General:Ken Rolstone Interview

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In 2011, the French Elder Scrolls site Wiwiland celebrated the 10th anniversary of its lore wiki by interviewing developers of Elder Scrolls games and organizing contests for forum members. Interviews were done by ELOdry and published translated in French. The following is a retranslation into English.

Ken Rolstone was the lead designer for Morrowind and Oblivion. He also participated in the development of Redguard. He is now lead designer on the upcoming Big Huge Games role-playing game, "Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning", and has agreed to answer our questions.

Tell me about your arrival at Bethesda!
I worked at Legend Entertainment. I was doing adventure games there, with Bob Bates. We were in the state of Virginia, next to Maryland and therefore Bethsoft. Legend was working on an adaptation of Shannara, Terry Brook's novels, and I was doing all the narrative side of it, until the project was cancelled. That was in 1994, just after the release of Daggerfall (editor's note: actually, Daggerfall was released in 1996). Bob was friends with Chris Weaver, then president of Bethesda. The latter asked him if he could "steal" me from Legend, which Bob didn't mind, since he was just going to let me go. So Wednesday was my last day at Legend, and Thursday I was at Bethsoft. An incredibly miraculous coincidence... and the beginning of a long and beautiful story with Bethsoft.

What did you think of Arena and Daggerfall then?
They are incredible, epic feats, even if they unfortunately lack finishing touches. I was very excited to work with the team responsible for these games, and the universe they had put in place. The system borrowed a lot of concepts from RuneQuest, a paper-based role-playing game that I played for years and admired a lot. In fact, Tamriel was largely inspired by Glorantha, the world of RuneQuest. With such influences, I was sure that we could only make the best game of all time. That I had landed in the Best of Possible Worlds.

What was your role in the development of Morrowind?
I was lead designer. And there were only two other designers, both of them total beginners, so I had to do a HUGE amount of world design, storytelling, and implementation. It's one of my best memories, but also one of my worst. The best, because I had so much control over the narrative and the universe. The worst, because I had so much to do, and so little time! None of us had ever worked on such a large and complex project... not to mention the fact that it had to come out on the console as well. I barely did any system development. In fact, I've never done it too much, no matter what the episode of the series.

Development of Morrowind began in 1996, and then was put on the backburner to develop Battlespire and Redguard. Did you work on this first version ? What did it look like?
I was already lead designer of the 1996 Morrowind, but the project was still in its infancy. We were just in pre-production. There was no technical support yet, and we had no idea what the final game would look like. A lot of the background, story elements, and concept arts were reused for the 2002 version, but the two versions didn't share a single line of code and wouldn't have had the same artistic style. I think some of the working versions and some of the concept arts are still wandering around, but I wouldn't be able to tell you where.

It's probably not the game you're best known for, but after Morrowind was put on hold, you worked on Redguard.
All I did was the narration and dialogue, whose recording I also supervised. I was extremely proud to organize all of that, even when it was just a matter of tinkering with dialogue from bits and pieces of existing recordings. It was very funny, and apart from that completely useless damn riddle, the one with the bouncing mushrooms, I loved this game and its story.

At one time there were rumors about a sequel to Redguard. It even seems that it should have been called "Eye of Argonia", but it sounds more like a joke?
Damn it! I don't remember it at all. I remember the name, but that's all. It's very possible, since it's at that time that we created all this cool background around the Argonians, like their reproduction system and the fact that they have to lick trees... I think the project was very serious, and if Redguard had been a success, we would have had to release a sequel. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

Let's go back to Morrowind. We love its eccentric and twisted setting, but didn't the leaders of Bethesda at the time fear that he was a bit too "risky"?
I don't think anyone ever thought that Elder Scrolls could be a "risky" product. This license is solid gold. Its fans are loyal and very open-minded. The only risk was to release a product full of bugs... and that was really our main fear about Morrowind. The (relatively) low number of bugs it suffers from is a small miracle.

