James Ohlen Talks About Leaving BioWare, The State of Anthem, And His Future Prospects
Earlier this month, 22-year BioWare veteran James Ohlen announced his departure from the famed RPG studio. After decades of making renowned games like Baldur's Gate, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Star Wars: The Old Republic, Ohlen wants to step away from game development for a while.
As he moves into a new phase of his career, I hopped on the phone with him to discuss why he left when he did, his self-perceived biggest successes and regrets from his two decades at the company, BioWare's future prospect, and his return to the D&D roots that informed his approach to game design.
I know these decisions don't come easily for people, especially when you have the tenure that you have there, so how long have you been wrestling with this decision to step away from BioWare and what ultimately compelled you to pull the trigger?
I had a chance to get involved in some of the creative stuff again, and I realized that was what gave me the most joy. I hadn't done it since Shadow Realms, and even then it was not a majority of my work time. Going back, it was the early days of Star Wars: The Old Republic that I was really involved hardcore in the story design, game design, and all that. I just wanted to get back to designing stories and designing games and doing things that I'm passionate about. When I look back at my career, the most fun I had from a professional standpoint was when I was designing stories, levels, worlds, and the game itself. And I was on smaller teams. Working with 50 or 100 people is a lot different than working with 500 or 1,000 people.
Was this a hard decision for you to make?
Yeah, it was a hard decision. I’d grown up with BioWare, and I'd been with BioWare since the very beginning. A lot of people who I love working with are at BioWare, and a lot of the leadership at BioWare are still people that I've worked with for a long time – Casey Hudson, Mark Darrah, Chad Robertson. Saying goodbye to those guys was a little bittersweet, but I don't regret it. BioWare has known I was going to leave since April and my last day was June 1. I was just avoiding announcing until enough time had passed since E3.
With you taking more of a hands-on, creative role with Anthem, why leave in the middle of development? Was your role winding down as the game was ramping toward release?
I had stepped in to help out on parts of Anthem, but my role was not a huge one. I was working as the narrative director for a period of time, about six months, but then I handed off most of the leadership to Cathleen Rootsaert, who's the lead writer there. I just wasn't really in the place where I was like, "Do I want to go back to doing administrative, director of design type things?" I wasn't. I was in a place where I needed to go back to being focused on doing creative stuff.
How liberating is it to be free of all the expectations of management? Because you helped set up the Austin studio, you've been in charge of a lot of developers, and now you're getting to go back into the trenches creatively.
Oh, it's been amazing. It makes me feel like … I loved my time at BioWare and even when BioWare was a part of EA I had a lot of good times. But just being able to entirely focus on being creative [is great]. I'm working from my office right now in my condo, so that's kind of fun as well. I get a chance to work with a lot of people I haven't worked with before from all over the world. There are so many different applications and websites that allow you to connect with artists, cartographers, and writers all across the world. That's been really cool, though I'm working with a few people locally here in Austin as well.
Are you planning to stay in Austin and not go back up to Alberta?
No, I'm an American citizen. I love Austin. Austin has got to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It's just a great place. There’s such a huge lively nerd community here, I just love it.
We talked about this several years ago when Aaron Flynn was in charge, but now that he's gone and there's been another wave of departures at BioWare, would you say the culture is still intact?
I think the culture is still there, it is very much a culture of humility and a culture of excellence. A lot of the people who lead the studio grew up under Ray [Muzyka] and Greg [Zeschuk]. Casey Hudson and Mark Darrah are examples – they have been keeping that culture alive. One of the lines we always used on people that were coming out of BioWare was, "quality in the workplace, quality in the product," and that we had to balance those two things. That's still very true. It's a good place to work that doesn't burn out its people, but at the same time, it's a place that focuses on creating the highest-quality games possible. And then BioWare's had to evolve because games are getting more and more expensive and teams are getting larger and larger, so it's been difficult, but I think the studio's leaders have done a great job. Aaron Flynn did a great job and Casey's done a great job. Casey's amazing – I've always loved working with him. If I have a chance to work with him in the future I'll definitely do it.
Given that the culture is intact and the studio is still working on these big amazing projects, to what do you attribute the talent bleed at BioWare? It's certainly been a steady stream of veteran developers leaving for a while now.
When you've been at a studio for a long time, sometimes you just want to strike out on your own and do your own thing. The fact is, with bigger and bigger games, people are working with larger and larger teams … Working on the development of Star Wars: The Old Republic, I was the game director, which meant I had the most power, but I often felt like I was the captain of the Titanic and I could just steer it a teeny tiny bit if I put all my efforts into it.
