Neil Thompson: “BioWare Strives To Better What Has Gone Before”

From the WipEout titles to Dragon Age III, industry veteran Neil Thompson has always worked at the cutting-edge of gaming. Now installed as Director of Art & Animation at BioWare, he spoke exclusively to FMV Magazine about the studio’s strengths, the sad closure of his old stomping ground Sony Liverpool, and his ambitions for the future of Dragon Age and Mass Effect.

When racing game specialist Bizarre Creations was due to close in early 2011, art director Neil Thompson found himself facing something of a dilemma.

A stalwart of the UK games industry since the late ’80s, with decades of experience at developers including Psygnosis/Sony Liverpool, Curly Monsters and Bizarre, he was left disconsolate when he began looking for work in his home nation – and rapidly discovered there were few options open to him.

“Initially I had no thoughts of leaving the country,” he explains, “but it became increasingly clear that companies weren’t looking for guys with my skillset and experience.

“I’m passionate about the UK games industry and wanted to see it return to the levels of success we’d enjoyed during the nineties and early 2000’s, but that process of looking around and really seeing nothing that would move my career forward was very depressing.”

Fortunately for Thompson, he did have some big options open to him if he was willing to look overseas. BioWare’s senior creative director Alistair McNally happens to be an old friend from the Psygnosis era, and before long Thompson found himself flying out to Canada to meet with the action-RPG kingpins.

“We’d talked off and on for a couple of years about opportunities within BioWare,” he says. “Initially I was happy at Sony, I was married with a young family and it didn’t seem the right time. But with so few options in the UK and now being divorced I felt it was the right time for a big change.

“I was immediately impressed with the guys that I met,” he recalls. “Their passion, professionalism and knowledge not only of games but other artistic fields. Above all, they made me feel that my experience was a desirable quality and something that they wanted going forward.”

It was enough for Thompson to up-sticks and relocate to North America, where he has been hard at work as BioWare’s Director of Art and Animation for more than a year now. He admits that the personal transition has sometimes been tough (“being away from my children, who live in the UK, never gets easier”), but from a professional standpoint he has nothing but good things to say about his new role.

Indeed, when asked about the overall atmosphere and philosophy at BioWare, Thompson speaks with real enthusiasm and passion on the subject.

“Despite the great success that the studio has had, there is a wonderful attitude to continue to strive to better what has gone before,” he says. “There is no suggestion of resting on the laurels of past projects: every new development is begun with the idea that this will be the defining BioWare game.

“At past development studios you will always find individuals with this drive and desire, but sometimes not all within an organisation share the same goals or have the same passion for furthering the concept of games as a valid artistic medium.

“I think that everyone in the games industry wants to work on the biggest IPs with the most talented and creative people. I’ve been extremely lucky to have worked with some truly talented and inspirational developers during my career; coming to BioWare is a continuation of that process. The ethic within the studio here in Edmonton is to provide a creatively motivating environment within which people can express their art – the art of making games – and it’s something I find hugely exciting and refreshing.”

Now in overall charge of art and animation for the Mass Effect and Dragon Age titles, Thompson concedes that taking on the role for such major franchises was “massively daunting”, but he’s got big plans for what he’d like to achieve with both series going forward.

“The dream of many game developers is to create something that is both beautiful and emotionally engaging: something of cultural relevance that will transcend its genre or even medium,” he replies. “That’s what I would like to achieve.”

Thompson is speaking to FMV following his recent appearance at Bradford Animation Festival in his native UK, where he delivered a talk about his work at BioWare and also briefly unveiled the first public screenshot from Dragon Age 3.

While most other delegates and speakers were making flying visits, however, Thompson was keen to spend a few days at the event and soak up as much of the other talks and seminars as possible.

“I really enjoyed Lucas Hardi from Bethesda’s talk on the history of art in games,” he says. “It was interesting to see that from a North American perspective rather than European. Jonathan Gales’ presentation was also excellent: his piece “Megalomania” was quite beautiful. My son and I play the Lego games a lot; so the guys from Travellers Tales’ talk about the cinematics of the Lego Lord of the Rings was great fun.”

Thompson’s video game career began in the late ’80s when he started creating content for Spectrum and Commodore 64 titles. But it was his move to Psygnosis in 1991 that really propelled him into the big leagues.

Acquired by Sony in ’93, the studio began developing highly influential titles including WipEout and Colony Wars for Sony’s new fledgling console, and Thompson was instrumental in Psygnosis’s adoption of high-end 3D software at the dawn of the PlayStation era.

“That was a long time ago!” he laughs. “What I remember is [co-founder] Ian Hetherington’s quest to push the visual targets for games beyond what was currently possible. Every new piece of hardware that promised more powerful graphics was a potential development target, and Psygnosis spent a lot of money kitting the artists out with Silicon Graphics workstations and Softimage to try and take advantage of the technical breakthroughs.

“We did so many demos during that time: some interactive, some just visual targets. It was an incredibly creative and fun time to be in the industry: there were no established pipelines for content creation as we understand them today; so it was very much the Wild West. It was exciting and scary. WipEout came directly out of that experimentation.”

Between successful stints at independent studio Curly Monsters (which produced N-Gen Racing and Quantum Redshift) and Bizarre Creations (which saw him work on the critically-acclaimed Blur), Thompson returned to Psygnosis – now rebranded as Sony Liverpool – to assume direct art control of the Formula 1, MotorStorm and WipEout franchises.

Thompson expresses great sadness at the closure of the studio early this year, especially for his friends who had remained there. But he also says that there was “not a huge amount of surprise”.

“There was a period from 2004-2006 roughly, where everyone in that studio felt like they were halcyon days,” he recalls. “We’d done Wipeout Pulse for PSP which was very successful, and a well-received launch title on PS3 (F1:Championship Edition), but more importantly there was a great spirit and bond amongst the teams and a feeling that we were ready for a new challenge with a new IP and an opportunity to really do something great.

“It is a huge shame in my opinion that the talent within that studio wasn’t nurtured and allowed an opportunity, but that’s the way these things go sometimes. I felt the same way towards the teams at Bizarre Creations.

“The studio will probably be best remembered for Wipeout, which is appropriate as it was a bench mark for gaming in that it transcended the nerdy world of computer games and became a game that you could play and still be ‘cool’.

“The wider legacy is the adoption of 3D tools and the idea of cinematic sequences in games – these aspects that we take for granted today were pioneered by a pretty small bunch of artists who just wanted to explore the medium.”

Looking over his career as a whole, Thompson picks out his work with Curly Monsters as a particular highlight: “Because six guys proved a point that a small focused team could write a quality console title in the same time as a much larger team. Sure, we were young and naive in terms of the business side; but from a purely development perspective we did good.”

As for what he’d like to achieve in the future, it’s fair to say that BioWare’s art and animation big-wig has lofty goals for gaming as a whole.

“There’s loads I’d like to achieve!” he laughs. “Maybe to have games find acceptance as a valid artistic medium with the traditional arts establishment in the same way that film has – if only so that I could go to my mum and dad and say: “See, it is a real job!”


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