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Three design lessons from working with RPG legend Ken Rolston Exclusive
Three design lessons from working with RPG legend Ken Rolston
February 25, 2014 | By Alex Horn

February 25, 2014 | By Alex Horn
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design, Exclusive

Before working as a script producer on The Elder Scrolls Online, developer Alex Horn worked with Ken Rolston of Morrowind and Oblivion fame. Here's what Horn learned.

Before the much publicized closure of 38 Studios/Big Huge Games I had the fortune of sharing an office with the inimitable Ken Rolston (pictured below). You might know Mr. Rolston from the Elder Scrolls titles Morrowind and Oblivion, or from his contributions to the tabletop RPG Paranoia and the board game Tales of the Arabian Nights. Some only recently learned of Mr. Rolston from Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning; others know of him from his old-school, pen-and-paper contributions. Whether or not you're familiar with his games, you've most likely played something influenced by him.

And what are the hallmarks of his legacy? The type of fun he wants to elicit in a video game can just as easily be found in Paranoia or Tales of the Arabian Nights. His creativity seems to spark from that same kernel of imagination that is so integral to what makes table-top RPGs viable. It's a smile or a sense of accomplishment, but more importantly it's your smile or your sense of accomplishment. It's emergent narrative in the truest sense, and he instills it in everything he touches.

And how does he bring about his particular brand of emergent narrative, you might ask? I will hereby endeavor to translate as best I can the incoherent ramblings of genius.
Disclaimer: The following design principles are not meant to be representative of Mr. Rolston's design philosophy in toto. They are simply three digestible points made by Ken frequently enough to leave a lasting impression. These three principles are Ken's Four Pillars of Open World RPGs, the Rolston Switch, and the Importance of Competitive Research.

The Four Pillars

I first heard the definition of the Four Pillars from Ken. As he explained it, they are Exploration, Combat, Advancement, and Narrative. While this is not revolutionary by itself, Ken's interpretation of how these pillars work for an open-world RPG, specifically, was eye-opening.

Exploration and Advancement were defined as "the candy," and probably closest to French game theorist Caillois' concept of Alea (with a bit of mimicry as well). Randomly generated loot, beautiful vistas or hidden caves, all of this was the carrot dangling before the player, motivating them to continue.

Combat was of specific importance to Ken on Reckoning. This was the "signal-to-noise" or input-output ratio; i.e. the better the combat, the more gratifying the moment-to-moment game-play, and therefore experience for the player. Because Ken was not happy with the combat of his previous games, he focused a lot of critical attention to this pillar.

Narrative was surprisingly the most contentious. Let me preface the argument by saying that Ken is a man of words. Not only will he happily engage in any and all conversation (he frequently does), but he is also as learned a scholar as you will find in our industry, a former English teacher, and a patron of theatre.

All of that is to say, Ken hates dialogue, all dialogue, all of the time; the less the dialogue, the better. If he could, he would do away with dialogue completely.

Taken with a grain of salt, the rationale is solid: when enjoying an open-world RPG, the signal-to-noise ratio of player activity is normally very good. The player is out Exploring, Combating, or Advancing, thoroughly engaged in (ideally) attention-arresting gameplay. What they are doing is matched by what they are experiencing. And then the dialogue screen appears, hijacking the entire experience and transforming it into something much less fun than "dropping comets on people."

Although I was at first skeptical, I knew there was a method to Ken's madness. Most dialogue and cutscenes in games are movies stuffed between bouts of gameplay, and the more adrenaline pumping and heart-racing the gameplay is, the more noticeable the difference becomes.

Ken was excited about the prospect of fixing this problem. While the solutions thrown around are beyond the scope of this article, what we can take from this lesson is that Narrative should not be confused with dialogue. There are other, better ways to support the Narrative pillar, such as...

The Rolston Switch

If you've played Ken's games, you're familiar with what I'm calling the good, old Rolston Switch. I'm sure Ken wasn't the first person to think of it, but he's one of the best at it. "It" is the element of surprise as a game design principle, or as he liked to say, "the joke."

The player should often ask "what happens when I do this?" with genuine uncertainty.

