I've taken great care to simulate in my transcription the marvelous experience of conversing with Ken, and I targeted my questions for him at practicalities of the development I've not often seen discussed (but, then, I'm not omniscient). I hope you find this gargantuan audience with Ken Rolston--who is kind beyond words to have granted me his time--as enlightening as I did. And so . . .
Me: What skills and tools do you feel any game designer should seek to master?
Ken: I will be very personal as opposed to abstractly helpful—in other words, I’ll pretend to be Ken Rolston and not a professor running a class, and I’ll say the most important thing you need as a designer is a mastery of a drawing program like CorelDraw. That enables you, if you have great game design sense, to be able to communicate in a graphic format with text, and to use space and visual representation—designer art, whatever it is, the lowest level of Platonic inquiry—then you will start working in a format that can be read by everyone.
The second thing might be Excel, because you can mockup almost every simulation game, and it has such powerful formulas and all that junk, so that tool is critical. Now, that’s Ken Rolston’s obsessiveness, understanding that that’s me filling in whatever gaps I know I have in my background.
Now, for a designer in general, the designer has to know everything and have a wide-ranging curiosity. It’s good if he loves games, but if he isn’t broader than that, then it’ll end in tears for the scope of whatever he does. I wish I could think of some classic example, like a pushpin that you could measure that by. He should read Foreign Affairs magazine, which is like the Reader’s Digest of foreign affairs, so that he can understand that narrative structures of politics and diplomacy. He should, like a hawk, listen to NPR and makes notes of everything he hears that stimulates him and has some structure that could be simulated by games.
The third tool—stepping back into the Ken Rolston obsessiveness: a system for note taking which enables him to document the things he hears and then backtrack to them. I’m currently using things like Evernote and OneNote and things like that. You need to have a high level of skill of keyword navigation, to put keywords into everything in your notes and be able to track them back that way.
So that would be a quick top-view.
Me: With regard to the notes, what is it that you’re taking notes of?
Ken: There is never a second that I’m not taking notes, and I have fallback systems that begin at paper and pen in my wallet. Whenever there is an idea worth stealing, it has to have a beacon that the designer can get back to. Again, if the designer’s great virtue is his wide-ranging curiosity and intellect, then he has to have a way to navigate in the same way that perhaps a Native Indian—he didn’t have maps, he had images that he could follow. His mindmap of a path along the Delaware River from one tribe to another would be his own visual keyword system. And what a game designer has to have is a keyword system that can find all the different kinds of concepts that they need, whether they’re game design concepts, production concepts, and so forth.
Me: So, your notes are strictly for you as a designer as opposed to being used to communicate information to a team?
Ken: Precisely. Now, that of course is that tragedy, that a designer probably needs to have—I’m going to call it literature skills or English composition skills. He probably had to go to college and understand all that stuff, and then, for example, if he hated outlining he will have to come beyond that and love outlining as a system for organizing those keywords. So, I would make that my fourth necessary tool: a liberal arts education or its “raised by wolves in the wilderness” equivalent, like being brought up on a raft—whatever you have to do educate yourself to educate yourself outside of the system to compose using outlines and present using PowerPoint. I might say that Word, PowerPoint, and whatever note-taking system is your core communication tool. But then I’ll go back into the Ken Rolston desperation thing: it’s also the ability to archive and discover images by keywords and to use them to illustrate. And that ties back in to CorelDraw, because you can draw a diagram that will express a concept at a glance. Stone Librande’s One-Page Design Documents are a great physical subset example of the ways that a game designer should learn how to communicate.
Me: In returning to a point you made earlier, in your experience, how common is it that designers are versed in media beyond the insular world of video games, such as literature, film, or music?
