Last week, we took a journey back to the world of The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion to stream a chat with lead designer Ken Rolston about his work on Bethesda’s breakout role-playing game. Today, we’ve taken the time to transcribe our conversation with Rolston for your full perusal. Read on for some in-depth insights on his work on Oblivion and its predecessor Morrowind!
This interview has been lightly edited for clarification. Gamasutra’s Alex Wawro and Bryant Francis both peppered Rolston with questions.
Alex Wawro: Hello and welcome to Gamasutra’s Thursday stream. Today we are playing Oblivion. I am Gamasutra editor, Alex Wawro and I am joined by Gamasutra contributing editor, Bryant Francis and most importantly, Oblivion lead designer Ken Rolston. Ken, how are you doing?
Ken Rolston: I am perfect in every way.
Wawro: Ken, I was surprised. You know, when we first started corresponding about this you mentioned to me that you had sort of been idly considering doing some of your own livestreaming, some of your own YouTube video production. I kind of wanted to get, pick your brain of what you think the value is there and what makes you excited about returning to older games and sort of sharing your experiences working on them.
Rolston: Well the larger concept is that I don’t believe that any work of literature or art, and this, I must admit is “Light Classics,” but this is a form of art, depends on the creator, the text, and the viewer or the reader. And I’m always very interested in the various different ways that people write criticism. And in terms of games they also do Let’s Plays. So I was interested for myself, I wanted to go see how other people played my game, because when you design a game you don’t really have a lot of feedback from your audience. So you don’t know what they’re going to appreciate and enjoy.
And then after the game is completed, you get to watch and find out how people really play your game. And from my point of view, I said, “Well, what would it be like if the designer of the game went and became the audience for his own game and started to play it. And then tried to do a let’s play, which then became kind of a story about my relationship with making the game.” So it’s just a dumb opportunity to try to blend the user and the creator in a way that an open game does accidentally and trying to be a little more purposeful about it. I was just doing experimental crap, that’s all.
Francis: Yeah, my question first, Alex, is did you just try to light this church on fire there?
Wawro: Uh, look. Oblivion is part of our classic games series. It’s a little older. It’s been a while since I’ve played this game. It’s been a whole week in fact, and I kind of forgot which was the crouch key and which was the cast key. Turns out C is cast and Control is crouch. I won’t make that mistake again, I promise.
Francis: Yeah, I guess I’ll jump off with a question that Mitchell Sabbagh, who joins us very regularly in the chat wanted to ask for you, Ken, how do you feel your design philosophy evolved between working on Morrowind and working on Oblivion?
Rolston: Uh, I believe I did not have a design philosophy when I was doing Morrowind. By the way, you have now joined the Temple Climbing Club. This, by the way, for Morrowind, was the idea of open world means if you make your own fun then you decide on your own goals. And in Morrowind, we decided that one of the ways to play the game was to be the Temple Climbers Club. I’ve never seen anybody climb one of the religious buildings in Oblivion. So you accidentally joined a very important freeform gaming group.
Wawro: And now I have a new purpose in life.
Rolston: I’m sorry, I’m going to go back to your question, now.
Francis: No, that was important.
Rolston: How did my philosophy of development evolve? I think it did not exist at all before Morrowind, and then once I had a chance to see how people played with things in Morrowind, I began to try to have more explicit conversations between myself and the player in the non-quest dialogue. I didn’t work nearly so much on the detail level of Oblivion. They’re almost two completely different lead design concepts. In Morrowind, I essentially wrote the outline of all the quest lines. There were only three designers, so that was practical. And I made an awful lot of the content myself.
“I essentially wrote the outline of all the quest lines. There were only three designers, so that was practical. And I made an awful lot of the content myself. “
With Oblivion, I made hardly any of the content myself, just a few scraps in the main quest and a couple of different quests. So my design was changed from a highly centrally controlled, centrally authored content to something which had as many different voices as possible. All the different designers, I wanted them to take my rough outlines for the designs and then remove the content of the outlines and simply make sure they hit all the basic elements, but have completely different content. That result, for example Emil [Pagliarulo], did amazing work with the Dark Brotherhood, I could never have done anything like that. Emil’s skills are completely different, orthogonal to mine. And the thief system — the thief guild quests by Bruce Nesmith were completely different than any of the other quest structures. So the way it evolved in that sense was in the way the development evolved.
