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Elder Scrolls legend, Ken Rolston speaks with us about his latest project at Big Huge Games and 38 Studios...
Ken Rolston has probably been making RPGs since before you were born, just not necessarily the ones with pixels in them. He cut his teeth building traditional, role-playing board games - the kind you play with pencil and paper - before moving into the games industry at Bethesda and working on the Elder Scrolls series for both its Morrowind and Oblivion instalments. As Lead Designer at Big Huge Games, Rolston now heads up development of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning under the 38 Studios label; a publisher that was built by classic American entrepreneur and sporting hero, Curt Schilling. Kingdoms of Amalur also has the esteemed fantasy novelist, R.A. Salvatore, and comic book/action figure luminary, Todd McFarlane amongst its creative team.
So, what's it like working for 38 Studios and former Major League Baseball pitcher, Curt Schilling?
Giant, scary baseball player. Big and huge; really annoying because he's so big.
Did he bring you on board personally?
Yeah. As a matter of fact, one of the great things in my life is that I've always worked for people I like. I know a lot of people have different experiences and so therefore I love it and, when he took me out to dinner the first time, one of the things that sold me was he said: 'You know what I really want to do? I was talking with my wife and I'm finished with my baseball career - I want to do something different. Give me some money so I can go and start something!' And I was imagining what his wife would say and he said, 'Yeah, what I'd really like to do is have a game company.'
I thought, 'what a bad idea - what a way to throw away money, you know?'
And he says, 'Yeah, so I can make some money.'
So I say, 'Okay, that makes more sense.'
And he replies, 'Because I want to buy a hospital.'
'Well that's refreshing,' I told him.
It's because he [Curt], R.A. Salvatore [Creative Director], and Todd McFarlane [Art Director] met doing charities and they're very different people, it was wonderful getting to know them, and Curt didn't have to go too far to get me on-board because I wanted to make a good role-playing game. I wanted to work with those guys but the fact that he was charming and morally appealing helped a lot, so I love working with him.
Yep, I'd be sold if somebody told me, 'I want to make some games, then a hospital'...
It's refreshing and it's not one I've heard. Also, he's very personable; the other guys are all very personable. When you get that many geniuses in a room, you might think that they'd be ego maniacs and it didn't turn out... well, we are ego maniacs, but we like working with each other; it's fun; it's a riffing experience.
How many guys do you have working there, roughly obviously, and how many teams? I know there's an MMO project as well as Kingdoms...
There are two projects, two teams, and we're in different places, using different assets and doing different stuff. Kingdoms will be out first, so I'm excited about that because I get to create the single-player experience and then I know the users are going to be able to go in and explore it in a different environment, time, and place doing all kinds of exciting things. I wished I could have done that. A lot of the guys at Big Huge Games were excited just by that idea: 'Holy cow, isn't it cool doing a single-player game and an MMO,' despite the fact, of course, that those are the two hardest things to do in the industry in terms of both marketing and producing them. It costs zillions of dollars and it's way too hard. Why bother?
So I understand, yeah. And that's the thing, isn't it, because one of the original concepts was this 'Copernicus' world and linking the two games together as far as I understand it. Is that still part of the long-term plan?
It is, yes. It's a single intellectual property. There will be different windows into the world, I think is the way to look at it, and in each of the games there will be many different ways to enter into different archetypes, different moments, different narratives to enter into it. But it's all got the same history; the same movement towards narratives, and the same hidden franchise secrets, which is what's exciting. It has to be conventional, familiar genre stuff and yet under the bottom of it you feel like these guys are sneaking something onto it; they're doing something weird against my expectations, and that's what great genre narrative is about: establishing a pattern; establishing those conventions that people are comfortable with but they always feel there's something fresh and maybe surprising.
And it's a high-fantasy theme...
Yes, high-fantasy. Epic, heroic, high-fantasy. And those are just buzz words but essentially it communicates to our audience. They know what they like. When they go into a book store, they know what part of the book store to go to to get their stuff, they know how to find films like that, so we know them and we want to be their friends because, in fact, I'm a geek like them. The fact that I'm any good at these things is because I'm a geek like they are.
Your path into development seems kind of unconventional for the games industry - going from board games to video games...
Well, it's not as unconventional as it seems. A lot of my friends are working for Zenimax [Bethesda] and stuff like that, and one of the sad things is that I believe after my generation is gone... we started making games back in the paper and pencil days, so we built worlds and then threw them away. In publishing, you take six months to create, publish, and then put it in the store, so we're good at doing this stuff fast; a blank sheet of paper doesn't frighten us, so we probably have a glib facility with game design, world design and that sort of stuff. By the way, R.A. Salvatore comes out of that background too because he worked with TSR [a former RPG board game maker]. So, once that generation is gone, I don't think there will be another generation that just takes it for granted that it's perfectly okay to take a couple of days to build a world and, by the end of a week or two, you have a pitch that isn't stupid.