An Interview with Jon Warner
Interviewed by John Lachausse
Jon Warner is the game director for video game developer BioWare's Anthem, a 2019 open-world multiplayer action RPG where players inhabit the role of a "Freelancer"-class fighter. BioWare, a 2008 Game Developer of the Year, has produced multiple award-winning titles, such as 2014 Game of the Year Dragon Age: Inquisition and Best RPG Award winner Mass Effect 2. Anthem will be Warner's first project as a game director for BioWare, where he has worked since 2012. He can be found online at @Bio_Warner.
TMR: For many people, the journey from "I like video games" to "I make video games" can be a mystery. For instance, most game developers didn't study game development in college. They may have studied computer science or computer animation, or even something like physics. But many developers never attended university. So what's been your journey to this position?
JW: You are right that there's rarely a linear path to game development, as I can attest firsthand. I actually started my career in the US military, and after serving found my way to Microsoft working on a little thing called the Xbox. From there I worked at Disney for a number of years in their gaming division, and eventually made my way to BioWare during development of Mass Effect 3. I was the Senior Producer on the Citadel DLC for that game, and immediately after that wrapped started working on Anthem.
TMR: Anthem has been described as a world "both beautiful and deadly" providing "unique stories, challenges, and world-shaking events." What can fans of BioWare's previous works anticipate within this game?
JW: My hope is that fans are going to find a world just as full of mystery and intrigue as our previous games, if not more so. The world of Anthem is unique in that it was abandoned by its gods midway through its creation, so it's constantly and violently changing. And we plan to utilize that impermanence to create new content and tell new stories over the life of the game.
While you won't be romancing any characters in Anthem, you will be developing relationships with them, and those relationships will evolve over the course of the game. A great example is Haluk, your Strider pilot and one of your closest friends. Haluk started out as a Freelancer, and was something of a legend. However, after a major failure the Freelancer reputation became tarnished, Haluk has grown taciturn and been quietly operating on his own. What happened? Well that's part of the fun of getting to know him over the course of the game and having him open up to you.
TMR: How does a story start at BioWare? How does each character and plot come to life?
I won't give away all our secrets to making great characters, but I will say one of the biggest factors is having a deep understanding of each of them.
JW: We're very fortunate to have some of the most talented and creative folks in the game industry involved in our projects, and I'm constantly amazed by their work. There's a great teamwork dynamic between our writers, designers and artists to not only create characters, but flesh them out with backstories, motivations and other little details that truly bring them to life and make them feel more like a friend than a random NPC. I won't give away all our secrets to making great characters, but I will say one of the biggest factors is having a deep understanding of each of them. If you ask someone who created Faye, another of our characters in Anthem, details like where her clothes come from or what her childhood was like, they should have those answers, even if they're not topics that come up in the game. You need to be that familiar with these individuals.
TMR: How could Anthem's single-player experiences affect the player's experiences in the shared multiplayer world?
JW: What you're hitting at here is the essence of one of our main innovations, Our World, My Story. Out in the world you'll go on adventures with friends, discover amazing places, earn sweet loot and generally have a rollicking good time. Then you come back to Ft. Tarsis, your personal storytelling and single-player hub which you don't share with anyone else. Here you are free to make your own choices and see consequences to your actions, without worrying about influencing anyone else's story or, more importantly, having them influence yours.
Now, that's not to say that the world is static, far from it actually. On our end we can control the world through our servers, so maybe one night we roll in a big storm that makes it really hard to see and spawns crazy creatures. Or maybe we do something even bigger… In any case, things like that are going to be shared by all players at the same time so you'll have those water cooler moments where you talk to someone the next day and can be like "Did you see that?!"
TMR: What are some of your formative experiences with game development?
JW: Working at Disney / Pixar was a truly formative experience. Learning how to tell stories from some of the true masters of the cinematic form and then apply those lessons to interactive storytelling was an enriching experience for me. And then, to be able to take that experience and come to BioWare to work with this talented crew of people has been a dream come true.
My first real "a-ha moment" actually came much earlier when I played the original Legend of Zelda on the NES. Hyrule became a place that I obsessed over and wanted to explore. The simple, archetypal hero Link became my avatar in a way that filled me with a sense of wonder and happiness. And that experience has truly flavored everything I've tried to accomplish in my own career.
TMR: Where do you see the game industry headed? How do you hope video games will evolve?
JW: There are so many interesting and promising opportunities out there, I'm excited to see them all. Obviously AR and VR are having a moment now, and we'll see where they go over the next several years. You're also seeing the consoles and PCs getting more and more powerful, unlocking new things we couldn't do before and generally making games smarter and more beautiful than ever. Then there are tech things that maybe a lot of people don't fully understand, but have major implications.
Like, the words “ray tracing” are getting thrown around a lot now, and if you're not intimately familiar with game development you probably don't understand why that's a big deal, but the implications in how quickly we can iterate and improve in games is huge. It's one of those seemingly little things that I'm excited about in a very nerdy way. Right now it's just a lot of blue sky and I think anyone who loves games has a lot to be excited about.
TMR: If you met someone who said to you, "I have an idea for a game I want to write," what would you tell them?
JW: One of the keys is understanding the complexity of scenes in video games and all the elements that go into making that work. For instance, let's say you're writing a scene for a pirate movie and you want to have this climactic swordfight where the characters are exchanging witty banter, climbing rigging and swinging from ropes, all in the midst of a raging tempest. In a book that's a fairly easy scenario to write, I've painted enough of a picture of it just now to set the basic scene, which you'd fill in with dialogue and descriptions. It gets more complicated in a movie with choreography and special effects, and it gets REALLY hard in a game with all the programming, weather effects, character and model collision, lip syncing, etc.
For anyone who's interested in writing for games though I'd recommend grabbing some of the basic game design modules (most of which you can find for free online) and try creating a few scenes. You'll quickly see how challenging it is to get characters to hit their cues, but it will give you an appreciation for how to write a video game.