Ken: Luckily, because I know the great game designers like Brian Reynolds—we folk sing together and we socialize together, we’re connected at the hip in many ways—so I know that the good designers are better at all of these things than I am, and I begin to use them resources. In other words, I can use mammals as resources as easily as I use the web or things like that. For example, every one of the great game designers I know are constantly going on at tedious length about how Hannibal got through the Alps or the Civil War general who wrote the early books about the war—that level of detail when coming to making a role-playing game quest about something like how nobody knows where that lost sword was, and that this one general will be your informant, and he’s the kind of a mallet-headed, detail-oriented guy who would actually know where a given pass was: that’s the level of necessity for the incident to be embedded within the larger context of human knowledge because the greatest thing you can do as a narrative designer is to make a reference to something the user already knows so that he can use his instincts toward simulation to recreate the real world in this narrative world. That was a long sentence and I have no idea where it went.
Me: I think I got it.
Ken: I was totally bluffing.
Me: I will accept the bluff as an answer. I recently learned that you’re part of a folk band, and to your point about leveraging players’ ingrained foundations of historical knowledge and interests outside of gaming, when I’m designing or engaging in other creative pursuits, I often turn to inspirations like Bob Dylan’s songs. I think to myself, how can I design a game or a quest like a Bob Dylan song?
Ken: I try to do that a lot, and I will pull a quote from a song and realize that out of context of that song it may not make any sense. So, then I try to find those things that are as close to readable out of context as possible. And then, at least, I can bring the passion that I have for that thing.
Sometimes that quote will be something more like an anecdote beacon or anchor, or you’ll find something else to illustrate that. It’s important to gain the ability to draw from deeply felt cultural expression modes, for yourself as a designer, because you have to care about this stuff and if you don’t care passionately it’s not going to be awesome. As a poet, you want to have the smallest possible, most memorable object left in the mind of the other person. It’s all a crafting thing.
I do folk music, but now I also do choral music in its original language. I do Corsican and South African songs, and in going to South Africa I found out, for example, the idea of a concert makes no sense—you always participate as a village or a community. The idea of sitting down in an audience makes them confused, and they immediately stand up and dance. Knowing that that is a different way of thinking means that if I’m trying to do a fantasy game with a narrative that has a touch of the alien in it, I want to communicate that level of personal experience in whatever mode I can make familiar enough in the user by references to his past life, for example. That’s the cheap trick.
Me: With regard to games that are built on historical and cultural contexts in the manner you’re speaking of, are you familiar with the work of Yasumi Matsuno, the Japanese game developer?
Ken: Not even a little bit.
Me: He made games like Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics . . .
Ken: I know the names . . .
Me: . . . they’re strategy RPGs.
Ken: . . . I’ve certainly never played them.
Me: The plot of Tactics Ogre, for example, is incredibly political and intricate, and alludes to the events of the Yugoslav Wars, such as the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in the early 1990s.
Ken: I had no idea, and now I’m interested. Now it is your responsibility, Nathan, to send me a reference.
Me: I absolutely will.
Ken: That’s also the capacity of the game designer to follow up, to be able to make a list of beacons with which he will prove that he was listening to what was going on, and then is morally obligated to follow up.
Me: I will send you some information about Matsuno. I respect him as much in the Japanese RPG development community as I respect you in the Western community. He is a legend among Japanese developers.
Moving on, do you traditionally have a design process, and, if so, can it be articulated?
Ken: In the broadest sense, I’d define it as institutionalized revolution, and it’s something that tends to be revised every six months.
I’m currently in what I call the “Whiteboard Design Phase,” and this is new for me because the idea of an ephemeral design document that reveals itself is a little bit like those illustrations for innovation videos where they hand-scrawl ideas, and essentially what they’re doing is expanding by hand these images. Partly what’s exciting about that is that there’s two channels of information moving, and you’re trying to decode both at the same time, so there’s a heightened level of desperation—and therefore investment—so you’re always trying to solve some kind of a puzzle.
And that’s kind of what I’m working on now, the idea that as I change a Stone Librande one-page design graphic on the fly while I’m talking, I’m engaging the victim. In a pitch, the victim is the audience. The audience has many masks and many handles, and I will change their hats and masks and handles depending on what my rhetorical purpose is.
