BioWare's James Ohlen Talks Game Design

Long-time BioWare designer James Ohlen was on hand at this week's Digital Dragons conference in Krakow, Poland, and as a result, the folks at caught up with him to chat about a variety of topics related to game design. I hope the company continues to retain talent like Ohlen, as he has been a key player on some of their greatest releases and has a wealth of experience backing up the offered advice:
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.

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."