Internationally Celebrated Game Designer Ken Rolston designs Big Huge computer role-playing games. Currently Executive Design Director on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning™ for Big Huge Games and 38 Studios, Ken was formerly lead designer for the award-winning The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.
Full bio at BigHugeGames.com
“Like Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon, I had grown to love my familiar chains.”
— Ken Rolston
Learn more about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning™ at the official web site
Now I can righteously smite evil...
and have boatloads of fun doing it!
What a delicious discovery! I'm in a heroic tale? And I get to CHOOSE what I do next?
That was the thrill of my first role-playing game experience, long before I was a game designer. Long before computer games. Long before professionally published RPG game rules. Back when I played from typewritten, mimeographed, stapled amateur rules. When the Earth had just barely cooled.
At that point, I was just telling my gamemaster what I wanted to do next. And he took care of all the details. We had big dungeon maps on graph paper, but we never had figures or tactical maps or anything like that.
Those were more innocent times. Unlike those who came to role-playing from a wargaming and miniatures gaming past, it didn't occur to us to have tactical movement rules or a tabletop display. In later years, I came to love tabletop battles, with all their pageantry and glorious hand-painted miniatures.
What I did NOT love, not even a little bit, was the glacial pace of combat, and the endless squabbling and rules-lawyering involved with tactical movement, first in miniatures wargames, and later in paper-and-pencil role-playing tabletop battles.
Then, when computer RPGs appeared, I was so grateful to have the computer handle all the complex rules of initiative and movement, it never occurred to me how slow and limited my combat movement options were. It was SOOOO much better than tabletop rules.
And, as time passed, and we graduated from turn-based RPGs to real-time movement, and then to more immersive third-person and first-person movement, I was so grateful to be freed from the bonds of turn-based combat that it never occurred to me to ask for more.
Like Byron's Prisoner of Chillon, I had grown to love my familiar chains.
Because I am older than dirt, I never played console games. I owned personal computers from the earliest days, from the Apple ][ and its successors through the early Macs. But those were for WORK... not for games. I wrote my paper-and-pencil games with word processors and graphics programs on personal computers, but I never played games on them.
And later, when my moral fiber had frayed sufficiently to allow me to play computer games, I was perfectly happy with mouse and keyboard. It didn't occur to me to try console games. Because those were clearly for kids... not for adults like me.
It was only late in life, after I was working on The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, that I stooped to play my first console games. Because I HAD to. I was MAKING a console game, see, so I had to understand them. Unlike most of my colleagues then, I was completely ignorant of consoles and console controllers.
And even once I had learned to play console games, I strongly preferred the PC platform to consoles. Because... who would be stupid enough to play a shooter with a controller? That's just silly. Everyone knows a mouse and keyboard is better for shooters.
So, like most role-playing gamers, I came by my ignorance honestly. Because my expectations were shaped, first by the slow, awkward, limiting pace of tabletop role-playing, and later by the faster, but still relatively slow and awkward... and physically and tactically limiting interface of the mouse and keyboard... I was perfectly happy with computer and console role-playing games.
At the same time, however, I was studying the philosophical notions of what a great computer game might be, and from people like Chris Crawford, I was developing a notion that the ideal computer game would have you make the largest number of significant decisions per unit time. And for most decisions in role-playing games, you don't want to change your mind very often per unit time. Now and then you'll change weapons, and now and then you'll expend a rare resource like a scroll or potion, but most important decisions in a role-playing game happen over long periods of time... like what class you'll play, and how you'll develop your character, or what narrative choices you'll make.
The one exception I could think of was tactical movement. I always wanted to change where I was moving relative to my enemies and relative to the positive and negative possibilities of the current combat space. I was always trying to be in the rear or flank of my enemy... because those systemic advantages made so much intuitive sense to me. I always wanted to have my back to a wall or a companion. I always wanted to fire missiles and spells from high ground or behind obstacles that put multiple enemy attackers at a disadvantage. Again, those ideas made so much sense to me.
In turn-based computer games, I could make a lot of those decisions... but not in real time. And battles took a looong time to resolve, and, more importantly, they were in a not-at-all tactile, or visceral, or immersive, interface.
To the computer role-playing game audience, it may seem obvious that I should have been looking all along to action games for inspiration. But obvious as that seems, it overlooks the massive design and technical challenges involved in adapting action game systems, mechanics, conventions, and presentation to the complex and familiar world of heroic fantasy role-playing gaming.
I can't explain the design and technical challenges to you. They are beyond my comprehension. As a narrative designer, I have only modest skills as a system designer. And I am profoundly ignorant of the gameplay of action games, much less the systems, mechanics, conventions, and presentation of action role-playing games.
That is why it is a Good Thing that Big Huge Games has assembled such a stellar team of system, combat, and animation developers. And why it has been such a delight for me... the realization of a role-playing gamer's fantasy that I was too timid and conventional to have imagined... to play Reckoning's combat.
The first time I could play Reckoning's combat, even in its early, limited form, I could tell how amazing it was... how much better than I could imagine. I could dodge and roll and dash for handy corners, keep my enemy off-balance and moving to re-target me. And everything happened so fast. It took me a while to adjust. I've never enjoyed console action games, so it was a steep learning curve.
That first experience with an early build was the answer to all my role-playing tactical movement dreams. But it didn't even begin to scratch the surface of the other RPG combat delights that Reckoning had in store for me.
Because I am a child of the tabletop RPG and PC RPG generation, it would never have occurred to me to teleport through an enemy. That's just not an experience that translates well to a tabletop or turn-based game. And that we would poison an enemy each time we teleported through them? Or that we could zip back-and-forth through one enemy, or through a whole room full of enemies... that just never would have occurred to me.
And magical Frisbees? That's just silly. But that's just what our chakrams are. Chakrams are my favorite Reckoning weapons. In D&D, the most imaginative mage-based ranged physical weapon attack we could imagine was thrown darts, or slings. But now we throw these amazing magical things in super-complicated boomerang arches, slicing and dicing opponents, shocking, frying, and freezing them. It is not only extra effective as a weapon... it looks totally awesome.
It's been a long journey from my first tabletop RPG to Reckoning. Most of the time I've been so happy bashing evil things with a hammer that I forgot to look forward. And even when I felt like I wanted something better, it was hard to see what shape that “better” would take.
And even knowing what I wanted better wouldn't have been much help... except finally, with Reckoning, I was lucky enough to work with the Big Huge team of system designers, combat designers, and animators, who were kind enough to create something delightful and stick it in my hands.
Yes, many years ago that first role-playing game was certainly a thrill, but nothing to compare with the thrill of having the Reckoning controller in my hands with a working build for the first time. I'll never forget, even for a moment, what a charmed life I've led, simply to have my hard-working, tragically clever companions at Big Huge making my dreams come true. I can only hope that you get the same thrill when you have the Reckoning controller in your hands.