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AusGamers Ken Rolston Video Interview and Transcript
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 04:31pm 31/08/11 | Comments
At this year's GamesCom, AusGamers had a chance to catch up with RPG development legend, Ken Rolston, to discuss the current state of RPGs, where he thinks they fail and to also touch on his newest project, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning...

Watch the full video interview embedded above, or click here to catch it in HD.

AusGamers: Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome back to AusGamers, you are here with Stephen Farrelly. I am here with what many would consider a living legend and I have heard him call himself a living god. This is Mr. Ken Rolston.

Ken, I want to have a conversation with you today about RPGs. I know you have a game coming out and I know your game is very important, but let’s talk about RPGs on the whole, in general. Where do you see them going?

Ken Rolston: Where would I like them to go or where do I see them running out of control?

AusGamers: Let’s start with where they’re running out of control, then where you’d like to see them go.

Ken: Where they’re running out of control -- in a good way -- I think is they’re triple-A products in broad-profusion. I think people are finally... small subsets have figured out how to make... to produce an almost impossible product. That is, a giant of an open-world or really complicated, multiple-branching narrative. So that we’re getting a lot of really good content.

I must admit that I’m not always necessarily excited by all of it. On the other hand, there is entertainment available in abundance every quarter for every human being. So I think the market is being fabulously well-served. I also think that below the triple-A level there are a lot of interesting games that aren’t so polished; that won’t make assloads of money; but are eminently stealable from, many delicious things.

Then we also have all the wonderful history that we can go back and play. Because of a lot of games that we didn’t... that on the point of their technology were no longer accessible. Now Good Old Games makes that available for you to go back and play all the great games. So I think it’s probably one of those brave new worlds; one of the happy, the heavenly times; the golden age of RPGs as you were saying.

Now, talking about the future, I’m really not all that ambitious for the future and I’ll add a caveat in that later, because what I really care about -- in terms of technology -- I want better tools and I want better processes. Because what I want to be able to do is to make better games; more complicated games; in the time allotted, but I want to make them as polished. So I’m more interested in production and things like that to really excite me.

I just want to be able to make closure... like in writing, it’s easy to revise and I think all great art is revision. It turns out it’s really, really hard to revise RPGs -- once you’ve got them to some kind of a working stage.

AusGamers: So in terms of... I guess for you, the process of creating a project -- starting a project, sorry -- how does that work? Are you thinking about revision the entire time, before you even bring it to the table?

Ken: Ah interesting. Let’s look at it from a different perspective: I actually think the best part of RPGs -- which most people will never see -- is the creation period. In other words... ahh, let’s see. There’s a concept of a theme in drama called a “closet drama”. That is, it’s a drama that you write, that you know you couldn’t possibly produce. And those are the great RPGs -- the ones that no one ever sees; that’s where the great premise is built and then you come up with a Powerpoint and you present it; and you have all the background of it -- that’s the part I love to do.

I have many, many premises for role playing games that I think would be absolutely wonderful. But on the other hand, I say to myself “we shouldn’t make them, because we don’t have enough of a market to stand six Triple-A role-playing games to be sold in a given quarter”. So I think there’s a natural sense of... what do you call it? Natural selection. The only game that get made are the ones that can be made and that will satisfy their audience.

AusGamers: But surely you must admit that right now seems to be almost... I don’t want to use the word “renaissance” because renaissance would indicate that we’re at some peak.

Ken Dark Age, coming back from the Dark Age too.

AusGamers: Yeah, but RPGs are big business now. And back in the day, they were almost closet in themselves. You had your kind of core audience and now they’ve reached this mainstream saturation point. Surely people can take that kind of risk factor, like “let’s just put this out there and see what happens”.

Ken: Ah no, because what the audience wants is a polished product, and it turns out that if you wanted to make an experimental role-playing game, you could not make a modern looking one or a modern feeling one. For example: let’s talk in the abstract about the worst thing that ever happened to role-playing games is recorded audio for dialogue. I happen to believe that was the death of my joy. Because that limits... that causes production things... the content has to be nailed down at a certain point.

