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

‘The Air Had Been Let Out’

BioWare Austin wasn’t the same after the first round of layoffs or the departure of Zeschuk, Jones said.

“The mood shifted, for sure,” he said. “It felt like the air had been let out of the entire studio. We spent a good amount of time that week trying to figure out exactly who had been let go, then we tried to push forward. It was definitely a different feel.”

It wasn’t long before a second round of layoffs seemed to be in the offing, as June approached. The smaller size of the studio meant the word traveled more quickly. Soon meetings were being cancelled and scheduling was starting to mirror the conditions of the first round of layoffs. Jones said everyone could see what was coming.

When the day finally came, however, it wasn’t handled nearly as well as the first time.

“Unlike the first round — which happened so quickly that it was all said and done by 10:30 a.m., this second round dragged on,” he said. “We had more than a few people at the studio go for drinks during their lunch hours because they were convinced that they weren’t staying. Some of ‘em were right, others weren’t. When they finally started to request meetings with specific members of teams, it felt like it was dragging on forever.

“But the mood wasn’t all dread and dispair. A lot of us were joking around about it — a running joke is that one or two studios in California are becoming ‘BioWare Jr.’ It was weird, but everyone was surprisingly calm about it — just like, ‘Hey, we know it’s going to happen so let’s get on with it.’”

Jones wasn’t technically in the second round of layoffs. As an employee under a short-term contract, it was more that he wasn’t flipped to full time than that he was released. His contract expired the day after the second round of layoffs — his last day at BioWare.

“At this point I’ve gone through all the stages of grief, but at the time I was accepting of it,” Jones said. “It had been a hell of a fun ride, but I was growing tired. I needed a breather from it all, and between the two rounds of layoffs and the diminishing workload as a result, the days started to drag on and, in the end, I think that I started to care less and less about the work. So, in that respect, I think it was for the best. Still — I can’t say that I don’t miss the people I worked with, or the project as a whole. It was just the environment and the changes going on around the studio that wore me down in the end.”

The New Dream

Both BioWare and the company that owns it, Electronic Arts, have been the focus of a lot of ire from the gaming community of late — with much of the blame for issues with games like Mass Effect 3 being heaped on EA. Jones didn’t say where he thought any blame lay for what happened with BioWare Austin or SWTOR, and he said he didn’t see any “negative” influence from EA on the studio during his time there.

“Of course EA is going to have an influece on BioWare — they’re the parent company. As to whether I think EA has had a negative influence… I don’t. I don’t view EA as the great Satan that a lot of gamers do,” he explained. “I don’t agree with every decision that they’ve made, especially in the past couple of years, but it’s my personal opinion that BioWare would not be as strong of a company without EA’s influence.”

Jones also said he thought that a “refocused” team at BioWare Austin would be in a position to do great things.

As for SWTOR itself, Jones confirmed what others working on the game have said: the team working on the game found people finishing its 60-hour character stories much more quickly than anticipated.

“They (players) blew through the story content in a hurry — it caught us all off guard. And it’s not like it’s a short, 10-hour romp through a few narrow corridors. Each story is around 60 hours — longer if you don’t skip the cutscenes. So when we saw players blowing through the stories, it was both a moment of ‘sweet!’ and ‘…crap….’”

Jones said despite SWTOR’s early issues with feature roll-out, he still thought BioWare’s product was a phenomenal undertaking.

“On one hand, there’s no denying that a lot of the features that players have come to expect in MMOs weren’t there at launch. I’m talking about a functioning group finder, ranked PvP, etc. It wasn’t there for a lack of trying, mind you, and I agreed with the decision to hold those features back until they worked. But it set the game back. On the other hand, BioWare was able to develop eight incredible 60-plus-hour RPGs simultaneously.

“I love the game. I think it’s fun as hell, and the class storylines are some of the most inventive and smart writing this industry has seen in some time. Anyone who disagrees, I encourage them to play through the Imperial Agent story.”

Now on the other side of his time with BioWare, Jones said he’s pursuing other work in the games industry, with interviews at several studios as soon as in the next few weeks. They may take him out of Austin, but being a native of Michigan, he said the city’s weather is too hot for his “Midwestern blood” anyway.

“Of course, I don’t see myself working at game developers for the next 20, 10, or even five years. Eventually I’d like to return to my press ‘roots,’ either covering the games/tech industry, or elsewhere. But I do love the gaming industry, and I see it as the future of storytelling. I’m excited to see how the next few years will evolve in terms of telling stories and creating worlds that players will be able to explore.”

More than 18 months have passed from Dec. 31, 2011, and Jones has broken and continues to break his resolution from that New Year’s Eve. He’s been working on a novel, which he describes as being set “a few years after one of those pesky zombie apocalypses,” and he intends to potentially return to games journalism — one day.

And the new dream, now that his old “dream job” has come to an end?

“Immortality,” he joked. “Barring that, having my book published and trying to turn myself into a respectable author. Or at least an author.”


Follow Phil Hornshaw and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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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.