Friends! Welcome back to another BioWare Community Update!
The fourth day of May is a special holiday. It is one when we come together to celebrate all things Star Wars. So please, allow us to say:
While everyone celebrates differently, our May the 4th celebration brings with it a variety of special treats for players of Star Wars: The Old Republic. First off, all players who log in between May 3rd and May 10th will earn a new minipet: the adorably boxy and extremely visible orange P1-XL Droid.
During that same time, the Cartel Market will be holding a 50%-off collection-unlock sale—and all players will earn double XP. All these promotions run from May 3 (starting at 1200 GMT) to May 10 (ending at 1200 GMT).
We’ve also heard whispers about special May the 4th observances from our friends elsewhere in EA. But you’ll have to ask them about that.
This is a particularly special May the 4th for us, because Star Wars: The Old Republic recently celebrated its 10th anniversary! So, it’s a perfect time to get to know some of the people behind the game. For this edition of the Community Update, we sat down with Creative Director Charles Boyd, Project Director Keith Kanneg, Lead Cinematic Designer Ashley Ruhl, and Community Manager Jackie Ko to discuss all things Star Wars.
First off, what’s your earliest memory of Star Wars?
KEITH: Well, mine may be the earliest. I had my first date with my wife nearly 45 years ago—to see Star Wars: A New Hope! Over the years, we took our kids to all the Star Wars films, waiting in lines for days, just to be near the front of the crowd.
CHARLES: I honestly don’t have one specific memory. I grew up with the original trilogy on Betamax and all the toys from my older brother, so it feels like it’s always been a big part of my life.
ASHLEY: I was maybe 7 or 8 years old. I remember watching Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back on VHS, and at the end there was a trailer for Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. I excitedly asked my mom “So when does the next one come out?!” and was delighted to discover we already owned it.
JACKIE: I was probably around that age too—definitely younger than 10. My parents would take us to a video rental place and I remember pointing at a VHS tape of Return of the Jedi because I liked the cover art. I couldn’t quite grasp everything that was happening, but I just knew that I wanted to watch more and I wanted to be just like Princess Leia.
Why do you think Star Wars has become—and stayed—such a major cultural touchpoint? What makes it so special?
CHARLES: I think Star Wars is really excellent at presenting big, grand, and exciting ideas while also keeping them relatable. It’s as much a fairytale as a sci-fi story; family conflicts play out with blasters and space battles, and every location is populated by regular workaday folks right alongside the outlandish aliens and psychic space wizards.
KEITH: Right, Star Wars is about family, but it’s also about good versus evil, with deep and compelling stories. And, you know, lightsabers, stormtroopers, The Force…
ASHLEY: That’s what it is for me, that meshing of technology and fantasy. Star Wars has futuristic visions of spaceships and blasters that are detailed enough to feel real, but it also has a mystical power of The Force connecting all things in the galaxy. We can relate to the experiences while also believing in the magic.
JACKIE: For me, when you look at the original trilogy, it had a perfect combination of action, adventure, love, creativity, wonder—but it only gave a peek into what was clearly a much bigger universe. There are so many more stories that can be told within that galaxy, and each of those only adds to the magic.
What’s your favorite planet in Star Wars: The Old Republic?
KEITH: Oh, that’s not easy to answer! Tatooine comes to mind, but mostly due to A New Hope and a line in our game from Theron: “I don’t like Tatooine, but I do like saying Tatooine.” From a gameplay perspective, my favorite place for Daily Missions is Yavin 4, as there’s tons to do, fun missions, and a wide variety of mobs.
ASHLEY: I really like Voss. I enjoy the design of the Voss people, the landscape, and the experience of the Shrine of Healing. It’s a unique interpretation of The Force that goes beyond the Jedi–Sith conflict.
JACKIE: Alderaan! I cannot get over how beautiful this planet is. I’m from the desert, so I love any landscape that features snow—well, as long as it’s not at Hoth levels! Alderaan has the perfect balance of greenery and magical winter.
CHARLES: I don’t know if I could pick an all-time favorite, but my favorite recent addition is Mek-Sha, the lawless port built into a mined-out asteroid. I love the gritty outlaw vibe the artists brought to it. It feels like a ramshackle harbor that’s hanging over the void of space.