In the particular case now, it’s the ability to go from the smallest possible part of the whiteboard, with a basic idea like “Elder Scrolls with Co-Op in a Warhammer Setting,” and I’ll draw a tiny little diagram that I think that the user says, “That is the domain of the game.” I’ll put some labels in it, and then I’ll start making radial ideas that will wrap themselves around that central idea. And it’s that process that I hope traps the listener, because he recapitulates the discovery that I am trying to simulate on the whiteboard for him. In other words, I will have come to my epiphanies on the whiteboard, so I’m trying to build a model of how I became enlightened, then make a little theater piece out of it.
In general, for a design process—and this may be a design process thing because I developed it maybe 20 years ago and I still do it—I imagine the project has eight parts, and the first two parts are research, the next five parts are implementation, and the last part is revision.
I don’t think the proportions are all that important, but it’s the sense that I have three different rhythms for what I expect to do.
Research is exploding exponentially the design space or the thought space, making 400% of the content that I might need, and then the next 5/8ths is the process of composition. The scale of it is simply that it’s very long and detailed, and a less exultant, delighted thing—but that’s when I become a Puritan.
The first phase is the lunatic, sensitive-artist-running-naked-through-the-woods or covered-in-woad-and-axe-murdering-nature’s-innocent-woodland-creatures phase, and then there’s that period when I’m working like a good Puritan should work. That’s when I’m using all my crafts and tools, and you move from a creative phase where your lack of discipline is the most important thing. Then you move on to having confidence with your skills, and you’re like, “Oh, I got away with this last time, “ or, “Oh, I can pull this off.”
The last phase is when I stop being a designer. I’ve heard of something that Ubisoft has begun using, a person called “The Closer,” who’s someone who comes in for the last three months of a project, and his job is he’s only an advocate for the ship-date and the user. He does not fucking care for the life of the developers or the P&L or anything like that, he just focuses. That probably underlies the basic idea of editorializing getting this fucking thing done, like the way you get a term paper done for college. And, for me, in the last phase I’m also only interested in what the audience can hear, only what he can hear. I turn off all my ambitions of the earlier phases and the part of myself that might think, “Oh, look at what a master craftsman I am,” and I just try to be my user and say, “Oh, I don’t fucking understand that at all,” and, “Yeah, I was totally bluffing here.”
Those proportions are roughly right in my experience. So, that would be my design process, if it has a face or outline at all.
Me: Interestingly, that sounds like a microcosm of the six stages of the development of the Agile process.
Ken: I never took an Agile course, so I don’t really know about it. All of this is raised-by-wolves-in-the-wilderness. I made it all up. I’m the same way as a guitar player: I don’t read music. I had to make everything up. So, it’s a problem for using that craft’s tools to communicate, but on the other hand it is so perfectly designed for my impulses.
Me: So, let’s say you’re working on a two-and-a-half-year project. How would you overlay your process atop a development cycle of that length?
Ken: All of it in my head actually goes on before production starts.
In other words, let’s say there’s a project with a 30-month production cycle. Ken Rolston should begin in the six months before that 30 months, and he has to be done with his design before the product starts, really.
And that’s what I see an absolute absence of in game development—well, that’s not true, because BethSoft [Bethesda Game Studios] is really where I was able to do that, but often because the tech wasn’t ready, for instance, but I do believe that the game designer’s job is to run out as a scout before production begins and have everything in his head, ready: he’s built the product, he can go into his revision and shipping stage, and he’s ready to ship the document.
And then, then you become part of a team. During the time that you’re making this thing you can become part of the team, but you’re actually just drive them dangerously, drunkenly mad in the same way, and hoping that they have the system to come to a dead stop completion. But I really don’t care about that—art, engineering, they’re on their own. They have to be geniuses in their own way.
When you get to that point when everybody has to start doing a burn rate on the project, everyone has to be able to see in the documents “Oh, I can see where you’re going there, ok.” And then, since you the designer has already made 400%, you’re just throwing away 350% of the stuff you don’t really like or you can’t use. About mid-way through the project, you being adding the 50% back that you know that you’ll need. It’s just doing the things you do well, and doing them over and over and over and over and over again, and revising.
