Sweet Dreams Are Made of Beasts: Ken Rolston on the essence of role-playing.

Ken Rolston speaks with a freedom earned from more than three decades designing games. He began his career working on tabletop role-playing games from Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer, and later moved into videogame design, his career capped with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. After briefly contemplating retirement, Rolston has returned to work on a new game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, an attempt to meld the rich storytelling of his past games with an equally rich combat system drawn from  action games. The work features art by Spawn-creator Todd McFarlane and fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, a kind of cross-media dream team. We spoke to Rolston about his storied career, Reckoning’s place in it, and what it finally means to play a part in a videogame fantasy.

You’ve described some of your earlier work on the Elder Scrolls series as being jazz-like because there are so many different systems working together in a free-form way. Do you think you could say the same thing about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning?
We probably have roughly similar content in some ways, but the Elder Scrolls idea is more interested in doing a lot and we’re more interested in polish. The impression I want to come across to the user is that it is perfection in every way. With Bethesda it was more like, “Trust us, we make a mess sometime, but what we’re making is really delicious.” It’s like going to a friend’s house and he’s a slightly less tidy housekeeper but you don’t care because its part of his style. We have a very different style of presentation, but the content won’t be that different. There is a lot of fun in Bethesda games but sometimes it’s hard to get to. You have to be really patient and hard-driving, and if it’s seductive enough you’ll keep going. That’s similar to jazz—the first time you hear Coltrane and you feel like you’re not getting it you’ve got to stay with it and dig into the speaker to make sense of it.

Did you settle on a few core ideas that you wanted to be perfect early on in the game’s development?
At the very top level of abstraction we wanted no friction whatsoever for the user. One of the problems with role-playing games from my point of view is the amount of friction that a hardcore person is used to and therefor accepts, like Byron’s “The Prisoner of Chillon”—he’s so used to his chains. I wanted to do something that would be fun for people who are not hardcore. This is my problem, I don’t know when there’s a problem because I’m a hardcore player. One of the things that Big Huge Games does in a wonderful way is looking sternly at hardcore people. We say, “Do you realize how unpleasant what you’re doing can be to somebody else?” Once I’ve got that emotional sense on board then I say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if this was easy and fun?”

What was it like working with such distinctive partners as R.A. Salvatore, Todd McFarlane, and Curt Schilling? Was it hard to settle into a collaborative workflow with so many strong collaborators?
I found them fabulously grounded and self-assured, but the unexpected aspect was that they’re self-deprecating and humble. They’re really genuine in that way, but they also have teacher’s instincts and they’re manipulating you in a kind of enlightened way. I used to be a teacher and I would tell my students up front that I was going to manipulate them every minute they were in the classroom, but I was going to do it for their own good. They’ll say things like, “I don’t know anything about this computer game thing, but wouldn’t it be good to have better animation?” Which came to us as a shock because we’ve been making money on games with poor animation for a very long time. It’s both a genuine sense of humility—we all recognize each other as masters. I can be an enormously annoying and abrasive person in certain ways but at the same time I am humble. I know there are a lot of people who are way better at what they do than I am. I can also be stupid because of my self-assurance in some cases so I really have to be careful about it.

What was it like working with Curt Schilling? He seems much more involved and passionate about the company than you might expect from a former pro-athlete?
I went to dinner with him early on and asked him why he was doing this. He said, “I want to make a lot of money—to build a hospital.” That caused me to stop dead. He said he had met Todd and R.A. at an ALS benefit. I knew right then that I was on his side. If that was brilliant manipulation of me then I give full credit, but it isn’t dissonant with his character. I’m morally outraged that he’s so big and tall. Whenever I can I challenge his personal space and then run like a little girl. None the less, I trust him like a brother. 