What is it about Star Wars: The Old Republic that has kept players coming back for more than 10 years?
JACKIE: Well, it’s like what I was saying about the original trilogy: Star Wars: The Old Republic adds to the universe several times over. There isn’t just a singular story. Players can get lost in all kinds of different stories—and then build their own stories and spaces with Strongholds and Guilds and the like.
CHARLES: It really is a unique experience. You play the hero (or villain!) of the story, decide what choices they’d make when it really counts, decide who they’ll romance or befriend or betray, and control their journey across the sprawling Star Wars galaxy.
ASHLEY: And all those different stories keep players coming back to try different roleplay opportunities. You can be a vicious Sith one day and a cavalier smuggler the next, and with a fully voiced story it feels like you’re creating your own cinematic saga. Plus, it’s fun to revisit all the iconic worlds from the movies. Riding a tauntaun mount on Hoth or a bantha on Tatooine is really satisfying.
KEITH: And I think the variety and customization helps make it special. You can be a Jedi, a Sith, a Mandalorian, and more. You can give each one a unique look. And even after 10 years, we have so much more planned. Our fans constantly push us for new content, new features, new ways to play, and I’m fully expecting we’ll continue to surprise them.
Given the special occasion, today we want to highlight some of the best community-created Star Wars: The Old Republic art on our feeds. Check out these amazing creators and give them some love.
And don’t forget to share your own creative works—art, cosplay, video, whatever—if you’d like to be featured in a future spotlight. Again, we’re on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and if you tag us or use a hashtag related to our games (like #SWTOR) we’ll be sure to see it.
If you haven’t had a chance to check out Star Wars: The Old Republic yet, there’s no better time than right now. Over these past ten years, Star Wars: The Old Republic has been fortunate to be home to a vibrant community and has a ton for new players to explore. If you’re curious to learn more about the game, be sure to check out its website for more details.
Until next time, May the 4th—and The Force—Be With You!
The BioWare Team
STAR WARS and related properties are trademarks in the United States and/or in other countries of Lucasfilm Ltd. and/or its affiliates.
“Follow your passions!” That’s the lesson we’re getting from the subject of today’s Developer Story, Director of Product Development Benoît Houle. See, Benoît has been with BioWare for over a decade and a half, which is an impressive stretch on its own. But before joining the studio, he spent nearly as much time doing something extremely different.
THE STORY SO FAR
“I spent 14 years developing personal-finance software,” Benoît says. “Don’t laugh, I know how to prepare my tax return incredibly well!” Yes, it turns out that a degree in computer science can lead down a number of different paths. But after all that time working as a project manager at a personal finance company you’ve definitely heard of, Benoît was looking for a change. “In 2006, a close friend of mine who worked at BioWare told me they were scaling up development,” he says. “I applied instantly. And I’ve been working here ever since—over 16 years now, mostly on the Dragon Age franchise.”
After starting as a principal project manager for Dragon Age: Origins, Benoît quickly moved up to the position of senior development director and co-director of production, then to director of production. In 2017, he took on his current role as director of product development for the studio.
Benoît explains this role as being sort of a holistic one. “I work with our amazing team of development directors and producers to manage how we make our games,” he tells us. “The mission is to balance the needs of our players, our employees, and the studio as a whole throughout the development practices. In other words, we’re continuously working to make the process more efficient while keeping key decision-makers fully informed across the project. At the end of the day, we want to foster an environment where our teams can create wonderful games that delight our players.”
ON DRAGON AGE
Benoît has been part of the Dragon Age franchise since the beginning, having a hand in every game and expansion in the series so far. So of course we wanted to hear his take on what makes Dragon Age so special. And here, too, Benoît takes something of a holistic view. “It’s the whole package,” he says. “A rich world, an immersive story, captivating moment-to-moment gameplay—and also emotional, memorable moments with your companions. There’s a great mixture of player agency, brilliantly sharp humor, and really weighty choices with real consequences—you know, those moments when you need to put down the controller for a bit and really think about your choices.”