Me: I recently read a postmortem of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and it sounded to me as though that the game went from the concept phase directly to the production phase, and there was no pre-production, or the space in which you’d ideally be doing what you just described.
Ken: Precisely. It was because we were bought by 38 Studios. They had an IP and they needed us.
In that case, I was in the rare, great situation where there’s Ken Rolston and Mark Nelson—both of us had worked on Morrowind and we both totally trust each other. So not only were there the right people in the right place to make that pivot, but we also knew each other’s jokes narratively and production-wise, and we knew when we had a basic idea that we could use that template and go into production. A lot of the stuff that the tech people and the art people and the design-as-implementer people repurposed for that, but the basic narrative frame—we didn’t have a chance to do that ahead of time.
In some sense, we had a world already built, but it wasn’t the world that we were going to use. We just had to have supreme confidence—this is kind of taking a step out of what I was talking about earlier, my process in the abstract—but my process in the concrete is nothing excites me more than being able to not do the things that I need to do and still get away with it. And that’s because, if you’re a real fucking ninja, and you’re working with ninja people, you can cut corners.
I think in the end, though, Reckoning shows the injuries of that design, in a way that the thing that I was most excited about Reckoning was the combat. I had never seen good combat done before, and I had cared about that more than anything. I kind of took the narrative for granted. I said, “We have this scope now, we have the characters, we’ve go the themes, and this all could work,” but I didn’t work on making a paradigm example of what the experience should feel like, and I also didn’t spend time watching that. I was very confident and very comfortable with the quality of the work the other people were doing, so I just took my eye off the ball on narrative, exploration, and setting. I don’t think it was bad, but I don’t think it was ambitious in any way as Morrowind could have been.
Greg Stafford, one of my mentors in pencil-and-paper gaming, who is responsible for Glorantha, which is the greatest example of a fantasy setting that was built in the beginning to have gameplay mechanisms running it, and at the same time having the compelling sense of real-world myth and history. Greg Stafford says you shouldn’t try to do too much, and that was the thing that I can constantly say: “You shouldn’t try to do too much!” I think that we were trying to do too much in the time we had. But we should have tried harder. That was one of those cases where my complacency and self-assurance bit me in the ass. I knew that I had Mark there, and I think it bit us both in the ass. It’s evil to be self-assured.
Me: I would imagine it’s hard not to be on a project such as that, in which you’ve got you, Todd McFarlane, R.A. Salvatore, the celebrity of Curt Schilling . . .
Ken: Totally! In many ways, yes, we were seduced into thinking that because we had the great team in place that the product would come.
It is one of the crimes that if you’re managing a really experienced, really self-assured designer, what you need to manage him is to have that crap-detecting impulse. It’s sometimes hard, because the veteran may be a genius, but what you have to do is say, “Have you really done your homework?” and hope that it echoes deep inside that person’s guilt complex.
I was with Greg Costikyan and Eric Goldberg, when I was in the paper-game thing on a game called Ghostbusters, that Greg Stafford’s company, Chaosium, had been contracted to do, and we had produced a presentable product, but what Greg and Eric did was took me out and gave me a bagel and coffee and said, “Ken, you’re not doing your best work.”
And it never would have occurred to me. I’m just so self-assured, and that’s a very powerful tool, but I needed somebody I trusted to say, “We aren’t actually sure what you’re not doing right, but we know you’re not doing it right.”
So that’s a case where you need a manager, and partly in that case it was good because I trusted them as friends, but I think even when you don’t have that relationship, as a production manager you have to have, before the product starts, that this is my job, that sometimes I’ll not have any idea what you’re not doing right, but I’ll tell you that I feel in my stomach that something’s going wrong here.
Me: What kind of adjustments did you make in that case, where neither you nor you managers knew what you were doing wrong, but you all just knew?