So [voiced] text is not easily revisable. As I play, text is easily revisable; audio isn’t. As I play, I want to make tiny little changes to the tone, to the feel of things, but you can’t do that when you have all this audio -- oh my god, all the audio that we have to record! So what I’m going to say is: for what the audience wants, we are forced to create these things that are very brittle, that cannot be revised.

Whereas in the happy old days of Baldurs Gate and things like that, I thought you had the best of both worlds. You could have a little snippet of dialogue that would give character, but then you would get in text trees which you could easily scan and click through. For page, that’s the important thing; dialogue pace. In a good old-fashioned role-playing game, the user controls the pace, where unfortunately in both video and recorded audio, you can’t scan it and you can’t backtrack in it.

AusGamers: So is that just a case of... I mean, that comes back to the idea of triple-A then, because if you have enough money and you have enough polish, you can kind of cover the bases and have multiple lines of dialogue to cover all of the inputs and all of the decisions that people want to make right?

Ken: Gosh, what a refreshing and naive impression that is that you have. I bet you’ve never made a role-playing game.

AusGamers: I have never made a role-playing game, but I’d like make a role-playing game.

Ken: But what I’m saying is, you’re absolutely right in that the stuff we spend all the money on to make all that polished and brittle. But that is such a tiny subset of the possibility space that exists. We could have, for example, 500,000 recorded lines say in Reckoning. In the game that I want, I want to have millions of possible lines. I mean, just as many people that can type lines; as many branches as possible -- cause myself as much danger on changes in states and tracking branching as I want. That would be fabulous, but I can’t afford to do that in a triple-A game.

AusGamers: So does that mean that the future of RPGs -- and I’m talking like maybe 10 years down the track -- is these ever-branching worlds; these definitively dynamic worlds that are systemic and just have massive cause and effect?

Ken: I’m absolutely certain that won’t happen, because of these brittle production features. And it’s the same thing as film. You learn to accept the conventions and the limitations -- and I’ll give you though, what I’ll say is a caveat on that. Imagine that we had truly dramatic and satisfying voice synthesis out of text.

I’ve always thought that one of the great games I would love to make -- a role-playing game -- is Paranoia, which is one of my old paper and pencil games, in which every character is a robot and therefor the fact that their voices are synthesised is a feature of character -- and I would even create like stuttering as a part of it. But the real thing from a game designer point of view is: I would always be typing the next, and then the voices are created on the fly during the presentation of the game. That’s like heaven to me.

And by the way, that might not be impossible. I mean, there are ideas that -- science fiction books sometimes write about -- 10-20 years from now, that you’ll be able to take dead actors and simulate them in the movies and do that. That’s still an awful lot of work now, but you might be able to automate some of that -- create persistent avatars of old characters. But you know, I can’t see the future of gaming in that same sense.

AusGamers: So for you as a creator, living in this time of despair if you will: in that, we’re just not going to reach that point that you would like to make. For you as a creator, how do you approach projects then? Are you just “ahh, I don’t want to do this anymore”?

Ken: Ok, there are a couple of perspectives on that. When you say despair, yes I despair artistically, but I’m not an artist -- I love entertainment. Entertainment is not necessarily art. Moby Dick: I liked it, but it was too much fucking work, I’m not going to go read that again.

And the other thing is, I love making games that never get made. It’s that idea of the closet drama. For me, that’s very satisfying. Maybe there’s a market for -- a very tiny, internal artistic market -- for just reading closet designs for role-playing games. But I’m not unhappy, not in any way. I love working in the possibility space that I’m given and given the possibility space of triple-A games: it’s delightful to make a game that’s great, or doesn’t suck. I mean, suck but no off -- that is a great achievement.

AusGamers Ok. Let’s switch gears. Let’s go from creator to player. One of the things that I feel is lacking in many RPGs today -- and I guess many... because so many games cross that border and transcend a little bit -- is kind of this voiceless, hapless vessel that people become in games and I don’t ever feel like I’m making any impact on the world.

Now, a really good example is Mass Effect, which is a massively directed piece of work. But I really felt connected to the characters in that, and you can chase a relationship; you can kind of build this attachment to everything around you, because it is so directed. But in an RPG like your game and many other games out there that are so open, it’s obviously difficult to create systems where you can be attached to any one thing.