The more designers you have, the more opportunities you have to have a larger game with many different voices, many different styles. I think one of the great things about the Elder Scrolls games, as they’ve evolved, is that they have many more voices and therefore they suit the ears of the players better. By example, when I used to teach high school, I used to hope that at least once in your life you found a teacher who was your soulmate. That was kind of what I wanted you to do in the games. I hope you find one designer that did some content that really was your soulmate as a player that was able to have his own particular personality and express it in the gameplay and the design.
Wawro: Hm, I wonder, you gave us the hot tip before we started that it would be wise to sort of expand the boundaries of a new Oblivion playthrough by opening up everything, looking at the game and opening up the Oblivion gates as well. Is there an area you would suggest that well shows off what you’re talking about here? Maybe it shows your hand directly or the hand of a designer you admire?
Rolston: Uh, no, because the possibility of a lead designer knowing the content of any Elder Scrolls game is diminishingly small. Morrowind is the only one I can really talk about, but I don’t think I’d actually played more than 60% of the built content when we released the game. I had certainly played it in prototype or white box or things like that, but you just cannot play the whole content, it’s just too big to put the iterations into it. So the reason I suggested wandering to different places, just be a tourist.
Francis: Yeah, I was going to real quick, invite our viewers to give Alex — Alex you’re still playing that pilgrim from last week, right?
Wawro: Yeah, and I’m level two and I unlocked Oblivion Gates early, so if you don’t give me somewhere to go, we’re going to go to a quick death pretty soon.
Rolston: Oblivion! Yay!
“The very first Morrowind was essentially a novel, the main quest, plus three or four or five or six other novels which are the main guild things. And then millions of little short stories.”
Francis: Let’s see what pilgrimage our players want you to go on. So Ken, do you think that makes Elder Scrolls games kind of the equivalent of a short story collection?
Rolston: Let’s see, the role playing game, in general, is the novel of the computer game class. So in this sense, it’s more like a collection of multiple novels built with different perspectives and settings. It’s really hard to come up with a literary comparison for the way it works. But for example, the very first Morrowind, was essentially a novel, that is the main quest, plus three or four or five or six other novels which are the main guild things. And then millions of little short stories that were either formally organized by quests or simply you drop a magic item into the world and that is a quest on its own. Once you discover the existence of the different items and you find out about them on the boards, you say, “I really want to have that bow.” Then that’s your story.
Wawro: Yeah, absolutely.
Francis: Alex, [Twitch Viewer] is advising that you guide Salamantha to Shaden Hall, if I’m saying that area right.
Wawro: Yeah, sure.
Francis: So let’s begin our journey there and see what happens.
Wawro: Alright, well I’m going to see if I can get away from this charming chap.
Rolston: I’m not sure that you can teleport except when you don’t have enemies around you. So you have to have some kind of a solution there. See if it works.
Francis: I guess my next question for you Ken, while Alex is trying to survive here…We’re talking about fast travelling, right now and I know whenever anyone is making a big fantasy game like this, you want players to experience the world and experience some kind of simulation. But why did you all decide to implement a fast travel system that worked the way it did? And how do you feel it affected that relationship players have with the world?
“The player can always choose to walk, but the ability to fast travel lets you use the game in the way you want to use it.”
Rolston: I think I learned the most about that from Mark Nelson, who was really like a second in command at that point for Oblivion. He was also a designer on Morrowind. He hated the concept of fast travel and Todd Howard wanted to have fast travel. And I think I fought it in kind of a casual way, but Mark fought it in a principled and heartfelt way. And both Mark and I were dead wrong and Todd was right, that what it did is it served the needs of the user. The player can always choose to walk, if he wants to, but his ability to fast travel lets him use the game in the way he wants to use it. I think it was foolish of us to believe that our experience of Morrowind should be the determining way that the game should be read. And I’m really glad that Todd, in almost every case, whenever Todd and I disagreed, Todd was right and I was wrong.
Francis: I’m kind of curious how you and your fellow coworkers on this game handled disagreements like that. Creative stuff like that is kind of a weird place where you have to either have faith that you’re right or someone else is right. And when no one’s sure who’s right, you have to debate — hopefully debate and not argue about it. But how do you as a team come to a consensus on those kinds of things.
Rolston: I think there are many different roads to enlightenment in this department. And I characterize BethSoft in the most positive way as the “raised by wolves” school. All of us are very very independent and sure that we’re right. And we fight like cats and dogs, but I think conflict is very good in this particular sense that we all shared love for one another’s peculiar points of view.
And also we were so lucky, by the time we were working on Oblivion, is we knew we had done something that nobody else could do, and therefore we felt very good about it. But we none of us were really particularly sure we knew how we had done it or what kind of basic principles made it art. And we felt like they were always evolving, so that process of conflict was part of the fun of it.