Ken: In that case, I just stopped being complacent and began to be the editor, or the Puritan again, and I think that it’s really hard to say. In that particular case, luckily, it was a very simple product, and it was meant more for kids and family, and that’s one of the reasons as it wasn’t as good as it could be because we didn’t really have the right instincts for that, but what we really did was we just went back over it and stopped saying, “Oh, this is so clever,” and instead said, “Where’s the user in this?” and “Is there any place in here where I could have done something I never did before?” to increase my ambition. Normally, not a problem, managing my ambition, but I was coasting. I needed to be slapped around.
Me: As a lead designer, what manner of documentation did you feel most beneficial for absorption by your team, and what manner of communication did you find most frictionless? What makes a good lead designer?
Ken: That last questions is not associated with the question that precedes it because all the rest of it is about documents, and, as a lead designer, documents are only visible evidence of one part of his great skill at lead design.
The thing that’s interesting about Morrowind is it was my first real computer game project, and yet I knew that I wanted to bring a paper-gaming sensibility from the document-creation point of view.
Normally, with pencil-and-paper games, you are publishing a world and giving it to a gamemaster, and I saw there were clear parallels here. I wanted to create and publish a paper game internally that other people could make into a game, and because I had such high levels of mastery at that, having been a pencil-and-paper game designer for a long time, I knew I had secret ninja skills that they could use.
Also, it was just really useful because they didn’t have the tech ready, so I could spend a lot of time massaging the documents. And this is where, when I was talking about CorelDraw, the CorelDraw documents that I made that broke Morrowind into a grid pattern survived as a game design feature in the sense that they are used in the published hint book. We literally gave them those document maps with the keys as references. And these were things like three-year-old documents. The idea that you have a document that can live from the moment it was being made up before there was any hardware and then can be shipped to the user with modest enhancements—that meant that was the perfect tool for communication.
And artists and world-builders could see that and they not only knew what the world had to look like, they could look at the keys and know how the players’ experience would change over time as it expanded. Because we had designed it so they would begin on one extreme edge of the map and then go to other areas that were more dangerous, we were able to do something good with an open-world, in the sense that you were always running into worse things.
I literally understood how to do that from a Might and Magic 6: Mandate of Heaven website, that I think still exists, which used an interactive map of the world of Mandate of Heaven, and it had a very similar structure: you started in one place and as you radiated out or you come across a border, you come into a new difficulty level, and that was always exciting.
For a player it’s like, “Oh, I’m totally ruling everything! Oh, I crossed the border! Oh, Jesus God I gotta go back across the border I’m getting my ass kicked!” It was the sense that there were pulses of unfamiliarity and challenge, and you always felt like the game was opening a new door for you. Having that visual representative of what became, I think, instinctively understood by everyone in the company as the player’s narrative experience—having these underlying structures that everyone in the company got just by looking at the maps and by sharing the maps—I’m convinced that one of the things that’s great about Morrowind is its internal consistency in themes, and I think it has a lot to do with their being able to visualize movement through space over time as part of that narrative.
So it’s like a picaresque novel that they have a roadmap to. The Pilgrim’s Progress, the Bunyan book, in some of the version of it has this wonderful map--
Me: I’ve seen that!
Ken: They’re awesome! Again, that’s my sense, that if you can visualize the movement as a image that has destinations, and you get to a place that you can succeed and move on, it’s those different steps and the way that you conceptualize that trip—that’s what gives the whole thing that coherence that it’s very difficult I think to have in a level-based game.
There’s a continuity—a continuity of the experience, a continuity of narrative—those things overlap, and then the map allows you to plunge into the fractal thing. Like in the game you go to a town, and in the town there are people. In those documents, I think, because I had the time, it goes down into each character, and I gave them each three traits. In my mind, I imagined a village, and it would have people with these traits, and this is the guy that is that way.
When the designers came to them, they had a kind of a sense that it was a world already in progress, that people knew who they were, and, therefore, if they were living in a town with another person like that, if they spoke about him, they would know what that was about. Using that map, with its maps keys, and two Word documents—which were outlined Word documents, I want to say with that smug, leering, I’m-a-living-god-because-I-learned-how-to-teach-outlining tone. Word has an outlining function, and I composed everything in the outlining function, and encouraged people against their will—and often failed to encourage them successfully—to regard that outlining structure as a way to scan and get to the things that they wanted to do.
