Speaking With… Ken Rolston, Internationally Celebrated Games Designer

More often than not when interviewing games designers we find that the answers they provide us are as short and as succinct as possible – after all they have usually had to answer the same old questions over and over again. However when speaking to Ken Rolston, a man whose tongue is seemingly perpetually planted firmly in his cheek, it is very clear that Ken loves to talk about games. Ken spoke in so much depth that we actually found it hard to actually ask him any questions. Rather than being a traditional interview we present a transcription of our recent chat with Ken Rolston about RPGs, his work on The Elder Scrolls series, what he thinks of the competition, and what we can expect from his new game Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning.

Ken, for those that don’t already know who you are, can you introduce yourself and tell us what you’re working on

I am Ken Rolston, internationally celebrated games designer, and your humble servant – as I said yesterday – and I’m the lead designer on such classics as Morrowind and Oblivion, which you had better have heard of, and now the visionary – notice the visionary as opposed to the guy who does honest work – yes the visionary for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which is a fantastic new role playing game that has way too much fun with the combat and yet all the other things that you wanted which was narrative, exploration, combat and advancement.

So expand a little bit on the combat, what differentiates the combat of Reckoning from some other action RPGs?

Now the thing that I wanted it to do was not suck! Now that’s overstating a case, it’s not like I haven’t had fun in all the role playing games I’ve played and design, but they all come out of a tradition of tabs top games where your expectations are modest to say the least, for how slow they go and how complicated they are. So you go from (RPGs like) that to great games like Baldur’s Gate, which is still turn based, and as long as you’re very patient and you don’t expect things to happen straight away, its wonderful. It’s like small group combat, World War 2 combat but with magic and stuff.

And then you go to games like Oblivion, modern games in which you have that first person or third person view as you’re exploring the world, but then your still saying “wow is that the best animation I’ve seen in the industry” and say to yourself “maybe not so much”. Then “is that the most fun combat?”… no. Because we’re prisoners of our genre we don’t know to ask for more.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has a refreshingly fluid take on combat

So I said, “wow I bet we could go play an action game and see how much the fun the game would be”, but I hate action games, always did! It’s not because it’s fun for a limited time, when you’re doing stuff and getting excited, but because they’re on a rail. And very often you’re in a level where often you’ll be trying to figure out “What is the designer expecting me to do here? Do I have to hit him with a hat rack or an oil base paint can?” your just trying to figure out what the designers doing.

So I had this – what I thought to be – brilliant idea; it turns out there are four pillars of role playing games: Bioware seems to have accidentally done a great job with narrative, so can’t go in there, and then there’s Bethesda, and because I’ve been responsible for some of their role playing games, they don’t suck, and then there’s Blizzard who do not a particularly bad job of advancement and the loot and compulsive stuff, and so I say “OK we can do it, we can do it in the area (of combat)”.

Then this amazing coincidence occurs, I get to work with R.A. Salvatore – who I’m only slightly bitter that he’s a better writer than I am. I think its kinda not fair because I am a great game designer, but I admit he writes better than I do… and he’s just had to write 10,000 years of history for us, which I don’t have to do, thank god! So I feel good about this. He comes from a Dungeons and Dragons (background), he’s not just making characters, he starts of like I do with setting, that has to be logical and coherent, built with factions, all kinds of complicated time periods and relationships. So OK, lets ship it, we got that part down.

And then I said “Todd McFarlane (creator of Spawn)… I wonder if he would know something about animation and combat? I wonder if that might be convergent with my lust for good combat” and it turned out, shockingly, he was good at that stuff. So it’s a great opportunity, that’s how we have this market differentiation – its a lot of stupid coincidences that come from my “brilliant vision”, and of course knowing we could do a good job with the combat. But I could never have done it without these visionaries.

And then, lets be honest, I don’t do any work as a visionary, I’ve got Big Huge Games, they had to do this shit that I said we should do! I could sell this to people, but its very hard to sell a new RPG, and very hard to sell a new IP, but at least I could do that. I could make the same kind of pitch to you guys about why this game is great, but it turns out I can’t make that game by myself, it had to be Big Huge. And they’re wonderful people, they understand action games, but since I despise them I couldn’t possibly do that, they took care of all that work. Ian did a wonderful job of designing systems, there’s the Destiny System which fits beautifully into the premise of our game. Everything fell together in the sense that the writers were with the right people in the right place at the right time. It’s partly magic and partly hard work… awfully hard work!

Tell us more about the Destiny System, we went to see the game and have a little play around earlier on and it seems you’ve basically done away with the convention of just choosing a type of character at the start of the game, and replaced it with something much better. What exactly is the whole Destiny System about.

In order to have access to the conventions and things I wouldn’t say we’ve done away with character classes, we’ve chunked them, we’ve broken them up into little bits and also we’ve removed some of the inter connections that make them so brittle. One of the problems is, if you’re going to play a role playing game and you’re going to start of as a fighter, if you don’t plunge everything in to that you’re gonna get a gimped character if you try and mix some of the other pieces in there. OK that would not work (in other RPGs), but we really wanted to be able to do that, so that meant poor Ian had to design a games system that would not suck under those circumstances and “c’est une miracle!” he actually did it, oh my god! Again it turns out if really good people are working with you and you’re a raving lunatic sometimes they feel obligated to do what you feel is best.