When we ask about those emotional, memorable companion moments, Benoît cites Cassandra’s development in Inquisition as a prime example. “She starts off the game very guarded,” he tells us, “very focused on one thing: the mission. She comes across as standoffish, even a little hostile—it feels like she doesn’t care about you. But as you spend more time with her, you start to realize that the reason she’s so guarded is that she cares deeply about everyone around her. But caring is dangerous, and sometimes it hurts, and so she keeps you at arm’s length until you’ve spent enough time with her that she feels like she can let down her guard.”
And the fact that Cassandra is willing to let her guard down no matter what kind of character you’re playing points to one of the other things Benoît finds so special about Dragon Age. “I truly love how inclusive our games are,” he says. “This is something that’s very important to the leadership team, and I’m glad that fans appreciate that inclusiveness too.”
That ability to let yourself get lost in the game, no matter who you are, is something that gave Benoît a feeling of kinship with BioWare even while deep in the finance mines. “Even before I got into the industry, BioWare was a tremendous source of escapism and immersion for me,” he tells us. “I spent so much time playing Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic…. To have an opportunity to work for a beloved game developer and be part of creating these amazing worlds and stories has been a dream come true. And I need to provide a huge shout of admiration to our Mass Effect team. They’ve been a constant source of inspiration and have created something truly amazing and remarkable!”
That dream, Benoît says, has come with more than its share of memorable moments—including how the game interacted with celebrities. “I was so thrilled when Inquisition won so many Game of the Year awards,” he says. “And I’ll never forget when we won the best RPG award for Origins at the 2009 Video Game Awards— I was so proud of the team and what we accomplished together…AND receiving the award from Snoop Dogg was definitely a bonus! And I have to say I also really enjoyed working with Thirty Seconds to Mars on the cinematic trailer for Origins.”
But it’s pretty clear that when it comes down to it, it’s not the celebrities or the accolades that drive Benoît, but something much closer to home. “You’re probably hearing this a lot, but it’s true: The thing that makes BioWare special is the people. We have an amazing pool of talent, people with the passion and the commitment to create something amazing—every day! The creativity on display here is just astounding!”
Benoît Houle is BioWare’s director of product development.
Hello everyone, this is Miyamiya from the Promotional team!
FFXIV Backstage investigators is a blog series that share behind-the-scenes stories from the team members who work on all aspects of FFXIV.
The subject of our eighth interview is...
VFX Artist Takayasu Ishii!
Visual effects, often abbreviated as VFX, refers to in-game imagery that enhances the game's expressiveness and vibrance in ways that wouldn't be possible in the real world. For this interview, we'll be going backstage to learn about how VFX are created!▲ A screenshot of the character Mr. Ishii uses during development. He's a long-time "colleague" to Mr. Ishii, who's been using the same character since A Realm Reborn!
Miyamiya: To begin, could you tell us about what you worked on before you joined the FFXIV development team?
Ishii: I originally worked for an animation production company, where I created composite shots (the process of merging multiple 3DCG or 2D art assets into one). My experiences there led to an interest in visual effects for games. Square Enix was the first company that came to mind when it came to graphical design, so I joined in 2007. After joining the company, I worked in various teams including those for DISSIDIA FINAL FANTASY, DISSIDIA 012 FINAL FANTASY, FINAL FANTASY CRYSTAL CHRONICLES: The Crystal Bearers, and FINAL FANTASY Type-0. After building up experience through those titles, I was assigned to the FFXIV team around when the A Realm Reborn project was put into motion.
Miyamiya: What sort of work does the VFX team do in FFXIV?
Ishii: The VFX team is largely divided into three major specialisations: the Cutscene VFX team, the Background VFX team, and the Battle VFX team.
As implied by their name, the Cutscene VFX team specialises in creating effects for cutscenes. The Background VFX team is in charge of environmental visual effects; for example, rain, snow, volcanic smoke, water splashing from a waterfall, as well as mechanics related to the environment in boss battles.
▲ Flashy cutscene effects are cool too, but fine details like teary eyes can also grip our hearts!
▲ The Limitless Blue trial is brimming with weather-related mechanics like the clouds and rain, all of which were created by the Background VFX team!
As for me, I am the lead of the Battle VFX team, which creates player and enemy-related effects. Some of the aspects we're in charge of include battle actions, crafting and gathering actions, mounts, emotes, minions, and weapons.