But also, once you have that framework, that logical framework that everything fits within certain classes, they can think that way and know how to navigate that system. I think you get kind of an outline system built into the world which is, from a simulation point of view, the way I go about breaking down the real world that I live in.
Me: What are the recurring qualities of the producers with whom you’ve had the most fruitful collaborations across your career?
Ken: Greatest producers: grumpy confidence that you’re fucking up. If you have a good understanding of human nature, you know that everybody in your company, no matter how good they are, are fucking up in some way. In a good way, it would be identifying the areas of brittleness for your product, but also it would be reminding that guy that he’s got feet of clay, and that he could be fucking up. That’s a powerful thing.
In many cases, there were many people who knew that I knew way more about my discipline than they did, but they kinda knew me and what I did, and learning to know how people work…
We have the greatest producer on Earth who I’m currently working with at Turbine, Corey Barnard, and he told me that he uses the Agile Scrums as a opportunity to audition people for leadership roles, because a person who can stand up and explain what he’s doing to an audience knowing that he’s prepared what he says in order for that audience to use it is really a long way down in the direction toward becoming a good leader. A producer that understands that—and that kind of wraps back into the earlier thing—it’s someone who knows how to use their people—a great lead designer knows how to use their people, knows their people, knows how to use the best and worst aspects of them to their greatest ability.
The stuff that goes on outside of my vision, like schedules and things like that, I want that done so that I don’t even know it exists until it appears in a just-in-time reminder. I think, morally speaking, I am obligated to have a higher knowledge of that, and I make the producer responsible for teaching me that, or making me do it. Because I don’t wanna. I don’t fucking wanna.
In an Agile thing, I’ve never really worked in that kind of a—like, Morrowind was raised-by-wolves, we all kinda hid in our cubicles and only came out when something was broken, and you had to fix what was broken, so it can work, obviously, but it’s not idea.
Now, I see that if you daily, at stand-ups, build that relationship of what the flow of information is, it’s really awesome. And the smaller the team, the less comical that is, and then you have a better blend across the crafts. When you start breaking down into small, different groups, they become disconnected from the rest of the production.
If I were learning today during the process of being interviewed, I would imagine that it would be a really important thing to get a producer to be able to let the lead designer participate in his awareness of where things were coming unglued in a large project, where there were risks of things. The lead designer probably needs to be used as an agent, or to train the producer to be the communication center and responsible tester of communications. The crap detector.
Me: According to Giant Bomb, your role on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was “Executive Design Director.”
Me: Can you describe your responsibilities in this role, and the hierarchies of this project. What was your reaction of working in the production sphere of development rather than the design sphere?
Ken: In fact, the Executive Director, that was a title created simply to look really good on a big PowerPoint screen. My job was to act genuinely as a visionary, a deeply troubling loose cannon.
Me: Was it essentially a Creative Director position?
Ken: Yes. But, again, there is no such thing as a “Creative Director.” The problem with those titles is that in the large productions that computer games have become now, people believe that they have some reality, and they are totally, you know, they’re created objects and people pour into them whatever they want to.
Design, production, art, and engineering still seem to me to be reasonable ways to start breaking people up, and “lead” and “senior” and stuff like that, that also works, too, but when you start talking about what a Creative Director really does or what a Director of Design really does, I have no fucking idea and I don’t think anybody—it would be a naïve person to believe that they had any real meaning.
The titles I make up for myself, and use with great glee—like “Visionary”—are intended to carry both their positive and negative aspects. Positive in the sense that he has to be scouting way out in front of the crowd, and have failed a lot and have hidden it from everybody else and have said, “Oh yeah, it’s going to be fine out here in the wilderness with no water and food. This is going to be fun! Let’s go.”
At the same time, a visionary is someone who it’s very hard to tell if he’s doing his job right. Systems of checks and balances, which usually come in having strong personalities who have a vested interest in crap-detecting, and have good relationships, develop good conflict--people who like to have conflicts, and merrily have conflicts, who believe that conflict is the important engine for creativity.
