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
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
D&D HAS BEEN IN MY LIFE SINCE I WAS 11-YEARS OLD
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.
NEVERWINTER WAS OUR FIRST 3D ROLEPLAYING GAME AND LIKE ANY PRODUCTION, IT HAD LOTS OF UPS AND DOWNS
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, at www.arcanumworlds.com
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