I guess, do you guys ever think about that concept? That all we’re doing is we’re just creating a vessel through which the players interact with our various systems but don’t ever really have any impact... well, there’s impact, but attachment I think is kind of the key point here.

Ken: I’m going to suggest to you that I do not have the highly-tune aesthetic senses that you have -- that I’m in fact a nine year old when it comes to role-playing games. My entire... ok, the first role-playing game rule to me is my real story is “I’m not dead yet”. The change from Monopoly to role-playing games is that you kept your character forever. You were playing on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday. So all I really love is not being dead.

So I’m the pilgrim. I’m the guy who’s always terrified, always thinks I should be dying, because those monsters should kill me and that I’m wandering through the world looking for lore. So that attachment that I have -- the attachment to the world and the attachment to always being in peril and always being ignorant and always looking to learn something -- I don’t find that imperilled in any way.

Now what you’re talking about is in the sense of humanity. You’re looking for the humanity in literature and art and I’m saying maybe you should stick with film or novels, because they’re really, really good places to do that. Or live-action role-playing games, where it’ll be a lot better than it is in your computer game. In live-action role-playing where you’re actually talking to human beings.

AusGamers: But there’s no sense of danger.

Ken: What do you mean no sense of danger? There’s a sense of failure. To me, death is purely abstract. Because I know I’m not being threatened by death in a game. I know I get to save and reload. Whereas a live-action role-playing game, I love playing Louis Renault in a game called Casablanca and playing Louis Renault the policeman. He’s supposed to keep peace in Casablanca and there are 70 other players who’s job is to make things a total disaster.

The deliciousness of that for me, is knowing that I have so few powers and my character is doomed to fail. That -- talking about a real narrative role -- that’s see... you are in the wrong medium -- you should be playing in live-action role-playing games.

They’re commercially... no commercial potential. Nullus pretii in Latin -- no commercial potential -- but that’s where you can do the kind of dramatic stuff that you’re talking about.

AusGamers: But I do love videogames.

Ken: I blame you. I blame society too. But I think finally, you have to take the burden. You want these games to do what they can’t do. Number one: you want them to have... ok, let’s start back with dialogue -- dialogue in role-playing games. There is nothing in a role-playing game that is as badly simulated -- by contract to real-world analogue -- as dialogue. And also, there’s nothing as non-interactive as dialogue.

Let me draw you a graph on the video of interactivity in a dialogue [gesturing] there’s the graph and time passes; and you input; and time passes; and you input. Even if you’re moving, you’re constantly doing inputs and choices. It is probably the worst part of gaming in any role-playing game. And at the same time, not on is it bad for interactivity, it’s bad in modelling the complexity of this relationship.

You and I are talking; we’re in a dialogue; there are a lot of different ways it can go. It’s only a branching tree in a computer game; you bring a lot to the experience. When you become attached to characters, you are a willing suspension of disbelief. And I blame you for not being filled with rage, screaming “this isn’t good enough”. And at the same time, I promise you I’m not going to give you one, because it would not -- in a triple-A game -- be possible for me to build a compelling model of a human being that you could interact with.

AusGamers: So basically we need Star Trek holodecks for that to happen.

Ken: Yeah, and that... again, the problem is you’ve seen it on a television show; you have no idea what that would require to do. For example, an old convention of science fiction games is the translation device. Everybody saying “ok, yeah we just talk into it”. But if you have any understanding of how language works, you understand that that is so complex and not possible that you can’t even envision it as part of the future.

So you can only envision it imaginatively, you don’t believe that it’s part of the future and I totally do not believe that role-playing games are part of the future -- in the same way that LARPs are -- of building complex dramatic models of human beings and then also being entertaining. Because one of the other things of that complex model of human beings is they very often suck. They very often are not satisfying.

You may be trying to do something in this dialogue -- in this thing -- and you can’t get me to do it, that’s because I’m a truly independent and dangerous and unreliable and unproductive actor.

AusGamers: So games are basically always going to be a set of preset systems that we interact with, but have limitations regardless, because of that.

Ken: Limited conventions, like a sonnet. Why is that bad thing? It’s a wonderful thing! You learn to take your conventions; you do the very best that you can do with them within those conventions. It turns out that these games aren’t bad! They’re fun! They’re very satisfying. It’s just that when we get into this abstract discussion about RPGs in general. I think it’s nice to say -- within this framework -- we’re living in a very, very tiny world of the possibility space. And that huge possibility space outside of it that you dream about -- that’s completely somewhere else.