But a few people had to be vaguely aware that Morrowind was a HUGE departure from the classic first-person role-playing setting. That probably made it harder to sell, and Oblivion was a clever return to a more generic, mainstream universe. Of course, experience has taught me that you can't deviate too far from market standards without suffering the consequences. But that doesn't change the fact that I'm still convinced that you have to be original and take the risk of venturing into unknown territories if you want to ensure the long-term attachment of fans... you just have to be careful to find the balance between the classic elements and the more original ones.

I was talking about Glorantha earlier: it was an influence only for Morrowind. An influence that was a little bit overwhelming, by the way. Oblivion has turned its back on Glorantha's eccentricity and graphic elegance, to refocus on tropes of a more standard fantasy genre, Tolkien or D&D style.

Has the atmosphere at Bethesda changed with the departure of Chris Weaver (editor's note: the founder of Bethesda, let go after the release of Morrowind)? When I arrived at Bethesda, it was clearly not the most fulfilling workplace. I was treated with the utmost affection and respect, but Bethesda still had a lot to learn in terms of management and how to treat its creative people. But with Morrowind and then Oblivion, Bethsoft gradually became a wonderful place. I have the greatest tenderness and respect for Bethsoft's early work: they created incredible worlds and games. But I would WIDELY rather work at Bethesda today than in the early days.

Has your work been different at Oblivion?
My role was much more limited, because this time we had a lot of talented and experienced designers. Just like in Morrowind's time, I was the one who sketched the general history and the history of the different factions, but this time I strongly encouraged the designers to move away from these models, or even ignore them completely, depending on their tastes and skills. I have always believed that in order to do the best job possible, a designer has to make the object of his work his own. I also became less involved in the design and its implementation. We also decided to create far fewer quests, but to take more care of them. Where I was most helpful was during pre-production. I know how to lead the creation stage, how to fine-tune the universe. After that, when it came to shaping the actual content, my role was more minor.

How do you think Oblivion differs from Morrowind?
Technically, Oblivion is much better, much more entertaining. Morrowind is to Oblivion what Moby Dick is to The Da Vinci Code. Morrowind is vast, ambitious, complex, twisted, sprawling. It's a game that takes its time, that makes no concessions. Oblivion is simpler, better crafted, more classic, more nervous, and a little more accessible. Morrowind's mechanics are less well thought out, the gameplay is unbalanced, full of flaws... but it has a cheap and janky charm that I kind of miss when I play Oblivion. Each in its own way, they are both milestones in the history of computer role-playing games. I love the universe and the story of Morrowind. I'm less crazy about the Oblivion ones, but playing Oblivion is clearly a better experience.

Did you expect the TES Construction Set to be a success? The TESCS (and their descendants, such as the GECK) are true little wonders. I wouldn't be a game designer if such tools didn't exist. But I have to admit that I've never followed the mods news very closely, with a few exceptions. In fact, there's only one mod I spent a lot of time on... it's Stanegau Island... A mod that had a nice universe and a good story, with one or two improvisations as admirable as clever.

Ultimately, what is your favorite TES?
Morrowind. Because it was my first one, because it was the one I had the most responsibility and the most freedom, and because it's the closest thing to my idea of what a convincing universe in Glorantha's style should be. I don't think I'll ever find something like that again. The first episode of a role-playing series, whichever one (Baldur's Gate or Pool of Radiance, for example), is often the coolest, because it takes such absurd risks, displays such huge ambitions... Risks that the following episodes are too wise to dare taking again. Arena and Daggerfall are cool and awesome games too, but TES as we know it today was born the day Morrowind landed on the console.

It's time to tell us about your current project, Reckoning! What do you do at Big Huge Games? Are you always with your hands in the dirt, or are you more of a fairy godmother bent over their cradle?
Actually, I was only really involved in development during pre-production. That's what I do best. I'm pretty good at drawing a blank page when it comes to the big picture. After that, I'm forced to hand over to the people who take care of the details of the design and put them into practice. And the two most revolutionary aspects of Reckoning, the fights and the progression system, are not my doing at all. I am NOT a systems designer. I'm good at figuring out what will be fun and what won't in the game... but not so good at making systems from scratch.

