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Decorated designer James Ohlen retires from BioWare after 22 years

  • April 1, 2019
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Another of BioWare’s old-guard has left the building. This time it’s James Ohlen, lead designer of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age: Origins, and director of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Ohlen leaves BioWare after a staggering 22 years.

“After 22 years I have retired from BioWare,” Ohlen announced on Twitter. “I’ve loved my time with Anthem, Star Wars, Dragon Age and Dungeons and Dragons. But I need to take a break from the industry and work on something a little smaller and more personal.

“The most fun I’ve ever had at BioWare was as the lead designer on Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 and Neverwinter Nights. I’ve been a D&D fanatic since I was 10 years old and I want to be a part of it again.”

Ohlen pointed followers towards Arcanum Worlds, a D&D publisher, to see what he was up to next. The first book he’s working on is D&D sourcebook Odyssey of the Dragonlords.

The first book I'm working on is called Odyssey of the Dragonlords. I'm working on it with another former Creative Director from BioWare – Jesse Sky. Plus a mystery writer that I've worked with before ?

— James Ohlen (@JamesOhlen) July 12, 2018

More recently, Ohlen had been working on Anthem at BioWare. When I spoke to him in December for a bumper Knights of the Old Republic reminisce, Ohlen told me it was like having BioWare’s old crew back together: Casey Hudson (general manager), Preston Watamaniuk (creative director), Derek Watts (art director) and Drew Karpyshyn (senior writer). “You have the old Mass Effect/KOTOR crew working on Anthem right now,” he said. But Drew Karpyshyn departed BioWare in March, and now Ohlen has walked away. Mr Dragon Age, Mike Laidlaw, also left BioWare last autumn after 15 years.

What does it all mean? Maybe nothing – 22 years is a long time, and Ohlen, as studio head of BioWare Austin, was in a pressured position. Perhaps it was just time for change. But it will also play on fears some BioWare fans have – I have – that Anthem will lead the studio away from single-player stories in the pursuit of more lucrative multiplayer worlds.

Tom put this sentiment to Anthem lead producer Mike Gamble earlier this summer at E3, who offered reassurance BioWare had “many teams, many projects as well as Anthem”. “We have various projects in the works and there’s a team working on Dragon Age stuff right now, and Mass Effect is certainly not dead. Anthem is different…

“No one should worry this is a template for anything,” he went on to say. “We’re making a different type of game with Anthem, we made a different type of game with Andromeda, and a different type of game with Inquisition, and I can go all the way back to Baldur’s Gate. We make different types of games every two or three years since. We’ve made an MMO, we’ve made open world, we’ve made [ME spin-off] Jacob’s Story for iPhone. We’ve made so many different kinds of games and that will continue.”

Let’s hope.

Meanwhile, to James Ohlen, we say a big thank you. Thank you for all the unforgettable adventures you led us on, and long may they continue whatever you do next.

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