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A new era: BioWare's art director talks Dragon Age 3, Mass Effect and next gen visuals

Neil Thompson on how choice of aesthetic can transcend technology

Neil Thompson has enjoyed a long and varied career - his credits include Psygnosis, developer of the WipeOut titles, Curly Monsters, the studio behind Xbox racer Quantum Redshift, and Bizarre Creations, where he helped finish off the sorely under-appreciated Blur. Thompson is now director of art and animation at BioWare, and the man responsible for the visual style of Dragon Age 3: Inquisition - one of 2013's most promising Xbox RPGs.

OXM caught up with Thompson at the Bradford Animation Festival to discuss art direction in Mass Effect and Dragon Age, the departure of BioWare founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, and what to expect of next generation consoles graphics-wise.

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How did you get your first break in the games industry?

I wanted to paint, so I left school to become a book illustrator. I loved guys like [fantasy artists] Michael Whelan and Boris Vallejo, but I struggled to sell work. Luckily through a contact at a carpet shop where I was working, I got a job in Manchester working at A&F Software, which made Chuckie Egg. In 1987, coders were doing the graphics, so they asked me if I'd like to draw spaceships for a living!

You also worked at Bizarre Creations on Blur. It's not a typical-looking racing game - was that deliberate?

Bizarre Creations was known for racing games such as Formula One and Project Gotham - very photo-realistic sim-like titles. The team wanted to move away from that and do a "grown-up Mario Kart" - everybody loves Mario Kart but it's a bit hard on the eyes! We had lots of conversations about how Blur would be lit, all based around those stop-motion videos of traffic trails moving at night. Originally it was all going to be at night but we wanted to push it to more sunrise and sunset, otherwise it just gets depressing.

It was done with the best intentions, but the problem with racing games is that they're purely aspirational. They need to have a car that you can't afford to drive, in a location you can't afford to visit, doing something you really shouldn't be doing. The racing games that hit those pillars tend to be successful - Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit for example. Blur looked and played great, but just didn't grab enough of that mass market audience - it's a niche game that 15 years ago might have gone ballistic, like Carmageddon or Rollcage. It's a game out of time, which is a shame. I still occasionally play Blur because it's such a laugh.

What is it like working at a huge games company like BioWare?

They're really humble, and that partly comes from the isolation at Edmonton in Canada. It's the biggest gig in town regarding console development - it's not like Montreal where you have a community of 6,000 developers. People tend to go there and they stay long-term, and I think the best games are made by teams that stay together, get to know each other and motivate each other. Also I used to read interviews with Ray Muzyka [co-founder of BioWare] where he talked about games as an art form - and that's something I wanted to be a part of.

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How was it at BioWare when the news broke that Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk were leaving the company and the games industry to pursue other interests?

Well, BioWare has grown a lot over the last couple of years. Ray was doing more of a BioWare label-based role, focusing on the big picture, while Greg was concentrating on the Star Wars MMO in Austin. So as an everyday presence at the studio, they weren't there so much - but I think their great legacy is that the people they mentored, and who are now running BioWare, share that vision - and that continues. No one was jumping out of the window! It was fine and we're still going to be making BioWare games.

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