My role at Big Huge was to teach these strategy game developers how to make role-playing games. I've already worked on very large role-playing games, I know how they work, and how to get organized when you develop one. The Big Huge team is a unique assemblage of excellent developers who are spectacularly gifted at teamwork . The best I've ever met. They learn quickly, and are smart enough to quickly appropriate what I had to teach them to reshape it and adapt it to their own passions and gifts. In short, they are so smart, so good, and so determined to put all their strength into the best possible game that I didn't have much to do.

Is it fair to say that Reckoning has a less "sandbox", less "open" approach than TES?
"Sandbox" and "open" are difficult terms to define. It is possible that Reckoning is less exploratory, but by its very mechanisms, it is still very "sandbox", in that the player can mix and match the tools that the gameplay provides to make his or her own experience. And then, Reckoning offers without any doubt or ambiguity an open world, inspired by my experience on Morrowind and Oblivion. Reckoning is probably a more detailed "open world" experience than Morrowind and Oblivion were. What I mean by this is that most of the time, your spontaneous explorations will be rewarded. We've tried to minimize the chances that your strolls just end with a "ah, well, there was nothing to see here, actually".

You could say that Reckoning is an open-world game that starts from the premise that there's nothing more fun than killing things and collecting stuff. You don't want a player to struggle body and soul to get somewhere and realize that there's nothing to kill or pick up. So, yes, the game will be denser, more action-oriented. But my opinion is that there is a place in the videogame landscape for a nervous, dense role-playing game, which yet sacrifices nothing to the exploration and freedom that I personally value. Our goal is clearly not to follow in the footsteps of Bioware's Dragon Age or Mass Effect games. Of course, they are great games in their genre... but by nature, they are NOT about exploration and freedom of movement.

It seems that you wanted to take care of an aspect that is often neglected in role-playing games: fighting.
To be quite frank, it wasn't me personally who took care of it. All the credit goes to the teams in charge of the fights, systems and animations. I just decided that smart and rewarding console-style combat would be the marketing argument that would make the difference between our game and the competition. But these are the guys who did all the artistic and creative work and implemented it.

So, yes, console-style fun fights will be Reckoning's main argument. It's not JUST a console game, because the fights work great on PC too, but the fights as seen in console action/fantasy games have been the basis of our thinking. And I can hardly describe how much fun Reckoning is. You have to play it to understand. Of course, I could chat you up and tell you that so far, combat has never been the strong point of role-playing games, etc. But to understand the appeal of this kind of action-packed "console" fighting, you have to be able to play it. The skills as well as the progression system are entirely designed to take advantage of this gameplay... Yeah, well, everything I could tell you will be completely useless until you get your hands on it.

The goal is to make fighting as much fun as exploring in an open game. Let the discovery and mastery of the tools you have at your disposal to fight be a source of fun and entertainment in itself. All these quests, beautiful landscapes and fascinating story are just the backdrop that will fuel this addictive gameplay. You'll play, play and play again, just because it's fun... fun to play and even fun to watch: an eternity of fun to discover and master.

Has your conception of what a good role-playing game should be evolved in 10 years?
I've accumulated a lot of experience and knowledge, but I don't think my conception of what a good role-playing experience is has fundamentally changed. For me, the most important thing is to want to unveil the map, to make every trace of the "war fog" disappear. I want to go everywhere and do everything. The universe and the story being told must be so vast, so convincing, the tone and the theme so fascinating, that I must be in a state of permanent immersion and wonder. I think the only thing that has changed in me is my relationship to the PC and the consoles. I'm getting to a point where I prefer the intimate, immersive, tactile and visceral side of a console controller. That's why Reckoning is totally inspired by the immersive, tactile and visceral experience offered by a typical console action/combat game... but with all the great features I've always loved in role-playing games.