Me: On that project, on which you were the Visionary, who were you beholden to?
Ken: Essentially, [Mike] Fridley, who was a producer, who would come occasionally and look askance at me, and since he’s six-six and looks more like a Wookie than anything else—I would say that he has common sense that I don’t have, and I think that kind of comes from lying across lines of communication and profit and loss and stuff like that. But he has that moral high ground.
Essentially, no, I didn’t report to anybody. I could do anything I wanted. Which was awesome in many ways. Big Huge [Games] needed to go from being an RTS studio to a role-playing studio, and I was really useful in that sense because I knew what it looked like and could easily get them to the point that they could fake it until they could really make it. That’s what I’m really good at. I was a transition scout.
Many of them were resistant—art, in particular—resistant to the kind of wisdom that I had to offer. For example, I discovered a lot of them didn’t like Oblivion, and then I found out it was because Oblivion was designed in a way to betray its users. It has these character classes, and if you select one of those classes in the beginning of the game as an innocent, naïve player might do, you find out that—you don’t even know that they’re gimped, but they’re gimped! Whereas everybody who plays Elder Scrolls automatically knows that you have to build your character, so, in that sense, getting those artists to trust me, to understand that the game that I thought was awesome that I was being praised for making, I’d say, “Oh, that’s fucked up. That’s a terrible game. Don’t judge role-playing game by that. You want to make a game that’s better than that.” Enabling them to imaginatively get themselves out of their negative attitudes toward experiences in role-playing games, and also to realize that, yeah, we got complacent in Oblivion. Although it’s improved in many ways [from Morrowind], we got complacent. In many ways, we were only talking to people who knew what we wanted.
One of the great things about Reckoning is that it’s got a great beginning 45 minutes, and I think they totally got that right. I think they cared about it in a desperate way. They did not want to betray their users.
They also made it discoverable. That’s one of the things that Brian Reynolds taught me, it’s that whole idea of discoverable stuff, there always needs to be something that you’re not teaching the player but that he discovers it and feels smart. So my job was learning at the same time, learning what Big Huge’s culture was like, learning what my harmless, lunatic fringe, crank personality could do to get them excited.
Also, I gave them confidence that, “Oh yeah, you guys are doing it right! Oh yeah, oh yeah, you’ve obviously been paying attention! Oh yeah, you got the documents right here! Oh, oh yeah, you didn’t actually understand how to make a quest, you thought you could make a narrative novel out of it, nahnahnahnahnah, it has to be much smaller.”
Some designers never learned that, their ambitions always overdrove their capacity to implement quickly and cleanly. So that’s an area where we could have used a little more active work on Mark and my point of view to constantly say, “Just stop it! Don’t make it so complicated. Make it simple. Make it sing in its details and not in its narrative complexity.”
Me: What was your mental and physical reaction to being in the “sage” role versus doing a lot of hands-on, down-and-dirty design?
Ken: I’m conscious that now that I don’t do content anymore, that I am useless. You should never really trust me on anything, and you will have to trust whoever has been listening to me and who actually goes off and does the content.
I think that’s tragic, but that’s an artifact of having left BethSoft and now I’m ruined forever because they have good tools. We started this whole interview about tools, and it constantly shocks me that no other studio seems to understand how important tools are. It’s only because I’d been there and everybody I’d worked with there understands that if you can’t make a game easily and iterate it, and if you aren’t always focused on making your tools better—user-facing tools means that you’re going to have entry-level usable tools—they’re not horribly usable, but that’s one of the problems Big Huge had, for example: they tried to make them more pretty because they’re a really good interface group. They had kind of a long goal. I don’t even know if they had intended to release them to users, but they wanted them to be pretty in a Big Huge way, and that meant that instead of being one, single editor, they broke them into different parts so they could work on them separately. It was just—I never quite communicated to either tech or production that that was a doomed activity. Somewhere along the line you have to say, “Ok, you own the problem, you can do it; I’m smart, I know what’s right, but I’m not going to make the content.”