Reckoning's character classes are less rigid than in other RPGs

So the Destiny System, as you were saying, is essentially a way of building your character piece by piece using little bits of different character classes. The reason that’s great is of course you don’t have to commit yourself to a specific character direction, but also because we have such a seductive combat system and it works in all the different areas. For example there will be some of you that are hardcore gamers and like to play a fighter game because its simple, BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG-REPEAT, and by the way that’s great, I play that sometimes, but in this case you’ll be doing that but then you’ll find out that a magic user, when he pushes the dodge button, teleports behind his enemy and then there’s that special moment and sense of betrayal where you realise you can’t do that as a fighter and it weakens your class. You’re seduced to the dark side to use magic, which is evil, all magic is evil, obviously! So that’s the whole idea, because you begin to discover how much fun the other little bits are we want your to constantly, when it gets to be level up time, be in agony , saying I can’t stand not choosing these other cool little bits in the skill tree.

Another kinda hidden value of that is that role playing games or fantasy role playing games tend to exhaust all of their real novelty and deliciousness early on in the game, like I’m done after maybe 5th or 6th level and the idea of going to 40th or 50th level in an MMO? I just don’t care, there’s not that much novelty left. But we have got cool stuff that you’ll have to wait a long time for, but on the other hand you’re getting your money’s worth. If you keep playing you can drop comets on guys and it doesn’t suck – the meteor strike is an ass load of fun. You don’t wanna use it that often because it just makes you feel too powerful.

Do you see what you’ve done in Reckoning as the future of RPGs and do you think a lot of other games developers will be copying what you’ve done?

Yes, because I’m so modest and self-effacing yes, I do believe everyone will follow in my footsteps, and I say that only vaguely ironically. I actually do think that when people say “ya know, he took a chance, he put a lot of elements from action games in there, and yet he was not dragged behind by his fans” they’ll say “ya know it is fun”. What’s gonna happen I really believe is they’ll play it and say “aw that’s not so hard”. First of all they’re stupid because it is fucking hard! “Anyone can do that” they’ll say, and then they’ll go ahead and do it because they know it’s fun. It turns out the whole process is hellishly difficult, because of how different it is.

The problem is action game developers often loath and detest RPGs for the same reasons that RPGs detest them because their paces are different, like you’re not very patient if you an action guy, “Oh my god your taking forever to have fun, that blows!”. But I think there is plenty of room for cross pollination between the two. I know there will be I think its going to be an influential game, its got bits worth stealing, so why not.

Having work on Morrowind and Oblivion, slower paced games, have your surprised yourself? Because watching Reckoning it seems so fluid and beautiful, we wondered why wasn’t this done 5 years ago?

Because I wasn’t done doing the other things! To be honest Morrowind, great as it was, was slow paced, I can’t play it any more. If it was rebuilt with the Oblivion interface and better software it would be much better. But in those moments those games were exciting, having been there and done that and walked through that process and always knowing that, good god, I’m not gonna live forever, I don’t wanna make another game like that. So it was exciting to try something new. I’ll admit the moment of truth was when I could actually play it and it didn’t suck. I couldn’t make it, it had to come from the geniuses and the combat design, and animation. There were moments when I was saying “I’m writing cheques that I cannot cash” but for the some of you that have played it you can tell its just cheap cheesy fun, that’s really very satisfying.

The closest analogy we could think of for Reckoning is God of War crossed with Fable

So as part of that do you think there’s no place for the old style RPGs in the future?

Oh no no no. What we need to do is take the experience of Morrowind and make it more accessible, I don’t actually wanna do that work, I think other people should get their hands on it and do that kind of stuff; all I really wanna do is boast and rest on my glory at this point, don’t tempt the gods of fate. Right now the only excitement I have is waiting for it to get into the hands of the people. I’m excited about the prospect of Reckoning 2 because there’s so many things we didn’t do last time, I’ve got plenty to distract me in the meantime thank you very much.

Am I right in thinking that after oblivion you were very tired of that, and effectively retired. Then you’ve came back to do this, so surely now you’ve had a second wind are you just gonna think well never again, just keep going?

This is a dialogue that I have with my wife, family and friends quite a lot. They keep riding me back into this criminal syndicate! The serious answer is I’ve had so much fun working on it, why would I wanna stop? They also spoil the living shit outta me by not letting me do any honest work… occasionally I have to go mad and dance around on a stage.

Tell us about the storyline a little bit more, because it ties into the Destiny System doesn’t it?

I absolutely refuse to talk about the storyline because the worst thing I could do is reveal that, but on the other hand the premise is the biggest thing I care about as far as the narrative is concerned. I don’t think its time to build a RPG before you have a premise which makes people say “aw that’s fucking sweet, oh we gotta do dat!”. The premise of the game is that your are the first person in history to be resurrected, it has some mythic resonances in the real world, you know its cool, and at the same time you don’t know why (you were resurrected) and people wonder why. It turns out if you’ve invented resurrection people will be very interested in you; some in a nice way, some in a way that they want to dismantle you for parts and see how it worked . So we’ve created the fabulous situation of conflicts, undefined conflicts, which is my favourite open world narrative. We don’t define the character , we leave you with the idea of “was I good man? Was I a bad man?” the mystery is, I wonder if the game designers will tell me. It my job to refuse to reveal anything to you.

So would it be fair to say that you start the game with a blank slate?

Absolutely… or that’s what you think based on what I’ve told you. That doesn’t mean that I’m not a lying treacherous sack of shit.

Ken, we would absolutely love to keep talking but unfortunately our time is up. Thank you for your time. Can you tell us when the game is out?

Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning will be out on the 10th of February in Europe, and on the 7th in the USA… thank god I got that right!

Want to hear more about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning? Why not read our recent hands on preview here.

Mon, September 5 2011 » Articles

One Response

  1. Rax September 6 2011 @ 12:55 pm

    I love Ken Rolston, Fact.
    What a man, what a legend, such enthusiasm. If all games had a Ken in their development team we’d all be miles better off!

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