Dream Job Ended: One Writer’s Time Working on The Old Republic

‘It Was Magical’

But while signing on as a writer for BioWare was Jones’ self-described dream job, it also meant relocating from Pennsylvania to Austin, Texas.

“It was difficult,” Jones said. “Mentally, I had never lived on my own before, so to come home at the end of the day into an empty apartment was something of a difficult adjustment. And by ‘empty,’ I mean utter devoid of objects. I moved to Austin with a duffle bag of clothes, my Xbox 360 hard drive, and $200 in my wallet. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, for sure. After all, when you want to make it in the industry and a company like BioWare calls, you show up.”

The job put Jones on the Creative Services Team, which was responsible for creating weekly content updates for the swtor.com website ahead of the game’s December 2011 launch. It was an intense job, Jones said, and found the team’s seven members crammed into a small office with nine PCs.

“My role was primarily with written content for the website, but I did help with the filming and production of some of the video work. The atmosphere among our team was different than most of BioWare if only because up until we launched we were on a weekly schedule,” he said. “We had to have something ready to be published on the SWTOR website, every Friday, without fail. So it was always a very intense, very focused working environment which I think brought out the very best in everybody. Which, not to brag, but the SWTOR website had some form of update about the game every single Friday from when the game was announced in 2008 until the launch on Dec. 20, 2011. I won’t do the math, but I’d say that is an unprecedented feat for a game.”

Adjusting to life in Austin was difficult, but Jones said his fellow team members helped make the transition easier, and he quickly became comfortable with his role at BioWare. In the run-up to the game’s launch, the atmosphere of the studio sounds almost electric, to hear Jones speak of it. There was a lot of work to be done, but everyone at BioWare Austin seemed excited to be doing it.

The closer the launch of SWTOR grew, the more excited everyone became, he said.

“Oh, it was magical. You had grown men and women who had worked on this project from day one — before it was even a Star Wars project — who had a newfound spring in their step,” Jones said. “The marketing team was huddled away as, after five years of planning, they were finally in a position to execute their ideas. You had the community team in absolute chaos as they tried to coordinate with fan sites, press, etc., and then… there was us….

“There was a period in the weeks leading up to launch where we forfeited sleep. We didn’t leave. The ‘night’ we announced the release date — which was early A.M. in the UK where Dr. Ray (Muzyka) and Dr. Greg (Zeschuk) were, I left the office at 2 a.m. and came back at 4:30 a.m. But it was a good energy, and a positive vibe. We didn’t feel overworked, and we actually fed off of each other’s excitement. It was long, tiring, stressful and, at moments, intensely frustrating. But it was fun beyond words.”

‘Ruthless Efficiency’

Launch came on Dec. 22, 2011. Star Wars: The Old Republic spent its first month with remarkable success, notching an aggregated rating of 85 on Metacritic (though its user rating is decidedly more mixed), and hitting one million units sold faster than any other MMO in history.

At BioWare Austin, Jones said, a year — or more aptly, years — of work and anticipation of the launch seemed to have taken a toll on some of the people working there. But unlike the launch of another triple-A title, with which the majority of work ends when the game is out and in the hands of consumers, MMOs are different. Even though SWTOR was in the hands of the public, there was more work to be done, and no respite for anyone.

After the initial success of the game, though, things started to change. From an external perspective, it seemed that SWTOR’s player base was diminishing. There were some complaints about the game and features that were being rolled out slowly after launch, and about a weak endgame for the title. Despite many people seemingly liking the game, there was talk around the Internet of an eventual transition to a free-to-play model — which is an admittance of an MMO’s failure in the perceptions of many players.

Jones said internally, there wasn’t much inkling that things might not be going well with SWTOR, however — at least for a little while.

“The Old Republic was and still is, as to my knowledge, profitable,” he said. “…But I don’t think that SWTOR met the expectations that a lot of people, some of whom make far more money than I do, had for it. If you were looking at The Old Republic to be the ‘WoW Killer’ that some people unreasonably expected, then no, we weren’t a success. But internally, it wasn’t until there were grumblings of layoffs in April and May that the perception started to circle internally that the game wasn’t doing so well.”

At first, those grumblings were ignored, Jones said. BioWare Austin was a big studio with a lot of people working at it. He likened the situation to a high school rumor — just because one or two people say something doesn’t make it true. In fact, the earliest rumors may even have been coincidence, Jones said.

But by March, the rumors were much stronger. There were two camps of people at the studio, he said: those who saw what was coming, and those who didn’t. The day of the first round of layoffs, sometime in May, Jones said he was prepared for the worst.

“I showed up at 8 a.m, as I always did. I spent the morning backing up everything I had worked on, in case I found myself in need of putting together a portfolio. After everybody showed up, it was around 9:30 a.m. when our boss brought the team into our office and shut the door. We did a quick look around and noticed that…one of our video guys, wasn’t with us. I didn’t take it well, but I didn’t let it show. I think we all had that mindset.

“After it had happened, there was a company meeting to tell those of us who were spared what was going on. It was during that meeting where we found out that, in addition to losing a lot of our co-workers and friends, which we expected, Dr. Greg was stepping down as studio (general manager) and going back to Edmonton. That blindsided everybody.”

The remaining staff was given the day off, Jones said.

“The first layoff was handled with a ruthless efficiency. I thank ‘em for that. They didn’t keep everybody hanging throughout the day. They did what they had to do, they did it early, and they gave the rest of us the day to adjust.”

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5 Comments on Dream Job Ended: One Writer’s Time Working on The Old Republic

Quinsec

On August 17, 2012 at 7:05 pm

I feel bad for this guy and the other employees at Bioware – they poured their hearts and souls into their work there. However, bad management from the top has caused the rapid decline of one of the great game developers. I don’t know if it was EA or if those running Bioware suddenly forgot how to make great games, but something is clearly wrong at Bioware.

Fundamentally, the choice to clone WOW with voice acted quest text was doomed from the start. Jones claims above that they launched with so many features – but ultimately not nearly as many as WOW already had – where was the incentive to switch or stay? SWTOR had to lure away WOW subscribers or pull those in who were either burned out on it or didn’t like it to begin with. You don’t do that by reskinning WOW, with the features it had 4 years ago. There was so much potential here, and obviously well-crafted stories, wasted on a money grab.

If Bioware would have sunk its resources into crafting a singe player RPG experience, which they do so well, this game would have made the company a lot more money. At the very least, they should have tried something new with the MMO formula (the gameplay is exactly the same, afterall.) The company needs to stop rushing releases and go back to basics if it ever wants to recover. Someone really dropped the ball here.

DrChannington

On August 17, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Former Military Policeman? That gives me hope. Great article, and I wish James all the best.

R.J.

On August 18, 2012 at 12:23 am

I was a little surprised that he mentioned that Bioware no longer commands the same respect that it once did.

Capios

On August 20, 2012 at 11:09 am

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. The tag-line under the Bioware sign in that empty studio picture speaks volumes.

Red Menace

On August 22, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Although I want to blame EA for the world’s problems, sadly, this is how the video game industry, along with many other industries, works. You are hired on to a project, not a company, and once the project is finished, they trim the hedges. Sure, you may be moved to another project, but you are also likely to be let go. I have friends in the video game industry as well as many other light industrial fields, like the pharmaceutical industry, and it is just the name of the game for them.