Interview with Reckoning’s Ken Rolston

NAG recently sat down to chat to Ken Rolston, the lead designer at Big Huge Games, where he’s currently working on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning as well as a Kingdoms-based MMORPG. Ken has been in the board games and video games industry for a long time, and is most well-known for his role as lead designer on the Elder Scrolls games Morrowind and Oblivion. He’s also one of the wackiest, craziest game developers I’ve ever met.

NAG: Tell me about the iconic people you have working on Kingdoms of Amalur

Ken Rolston: The short hook is that it’s kickass combat in a master-crafted world. The kickass combat we’ll get to later, the “mastercrafted”, from a marketing point of view and from the users’ point of view, is a guarantee of a certain level of quality, because well, Ken Rolston – internationally celebrated game designer who has entry-level skills making role-playing games. And then there’s R.A. Salvatore who’s been on the NY Times best-seller list for writing really good novels. He also loves games, came out of TSR, Dungeons & Dragons writing worlds. And then there’s Todd McFarlane, who turns out to have some entry-level skills in making great visuals and narratives in the fantasy area.

Then there’s Curt Schilling, who, we happen to think because we like baseball, he is so cool to us. So you have these luminaries, and what Curt brings to the party is that he wants to win. He understands with baseball that there’s always a winner and a loser, and we know what we’re going to be. It’s that energy and focus and belief, and he also loves games. He is our best “gaming tester.” If he gets his hands all sweaty on the controller, then it’s going to be good.

NAG: From an artistic point of view, what do R.A. and Todd McFarlane bring to the team?

R.A. crafted the worlds of Kingdoms of Amalur – great ten thousand years of history which, like, even bad dungeon masters can do. It turns out that he does a really good job. And I think I’m great, but I just cheerfully say “okay fine, you’re better at this than I am.” I’m not bitter or anything like that, I can get over it.

And then Todd McFarlane, who’s not a gamer, he brings that innocent sense of outrage that when he sees something visually that isn’t very good on screen he says (puts on some sort of high-pitched cowboy accent) “pardon me, maybe I’m stupid here, but would you explain to me why the animations are bad.” And I’d say “oh but they’re not bad, look at the… sold lots of copies… everyone’s happy…” (Ken goes off on an unintelligible tangent here). No, no, it turns out that I guess you’re right; it’s a really good thing to have better animation. And it really fits in to our other most important thing: combat.

NAG: Let’s talk about that combat…

KR: Role-playing games are basically four components without which you fail. You need exploration, narrative, advancement and combat. Some people, who might actually be in the room at the moment (It’s only me, Ken and the PR lady in the room) have entry-level skills with making great exploration games. You know: way too big, open world, too much content, and too many things. And they’re (He can still only be talking about himself here) not too bad at stories too; they’ll have a main quest but there’ll also be faction main quests and then there’ll be side-quests and trashcans of interactivity. Then there’ll be advancement, which is what real role-playing games are about: “I’m not dead yet. I’m getting more powerful every time I go up a level or every time I take something out of something’s pocket after I murdered it.” I mean, those are the foundations and triple-A role-playing games have to do that.

And then there’s combat, and I’m not going to say that you don’t have to have good combat to make a triple-A game, but it turns out that that was the area where I think there were some opportunities being missed, and it was a great convergence with Todd because he would say (returns to his cowboy accent) “why can’t be do something that looks better; make it exciting?” Well, I wouldn’t personally give much of crap just about making it prettier because I’m an idiot. I know that graphics are really important but at the same time if it doesn’t feed directly into gameplay, that doesn’t excite me. But when you say “I’m also gonna get fluid movement and immersive movement? You mean I can move around on the screen and it doesn’t feel clunky? And not only can I move around but I can move around fast. I can get around behind my enemy.” In Dungeons & Dragons you always had abstract movement; it’d be X number of hexes before I can stab you in the back. Here, I can move behind the guy quickly because my controller makes my guy move! I’m moving with that guy; my hands are moving. So that’s very immersive, and also, better quality animations are essential for good action-inspired combat, but also, it looks better! Who knew ?! Wow, I’m shocked; that is cool. When you see it you’ll say “you know, gosh, that looks like a role-playing game, and it looks really great and you may be deeply troubled and wonder if it’s a real role-playing game. I promise you, I don’t want to have an action game – that’s not what I’m interested in – I’m a role-playing game designer. I would suck at making action games, and also my fans would hate me and come after me with axes and torches. I don’t want that to happen.