You’ve talked about there being four different types of players in role-playing games (war player, power player, narrative player, and the role-player). Did that idea affect the game’s development in any major way?
To a certain extent I’m not thinking of types of players anymore, I’m trying to step outside of the boundaries and think of this experience as it was when I played my first role-playing game, Wizardry, when genre ghettos were less well-defined. So I’m thinking of a user more than I’m thinking of a mage and a thief. We used those old archetypes as important details in the design, but the most important thing to me was thinking of the player as someone who was not a hardcore role-player and wouldn’t recognize my four classes, and asking myself, “What would they make of this?” What happens if they pick up a magic staff and a sword at the same time and decide to use them together. I’m not prepared for that if I use my classes. The idea of a hybrid character never really worked in other role-playing games because they’re designed to fit those special archetypes, but in my case, I didn’t want players to create a character and then 10 hours in realize they didn’t work in terms of the systems. 

Have crossover successes of games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars had any impact on how you think of role-playing games and who you can potentially reach with them? 
This is where being an internationally renowned game designer who’s older than dirt makes me wiser than anyone else in the universe. [laughter] Back in the early days of role-playing, because science fiction and fantasy are parallel publishing genres it was imagined they should also be parallel in role-playing games. Fantasy works with archetypes that are familiar. Because these games are so difficult to start with, if you don’t start with shared conventions—like Western conventions where you see a pair of swinging doors and a hitching post and you know there’ll be guns and alcohol—if you don’t have that shorthand, it’s death to pacing. You can’t get immersed fast enough. It’s a self-perpetuating situation. If you take a look at those rare games that kind of look like role-playing games that have a science fiction background, they’re more like shooters, and they become even more like shooters the longer they’re successful. Medieval fantasy is easy to get into quickly and is a shared collection of tropes that people can instantly explore with confidence. I take your point about FarmVille and those types of games, they are clearly role-playing games, but they’re much shallower experiences. That’s not to devalue them in their intensity or delight, but from a game designer’s point of view and a hardcore player’s point of view, you’re not getting the same level of depth in experience.

What about something like Grand Theft Auto, which has a very contemporary setting in which players could spend dozens of hours just driving around? Would you count that as a roleplaying game or is that a different beast altogether? 
I’m the kind of mean-spirited, pedantic jerk that says all games are role-playing games. I won’t go very far to defend Tetris or something like that, but when I’m playing strategic games I’m often less interested in whether I win or lose than whether the story is good or that I understand the narrative of the game. I have an idea that comes from back when I was a teacher. Literature divides into two categories: escapism and exploration. Our high culture tends to value the exploration of human experience aspect. I would say the human experience exploration in Grand Theft Auto is shallow because the person doesn’t bring a lot to the experience. It’s a more scripted experience and the player doesn’t have a lot of tradition of expectations. He’s not reversing his own expectations when he decides to steal or not steal—that is if someone’s poor and he decides not to steal from them because that strikes a rich meaning in him. I think in Grand Theft Auto the player generally has a lot more fun playing with the mechanics of the game, smashing cars into things. I won’t call that role-playing so much, except at the 9 year-old level. I totally understand that. Give me a hammer and I’m a 9 year-old player banging on a table. But in terms of interactions with other characters—am I good man or a bad man, like in The Elephant Man—do you ask that question of yourself before you act? Those kind of role-playing experiences are accessible but because it’s so tightly plotted and there’s so little scope of expression. You can go all over the place but you can only do a few things.

After so many years in the industry, what keeps you going? Is there some great ideal that you’re striving for?
There are dozens of things that I’ve always wanted to do. Someone who achieves by focusing on and moving toward a goal—that’s not me. I go in every possible direction, and there are so many seductive different directions. If I have a gift it’s an excess of energy over judgement. I’m luckily unable to tell whether where I’m going is meaningful or useful. I just enjoy going on the journey so much. I have two large-scale projects that I’d like to do in games, which I’m sure I’ll never get to do before they hammer me into the grave. There are lots of other subtle things I’d like to work on as well. Instead of looking at your character sheet for the numbers and the weapons, I’d like you to look at your character traits instead. I’ve never found a place in a game where that feels right in the game I’m doing, but if I ever get a chance to do that I’ll be as happy.

It sounds like the biggest hurdles now are creative ones and not technological? 
There are no limitations that I can blame on anybody else. They’re all my own damn fault. If I had more energy and focus I’m sure I could jam some of these things down people’s throats but until I know that they’re perfect I won’t bother. 

– Michael Thomsen