And I’ll say particularly in the case of fast travel, Todd, and almost in all cases of the design things, Todd as the producer had the capacity to rule programmers to secretly or above board go ahead and stub in something as a prototype. And once you’ve got the prototype to use as an argument to beat your companions with, you’re almost certainly going to win. But at the same time, it’s so possible with the editor, for us, if we believe that what we’re doing is right, we could go and stub something in and prove the kind of experience to a certain extent using the editor.
“The Skyrim Engine is such a fabulous tool because it lets us all be designers individually in a brute force way, whether we’re specialists or not. “
I think the key thing that may be mysterious and not well understood by other role playing game developers, is that the tool that BethSoft used and evolved from Morrowind and through now the Fallout Gek and the Elder Scrolls development — I don’t know what it’s called nowadays — The Skyrim Engine. It is such a fabulous tool because it lets us all be designers individually in a brute force way, whether we’re specialists or not. Programmers, artists, can stub in things and we can make a cogent case that is experienceable in the alpha version of the game. Overnight! And then jam it down the throats of our learned disquisition and debate society.
Wawro: [laughs] Yeah, I wonder where that philosophy and where that toolkit came from. Because I remember when I was younger, I remember the first big thing I got into modding was Morrowind. And it was because of the approachability of the Elder Scrolls construction set. And that has given these games an enduring life post-launch thanks to all the vibrant mod scene that sort of spawns up around every single one of them. I don’t remember, did that really come into its own with Morrowind, do you recall?
Wawro: Do you remember, obviously, you might not have been involved in these conversations, but do you remember what the thinking was at the studio in making that kind of toolset available to the audience.
“The tools themselves are a language of development that makes it possible for everybody in the team to feel like they’re making something and that they understand how everything else is made.”
Rolston: I was there at that time, we had made a false start on Morrowind earlier and then we put it aside and we worked on Redguard and — I’m going to forget the name of other —
Rolston: Battlespire. We were working on those with the tabled the work on Morrowind. But we had made a list of ten features that we wanted to be able to celebrate as objectives in our development. And also to use all the way through advertising and public relations when we got to trying to sell the product. And one of those ten things was an editor that you could create content with. That was a consumer facing decision relatively early on, but also whether we were conscious of it or not, it was a necessary condition of making a game this large. We needed to have a tool that made it possible to make the game quickly and then iterate it. There are some great games, I’m going to — It’s probably an Ubisoft open world, modern world shooter. One of the first great shooters based on — Set in Africa, does that ring a bell?
Wawro: Far Cry 2.
Rolston: Far Cry 2, one of the great designs of all time, but it was primarily scripted. And that meant that it was very brittle and very hard to revise on the fly. So once you had content, you couldn’t learn from that content from playing it. Whereas with our editor, we were constantly able to evolve our idea of what was fun in play. Also being able to build a world that large meant that it needed to be easy to do it. And having a kind of user-faced design meant that those tools would work for just about anybody in the development team.
Wawro: Right. I, am having a hard time stealing anything because I forgot how hard it is to be a brigand and a malcontent in this game. I also wanted to ask, in the last couple of years, Bethesda has sort of broke big on the back of Oblivion it launched Skyrim and did quite well there and did quite well with the Fallout games. Some game developers have come out and sort of publicly championed the studio and said that, “It makes very iconic, unique games. Games that in many ways, only Bethesda can make.” And they attribute it to sort of a looking in from the outside, they say a key part of that is the studio’s unique culture. It’s rare that we get to talk to somebody who worked there for quite a long period of time and also had meaningful experience elsewhere. I know you worked in tabletop role playing games at west end, you worked on Kindoms of Amalur: Reckoning, you’ve worked, I think, on Hinterlands recently. So I kind of wanted to get your sense, as someone with a lot of experience at different studios and different environments, is there anything interesting or unique about the way Bethesda Game Studios makes games?
“Bethesda has a long institutional memory. The personalities in it have fought with one another and worked together for a long time.”
Rolston: I think the key part to making Bethesda is the longevity of the major players. It has a long institutional memory and the personalities in it have fought with one another and worked together for a long time. That’s probably the most important thing. But also the tools themselves are a language of development that makes it possible for everybody in the team to feel like they’re making something and that they understand how everything else is made. It might well be the only studio that has the ability to see all the way sausage are made in a sympathetic way. I think something like Ubisoft with its very very large teams who all do very specific tasks, that is a very high polished production model. That might be a Hollywood model for making great polish.
