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Bioware: Humility and compromise are key to good game design

At Digital Dragons, Bioware design director James Ohlen tackled the differences between the "dream" of game development, and the practical reality

In a talk at Digital Dragons today, Bioware's James Ohlen championed humility, empathy and a willingness to compromise as key attributes for game designers - both at Bioware, and in the games industry as a whole.

Ohlen, who is design director at Bioware, addressed what he believes is a mismatch between the way young designers are educated and trained, and the working environments they encounter when they enter the industry proper. "The way think about [being a designer], the way you dream about it, is probably you being the vision holder, the creative director," he said. "The person calling the final shots."

Very often, a designer's first job will be at a huge company like EA, Ubisoft or Activision, where team sizes are frequently in the hundreds. Teaching environments, Ohlen said, are more intimate and much smaller, with students often collaborating in teams of just four or five people. This can give a sense of "ownership" and "autonomy" that "doesn't really match" the experience of working at a big studio the games industry.

"Humility is a key attribute not just for a designer at Bioware, but as a creative in any industry"

"Working as a designer in this industry is an amazing thing. It's probably one of the most fulfilling jobs you can have," he added, but he stressed that "in some ways the reality of working in the games industry doesn't match the dream."

For a studio like Bioware, which works on huge games like The Old Republic, Mass Effect and Dragon Age, that means ensuring that new designers "fit the culture" - a culture based on a specific set of values. According to Ohlen, those values are "Quality in the Product" and "Quality in the Workplace," but both are observed "in the context of humility."

"I think humility is a key attribute not just for a designer at Bioware, but as a creative in any industry. When I talk about humility, I don't mean lacking confidence, or not putting yourself out there, or not having drive. I mean you recognise that there is always a better way to do something; that there are many answers to a problem, and that your answer is just a single answer, and it's probably not even the best answer."

And the best answer will often come from someone else. The designer's job is not to ensure that their own ideas make it into the game, Ohlen said, but that only the best ideas do, regardless of their source.

"You need to be always aiming at the ideal, and then you need to forgive yourself when you don't hit that ideal"

The designer has two roles at Bioware: the "architect role," which relates to the creative and visionary aspects typically associated with game design. "But the other role is to be an expert at translating someone else's vision. This is very important if you want to be successful, and if you ever want to get that creative director job you have to become a master at translating other people's visions."

That can be difficult, Ohlen admitted. "It can be hard when you think their vision sucks. I'm sure that anybody who has worked in the industry has been in this position. Advice that I give people, and that I use myself, is to have empathy for the vision, and empathy for whoever's championing it... Just having respect for whoever's giving you this vision to translate."

Ohlen then discussed what he described as "the ideal" of game development, which clashes with one of the most common aspects of the games industry: compromise. "The games industry has compromise all the time. You have a limited budget, you have a production timeline, and you have to be amazing at making the right compromises if you're going to be a good designer.

"But at the same time you can't lose sight of what the ideal is. What are you aiming to achieve? In order to do that...you need to keep up to date with the industry, and know what the industry's expectations are. Where is the bar for what you're working on?

"You need to be always aiming at the ideal, and then you need to forgive yourself when you don't hit that ideal. Because Nobody ever does. You sometimes get close to it, sometimes you're far from it, but you definitely need to be able to learn lessons, and move on.

"It's always good to recognise what you're aiming for, even when you miss it. That's okay. You'll be better next time."

GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner of Digital Dragons. Our hotel and travel costs were provided by the organiser.

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Matthew Handrahan avatar

Matthew Handrahan


Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.