm sure. We'd assumed the same thing before Paul Bettner, former Ensemble manager, took the stage. After all, the entire studio was "let go" by Microsoft a few short weeks before their last project, Halo Wars, shipped to retail. That's got to be enough to engender some blinding rage towards the tech industry juggernaut, right?
Not quite. Bettner's speech was an unswervingly honest look at how overwork was responsible for dismantling the once great Ensemble team -- an outfit responsible for developing the hit Age of Empires series, among others.
"I don't remember when the word 'crunch' was first heard around the hallways of Ensemble," Bettner explained. "Every game seemed to take a little bit 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 an employee, I didn't take a stand, I just kept hoping for that next high. Later on, as a manager, I peddled the drug just like everyone else. My ex-Ensemble co-workers in the audience, I ask for your forgiveness. I know that I could've done much, much more."
According to Bettner, Microsoft closed Ensemble because the studio changed as it further institutionalized "crunching." Morale was impossibly low, leading to talks of a mass exodus once Halo Wars shipped. As we all know, this action wasn't necessary -- quality began to slip, development costs began to skyrocket and Microsoft made the only fiscally responsible decision it could: It shut down the developer.
"The reality is that every single game we shipped took twice as long as we said it would take, and took twice as much to make it," Bettner recounted. "Our reliance on crunch, on mandatory unpaid overtime became a norm at Ensemble. Our game quality suffered."
An overzealous work ethic wasn't just responsible for the closing of Ensemble, it also pushed a number of talented members of the industry to move to less demanding gigs, instead of continuing to sacrifice other aspects of their lives.
"We kill these people. They join us because they love games so desperately, that they'd be doing this even if we didn't give them a paycheck. We destroy these precious artists. We destroy their families, we sacrifice their youth, and so they leave, and they take their experience with them."
Bettner's philosophy for his new company, Newtoy, has absorbed the hard-learned lessons from his time at Ensemble. "We don't crunch," he vowed. "We just don't." It's a strategy that's panning out quite well, as Newtoy's debut project, Words with Friends, is the most successful game on the iPhone. Like, ever.
"I believe that we're our most creative when we're sitting on a porch swing on a lazy Sunday afternoon, well-rested and day dreaming about what we're going to do tomorrow," Bettner said. "I believe that our brilliant sparks of inspiration come not at the end of a 15-hour work marathon, but rather, in the shower after a good night's sleep.
"I love this industry. I love making games with all of you. I love it so much, that I'm willing to tear myself away from my computer and go home to my family. Not only because this is what's truly most important to me -- even when that addict inside me is telling me to put just a few more hours into it; just finish this feature or fix that last bug -- but also because I know, deep down, that striving for that high quality of life is how I'll make the best games, too.
"Who's with me?"
Apparently, everyone! Bettner's fiery, self-effacing speech was received with a thunderous standing ovation.
Former Company: Pandemic Studios
Current Company: Globex Studios
Remember in the beginning of the post, when we warned about some "explicit" material ahead? Well, a majority of it came from the speech of Carey Chico, who was one of the 200-or-so folks at Pandemic that had their gainful employment revoked last November. Chico presented a letter he wished to personally submit to EA, which he was kind enough to both read out loud and project onto the panel's massive screen. Puzzlingly, there were a few ... incongruities.
"Thank you so much for the experiences that I had while working at your esteemed company."
"My recent layoff -- right before Christmas -- brought a quick end to what I had hoped would be a very long career with you."
"It's a shame that my experience was cut short so soon, as I would have loved to continue growing and improving this organization well into the future."
"But I learned and grew a lot while at your company, and met amazing people who helped me define what I believe real leadership at a world-class company should be like."
"Your development process brought guidance to our studio, and I can recall many moments where your leadership truly improved our product."
"And I remember your strong support of our team directors, and your strong praise over their accomplishments."
"When I reflect upon the value that the city-state model as a whole brought to the organization, and made all of us much more effective studios."
"So, thank you for the experience, and I feel like I'm a better manager for it, and I wish you the best of luck in 2010, and I look forward to any crossings our paths might have in the future."
Though there's a great deal of spite in Chico's two-fold letter, he assured the audience that he's "kidding here." Like Bettner, he was able to identify when his former studio went downhill: when it got its own money. Without having to answer to a publisher for long periods of time, a developer loses its accountability, and its product suffers as a result.
"It's fine if you have the best idea in the world," Chico explained, "but if you can't hold yourself responsible for meeting milestones and meeting expectations along the way, and developing your own metric to determine whether your product is going to sell, then all that time isn't going to be worth anything."
Former Company: EA Maxis
Current Company: n/a
"My disclaimer this time is this," Hecker said as he began his presentation, "I'm going to try and say something slightly subtle here in my rant. So, if you're going to cover this for your blog or your news site, please try and understand that subtle thing and talk about that -- not any individual quote you might be able to twist out of context."
Hecker's speech, titled "Please Finish Your Game," was targeted for a completely different audience than the previous panel speakers: independent developers -- particularly ones that participate in speed-developing events like the annual Indie Game Jam. While these types of events do a great deal to send waves of inspiration through the indie development community, Hecker worries that a fascination with quick-and-dirty games might ultimately hurt the industry.
It's a actually a badge of honor to complete games very quickly in the indie games community," Hecker observed. "These days, the amount of development time is front and center when you present a game -- how long I took. And I'm actually starting to worry about this."
Hecker presented an illustration of a simple scale and added dozens of quickly-developed indie titles to one side of it. On the other slide, he placed Braid. The scale instantly tipped towards the latter, strengthened by the fact that, according to Hecker, "Braid explored its mechanic to the depth that the mechanic deserved."
"Braid is not a better game than the Indie Game Jam games because it took three years and the Indie Game Jam games took four days," Hecker said. "I spent six years on a game that didn't explore its fundamental mechanic to its aesthetic conclusions. I would have worked on Spore for longer, to make it the game I think it should have been." ("That is not the quote you want to use on your fucking web site, okay?" Hecker added.)
Hecker's main point actually applied to developers of every scope and scale: the industry needs more games that introduce a bold new idea and explore that idea to its full potential. The amount of time required to give a game this kind of depth is completely irrelevant.
"It doesn't matter if you can make a game in two days or one hour or 14 minutes or six years -- it matters that you make the game the game it should be."