▲ The /paint emotes were also created by the Battle VFX team! Perhaps you remember them from Sigmascape V2.0?
Miyamiya: Seems like VFX are just about everywhere! Could you explain how battle VFX are generally created?
Ishii: When it comes to job actions, the designers provide documentation for each action, which tell us whether an action will be an attack or a heal, and if it'll be single-target or area-of-effect. The documentation is typically text-based, so the artists are given free rein over the imagery.
From there, the Animation team drafts several animations for each action as possible candidates. Those are then reviewed by the Animation team, VFX team, and Shinya Ichida (Art team Lead) to decide which draft to proceed with. Once that's decided, we begin creating the visual effects based on the animation and refine them into their final form, while making sure that the design doesn't contradict the intended purpose or the specifications of the action.
As such, the VFX team generally has free rein over how the imagery is visualised. However, there are exceptions when the visual effects need to incorporate preestablished assets, such as the magic circle for Zodiark. In such cases, the Art team provides a design based on the lore, which we then use to design the visual effects.
Miyamiya: I see, so the visual effects and animations of battle actions go hand-in-hand. How did your team create the unique visual effects for the Endwalker jobs, reaper and sage?
Ishii: We already knew reaper would wield a scythe and summon an avatar from the void, so we went for dark imagery based on those details. However, using dark colours alone would make reaper visually similar to dark knight or Ascians. So we decided to give reaper a unique base colour, which resulted in its black and cyan colour scheme.
Although bright greenish colours were common for healer jobs, they weren't used very often for DPS and tank jobs, and we felt it could be a distinguishing feature for reaper. Furthermore, visual effects for previous jobs often emphasised the impact of a hit, for reaper, we emphasised the "trail" of their distinctive sweeping attacks to set their visual identity apart from other jobs.
▲ The scythe's cyan trails are sure to grab your attention during battle!
▲ On the other hand, the visual effects switch to black and red once the avatar takes over, ensuring that the colours match the lore.
With sage, we had a bright colour palette in mind because of its role as a healer. We also already had the base designs of the nouliths, as well as artwork for Alphinaud and the sage gear, so the colours of white and blue were easily decided. The Art team asked us to give the nouliths a tailing visual effect when they were drawn or sheathed. This also worked well in white and blue, and was another contributing factor in deciding the colours.
As for the job actions, in contrast to the light and airy spells that white mage uses, sage uses geometric barriers and laser attacks, so we chose a somewhat sleek design based on Sharlayan technology. Additionally, sage's attacks and heals are conducted through the nouliths, rather than releasing energy from the character themselves. The nouliths needed to be the centre of attention, which proved to be a perplexing challenge for the staff member in charge.
Miyamiya: So deciding a job's base colours at the outset helps you to maintain a consistent look with their visual effects. There are many design-related roles in the industry, but what would you say are some unique appeals of working with visual effects?
Ishii: I believe the diversity and freedom of expression is the appeal of visual effects. As I mentioned earlier, although the FFXIV team has documentation on what needs to be made, we're allowed to have free rein over creating the imagery. Rather than being overly specific in their requests to the VFX team, they start by allowing us to create whatever we like and will give us the green light as long as the specifications and quality are befitting of FFXIV's standards.
Of course, being granted total creative freedom comes with its own struggles, but having no restraints and being allowed to create what we want is fun and rewarding.
Miyamiya: I imagine that creative freedom is what enables you to keep creating distinctive and fresh visual effects, even when we have so much content and many different jobs. Of all the visual effects you've worked on in FFXIV, is there one that you find most memorable?
Ishii: For me, that would be paladin's Passage of Arms.
▲ Passage of Arms is a paladin ability that increases the user's block rate and reduces damage for party members standing behind them. It can be used almost anywhere, both in combat and in cities.
In addition to Passage of Arms being usable anywhere and having to look good in any environment, it also had to emphasise the effect of standing behind the user. I had an extremely hard time with these difficult prerequisites, and it ended up being the task where I cycled between creating something and scrapping it most often. I'm sure any artist can relate, but when you focus on a project for too long, you start to lose sight of whether it looks good or bad and fall into this feeling of, "What am I even making again...?"
