EA are giving Shadow Realm’s team “the ability to fail”

The story of Shadow Realms is split between the real world and a fantasy realm named Embra.

Shadow Realms is the first new IP we’ve seen from Bioware since they released Dragon Age: Origins back in 2010. It’s easy for a studio to get stuck releasing games in the same franchises, especially when under pressure from a major publisher like EA. While at Gamescom, James Ohlen, Shadow Realm’s creative director, explained to me how he got EA to take a chance on his 4v1 dungeon crawler and how he got the publisher to leave his team alone while they made it.

“Back in 2012, during the DICE conference in Stockholm, I got to do a powerpoint presentation pitch to the higher ups and all the guys using the Frostbite Engine,” Ohlen recalled. “They all liked it and our goal was to get a prototype version up and running to show ‘Hey, we can use the Frostbite Engine. We’re a great team down here. Leave us alone.’

“We got left alone and built up something that played really well and looked really good, so we got left alone some more.

“Game development right now is enormous because of the budgets and the pressure that comes with it. The best way for a new IP to succeed to is to leave the team to make what they want to make. Even that’s a learning experience for me. I’m the creative director with the initial vision but I’ve been letting my guys go in a direction I’m not comfortable with. I let them do that because we need to follow our intuition.

“That’s the importance of doing this: now we’re showing it off at Gamescom and getting a good reception so we’ll get left alone more.

“It feels like back in the days of the Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights days when everyone was putting their ideas in. It was freer then.”

Ohlen’s managed to recapture that freedom by keeping expectations for Shadow Realms low. “When you’re doing a new IP, like Shadow Realms, you can’t go crazy because it’s a risky venture,” he explained. “We have a big budget but it’s nowhere near Star Wars: The Old Republic’s but we have nothing of the expectations of that game. That’s a good thing. We’re able to try out new things; we have the ability to fail.

“It’s good big publishers are still willing to take risks. All public companies are driven for growth and the only way to grow, EA’s done studies on this, is to develop new IP because usually your existing stuff grows a little bit but not enough and others totally die. To grow you need to come up with new stuff and attract a new audience. It’s in a big publisher’s best interests to take risks, otherwise they’ll go stale and all their stockholders will get angry.

“It annoys me that [big developers] aren’t innovating more. We should have more asymmetrical games, or more takes on online games than before. There should be all sorts of experimentation going on.”

Oddly, this year’s seen not just one 4v1 game announced but three, besides Shadow Realms there’s also Gearbox’s Evolve and Lionhead’s Fable: Legends. However, Ohlen’s not entirely surprised. “In today’s day and age the way people are connected allows different types of game that weren’t possible before,” he explained. “People don’t have the patience to wait around to form a group and wait for a dungeon master to play. That’s only really come around now that we have matchmaking that can get players into a game within seconds. I think that’s why we’re seeing games like Evolve, Fable, and Shadow Realms.”

We’re still a year away from seeing just how much Bioware are breaking the mould with Shadow Realms but what I saw at Gamescom has me properly excited.