BioWare's risk-taking has been critical to the studio's ongoing success, James Ohlen says.
BioWare's Anthem does not appear to be the kind of game that the acclaimed RPG studio is known for. It's an always-online, multiplayer-focused shooter with limited or non-existent dialogue and romance options. While the game impressed at E3, it left some wondering about this new direction. In particular, there are some who believe BioWare owner Electronic Arts pushed the company to go in the new direction.
This "conspiracy theory" is not true, according to James Ohlen, who worked on Anthem as its narrative director for a period of time before leaving BioWare altogether after 22 years in June.
"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," Ohlen told Game Informer.
He pointed out that BioWare has a history of taking risks and innovating. "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," he said.
Also in the interview, Ohlen said just because Anthem is a multiplayer-focused online game, that doesn't mean the studio won't also make "classic" BioWare games. Bethesda faced some of the same criticism when it announced the multiplayer-enabled Fallout 76.
"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," Ohlen said. "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."
Surely EA had some hand in shaping the direction of Anthem, but it's encouraging to hear Ohlen say BioWare had a good amount of control over the direction it wanted to take Anthem. Risk-taking is essential for any creative industry, and video games are no different. Whether or not Anthem works out critically and commercially remains to be seen, however.
Also in the interview, Ohlen talked about the culture at BioWare and if it had changed in recent years amid a number of veteran staffers leaving the company. BioWare veterans Mark Darrah and Casey Hudson (who left BioWare to join Microsoft and then returned) are helping to keep the BioWare culture alive, Ohlen said. While BioWare founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk have moved on, BioWare's culture remains one of "humility" and "excellence," Ohlen said.
"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," he explained. "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."
Asked why BioWare is facing some level of high-level turnover, Ohlen said people sometimes just want to try new things and have more creative control over a project.
"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," Ohlen said.
Anthem launches in February 2019 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. You may be able to play earlier, however, as EA will host a beta before launch. Anthem is BioWare's first new IP in 10 years, and it's not the only game the studio is working on. BioWare is also reportedly at work on a new Dragon Age game, though it has yet to be formally announced.