Retro In­ter­view: James Ohlen

in a 20-year plus ca­reer, James ohlen has been in­volved in many of the iconic games to come from leg­endary de­vel­oper Bioware. on the eve of his re­tire­ment, games™ caught up with him to dis­cuss Bal­dur’s gate and be­yond

Games TM - - CONTENTS -

In pos­si­bly his fi­nal in­ter­view be­fore re­tir­ing from Bioware af­ter more than 20 years of ser­vice, we re­flect on the ca­reer of the fan­tasy RPG vet­eran and his ex­pe­ri­ences on Bal­dur’s Gate, Dragon Age: Ori­gins and more

how did you start work at Bioware? my­self and this group of friends were the first em­ploy­ees at Bioware. we all lived in this small town called grande Prairie, in­clud­ing cameron to­pher, who now heads up Beam­dog. we were all into games, so we drove down to ed­mon­ton, and they in­ter­viewed us, and told us they were work­ing on a dun­geons & dragons game, but they didn’t know what it was go­ing to be yet. there were six of us and we kinda dou­bled the size of the com­pany.

pre­sum­ably you were keen on this, be­ing a huge D&D fan? oh yeah. d&d has been in my life since i was 11-years old, so it was a chance for me to present what i thought would be a great d&d-style rpg. Bioware was ne­go­ti­at­ing with in­ter­play, who wanted a d&d videogame, and scott greig had this en­gine it was us­ing for a game called Bat­tle­ground in­fin­ity. shat­tered steel [Bioware’s first re­lease] was made by two brothers in cal­gary; Bioware ne­go­ti­ated the con­tract for it with in­ter­play. so Bal­dur’s Gate was to be the first game headed up by clas­sic Bioware, al­though its orig­i­nal ti­tle was iron throne. there were a lot of toi­let jokes about that, so i think it was Brian Fargo [in­ter­play boss] that came up with the new name. i can’t re­mem­ber how it hap­pened, but the city had a cool name so it seemed as good a name as any.

how did you be­come lead de­signer on Bal­dur’s Gate? i de­cided i was gonna be the de­signer, and went away and did all the work. they said ‘you’re ob­vi­ously the lead de­signer then!’ Yay! i al­ways say, if you’re pas­sion­ate about some­thing, pur­sue that.

It must have been a dream come true – but what was it ac­tu­ally like work­ing on Bal­dur’s Gate?

From 1996 to 2000 i slept at work. i was fa­mous as the only per­son who used the shower at Bioware. also, none of us had made a videogame be­fore so there was a lot of col­lab­o­ra­tion go­ing on. Be­tween Bal­dur’s Gate and Bal­dur’s Gate 2, it was just a blur. i can’t even re­mem­ber the apart­ment i was liv­ing in.

what do you think made Bal­dur’s Gate such a suc­cess? it gave peo­ple some­thing they hadn’t had be­fore. You felt like it was this huge open world, with an epic sto­ry­line, but it didn’t take away the player agency.

af­ter the add-on Tales Of The Sword Coast, it was straight back to it with Bal­dur’s Gate

2 and a mod­i­fied In­fin­ity en­gine… the plan with the se­quel was to give fans every­thing they loved about d&d in one sin­gle game. and per­son­ally my plan was also to beat square­soft and Fi­nal Fan­tasy. af­ter Bal­dur’s Gate, i dis­cov­ered fi­nal fan­tasy vii, and re­alised our char­ac­ters weren’t re­ally as well devel­oped as the Fi­nal Fan­tasy


char­ac­ters. as much as peo­ple liked them, ours were es­sen­tially oned­i­men­sional; they had in­ter­est­ing things to say, but be­yond that they didn’t have a sto­ry­line. the Fi­nal Fan­tasy char­ac­ters had ro­mances and real re­la­tion­ships, so that was very in­spi­ra­tional for Bal­dur’s Gate 2.

af­ter an­other ex­pan­sion, Throne Of Bhaal, it was onto the next level of rpg with