In the midst of that, I showed my original draft to my leader at the time and Producer & Director Yoshida. Their positive feedback helped me feel that I was onto something, which boosted my motivation and helped me finish the project. So, for me, Passage of Arms is my most memorable work because it reminds me of my struggle and accomplishment.
Miyamiya: Passage of Arms is very cool and flashy, and I like how it really makes you feel protected! Next, I'd like to ask about weapons with visual effects. There have been many memorable "glowing weapons" thus far, but do you have any particular favourites out of the ones you've worked on?
Ishii: Of the weapons I've worked on, Ravana's Hive weapons are my favourite.
▲ The Hive weapons feature a reddish glow and fluttering butterflies.
Weapon effects are constantly displayed while the weapon is drawn, so they have stricter limitations. This makes it hard to give them lavish animations compared to something like battle effects, which are only displayed once per activation.
Amid such limitations, I managed to make the fluttering butterflies using models created with minimal polygons. This involved researching super-slow motion footage of real butterflies to replicate their movements as closely as possible, which was a tremendously meticulous endeavour for me at the time.
▲ The butterflies are made by adding textures to this mesh (a collection of polygons) and scaling/rotating/moving them to make them appear to be flapping their wings.
Miyamiya: It sounds like every endeavour involves giving the weapons as much visual impact as possible within the provided limitations. Could you perhaps give us a hint as to what the weapon rewards from Dragonsong's Reprise (Ultimate) will be like?
Ishii: Previous Ultimate weapons featured a motif of the encounter, such as the gears and cogs on the weapons from the Epic of Alexander. In a similar way, the weapons from Dragonsong's Reprise also feature a motif, but as for what that may be... please look forward to it. (laughs)
Miyamiya: I'm really looking forward to it! Finally, do you have any parting words for our players, or perhaps your resolutions for the future?
Ishii: I've received a lot of encouragement through your comments on social media and the Letter LIVE broadcasts. At times, the plethora of feedback you've provided has pointed out new aspects for me to improve upon. So, if you have any thoughts regarding visual effects, I'd be glad if you could post them on the forums or social media.
FFXIV places a lot of importance in the variances of colour perception, while also striving to provide visibility and coherence in everyone's gameplay. Gameplay experiences can also be further improved with rousing moments, as well as drawing out the appeal of the various jobs and characters. These are the concepts I'd like to keep in mind as I continue to pursue the art of creating attractive visual effects.
I hope this interview was able to pique your interest in visual effects. Thank you for your continued support!
How did you enjoy our interview with VFX Artist Takayasu Ishii?
Visual effects can provide myriad different expressions, whether it be "beautiful" or "cool," or even "terrifying" or "eerie" at times. Taking a closer look at these visual details is sure to immerse you even further into the world of FFXIV!
See you next time!
Previous Editions of FFXIV Backstage Investigators
・ (No. 1): Main Scenario Writer Banri Oda
・ (No. 2): Lead Level Designer Arata Takahashi
・ (No. 3): Web Director Hiroyuki Takachi
・ (No. 4): Lead UI Artist Yoichi Seki
・ (No. 5): Character Concept Artist Hiroyuki Nagamine
・ (No. 6): Community Planner Takeshi Kato
・ (No. 7): Lead Technical Artist Tatsuya Okahisa
- Promotional team
Welcome to another edition of BioWare Developer Stories, where we learn what drives the people who make our games, how they got here, what they do here, what they think about being here, what they do when they’re not here and—well, you get the idea. Let’s move on.
Today we’re talking with Maciej Kurowski, the technical director for the Dragon Age franchise. Maciej will have been with BioWare for six years this May and has been in the games industry as a whole for over 13 years.
THE STORY SO FAR
After earning his master’s in computer science, Maciej joined a small independent studio in Poland, where he started as a programmer and quickly moved up to chief technology officer. It may seem like it’d be quite different from working at a big studio like BioWare, but that experience offered some invaluable insight.
“Starting on a small indie team with very few resources helped me understand something very quickly,” he says. “What ultimately matters is to get a good game out. Any tech, no matter how impressive, is just a means to an end.” And that’s an important lesson when things scale up. “On a big, highly specialized team, it’s sometimes easy to get lost in technical minutiae,” he tells us. “So I’m grateful for the experience of being forced to focus on the end product.”