A lot of people who have been leaving were there for 10, 15, or more years, and sometimes you just need a change. Other times, people want to get more, get back to getting their hands dirty with creative, and it's really difficult to do that when you're on a big team of 1,000 people and you're supposed to be delivering hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. There's a lot of responsibility there that kind of gets in the way of your ability to really get into the creative process.
For me personally, it’s working on a book. It's really a break from being in the industry that I'm going to take for I don't know how long, maybe a year, maybe less maybe more. But it's a chance to just not have all that responsibility, and really just be creative, do what I want to do, feel a little more like back in the Baldur's Gate days when the team was 40 people in size instead of what it is now. And when the expectations were – I remember the expectations for Baldur's Gate 1 was maybe we sold half as much as Fallout, maybe we'd sell 100,000 copies and get to do more games. So it was a lot different.
A lot of people aren't familiar with the newer BioWare leadership. Can you shed some light on who some of those people are who you feel like are making significant contributions to the company as it moves into the future?
There are a lot of people who have been key to some of the more recent BioWare games, both in Edmonton and Austin. We have a lot of good talent there. Some of the people I was working with toward the end, Cathleen Rootsaert, she was the lead writer on Anthem, she's amazing. There is Preston Watamaniuk, who's been at BioWare since Neverwinter Nights, there's Parrish Lay up in Edmonton, he's an amazing cinematic lead who worked on the Mass Effect games and is a key part of Anthem.
Down in Austin, you have Chad Robertson, who's leading up that studio but also is one of the most talented and skilled tech people who has ever worked at BioWare. He's a technical director at heart. I worked with him for many, many years, he's amazing. Chris King is someone who came on during the Mass Effect: Andromeda days, but he's amazing as a shooter developer. He's got experience in the Halo franchise and Saint's Row. I think what you'll see, what he brings to BioWare is the chance to create a game that's going to feel and play, from a combat standpoint, much better than any of the BioWare games. I could go on and on. There are a lot of talented people there who might not be as well-known as some of the older guard.
Anthem's shooting felt really good – I was really encouraged by that. But coming out of E3, there's this sense amongst a particular segment of the BioWare community that this game isn’t for them; they want a more classic BioWare game with branching conversations, romance, etc. Did you all make the choice to move away from that consciously, or is that just how that project evolved over time?
I think one of the things about BioWare has been really good at it, which has allowed it to survive for more than two decades, is taking risks and trying new and different things. Anthem has been doing things differently than the traditional model than anything you've seen from Dragon Age or Mass Effect back to the Baldur's Gate part of being systems based. Anthem's different from that, then again Neverwinter Nights was quite a bit different when it came out in 2002 and obviously Star Wars: The Old Republic was quite a bit different when it came out in 2011. The fact that BioWare is doing something different with Anthem doesn't mean that BioWare isn't going to do games that skew more towards the traditional style that BioWare is known for. It's just a chance to do something a little different. It was driven by BioWare itself, the team. I know there's a lot of the conspiracy theories that EA is the one behind it, but that's never been the case. BioWare's always had a lot of control over the kind of games it makes.
Speaking of conspiracy theories, one of the things that you see float around on the internet right now is that due to Andromeda underwhelming and EA’s reputation of having an itchy trigger finger when it comes to studio closures, BioWare will be shuttered if Anthem isn't a hit. Is there any sense internally among the staff that this is the level of pressure on the studio at this point?
No. The more success that a studio has, the more freedom and resources that it has, so obviously BioWare wants to have success with Anthem because that will be good for the studio as a whole. However, I think EA is looking for BioWare to be a long-term part of the company. I think EA really respects what BioWare brings to it. BioWare is a lot different than all the other aspects of its business, so, even if Anthem doesn't do as well – and I think it’s going to be great – but if it doesn't do gangbusters I don't think that's the end of BioWare. I think it will simply be a chance for BioWare to learn some lessons and apply it to the next game that comes out.
One of the things we've heard a lot about over the course of the last few BioWare games is the challenges of converting Frostbite into an RPG-friendly system. Do you think over the last several years the technology has gotten to be where it needs to be for BioWare to execute on the ideas it wants to explore in the RPG space?
Oh yeah, definitely. Every single technology that BioWare has ever used has been a struggle in the early going and then as the team members and production crew get more and more experience with using the technology and we get better at it. Frostbite was brand new when the Dragon Age: Inquisition team was working on it. But now BioWare has a lot of experience using it. I don't think that's an issue.