But I would also say that BethSoft is about not making polish. And I don’t mean that in any way negative. That there’s a level of jazz to what’s going on rather than a classical music coming from a script. If it isn’t clean, but it’s fun we can understand it. That comes partly from being able to make new stuff, but anybody can just go in and see how it’s done and say, “Oh, I understand that. Maybe we can do this instead.” And I think it creates a development environment where everybody feels they understand at a higher level of sharing what other people do and how what they do affects day-to-day development.
Wawro: Nice. I think we lost —
Rolston: And they have ownership! I should have said ownership. You can break things and fix things very quickly and then have somebody make them better. So when you own something that somebody can make a little bit better really quickly, you have that relationship with those people working with you.
Wawro: Yeah, I think we lost Bryant there for a sec. Bryant are you still —
Francis: I’m back, I was yanked out of the room by dark-suited men and had to fight my way back.
Rolston: He’s probably been impregnated. If there was an ovipositor involved, Bryant, you probably want to have that looked at.
Francis: They’re just suits, they probably wanted money! [Ed. note: Bryant was not impregnated]
Wawro: Bryant are there any hot suggestions from the chat on what we should do next? Because I tried to get into some thieving and it didn’t go so hot.
Francis: I’ll give a shoutout to the chat again to invite them to give suggestions for Alex for what kind of adventure he should put himself on. I don’t even know, what do you do in this city? I didn’t make it this far in my brief adventure into Oblivion last time, so I don’t even know what the central story of this city is myself.
Rolston: I think the important thing, for example, if Alex wants to have more fun is to stop doing the things that he’s struggling doing and just deciding he wants to do something else. For example, the lockpicking interface is probably not one of the finest moments of any immersive open world game. There were many mini games that were proposed for Oblivion. That was a period of time when minigames were really really cool. Like I can’t remember there was a pipes minigame in which you tried to figure something out by having water move from one place to another. That was a very hip —
Francis: BioShock had that one.
Rolston: Precisely, so that was the flavor of the month at that point. And you are fortunate not to have had a armor repairing minigame and for example the speech craft minigame in this thing is certainly not one of our finest moments and I bless Bruce Nesmith for making as not horrible — Oh, that’s a nice pose.
Wawro: That’s a good statue.
Rolston: That is very nice. Now what you’re doing, actually you should just try to attract people to how beautiful you are, Alex. Pose in different places, look fetching.
Wawro: I’m going to change into some snazzier duds, yeah.
Francis: Yeah, now the question is getting clothes. Actually, jumping on lock picking real quick, Nat Kidno would like to know is there a specific reason why lock picking pauses the game as opposed to Morrowind where it’s real time.
“The virtue of having been a paper and pencil role playing game designer meant that I spent a period of time creating worlds and publishing them within say six months. So that meant you had to, out of nothing, create a world, make it coherent, and publish it immediately.”
Rolston: There might be and guess what, I don’t remember. I believe that it is a more immersive simulation to have the real time passing, and I believe we could have felt that that was inviting the player to expect more from the experience than we had any intention to provide. Lock picking and for example another one of the great sad things is pickpocketing never has been the exciting immersive open world experience that it could be and that’s another great thing about BethSoft, we’re perfectly willing to give you a substandard quality of experience if it still gives you the choice and you can continue to have some fun with it.
Wawro: Yeah, I kind of want to dig into that little deeper because as I alluded to earlier you spent some time working on tabletop role playing games. Specifically I remember from my own youth a game called Paranoia. Oh!
Wawro: I’m in trouble, hang on. I’m just going to back away slowly. So as I extricate myself from this particular predicament, tell me a bit about, if you can, about how your experience writing and designing tabletop games influences the way you go about making video games.
Rolston: The virtue of having been a paper and pencil role playing game designer meant that I spent a period of time creating worlds and publishing them within say six months. So that meant you had to, out of nothing, create a world, make it coherent, and publish it immediately. And then throw it away and go into the next one. So that high level of expectation of iteration is one of the virtues of working with paper and pencil. And particularly for Morrowind — By the way, I celebrate you, Alex, for figuring out how to solve the problem. Running from it almost always is right approach.
Wawro: That’s how I solve all my problems.
Francis: Did you just totally steal a horse and bolt out —
Rolston: Absolutely, head for the horizon at this point and then you get to become a tourist. I may have lost my thread on that question. Bryant, do you remember any of what I was saying.
Francis: You were just starting to explain how Morrowind related to your tabletop experience where you were building worlds out of scratch and getting them to work in a few weeks.
Wawro: And iteration, I think was a key theme there.