That focus continues to inform his work as technical director, where he oversees not only the technology that drives our games but also the tools our developers use to make them. So the proper focus can make a huge difference. “Ultimately, my goal is to launch a high-quality game smoothly,” Maciej says, “while staying within the timeframe and scope we’ve set for the game. But making a game takes years, and every day brings different issues that need to be dealt with in order to get to that goal.”
We asked Maciej what an average day looks like on the path to that destination—and it sounds like there may not be such a thing as an “average” day. “Some days are spent in deeply technical discussions about how to solve unexpected challenges,” he says. “Others are dedicated to checking up on the well-being of my team. But probably my favorite days are the ones where I get to help devs in other departments figure out their challenges. I love that we can all work together to make the best experience for players.”
ON DRAGON AGE
It’s hard to express how gratifying it is to have players who experience these games and feel so passionately about them. So we like to ask our interviewees why they think fans respond so strongly. In the case of Dragon Age, “I think it’s that these aren’t your usual fantasy stories,” Maciej says. “Fantasy has historically been aimed at teenage males, and that used to be the demographic games were geared toward, too. But that’s no longer the primary demographic of gamers—and it was never the whole demographic anyway. So I think, especially with DAII and Inquisition, that Dragon Age speaks to a wider variety of people, with stories that aren’t just about being cool, doing fancy things with a sword, killing things, and seeing lots of blood.”
And the “stories” part of that is especially key. “Another thing is that these games are a mix of pure roleplaying—being able to build your own character and have them act in a variety of different ways—and a strong story. There are a bunch of other really successful RPGs that have more of a simulation approach, where it’s all about freedom. But that can come at the cost of a complex story, and the connection a player makes to that story. I think since BioWare games tend to prioritize storytelling more, while still offering genuine roleplaying, players can really get invested. I think there are few games that can balance those two things as well as Dragon Age does.”
That balance grabs even folks like Maciej who develop the tech for games. It’s what keeps him so invested that he won’t even consider playing an evil—or even rude—character. “I appreciate the existence of the ‘jerk’ options,” he says, “but it just feels wrong to not be nice. I’m probably nicer to virtual people than to actual people.” It’s what allows him to name his favorite moment in any Dragon Age with almost no pause for thought (“Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts” in Inquisition, the one in Orlais with all the court intrigue). And it’s what gives him an easy answer for what Dragon Age character he’d most like to work alongside: “Varric, so he can narrate our efforts making the game while flashing his magnificent chest.”
You’ll notice as we do more of these Dev Stories that lots of folks talk about “BioWare games” as almost a genre in themselves. And we’re always curious what it is that our colleagues think makes BioWare special. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Maciej has a technology-focused answer. “One thing that I was pleasantly surprised with when I started here was how closely we’re able to collaborate with other EA studios on our tech,” he says. ”We don’t just share centrally developed tech; there’s also a lot of code-sharing between the studios. It may be surprising to players, but there are lots of common technical challenges that we share with games as different from ours as FIFA, and being able to contribute solutions that end up being used across many different games is a great perk.”
And that’s not even mentioning the collaboration that has to happen between BioWare’s own two studios, situated over 2.000 miles apart (around 3,400 kilometers). Throw a global pandemic into the mix, and you’ve got the potential for a technological nightmare. But the team took things in stride. “Ever since I joined, we were working in a distributed manner between our Edmonton and Austin studios,” Maciej says. “But the pandemic forced us to rapidly deal with all-new challenges that come from an extremely distributed team. It was chaotic at first, for sure, but I think we ended up even stronger than before.”
We’re just glad our newfound ability to work remotely hasn’t driven Maciej back to his more temperate homeland. “I’m told Edmonton is a prime example of North American urban sprawl, and that that’s a bad thing—but I actually enjoy all the space,” he says. “The weather, though… when the air hits your face in the winter? That hurts.”
Maciej Kurowski is the technical director for the Dragon Age franchise. When not at work, he can be found scrutinizing home-improvement videos on YouTube for tips on how to fix his bathroom.
Friends! Welcome to the first of many BioWare Developer Stories! In this series, we’ll be talking with our colleagues here at the studio about their histories, what they do at BioWare, what makes this such a special place to work, and all sorts of other topics.