Neverwinter Nights, which wasn’t quite as well re­ceived as the Bal­dur’s Gate games. Neverwinter was our first 3d role-play­ing game and like any pro­duc­tion, it had lots of ups and downs. i wasn’t ac­tu­ally the de­signer at the start, but it was over­run­ning and trent [os­ter], who was the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, said i needed to come in and take the de­sign lead­er­ship on it. and it wasn’t the most fun.

what made it such a dif­fi­cult time? well, it was dur­ing the time when in­ter­play was go­ing un­der, and ray [muzyka] and greg [Zeshuk, two of Bioware’s founders] were try­ing to fig­ure out how to move Neverwinter Nights from in­ter­play to in­fo­grames/atari. ev­ery­one at the stu­dio knew it was a pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion, so we tried to fo­cus on just get­ting the cam­paign done. also, Neverwinter was some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent, as it was about the toolset, and peo­ple ac­tu­ally cre­at­ing mul­ti­player games. marc holmes was the art di­rec­tor and he had it worst. he had to fig­ure out what art could work that could be taken apart and then re­con­structed. it wasn’t just that you could cre­ate beau­ti­ful art, it had to work within the toolset. it was a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and as the de­sign di­rec­tor, i used it to hire some of the best de­sign­ers that the com­pany could get, and was able to ac­tu­ally test peo­ple’s skills within a toolset, so in­stead of them telling us, we could ac­tu­ally see that they could re­ally de­sign lev­els, for ex­am­ple. it was our most pow­er­ful hir­ing tool for six of seven years.

with all these hir­ings, how had your own role devel­oped?

By Neverwinter Nights, Bioware was still a pretty small com­pany, and i was still lead de­signer and de­sign di­rec­tor, es­sen­tially man­ag­ing the de­sign depart­ment across the stu­dio. But that soon started to change, and as we did more games, i started to fo­cus more on the de­sign di­rec­tor role.

Of course, Bioware ex­panded into con­soles next with Jade Em­pire and Knights Of The Old Re­pub­lic.

i didn’t work much on Jade em­pire, as my role was ad­min­is­tra­tive as di­rec­tor of de­sign. But i worked on KO­TOR, and was game di­rec­tor on that project. it came out on the Xbox first, but we devel­oped the Xbox and Pc ver­sions si­mul­ta­ne­ously. it turned out bet­ter than i ex­pected. when i get to the end of the pro­duc­tion of any game where i am cre­ative di­rec­tor/lead de­signer i have a very hard time be­ing able to judge how good it is, mostly be­cause i’ve played it so many times, and at so many dif­fer­ent stages, that it’s dif­fi­cult for me to even view it as a game.

as we move into the mid-2000s, Bioware it­self be­gan to go through a few big changes. what was this time like? around that time, we got bought out twice. Firstly, by el­e­va­tion Part­ners, which was run by John ric­c­i­tiello and Bono of U2 was a ma­jor in­vestor. our boss was Bono! then, elec­tronic arts bought Bioware/pan­demic from el­e­va­tion in 2008. it was a def­i­nitely a big change and as you get to cer­tain thresh­olds of the num­ber of peo­ple em­ployed, your cul­ture changes.

You have a dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ship with peo­ple as the stu­dio gets big­ger.

the lat­ter half of this decade saw two huge new Bioware fran­chises ap­pear. how were you in­volved in those? dragon age was ba­si­cally Bal­dur’s Gate on con­sole. as a d&d fan, i said we couldn’t give up on it, so pro­posed we do our own ver­sion of d&d. Mass ef­fect i was in­volved in at the be­gin­ning with the di­a­logue wheel, my one and only patent for Bioware. we had de­cided we were go­ing to patent a lot of things, with the strat­egy, i guess, that the com­pany was more valu­able the more patents it had. But other than that, Mass ef­fect was mostly the KO­TOR team, and my right­hand man on that, Pre­ston wata­ma­niuk, be­came the lead de­sign for Mass ef­fect as i started up dragon’s age Ori­gins.