Rolston: Well that was the first key and the second key is that I probably have not been worth my pay in any game development environment as much as I was in the beginning of Morrowind, because no one had ever built a game this big and then tried to do the three to six months of preproduction for it. Because I had done paper games I could do, I could create a bible out of nothing quickly that had little elements of connection between characters in towns.
And knowing to do that, that everybody should know that every town has N number of people in it and each of those people in that town belong to one faction or another. And, for example, a guy living in one house belonging to the thieves guild and a guy in another house belonging to the thieves guild meant that they were friends in some way. What it was is it created a large number of intersection nodes in the setting that you could build a coherent story out of. And I knew to do that, because you need to do that for tabletop games.
But I also knew how to produce it and then give people the opportunity reading my documentation to say, “Oh this character could fit into my story,” or, “This guy’s got a personality that will fit really nicely into the story I want to tell.” And all of that work it brute force spewing. It’s the kind of spewing that very few writers ever need to be able to do. So a paper and pencil guy does it normally and — I won’t say throws it away. He ships it and moves on to his next one. So that put me in a position to be really useful for Morrowind. And after that, having that as the model, most of the documentation and development of the other Elder Scrolls games was able to build on that inter-coherence.
Wawro: Nice. I’m going to extricate myself from this tomb now.
Francis: Ken, I have a question based on. Ken my question is — Oh, am I having rough times?
Wawro: Yeah, but why don’t we just try to get your question out and we’ll see how it goes.
Francis: Okay, Ken, I last time made some comments saying even though I’ve enjoyed my time in the world of Elder Scrolls. Everytime I pop open the game, which ever one it’s been, I’ve always felt this very arm’s reach between me and many of the motivating factors behind the world. The factions the quests, I’ll care about it if it relates to a character I can see in front of me or a location I can understand, but I always felt this distance behind the giant book of Morrowind lore or Elder Scrolls lore and what was in the game play. How did you sort of view all the work that had been done on the Elder Scrolls games at that point. All those story character relationships and how did it affect your approach to getting players to integrate with it.
Rolston: I think every player needs to have his own attitude about the way he involves himself in the game. The great thing about the Elder Scrolls games is they support both a naval gazing indifference to everything in the world, that is just running around and stealing things is a thoroughly satisfying story to tell — Oh, you had a bad day.
Rolston: And there is the degree to which the Elder Scrolls games now have a life online where people are interested in that setting in a very deep way. They’re immersed in the factions and the relationships of what they do, so my sense is, looking back at the Arena game and the Daggerfall game, they were important models that I could use. Just as an example, the creation of books in a game that you could read, they can be used in a lot of different ways, they can immerse you in the setting, they can simply give you flavor, or they can give you skills and therefore you don’t care about the contents of the books, you just want to collect every book. So the more junk you put into a game that nonetheless seems, at least at one moment or another during running around, to seem logically connected to another thing. Whether you actually give a shit about that or not is not what’s important. It’s the illusion that it all makes sense that makes it a more immersive game.
Wawro: Yeah something I — This is relatively unrelated, but I think Bryant and I were talking about it offline earlier this week. Some games do a really excellent job of giving the player just enough room to hang themselves narratively. Insofar as a game like Destiny from Bungie will give you lots of proper nouns. It will give you lots of like “The Traveler” “The Last City” “The Covenant” or “The Kabbal.” Those in a very meaningful way are sort of vague but evocative pieces of storytelling that give the player room to kind of fill in the gaps on their own. I think what’s interesting about these games is they do that in a very physical sense. There is just tons and tons of stuff in this game that you don’t have to see, and maybe isn’t fully explained, but gives the player fodder to sort of tell their own story. And that I think is a unique strength.
Francis: I’ll springboard off of Alex’s observation to ask, Ken, you mentioned earlier when you were writing that bible for Morrowind, you were starting to write about all the places where all these intersections would happen, right? And all these elements, “This character is of this faction or is of this mindset, so they would be in conflict with this thing.” Once a game like this starts getting big or even just medium sized. Even a medium-sized RPG would have trouble with this. How do you keep track and organize and focus making all those intersections happen? I guess that’s maybe more of a Morrowind question since you said you weren’t that in the thick of it on Oblivion. But how do you make those intersections manageable?
Rolston: I believe it’s a high tolerance for chaos and disorder that is first required. And then it means that as a development team, you’re playing each other’s games a lot and giving feedback on it. And I think on Oblivion, the degree to which the producers — We didn’t really have producers on Morrowind in the same way. The producers giving regular feedback, Todd’s feedback on these things. But I would say that the virtue of BethSoft is not in the level of control exerted over its content, but in the generosity of the content and its brute force willingness to work through the problems.