Quests should throw curveballs, rewards should not be quite what they seem, and the player should often ask "what happens when I do this?" with genuine uncertainty. It's part sadistic prank, part creative accident. The process is simple, set up player expectations and then shatter them. What is interesting about the idea isn't the idea itself but the results of its implementation.

The first is fun. As my brilliant wife Dr. Joan Jasak recently reminded me, a player does not interact with a game, a player interacts with a designer via a game. If this is true, then clearly the Rolston Switch is a fun experience for the player, i.e. your eccentric Uncle Ken is playing a practical joke on you. It is also an emergent experience for the player. This is real dialogue. It creates and strengthens the bond between player and designer.

The second is that it creates possibility space for emergent narrative. Now, some readers might feel that the opposite is true, that surprises in games are more likely to take the player out of the experience. But even though Ken was never afraid to lean on the fourth wall, the Rolston Switch is not the M Knight Shyamalan Switch; it's not a simple reversal. It is closer to what Keats says about poetry, it "should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity, it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance." In this regard, the "joke" isn't so much "ha-ha" funny, as it is funny "hmm."

When you combine those two processes, (a player-designer bond and an unexpected experience that the player feels is theirs) emergent narrative is more easily achieved.

The Importance of Competitive Research

Nowadays, I find myself in a common game developer plight: too many games and not enough time to play them. Many of us know that it's important to research new trends in games, as well as have a healthy understanding of the history of game design. It's easy to forget, however, that that means we have to actually sit down and play games. Ken spent a large part of his time playing games and dissecting them. You'd imagine someone who has as much experience as Ken wouldn't necessarily need to endlessly comb through titles, but there were several benefits to his research.

Being well-versed in as many genres and titles as possible is part of our craft.

Games served as inspiration for Ken. Whether he was gleefully singing a game mechanic's praises, or outlining a game's tragic flaws, it almost always led to something constructive. Sometimes it was immediately applicable to our project and other times it had a roundabout relevance, but Ken always gained something from his play time.

Another invaluable takeaway was secondary to the game playing. Ken constantly challenged us to create something new, and in order to know a novel idea when he saw one, he had to have a grasp of what came before. This could sometimes manifest as the cranky old grandfather claiming there is "nothing new under the sun," but it forced innovation.

This shouldn't be a shock to experienced devs, but it is an important reminder. Being well-versed in as many genres and titles as possible is part of our craft. If, for example, you never play social games because you don't make social games, you are probably missing something significant to add to your repertoire of game design tools.

So, those are three of the more salient game design lessons I learned from Mr. Rolston. I hope you can take some of these pearls of wisdom and apply them to your craft, as it's sure to make any game that much better.

Bio: Alexander Horn is a writer and game designer with over six years of experience producing content in the interactive entertainment and games industry. He specializes in writing and editing dialogue as well as designing and implementing narrative systems. Currently, he is responsible for all things VO as the Script Producer for The Elder Scrolls Online.

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Marck Ernest Thornton
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Hey Alexander, as a huge Rolston fan and fellow narrative junkie, I enjoyed your article. One question related to your article, wouldn't it make sense to use dialogue in order to build expectations (to later be shattered) in the grand scale?

Another question, any tips for reviewing other games? I find myself constantly trying to find time to study other games and maybe missing something in the long-run.

Josh Waters
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Not the author (obviously), but I might have an answer for the second question (though I suppose I'm stealing it from James Portnow).

I remember an episode of Extra Credits (something along the lines "Playing Games like a Designer" I think) that talked about how you only need to play the first hour of a game to have a pretty solid idea of what their doing. Very rarely does a game drastically change its mechanics or presentation beyond that. Therefore, instead of slogging through a 60-hour RPG, you could play 60 different games for one hour each.

Alexander Horn
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Thanks Marck, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

I believe Ken was mostly tongue-in-cheek regarding the dialogue, although you never know with that man. I seem to remember him referring to it as a necessary evil, and there's definitely precedence for your suggestion about setting up expectations. So I think you're probably right about that.

As for reviewing other games, it's definitely something I struggle with. And I believe the comment above about playing only enough to get a feel for a game is good advice. Personally, I miss out on a lot of TV and film in lieu of video games.