Let's switch to the long view. What are the things you are most proud of during your BioWare career?
I guess there is stuff I'm proud of creatively, and there is stuff I am proud of from studio perspective. Baldur's Gate II I am very proud of because it was a chance to essentially write my love letter to Dungeons & Dragons. One of my goals with Baldur's Gate II was to put every single thing that was cool about Dungeons & Dragons into one game and that was quite the experience. I was working on the project, near the end, I almost had a revolt among my designers. I know this sounds silly, but I wasn't sure Baldur's Gate II was epic enough in scope. I was trying to put in even more stuff at the end, and then my team was like, "Stop it James, this is good enough!" Another game I am proud of... Knights of The Old Republic was my love letter to The Empire Strikes Back. As a kid, it was my favorite movie of all time, so when we had a chance to work on Star Wars I wanted to do something that had a twist that was comparable or had that same kind of surprise factor as the revelation with Darth Vader and Luke.
Another thing I’m proud of is the BioWare Austin studio and Star Wars: The Old Republic. That was such an enormous project and we had to go from having no studio at all to at our peak we had 500 people working on the game. I think I had 100 designers on the game, and so ramping all that up, training all those designers, and getting that game out the door ... I’m very proud of that.
Conversely, do you have any regrets? Anything you wish you were able to push through while you were there?
With Star Wars: The Old Republic I wish that I pushed a little bit more toward making it kind of Knights of The Republic online rather than “Star Wars World of Warcraft.” A lot of the feedback that we got when Star Wars: The Old Republic got when it came out was, "Hey, we wanted Knights of the Old Republic Online," something that was more similar to that than a game that was more traditional in the World of Warcraft sense. I can see where that was coming from, but I am still proud of where Star Wars: The Old Republic got to.
Other than that, Shadow Realms was a game that I wish we could have gone further with, but I have been on other canceled games that didn't get as much press as that one. Most of the games that have been canceled in BioWare's history never see the light of day; we don't announce or talk about them at all. Let's see... I am not someone who has many regrets. I like to learn lessons and move forward. Even the mistakes I've made, I am like, "Well hey, I learned a lot from that mistake, so it is good that I made it."
Were you bummed you never got to work on a proper Knights of the Old Republic single-player sequel?
Not really, because I put everything into KOTOR. If I had a chance to work on Star Wars again it would be great. But I am also quite happy with what I did with Knights of The Old Republic and The Old Republic, so I have no regrets there. It would be great to work in the new continuity, or with someone like Dave Filoni. My son, who's nine years old, his favorite show of all time is Clone Wars, and for a little while there it looked like BioWare might actually do something with LucasArts and maybe even Dave Filoni, but that didn't turn out. I was like, "Damn it, I could have been a giant superhero with my son if I got to work with that guy but..."
So what’s next? Let’s talk about the project that you have going right now.
Well, that's essentially using the open games license that Wizards of The Coast has out there. You are able to make a book that is based off Dungeons & Dragons, but you can't promote it as Dungeons & Dragons. At the same time, you can use all the rules. It’s a great chance to use creative freedom with the game I have loved since I was 10 years old. I had another creative director, Jesse Sky, who used to work with BioWare and was also a big fan. So, we were like, "Hey, what kind of campaign book would we do if we had total freedom?" We started brainstorming and got to work. The book itself, we wanted to produce a hardcover book that is at the same level of quality as what Wizards of The Coast are doing with Dungeons & Dragons right now. We are working with a lot of different artists and photographers, and it’s been loads of fun. It’s called Odyssey of The Dragonlords. A lot of its inspiration comes from Greek mythology, but it’s kind of like Greek mythology combined with Dragon Riders or Dragonlance. It’s got an epic story and an open world that dungeon masters and players will be able to experience using the expedition rules. How familiar are you with the fifth edition?
It’s been several years since I've played D&D, but we have people in the office who still play.
It’s amazing. Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons is the best edition and so many people are getting into now. It’s amazing how popular Dungeons & Dragons is considering it’s an old-school pen-and-paper game where people sit around the table when people have all these different options – massively multiplayer games, giant open-worlds, single-player games like what Bethesda creates … You have all these video games you can choose from, yet so many people choose to just do the pen-and-paper stuff. I think part of the reason for that is just because it’s such a social experience. It is also a created experience where both the Dungeon Master and the players are creating the stories at the same time where anything can happen. No video game has come close to re-creating that experience. I really kind of rambled on this one.