Wawro: Brute force is a very apt term to use.
Rolston: Absolutely, again, that’s BethSoft, brute force.
Wawro: Alright, here we go.
Francis: I’ll just throw out to the chat, if you have any questions for Ken, we’re in the second half of the hour, make sure you get it in before we go here.
Wawro: Yeah, I’ll try to get us to an Oblivion Gate so we can look at some more architecture.
Francis: Yeah, I’ll jump off of a discussion we were having earlier. You talked about minigames and there was a moment where minigames were popular. Why? What was it that made all the developers of the early 2000s, I guess, so gung-ho for minigames?
Rolston: It was the discovery that it was a possible tool for immersion. And when you play Fable and chop wood and you are able to do these little arcade-y type things in it, it makes you feel like you have perhaps walked into a room where there are toys that you would like to play with. Then over time players will vote with their feet what they really want and it turns out that some ideas have more longevity than others. And again, I think the great thing about BethSoft stuff is that there are so many things going on and so many attempts to extend the reach of the game from game-to-game the way Fallout 4 is trying to make crafting ever more part of the game experience. It will never be part of the game for me, but it will affect other people in an important way. I think most designers talk about verbs, the more verbs you have the more you feel that you have agency in the game and that’s the BethSoft thing, the reason I think that the minigames seemed attractive to us is they were just cool. And we often can easily be attracted to the cool thing that’s being done in the world and not know exactly what the future is going to — which things are really going to affect the user.
Wawro: Hey, guys I’ve got some good news. Look what I found in a horrible abandoned tomb. Some new threads! Eh? Eh?
Rolston: If you can dress up — That’s the only important thing really, is dressing up, I like to run around naked as a jaybird too,
Francis: In-game too, right?
Rolston: Oh, yeah, that’s just the best thing.
Francis: Twitch user CommittmentIssues would like to ask, how would you, Ken, like to see Elder Scrolls change in the future iterations?
“The way I would like to see future Elder Scrolls games is that they get more passionate, undisciplined, strong-minded people to create as much trouble for the producers as possible in terms of resources and focus. And just barely get it back together again for when they ship it.”
Rolston: Well that’s a mean question. Because I’m not a good person, when I was working on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, I really hoped that Elder Scrolls would not be as energetic in extending its horizons so that Reckoning could crush it like a crouton. That would be ideal for me. But unfortunately, Skyrim is just marvelously better than Oblivion. And in many ways my favorite version of Fallout is the New Vegas and all of that content and the way it’s put together entertains me.
So the way I would like to see future Elder Scrolls games is that they get more passionate, undisciplined, strong-minded people to run at the barriers at the four directions of compass and to create as much trouble for the producers as possible in terms of resources and focus. And just barely get it back together again for when they ship it. I want them to suffer like we suffered in Morrowind to create a revolutionary game. And I celebrate them every time they push themselves into a desperate corner to survive to just ship a game. That’s what I want them to do.
Wawro: Was there one particular memorable thorn during production on Oblivion or Morrowind that really stood out to you as something that you put a lot of time and effort into or that you really wanted to change that didn’t really come together the way you’d hoped?
Rolston: Oh, God. Partly, what I’ll do, is I’ll try to tell stories of myself about what kind of an idiot I was. I had, among the top ten things for Morrowind, that I thought our game was going to do I thought it was going to be an interactive novel, sort of like a hypertext novel. Because we had hyperlinks to all the elements in the journal. What happened was I had that idea and never tried to make it any better. And it was terrible, in fact, it was a negative feature of the game. So would I in the future want to try to find a way to make hypertext novels out of the journals in a Elder Scrolls game? No because I’m way too lazy. I think it could be cool, but I’d rather be dead than try to do that kind of work. Another example of things that we just never had —
Francis: Ken have you checked out Tyranny yet?
Wawro: There was a game released late last year by Obsidian called Tyranny.
Rolston: Oh, I did take a look at Tyranny. It did not draw me in in the way that the other games had drawn me in and I’m still not clear in my head why. I had loved PIllars of Eternity and I set aside Tyranny for reasons I cannot clearly define, but I think it’s narrative and design scope and ambition was achieved without achieving a sense of meaningful choice for me that pleased me. And I really just do not know how to define that. Was there something special about the journal in there?