AusGamers: Kind of like “world peace”.

Ken: Yes, and “universal brotherhood”.

AusGamers: Ok, so we’ve got a minute; give me a one minute spiel on your game.

Ken: Reckoning has got the best combat in an RPG and it’s the best pacing of any combat in an RPG -- the best theatre. And what I hope to do is... I always felt that RPGs are kind of slow paced and it’s kind of an artifact of the table-top, to the turn-based level, to the pretty good movement, but not very good combat of modern third-person games.

So what I’m hoping is, that by having good combat -- which is exciting and satisfying -- we will increase the pace of gameplay in some way, and the mean-spirited expectations of the users so that they will start insisting that we have faster-paced games -- which, personally, I just want to play faster-paced role-playing games.

AusGamers: No, I totally agree with you there actually.

Ken: And by the way, Mass Effect doesn’t suck on that basis; I would say. That may well be one of the paradigms.

AusGamers: Ok cool. Well, we’ll leave it there. Thanks so much for your time; thank you so much for your insights Mr Ken Rolston. You guys heard it here first on AusGamers. Thank you very much. Cheers.

Ken: My pleasure.

Latest Comments
Posted 05:22pm 31/8/11
That was a good watch, I don't really agree with his thoughts on voice, but I can deffo see where he's coming from.
I'm just one of those people who always skipped the text boxes, although I was a lot younger I guess.
Steve Farrelly
Posted 05:27pm 31/8/11
Yeah I'm in the same boat as you Enska, I guess from a production side, he hates being limited to X-amount of dialogue choices and branches, but on the other side, our side, it's great being able to suspend disbelief that little bit more with voices
Posted 05:42pm 31/8/11
I'd totally love trawling through his 'closet' ideas, as he said there might be a market for.

Yeaaars and years ago, me and a friend planned the "perfect" rpg... were quite confident that by now voice synthesis would be common.

Though I tend to have the opposite reaction to "voiced" rpg characters as you. I never really get into the "this is me" headspace with a named/voiced character such as Shepard & Hawke, whereas the grey warden (even though I played a chick who looked like Julia Gillard) felt much more personal.

edit: Heh, loved his "pilgrim" take.
Posted 06:01pm 31/8/11
Pretty awesome interview, was it planned to be that long or did you both just get carried away talking? Not that I'm complaining, was a really good watch, its interesting to hear a game designer actually talk about games in a more general way instead of just doing PR for their own game.

I can kinda see (and paradoxically) agree with both sides of the discussion about voice in games. I much prefer the voiced characters like Shepherd to the retarded mute of Dragon Age, but if I was developing my own game, I can imagine the frustration of being so limited by the requirements of the audio, and having my hands tied once it was recorded.
Steve Farrelly
Posted 05:59pm 31/8/11
Not planned at all Khel, it just went as long as it did - I'd have talked to him longer if I could have
Posted 10:49pm 31/8/11
Props to any game designers that are still trying to think outside the box. Many games are dumbed down or simplified for a larger audience, which makes sense from a profit perspective. But from an artistic perspective, I've always wanted more complex games than the average joe consumer, and will praise any games that attempt to do this.
Posted 08:52am 01/9/11
I'd take textual dialogue over spoken any day. I never wait for the characters to speak their lines, I've already read the dialogue and am ready to continue...

better dialogue > voices
Posted 09:16am 01/9/11
He doesn't appear to have had much history with heavily voice acted games though. Morrowind had none except the very occasional snippet (and I remember enjoying trawling through the text immensely, was very rich), and Oblivion had a lot but it was all pretty balls.

Bioware does an excellent job with enormous amounts of voiced content imo, their characters actually are the feature rather than a hindrance, and the stories and subplots are super intricate.
Posted 09:43am 01/9/11
Has this guy not ever played Nethack or other Rougelikes?

edit: They win at RPG'ing because they have no visuals, they leave your mind free to imagine everything that happens exactly the way you want it.

last edited by Tollaz0r! at 09:43:54 01/Sep/11
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