Today’s lucky contestant is John Epler, Creative Director for the Dragon Age franchise. John’s been at BioWare since the late ‘00s, but he actually didn’t get his start on the creative side of things at all. In fact, before BioWare he was in a different field entirely: the audiovisual trade.
THE STORY SO FAR
“I was selling TVs,” John says. “I knew I wanted to get into games, though, and at the time BioWare was hiring term testers, which is a contract position in QA.” (That’s Quality Assurance, the folks who track down bugs and other issues.) “I got lucky enough to run into a couple of BioWare people at the store and mentioned that I’d applied. I got an interview, got the job, and I’ve been working at BioWare ever since.”
After a few years in QA, John started working as a cinematic designer on Dragon Age: Origins, which he describes as working with a huge library of animations to put together cinematic scenes. “It’s largely about knowing the animation library well enough to be able to go, ‘Oh, I need someone to walk backwards for three seconds; here’s the animation that does that,’” he says. “So you round up all the appropriate animations and stitch them into a finished scene.”
John remained a cinematic designer through Dragon Age: Inquisition, graduating to lead cinematic designer for Inquisition’s DLC. From there he moved into the narrative director role for the next game, which is more about the story and characters of a game as a whole. “You’re focused on narrative as more of a holistic experience,” as he puts it. And now, as creative director, he takes an even wider view, “keeping an eye on the game, and the franchise, as a whole,” he says, “and making calls about where to focus resources on the project.”
ON DRAGON AGE
With all this Dragon Age experience, you might expect John feels a strong connection to the series—and you would be correct: When we ask about some memorable moments from his time with BioWare, he goes right to the closing days of Inquisition’s development. “We were finishing out the Redcliffe scenes,” he says, “and one of our audio guys called me down to listen to what he’d been working on. I remember standing there, hearing the theme kick in, and thinking, ‘Oh, wow. We might have something special on our hands here.’ We’d put so much of ourselves into this thing, and it was finally coming together.”
It’s a scene where the player has to decide what their character believes in. And that kind of moment is one of the hallmarks of the series, John says. “Faith is a big theme throughout the games,” he explains. “Not faith in a religious sense, necessarily, but belief in something—whether that something is a wholly unknowable figure, or another person, or even just yourself. And the games look at what happens when that belief is challenged, or completely broken.”
John’s connection to the franchise extends even outside of the games themselves: He contributed to the 2020 short story anthology Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights. So naturally, we had to ask how writing a short story compares to writing on games. “Honestly, both have their own challenges,” he says. “Writing games has to consider interactivity, budget, branching, technical needs…so the actual writing is only a small part of the job. Fiction is easier in that I can write whatever I want because there’s never going to be someone building any of it. But I think you lose a lot of shortcuts that you get in games. Like, I hate writing fight scenes—but in a game, I can say ‘and there should be a fight here’ and I never, ever have to write another fight scene.”
There’s a reason Dragon Age makes such an impression even on the people who help make it. “Dragon Age is really about the people,” John says. “The stuff with BioWare games that tends to get referenced the most—the things you hear people bring up time and time again—it’s almost never the big critical-path beats. It’s the character beats, and at their best, those critical-path beats and those character beats become the same thing. It’s about how those characters interact with each other; ‘family is where you find it’ is a pretty core theme for all of our games.”
And John’s introduction to the studio’s own cast of characters was an especially memorable one. “My very first day at BioWare was the day they held the Mass Effect launch party,” he says. “It was at our local science center, and they had the game playable on the planetarium screen! We had the run of the place after hours—it was pretty incredible.” He pauses. “It may have set the bar way too high.”
And what would John be doing if he hadn’t found his way to the studio? “Honestly, I don’t know,” he says. “I nearly ended up working at a paper supply company before I got the job at BioWare, so maybe that? There’s an alternate universe John out there somewhere that’s basically—I want to say Jim from The Office, but I’ll be honest and say Andy—and he’s living that life, and probably making games in his spare time. But it’s hard to imagine, honestly. I’ve been working here for nearly a third of the time I’ve been alive!”
John Epler is the creative director for the Dragon Age franchise. You can find him on Twitter at @eplerjc.