Bioware opened a new stu­dio in 2006, specif­i­cally to be­gin work on the mmo Star Wars: The Old Re­pub­lic.

i worked on Ori­gins for two years be­fore ray and greg asked me to go down to the stu­dio in austin and help set up the Old re­pub­lic. it was only sup­posed to be for a year, but i’m still here…and the ad­vice i al­ways give to peo­ple is to al­ways jump at op­por­tu­ni­ties. it didn’t take me long to think, hey, i get to go to a new coun­try and work on some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent.


then there was a change of di­rec­tion next for Bioware austin with the ul­ti­mately doomed Shadow Realms. the Old re­pub­lic was launched in 2011, and i was fo­cused on the live ser­vice for most of 2012. then, for the stu­dio’s health, we needed to work on some­thing that was not star wars re­lated. if a stu­dio be­comes fo­cused on one game or ip, it be­comes dif­fi­cult to do any­thing else. so we started up shadow realms, which was os­ten­si­bly to keep our top tal­ent work­ing on some­thing new.

But things didn’t turn out well for Shadow Realms, did they?

For a while, elec­tronic arts wanted to do Pc free-to-play, but then the game moved away from that. and then shadow realms was no longer a part of the strat­egy and got can­celled. i’d been on other projects that had been can­celled, but it was dev­as­tat­ing for a lot of peo­ple when that hap­pened. But for me, i was more dis­ap­pointed be­cause af­ter shadow realms, we ba­si­cally went to work on Mass ef­fect an­dromeda, but all the stu­dios were af­fected as they had all been work­ing on shadow realms at that time.

your last work at Bioware was on the up­com­ing An­them. what was your role there, and how do you think the game is shap­ing up? i was nar­ra­tive di­rec­tor on an­them for around six months. it’s look­ing amaz­ing; beau­ti­ful, plays great, and has some of the most com­pelling char­ac­ters we’ve done. i think peo­ple are go­ing to love it!

what brought about your de­ci­sion to re­tire from Bioware? work­ing on an­them kick-started my ‘i miss this stuff’ feel­ing. i came to the re­al­i­sa­tion, es­pe­cially with the way that triple-a games are go­ing, that there are fewer and fewer of them, and if you want to be in­volved at a cre­ative level – like my first decade at Bioware – then it’s gotta be a start-up or some­thing smaller. so what i’m work­ing on now is a d&d cam­paign book, based on the fifth edi­tion, which is the most suc­cess­ful since the first, and some­thing sim­i­lar to Bal­dur’s Gate 1 and 2. the con­tent is amaz­ing, and i’m work­ing with peo­ple all over the world, mak­ing it feel like a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of the old days, ex­cept no tight bud­get and no tech­no­log­i­cal re­stric­tions.

with over 20 years at Bioware, help­ing to cre­ate some amaz­ing games, what was your favourite pe­riod? my favourite pe­riod was prob­a­bly from 1997 to 2003. dur­ing these six years i was the lead de­signer on Bal­dur’s Gate, Bal­dur’s Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights and KO­TOR. i was work­ing 100 hour weeks, but it didn’t ever feel like work.

You can keep track of James ohlen’s new d&d ad­ven­ture, Odyssey Of the drag­onlords, at­canum­

with D&D no longer an op­tion, Ohlen and Bioware cre­ated its own fan­tasy world in Dragon Age.

Mov­ing into the world of con­sole gam­ing with the bril­liant Knights Of The Old Re­pub­lic.

Bet­ter than the orig­i­nal? the fan­tas­tic Bal­dur’s Gate 2: Shad­ows Of Amn.

Beam­dog’s en­hanced ver­sion of Bal­dur’s Gate.

the open world na­ture of Bal­dur’s Gate, be­fore open world was even a thing, is demon­strated in this map.

the fun, but flawed Neverwinter Nights was a big graph­i­cal step up from Bal­dur’s Gate

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