Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Game Design Lessons from Ken Rolston

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 26, 2014

oblivion_exitprisonKen Rolston has quite a list of game design credentials, from working on two of the Elder Scrolls games, to Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (which I hear is a good game, in spite of being tainted by its history), to experience working in the dice-and-paper RPG industry. His office-mate Alexander Horn from the 38 Studios / Big Huge Games years shares some of the wisdom he gained from Rolston while they worked together:

Gamasutra: Three design lessons from working with RPG legend Ken Rolston

My favorite “lesson” here – and the one that, surprisingly, can get hard to fulfill sometimes as a game developer, is to do “competitive research.” Play lots of games. Ken Rolston himself makes an appearance in the comments to expand on this piece of advice:

“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.”

There’s good stuff for game makers of all stripes, but particularly for those of us with RPG leanings.

I thought it was interesting that Rolston considers exploration to be part of the “candy” or reward system for the game, and not part of the moment-to-moment gameplay. While I agree it’s part of the fun, I’m still not convinced it shouldn’t be integrated as part of the gameplay and challenge.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • Noumenon72 said,

    Off topic, Coyote, have you seen this comparison of the movie and game industry? I had no idea the PC slice of the pie was so tiny compared to consoles.

  • AtkinsSJ said,

    Noumenon72, those numbers can be misleading, as they tend to only track boxed copies sold. The majority of PC game sales now are digital, so it’s impossible to know the actual figures.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I hadn’t, but I concur with Atkins – if that chart represented money spent on mobile gaming, you would have seen a HUGE increase in mobile sales over the last 4 years. While I know the stats folks are changing their models now to deal better with digital sales, it’s still not there yet.

  • Noumenon72 said,

    Thanks for explaining, guys.

  • Likely it was Bob who said,

    Great article. Definitely sounds like Ken!
    I actually had the pleasure of working with Ken on Morrowind. Really interesting guy. He and I weren’t close friends because I was more of the thought that game development should more closely resemble a business/corporate kind of work atmosphere (think schedules, deadlines, objectives, metrics). Ken was definitely more of the artistic/free thinking Google style start-up company kind of developer. To be fair, there is an appropriate place for both of us in a game’s development.

    In any case, he always had a great perspective. He has just worked on so many games and from big companies to startups. More people probably know him now for his video game work, but he actually has a long resume of pen and paper:(Paranoia!, RuneQuest, LOTS).

    His knowledge and experience with all facets of gaming and game development is certainly worth paying attention too. In fact in a weird nod to fate, my reference to an earlier blog here a few days ago with regards to the idea of “IP Fatigue” came out of a discussion I remember clearly having with Ken. We were talking about Heroes of Might and Magic IV which had just been released and was generally being tanked in the reviews and the market.

    My point was “They should have just done HOMM III over with improved graphics, story, and characters/creatures!” Basically an evolution not a revolution game design. Ken talked at length about “IP Fatigue” and the dangers of it, and the benefits of risk. Again, I think both of us were correct to one degree or another, but he was a great lunch time conversationalist. He is obviously many more important things as well, but he is also absolutely someone you would want sitting next to you if your plane got stuck on a runway.

    Heh. I hope that comes off as praise and respect, that’s what I was shooting for. I wish him all the success and enjoyed the article. His desire to limit narrative whenever possible led to some creative design solutions that really helped with game world-immersion. His four pillars also related (or grew out) of his theory of why people play games (some like combat, some exploration, etc..)

    Anyway, interesting article. My only great regret looking back was never strong-arming him to GM a game of Paranoia in the name of “competitive research”.