Francis: Not the journal, but there was a hyperlink system in the dialogue that we talk a lot about with — I forget the name of the developer from Obsidian who joined us, but we talked about there were a few memorable ways they used hyperlinking and hovering text to make the act of talking to characters in a computer RPG stand out a little bit more, than it did in Pillars. I was just celebrating that little feature. I haven’t finished Tyranny yet, so I couldn’t argue with you about whether it achieves anything or not, but I just wanted to give a shout out to them for successfully building something with hypertext.
Wawro: I will see you gentlemen on the other side.
Francis: Oh, boy.
Rolston: That’s embarrassing, go find the interactive point there, it’s got to be there. You need to be able to see the highlighting of the location. Yeah you’re going.
Francis: Twitch user Baraka is asking a question I’m not sure I understand. How do you not “be killed” by a lot of features while developing a big game like Oblivion. I’m sure they cut a lot of features, but how do you — I guess when you get backed into that corner you talked about, how do you not just die of exhaustion.
Rolston: Well I’ll try to give the philosophy of it and if I can I’ll try to come up with an illustrating example. My design philosophy is to design 400% of the game then throw away 350% and take the 50% that I kept and try to generate 50% of that kind of material to make up the whole 100% lately. In other words, I want to test during development a very large percent of the ideas of the features and experiences that you want to have and I want to throw most of them away, except the ones that are really working and then I want to take the rest of the content and I want to focus it on those things that I know that work. Now, in terms of specific examples, thank god we didn’t decide to make more mini games in Oblivion. There were many people who wanted to do it. I believe they were meaningful and intelligent design intentions, but with a limited amount of time, you just don’t know whether that time is well-spent trying to polish those bits and trying to keep them in.
Wawro: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. I think scope is always a key factor when we talk to game developers. I don’t want to say always, but they often overscope and that’s certainly one of their biggest headaches.
Rolston: Here’s an example, there’s a term in Oblivion called being Kvatch’d. Kvatch is the city that was destroyed when the Oblivion gate attacked. And one of the things we discovered was that if we Kvatch’d a city, we didn’t have to build that content. Certainly wasn’t intended, but when you’re running out of the time to build all the things you suddenly want to Kvatch things. “Gee, I bet that was destroyed and all there are is parts left of it.” Finding opportunities when — Oh, that is not a good look with the thighs.
Wawro: You don’t think so? I’m really into it. This is the year for red, you know what I mean?
Rolston: Yeah, good taste is timeless. I kind of like the way the staff looks like your head when you — It’s really tasteful. This is really what the game is about. It is not about winning. It’s preening and showing your friends screenshots. Collecting them for yourself. It’s expressing yourself. Look at how my character looks, I’m a filmmaker. I’m just giving you the production shots from the real interior of my life.
Wawro: That’s so interesting. It’s like design at remove. Because as game developers, the team behind this is itself building opportunities for players to build their own games —
Wawro: In a sort of small but meaningful way. And I think as game development matures and gets ever more refined, we’re only going to see more and more well-executed examples of that. This is a strange and almost elemental way to go about in designing games. It draws me back to my time playing tabletop role playing games, you set up things for the player to make their own fun.
Rolston: And also, don’t forget the paper and pencil game revolution, Dungeons and Dragons created a genre of narrative which, in the fantasy setting, almost anything goes and there are tons of different literary materials you can steal from to make a fantasy setting. So the people who come to these experiences and make them up for themselves as they run through the locations are working with a much broader notion of agency and storytelling because they come from paper and pencil role playing games. So it fits the zeitgeist in a lot of ways. You notice it doesn’t work quite so well in science fiction storytelling. It doesn’t work as well in real world settings. It has to be in a trashy fantasy setting. So we’re just really lucky that we can tell stories where a player can live in his dream world and having worlds that have very little to do with reality, that comes from Gary Gygax and Dungeons and Dragons.
Wawro: Why do you suppose it is that fantasy games are so well suited to being effectively playgrounds for players’ imaginations.
Rolston: Because the archetypes are so vividly drawn and exaggerated and they give you examples of ways you might make your own archetype more vividly drawn. They also have a moral compass that allows you to play around. Like the original Gygaxian notion is you were either good or evil or chaotic or ordered. And those are very powerful ways to imagine yourself in conflict with other things. So there are a lot of — Let’s see, they’re probably Jungian tools to play around with storytelling and then you have so many different models of people, professionals, writing stories and telling them that way. So you have a lot of tools. Your culture gave you a lot of tools for fantasy to make up your own stories.
Wawro: I tell you what, I had forgotten just how much the world of Oblivion looks kind of like a heavy metal album cover. Pretty interesting.