That’s—maybe tying it back into your larger question—when I have not made any of the content, I do not actually know what the game is about and I can’t really counsel you about what that game experience is going to be. I’m serious when I say I’m pretty useless. You can use me for the purposes of visionary, I can teach people how to pitch, teach people how to communicate, how to document, but I’m not sure I can help you make a game.
The game would have to be so exciting to me, it would have to be better than Morrowind, or I wouldn’t be willing to do honest work. I’ll be what I consider to be engagingly candid and honest in saying that I don’t like to work. I hate working. Any person I go to, I say, “The first condition you don’t understand is that I don’t like to work, I like to play.” And if you get me playing in a way that I am doing my best work, then you really are awesome, that’s really cool, but you’ve got to manipulate me in that way.
In terms of doing honest work, stuff that I hate to do, I don’t have to do that anymore. I’m far too important. And, therefore, I am a jackass. That’s where Mike Fridley would come and say, “Yeah, yeah, you’re far too important. Heh heh.” It would be nice to be involved in a project that I felt like I wanted to risk actually making content, but I’m too lazy and old and self-assured to do that anymore.
Me: In the general sense, on the projects that you’ve worked on, during which stage of development was it clear that a project would be felicitous or troubled? What are the telltale signs in each case?
Ken: Huh. I don’t think I’ve worked on a really troubled project since before Morrowind, and my notion of a troubled project is a project that should never have gotten started. A doomed project.
I had great experience in my first job, which was for Magnet Interactive, in which, within a space of about 18 months, I was a lead or a senior designer on about five projects, all of which were killed. The very first project I was taken off of because I was so—I communicated so clearly to my superiors that I thought it was a doomed project, that we were doing all the wrong things for the wrong people at the wrong time.
I had all of that experience that happened to me in the first 18 months, and then I began working with people like Bob Bates, who—he might make a poorly conceived project in a profit-and-loss sense, or in an audience sense, but he would never make a bad project. He just doesn’t have the game design idiocy not to make a great game. I’ve always worked for the right people. It would be hard now for me to—I’m far too important to begin on a project that isn’t going to be awesome.
I think to change that question around a little bit to make it more meaningful, when do you know when you have something brittle, and there’s a failure point? We had one of those at Big Huge Games, where I think the producer felt like the project was not making the kind of progress it needed to, and he jumped in and tried to use a design idea that he had that would make the whole game coherent and more visual and move faster, but because he wasn’t a designer it didn’t have internal logical coherence, and he couldn’t tell that.
In the same way that someone who reads novels can’t tell what work had to be done under the novel, like the novel is like an iceberg, the 5% is what you can see and the 95% is what you can’t, since he didn’t understand the 95%, it was hard to communicate to him what he didn’t understand and where things would begin to break down on a logic sense.
Me: How early was that imposition made?
Ken: That was, say, in pre-production. That is, we were making content, but we weren’t actually—we didn’t know how to make content in the way that we were going to make it at a certain rate—and that was fine. The trouble was, I had to decide whether to confront him or not. It’s very difficult because he’d put himself in front of the whole team and committed himself—he was passionate and a very smart guy.
How do you choose? Do you say, “He can only learn by failure and from his people?” Or can I convince him that this is a really, really bad idea? One of the hardest things in the world to do is convince a producer who’s any good that he’s doing the wrong thing because he has to, in the beginning, have to have a very strong personality. It was very difficult. It was probably the hardest thing I remember having done.
Me: Were there other individuals trying to make similar impositions, or was it just that one?
Ken: No. Just that one instance. In most cases, I was really happy with the way things were going. By the way, this was before we went to Kingdoms of Amalur. I think once we got to Kingdoms of Amalur, we had gone through a two-year process of being an RTS studio—we had been bought by THQ—we banged out all of the major production role problems and communication problems, and once we got to the point that we were working with 38 Studios, everybody understood what they were trying to do and we didn’t have any of those big problems.
I feel somehow this is a shallow and unproductive response because I’m sure that we actually had lots of problems, but I only mostly worried about things that would either have made the game broken or made us need to quit.