James Ohlen Leaves Bioware After 22 Years, Muses About SWTOR, EA, and World of Warcraft
Earlier this month, the man behind Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Star Wars: The Old Republic – James Ohlen – announced his departure from Bioware after a 22-year tenure. James sat down with GameInformer to wax poetic about his career (great interview, check that out right here), and I thought he had some pretty interesting takes on the development of a game you’ve all heard me rant and rave about plenty of times – SWTOR.
James begins on the SWTOR nostalgia road by recapping how deeply he was involved in the story and gameplay design for Star Wars: The Old Republic. His main vision was to do more of what he loved – designing stories, levels, worlds, and games in general, but he goes on to compare being SWTOR’s game director to feeling like being the captain of the Titanic – meaning he could only steer it a “teeny tiny bit” no matter how much effort he put in.
Ohlen also goest to bat for EA a bit, stating that he knows that there’s a lot of the conspiracy theories that EA forces their subsidiary studios to change and adopt more profit-first mantras, but says that “that’s never been the case”. He also made it a point to say that BioWare specifically has always had a lot of control over the kind of games it makes. Ohlen also denounced any rumors or possibilities that EA could close Bioware if Anthem flops, stating that EA gives plenty of freedom and resources to it’s most successful studios, and that EA plans for Anthem and Bioware both to be a part of their long-term vision. All of this is pretty much the complete opposite to what many gamers commonly believe – namely that EA absorbs studios, forces them to adopt policies that either bleed dry or turn off their fanbases (or both), and closes them up when they’re no longer profitable.
The most interesting part of GameInformer’s interview for me came when the focus shifted back towards Star Wars: The Old Republic. Ohlen said that while he was proud of what SWTOR became, he wished he’d pushed SWTOR more towards “Knights of The Republic Online” rather than just trying to emulate the structure and success of World of Warcraft.
Ohlen has a point here, and I admire the fact that a game designer actually admitted that they had WoW in mind when developing SWTOR. I mean, how could you not? World of Warcraft has been the gold standard for MMOs for almost 15 years now, and since its release we’ve seen countless MMOs rise and fall – many of which have blatantly emulated the game’s formula without ever getting it right. At the end of the day, many MMOs I’ve played have come down to “well, this is cool – but WoW does this better, and all my friends are still playing WoW”.
Unfortunately, we don’t get much deeper of a dive into Ohlen’s thought process behind what SWTOR could’ve been, but he does go on to mention that if he had a chance to work on a Star Wars game again, he’d want to work in the new continuity, or with someone like Dave Filoni. He mentioned that “for a little while” it looked like BioWare was on the cusp of actually working with LucasArts and Filoni on a project, but that “didn’t turn out”.
My biggest question here is, what could have SWTOR been had it not kept its crosshairs on WoW during the development process? When the game was first announced, I was blown away by the prospect of Flashpoints, fully-voiced NPCs, and co-op scenarios that would really put you into the boots and robes of a real Star Wars character you could really feel immersed in. What I got was a paywall-laden mess that felt more like a janky re-skin called “World of KOTORcraft” than a truly independent Star Wars IP.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it a few more times on these here internet streets – I want to purchase, love, and play the shit out of some Star Wars video games. That being said, I simply can’t in good faith buy into a system I know was never meant to be its own thing from the start. Hopefully we’ll get a new Star Wars MMO somewhere down the line with it’s priorities straight, but based on how EA likes to drag it’s franchises out – I severely doubt it’ll be any time soon.
Anyway, Mr. Ohlen – thanks for everything. If you need me, I’ll be rolling my 45th new KOTOR character and daydreaming about the MMO that could’ve been.
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