Rolston: Not the whole world, just this one. Yeah, I happen to love the worlds of Oblivion, but I happen to think that from my point of view this is an opportunity missed. I would have loved it if we had had these worlds have intelligent people in them. For example the Dremora are models, just like role playing, all your player characters, we could have speech for them. They could have their own stories to tell. You could play a Dremora. And a different design of Oblivion would have been where you go to these places and you find their different factions here and sure they want to invade the Earth, but there are some guys you kind of like. They might be nice guys. Or at least they’re evil in a way you find compelling. I admit I didn’t play very much of the Sheogorath stuff because I retired immediately after making Oblivion so I was ready not to play games for a while.
Rolston: I would have loved if these were all worlds where different kind of people who were devils or lunatics were compelling people who had different stories and you say, “Well I’ll ally myself with this bunch.” Like it’s all gangsters or militia people or something.
Wawro: Yeah, that would be awesome. I’ve got to say, I’m having a blast, chatting with you. We are coming to the end of our hour, so I feel like I should let you go pretty soon. Before we do, there’s a question we like to ask all of our guests which is sort of broad, but please feel free to answer however you like. Is there any advice you would give to other game designers in a broad sense or a very specific sense?
Rolston: I unfortunately have a very broad sense, which would be inexhaustible in the time here. Mostly it’s take notes and think of yourself as a game designer as a person who is archiving every idea you ever had about a game. And then part of your job is to mine that archive for your own design purposes, but even more than that it’s when you talk to other designers you have a coherent language and syntax of design. For example I think it is the obligation of every role playing game designer to list his ten favorite quests and then why he likes them and I am shocked to find out how many people have no idea what their favorite quests are, and couldn’t tell you. They’re people who want to design role playing games, but they have not collected their bible of examples of what, when they were playing, were wonderful. So that’s sort of like I want every designer to become a user, learn what’s good about a game, and then try to make his designs good in that way. And to be able to communicate with other players and other designers about that.
“Assume that there is somebody on your team who is more obsessive and more completist than you are and therefore knows everything about games, so that you can steal ideas from them.”
Wawro: Yeah, that reminds me, real quick, there was a former colleague of yours who now works, or a couple years ago works on Elder Scrolls Online. And please forgive me, I have forgotten his name. I think it might be Alan? A few years back he submitted a short story to Gamasutra about some of the important lessons he learned about game design from working with you. Which I thought was a very kind thing to do. One thing he noted there, was that in his time working with you on Morrowind and Oblivion, he noted that you stayed very up on what other games were out. You played a lot of games and then you would come into work to talk about them and use them as sort of a common language to talk about design problems. And I thought that was really remarkable. I know it can be very difficult for game designers who spend twelve hour days working on their own game, to go home and play something new.
Rolston: It’s true. I think also, another way to look at it is if you can’t do that personally, make sure you know which guy on your development team or part of your fandom, is the guy who does that kind of game playing and can serve as an informant for you. So partly, be your own informant, but assume that there is somebody who is more obsessive and more completist than you are and therefore knows everything about games so that you can steal ideas from him.
Wawro: That sounds like great advice. Steal ideas from the best. Alright, I want to take us out here in a minute. Bryant, any last minute questions, thoughts? Concerns?
Francis: I throw away my last minute questions so that I can get Akidno in from the chat, “Bethesda games, have for the most part had a balance between player action and controlling a character in the world and ‘traditional roleplaying.’ The question asked is, ‘What do I want to do?’ versus, ‘What makes sense for my character to do?’ What are your thoughts, Ken, on that particular balance?”
Rolston: I think if you are constantly, ambivalent about what you should be doing, the design is perfect. I want you to constantly say, “I can’t do everything I want. I want to do what the game affords me to do.” So partly, it’s a matter of you keep playing the game until you learn what it will let you do. That’s a part of the exploration of the game. At the same time, insist, I want to do what I want to do. Do it as stupidly, in the same way that Alex decides, “I’d rather die here. This is going to be more fun.”
Wawro: I definitely decided that. That was definitely on purpose.
Rolston: Yes, right away.
Wawro: Alright, I’m going to go ahead and take us out here, Actually, Bryant, you are much better at talking about social media, you want to take us out?
Francis: Alright, thank you all for joining us for another wonderful hour on the Gamasutra Twitch channel. Thank you Ken for joining us today. Ken, if people wanted to read more of your thoughts or ask you questions about making games, where would you send them?
Rolston: To krolston at gmail dot com. And I have no idea, I never really thought about it very much. But I’m trying to pay it forward now that I’m retired, I feel obligated to help other people get into the same kind of miserable shit that I got into in order to become an internationally celebrated game designer.