That's alright, I know it’s your passion. From what people told me you were a legendary DM back in the day. Are using any of the old tricks that you used back when you were DMing a lot for this sourcebook?
No. Actually, the cool thing is all my experiences working in the video game industry kind of translates well because when you are working on a video game, one of the things about it or what we try to do is create an epic storyline that fits within an open world. Even if you go back to Baldur's Gate II, it has a central story that takes you all the way through, but it also has this big vast open world where you can go anywhere and do anything at any time. One of the keys of creating a good pen-and-paper role-playing adventure is you want to create an adventure that feels epic and has a great story but that doesn't feel like its constraining what the player can do; it isn't railroading these players. Those are two things that are hard to balance, but 20 years at BioWare gives me skills and experience to create this book and future books hopefully too.
Now that you've presumably got a little bit more free time on your hands than you did when you were in the trenches at BioWare, do you have a backlog of games you're planning to dive into?
I caught up on Zelda for the Switch – which, oh my god, that's got to be one of my favorite games of all time. I just love that thing. I'm looking forward to Red Dead Redemption II. I loved Red Dead Redemption, so I want to try that game out. It's a ways out, obviously, but CD Projekt Red's Cyberpunk 2077 – that's something I'm super excited about. Back when I was a kid, I actually owned one of the Cyberpunk editions. It was the one with the female cyborg and the pink cover, and it had all the equipment inside. Anyways, point being is that's an old IP. When I heard about it, I was like, “Wow, I can't believe that a major gaming studio is pouring all that money into such an obscure IP.” Which is super cool. I'm super excited by it.
Did you keep up with RPGs in recent years? And, if so, which ones have impressed you the most?
Well, Zelda was incredible. Skyrim, obviously, was another amazing game. I had a lot of fun with The Witcher 3. I loved Pillars Of Eternity because it was a chance to really play a Baldur's Gate-style game. Feargus Urquhart, Josh Sawyer, and the rest at Obsidian did an amazing job on that.
What’s it going to take to get you back into video games? It always bums me out when I see video game designers retire at a faster rate than filmmakers, musicians, or novelists do. Are you going to get back in the saddle?
I want to. I just don't know when I'll want to. I agree, though. It is sad that video game creative directors retire at a much earlier age. I think it has something to do with the fact that technology in the gaming sector is constantly on the move, so it's really easy to get behind the times. Like, as a director of movies, your camera isn't changing every three or four years, so I think that's part of it.
Everyone thinks it's fun and games leading up a video game, but when you're responsible for that game's success, it can be incredibly stressful. Especially when there's so much uncertainty. Humans don't like uncertainty, and you have technology that isn't working half the time or is changing. And you have massive teams that you have to keep engaged and excited There's just a lot of burnout there … that's why I'm not going to be rushing to get back in. I just want to have some fun for a little while. And then when I do get back into the industry, I want to do something I'm passionate about. I've done well for myself. I think I can choose the projects I want to work on in the future based off of the joy that they give me creatively, rather than the financial security they give me. So if you see me working on something, it'll be because I really want to work on it and no other reason.
Do you have any other projects going besides Odyssey: The Dragon Lords, or is that where your focus has been?
That's where my focus is right now. I've been talking to a few people about potential smaller things in the future, but no major video games or anything like that right now. But I'm old, and I know lots of other old people. [laughs] We talk about “Hey, it would be great to work on X or Y, or get together and convince this publisher to set something up in Austin.” I will definitely get back into the industry at some point. But right now, I just want to focus on the books because it gives me ultimate creative freedom. Plus, it's a chance to create worlds and stories in the same way I did for BioWare, except for fifth edition D&D.
Who are some of the people that you've kind of always admired that you would love to work with someday?
Rob Pardo is a very talented individual. I've known him for a long time. I've always been interested in working on the Rockstar technology. I don't know the Houser brothers, but I've always admired the Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto open worlds. The CD Projekt guys because they're just making games that hew very close to what I love. Obviously, Feargus and the Obsidian guys. I worked with them 22 years ago and that was where I learned the ropes. It was Feargus, Chris Avellone, Chris Parker, and all those guys who taught me. Back in the Baldur's Gate days, BioWare had not a single person with video game experience. So those were the people we learned from in the beginning.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Is there anything else you want to add?
Just for those people worried, I know that Anthem is looking amazing. I think people will be very surprised when Anthem comes out next year at what they've been able to do with that game. It's got some incredibly talented people working on it, and it's going to be a great experience.