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Former BioWare dev James Ohlen discusses creative freedom and burnout

Former BioWare dev James Ohlen discusses creative freedom and burnout

July 24, 2018 | By Emma Kidwell




"I think it has something to do with the fact that technology in the gaming sector is constantly on the move, so it's really easy to get behind the times."

- Former creative director at BioWare James Ohlen speaking on burnout in the industry. 

A lot of detail goes into goes into designing the soundscape of a game, and in a recent interview with Game Informer, former creative director at BioWare James Ohlen discusses his retirement from games and how liberating it feels to work on new projects. 

Ohlen left BioWare earlier this month after 22 years and was best known for his work on Star Wars: The Old Republic and Knights of the Old Republic, where he served as creative director and lead designer.

After some time passed, he transitioned into narrative directing for Anthem but notes that his role was not a big one. He would eventually pass his leadership to Anthem's lead writer after six months, right in the middle of development.

“I just wasn't really in the place where I was like, 'do I want to go back to doing administrative, director of design type things?'" Ohlen explains. "I wasn't. I was in a place where I needed to go back to being focused on doing creative stuff." 

Leaving the expectations of management behind was liberating, especially since it meant Ohlen could finally devote time to his own creative endeavors as opposed to keeping track of a larger project with hundreds of devs.

"I loved my time at BioWare and even when BioWare was a part of EA I had a lot of good times," he notes. "But just being able to entirely focus on being creative [is great]. I get a chance to work with a lot of people I haven't worked with before from all over the world."

A lot of veteran developers having left BioWare, and Ohlen mentions that the desire to leave a studio after such a long period of time stems from wanting to try new things. "Sometimes you just need a change," he says. "Other times, people want to get more, get back to getting their hands dirty with creative." 

His current project is outside the realm of game development, where he's writing a book with another former BioWare employee. He says he'd like to go back someday, but the freedom of not having any studio-related responsibilities or expectations does wonders for his creativity. 

However, Ohlen acknowledges that many devs leave the industry because of burnout and the expectation to always be on top of the curve, not because they're seeking a change of pace. 

"It is sad that video game creative directors retire at a much earlier age," he says. "I think it has something to do with the fact that technology in the gaming sector is constantly on the move, so it's really easy to get behind the times."

"Everyone thinks it's fun and games leading up a video game, but when you're responsible for that game's success, it can be incredibly stressful," he adds.

"And you have massive teams that you have to keep engaged and excited There's just a lot of burnout there… that's why I'm not going to be rushing to get back in. I just want to have some fun for a little while."

He was speaking as part of a longer interview around his career at BioWare and his role on Anthem and other previous BioWare titles, so be sure to check it out over at Game Informer. 



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