Jimmy Andrews
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"If you've played Ken's games, you're familiar with what I'm calling the good, old Rolston Switch"

Nope. Specific examples would be nice!

Alexander Horn
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Good catch Jimmy. A more specific example would be vampirism in Oblivion. As a friend of mine lamented, "I had played hours and hours of Oblivion, and then I became a vampire and I couldn't travel during the day, and people wouldn't talk to me and guards would attack me, and the only way I could cure it was a difficult quest, so I couldn't go any further."

When I told Ken about this, he shrugged his shoulders and snickered something along the lines of "well, we warned him..." by which I imagine he was referring to all of the books and notes that foreshadowed vampirism. So, yeah, Ken can be an evil mastermind.

Dave Hoskins
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Surely it's just basic irony and satire, something that's used to great effect for years in all media.

Greg Costikyan
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Paranoia is a tabletop roleplaying game, not a boardgame. Also, while Ken has a design credit on Tales of the Arabian Nights, I'll point out that the lead designer was Eric Goldberg.

Alexander Horn
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Thanks Greg! I definitely don't want to take away from anyone's work. I should mention that much of Ken's work was in a collaborative environment.

As for Tales of the Arabian Nights, my understanding is that Ken wrote a lot of the "oh you're going to appease the poor beggar? Well, he just transformed into a djinn and now you're cursed" type of stories (another great example of the Rolston Switch). And if he didn't, he definitely cackled madly at the idea of them.

Elise Trinh
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Nice post! I really like the fact that one of the ways to support the Narrative pillar in games is a... game design principle!

Kenneth Rolston
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Alex exhibited 'learning readiness' -- a key feature of promising mentees. [Thanks, Alex. You do me too much honor.]

In order to preserve self-respect, a mentee must maintain an ironic posture. ["Uh, oh. Ken's in creepy mentor mode. Flee for your life!"] And a mentee must simply exhibit an avid enthusiasm for stealing useful ideas, filing off the serial numbers, and proudly presenting them later as an ornament to his own design mastery. Well done, Alex.

An addition to the injunction to excel at competitive research: do it so you can have shared language and examples when attempting to explain original or exotic design ideas. Abstract presentations of even the greatest game design ideas may cause glazing of eyes, while a shared illustrating example selected from your archived research notes and web links gives speaker and listeners something concrete to swiftly compare notes on, discuss, and evolve.

I also note that Greg Costikyan was a master at observing a design example, and immediately incorporating it into his own levels of mastery. With Paranoia, he was almost immediately better at doing what knew how to do than I was. Native intelligence, alertness, and energetic application enables a great designer to become even greater... just by watching a cheap trick executed with sufficient dramatic flourish.

Ben Sly
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As someone who values dialogue in games quite highly, I still would agree with him that dialogue should not replace action - assuming that Morrowind and Oblivion are the types of games we're talking about. They put few choices within dialogue and none of them hold significant consequences; ergo, they cannot be significant gameplay systems.

The issue here is not that dialogue is bad, it's that very few games put enough effort in the dialogue to make it good; exploring would be utterly boring too if the only thing that you could explore was a series of linear hallways. That's not to say that there aren't good reasons to not put that effort into dialogue - once you throw in voice acting, lip syncing, motion capture, facial expression and all the other touches that are expected for realistic dialogue in today's age, generating (let alone iterating on) content becomes very expensive. The problem is that making dialogue into a good gameplay system is too expensive with today's assumptions, not that dialogue as a whole is bad.

Even the Mass Effect series, a series with dialogue-based consequences as a major focus, carefully fudges most decisions to be inconsequential to keep the dialogue changes to a minimum and the combat gameplay untouched. Back in the days when it was acceptable for prominent games to skimp on the animations and voiceovers, it was much less expensive to make dialogue for every possible situation and it could be a much deeper system; it might take a return to those heavily text-based days before we will start to see dialogue turn into a good gameplay system.

Saurian Dash
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I had the pleasure of having lunch with Mr Rolston at Big Huge Games towards the end of the development of KoA: Reckoning, he's an absolute legend!