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James Ohlen joins Wizards of the Coast

Former BioWare creative director returns to gaming to create new IP for Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering owner

When James Ohlen retired from BioWare last year, he said he needed a break from the industry. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz this week, the lead designer of games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Baldur's Gate says he originally intended to step away from video games for a few years, but has been lured back ahead of schedule by Wizards of the Coast.

"I had pretty well turned down most opportunities for interviews to get back into the industry, but I talked to Wizards of the Coast president Chris Cocks and he gave me a scenario that was very intriguing and interesting, so I flew up to Seattle and sat down with Wizards of the Coast for six hours of interviews. It was like the scene out of The Godfather where it was an offer that was too good to refuse."

"I think it's more personal than the projects I was working on in the latter half of my career at BioWare/EA"

James Ohlen

That offer was to run a new Wizards of the Coast development studio based in Austin, where Ohlen was already living. And even though Ohlen has a storied history with Wizards of the Coast's Dungeons & Dragons property (He held key design positions on Baldur's Gate, Baldur's Gate II, and Neverwinter Nights), this new studio has a mandate to focus on creating original intellectual property.

"I think it's more personal than the projects I was working on in the latter half of my career at BioWare/EA," Ohlen says. "The projects in the early days of BioWare were very personal to me. D&D has been a huge part of my life since I was eight years old. The Baldur's Gate games were very personal to me, and Star Wars is another thing I love.

"This is just an opportunity to work on projects as personal to me as the good ol' days of the '90s and early '00s. In that time, work wasn't work for me at all. I didn't think of the work I was doing then to be anything but a labor of love. It was the most fun. I would prefer to be working on one of my games than going on vacation. I was a little bit of a workaholic, because I loved it. And Wizards is giving me an opportunity to return to those personal projects."

When asked about the impact workaholic leadership can have in shaping a studio's culture, Ohlen says he's mindful of the implications, and has been reaching out to friends, peers, and mentors like BioWare founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk for advice.

"Obviously I want to create an environment and a studio that is one people enjoy coming into, where they're not working themselves to death and are able to have a family life," Ohlen says. "I'm no longer a workaholic. I have a family and other commitments. And even when I was a workaholic in my 20s, I always knew that as a creative lead, it was less work for me than anyone else. I never expected anyone to work as many hours or as hard as I did because it wasn't work for me. The less creative control you have over things, the more work it becomes. So when you're at that level, you have to realize it's a different environment for you than it is for everyone else. And you need to be careful because sometimes, if you're not clear about that, people can assume you expect them to work as much as you are."

"In terms of setting the culture, I really thought that the culture of BioWare is something I want to model my new studio after"

James Ohlen

He adds, "In terms of setting the culture, I really thought that the culture of BioWare is something I want to model my new studio after. They did a great job."

As for the long-term vision for the studio, Ohlen said he's "pretty sure" Wizards of the Coast wants it to be a AAA developer in the future, but adds that there's no set goal for how big the studio will get or a timeline for when it will get there.

"We discussed something organic," Ohlen says. "We don't grow projects on an artificial timeline. We do it organically. We add people as we need them, and don't commit to a schedule until we know it's actually doable and possible.

"We understand that video games are one of the most complex pieces of software you can build. It's like taking a Hollywood movie and multiplying it by the space program. It's very difficult to project timelines for a video game. Right now, we're just focused on IP development and IP development requires a smaller team."

As for Wizards of the Coast's interests, Cocks adds a few details, noting that the company is taking the same approach with Ohlen's studio and its original IP as it takes with its other brands. Essentially, while the company's expertise in pen-and-paper role-playing and trading card games could be brought to bear on whatever original franchises the Austin studio creates, brand expansions and tie-ins are not a foregone conclusion.

"Our first step is to build a franchise that will endure, like Magic and D&D, and we'll figure out the right platforms for that world to express itself over the years to come," Cocks says, adding, "We think our strength is in creating fun, detailed worlds that players and our community want to immerse themselves in. Obviously, we have a rich lineage in tabletop and trading cards, but what our focus on is developing a world that people will care about and then figuring out which platforms let people connect with it in the best possible way for them."

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