NAG: Let’s talk about role-playing. That’s a focus for you, but is this an “action-RPG”?

KR: That’s the landmine that I’m most concerned about. I don’t want you to think it’s an action game at all. It’s an RPG that has good combat in it. It’s very hard to add “action game” to it; if you just grafted it on there, it wouldn’t be very organic. We started off just wanting to move better. My inspiration was I didn’t want to have clunky movement and I just wanted to see things that happened. I wanted a tactile feel, and as it evolved, it turned out that those models from “the action thing” did something really cool, both for controls and for visuals. So, you can call it an action role-playing game because there isn’t really a better name for it, but after it ships and everyone gets used to it, it’ll just be a role-playing game. All of the other role-playing games will say “you know, we could have had better animation. We could do that stuff. It’d be cool, wouldn’t it?”

NAG: Can players expect all the regular dialogue associated with RPGs?

KR: Without which, we do not ship. You have to have all those things, and it turned out that we have people who really love that stuff. They’re learning to do the tons of content you have to do for these types of things. It’s difficult to develop; it’s a challenge, but you have to have the narrative. There’ll be many quests – faction quests, which you’re familiar with from the Oblivion and Morrowind – narrative tools to suck you into the world – breadcrumbs to draw you to content.

NAG: I understand that with the class system, you start off with a blank slate. Tell me about that.

KR: We don’t have a class system, thank god for that. The worst thing in the world is that you choose your class in the first few minutes of play where you don’t even know what the game is about or what feels really cool. So what happens (in Reckoning) is that you organically achieve certain classes and by what you’ve done, you’ll be awarded. What it intends to do is avoid the negative of choosing your class and for it to be organic: as you play, you define your choices by picking which things in the skill tree you want.

Also, your hybrid character won’t suck. If you’ve ever made a hybrid character, he’s always a gimp in some way and it’s frustrating. Now, you’ll say “I want to be an archer with a dagger and a hammer and magic spells,” and we’ll say “well, that doesn’t fit into the existing Dungeons & Dragons thing but okay we’ll do it.” Now, it may not be the “best” build, but it will not be a crippled build; it’ll be fun.

NAG:  That sounds great. I tend to play a hybrid class and they often do feel limited.

KR: And I think they fit role-playing a lot more than they fit “the system” very often. It’s a big challenge, but thank god our lead designer is very gifted and it’s impossible to crush his soul by the scope of that challenge. I think that’s really the necessary thing: energy to keep trying.

NAG: Will players still have access to the typical RPG archetypes, like thieves can pick locks and break into places?

KR: If you’re a thief, it’s because you’ve called yourself a thief. We have skills, so you can put extra points into lockpicking, but it’s really more about what you want to be, not what archetype you have to select in order to get that toolset. You can ignore the wrapper thing; you make your own wrapper. Customise your character with not just the stuff you’re wearing, but with the skills in your skill tree.

NAG: I assume this is the start of something bigger.

KR: You would be an idiot to make a triple-A role-playing game and not expect to have endless sequels to it. That’s the only reason to do something this giant and terrifying. You can count on it. There’s Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which is the single player and then you’ll have (codename) Copernicus, and that’ll be the MMO. So you have at least those two projects tragically under production.

NAG: Can we expect the same class system in the MMO?

KR: I don’t think so. I think it ought to fit the conventions that the users are most comfortable with. My experience with MMOs is that those archetypes are probably more important because the role-playing, like tabletop, is not just a personal indulgence of who you are, it’s how you can work together. If you were tempted to make a lot of hybrid characters – and I’m just making this up – it might make it very difficult to balance the game. Whereas (in Reckoning), we can make the whole game about you; we can do that.

NAG: If you could pull it off, it’d be fantastic.

KR: Even if it’s a great marketing idea, if I don’t have a great idea how to do it then I won’t. I don’t have game there.