Gameplanet: Todd McFarlane and RA Salvatore, and yourself, Ken Rolston. That’s a lot of ego for one game. Is there any danger of creative conflict?
Ken Rolston: Nah. We’re hugely egomaniacal human beings or we wouldn’t be good at what we do. But we also – perhaps surprisingly – have a certain “winning humility” outside of our own areas of expertise, and each of us has a completely different area of mastery.
[With tongue-in-cheek] I’m an internationally celebrated game designer, neither of them have entry level skills there. RA Salvatore is an internationally celebrated author. I’ve written one novel, it was extremely bad! I think Todd probably has better writing credits but neither [myself nor RA] have done anything graphically striking. My scribbles are not acceptable.
So normally I would distrust anything owned by somebody else, but we’re each working in our own way. Also we tend to be very compatible people and very respectful of one another’s skills. In other words, its just Pollyanna beautiful – it’s silly.
Gameplanet: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is commonly described as an action-RPG which is something of a loose catch-all for a variety of games. When you call Amalur an action-RPG, how do you define that term?
Rolston: I actually don’t ever describe it as an action-RPG, I use the word “action” to tell people where we got the idea to make the combat better. It would blow if it was an action game, because I don’t like action games. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s just not what I’m any good at – and god knows I want to make something I’m good at making. So it’s going to be an RPG that will have raided – vigorously, on horseback – the technology and conventions of action gaming.
It’ll feel good on the controller, there’ll be a lot of movement per unit time, which you don’t get – and there’ll be good control of the movement. You’ll feel like the control is supple as you move from place to place. When you see it, you’ll say, “oh gosh, that’s so cool, it looks so fast. It’s nimble.” That’s because being a superhero should be cartoon-speed-line-blurringly-delicious!
Gameplanet: Amalur is also described as an open-world game, but that’s another term that gets bandied about these days. To what extent is Amalur an open-world game?
Rolston: I’m proud to say that, in many ways, I’ve defined open-world games. What I would say is that an open-world game is one that is so big – that there are so many things to do – that you’re constantly being distracted from what you’re supposed to do, which is usually to save the world.
So first, the world has to be big and it has to be extra interactive – perhaps in ways you didn’t expect – and then it has to feel inexhaustible so that when you stop exploring it’s because your spirit is broken, there’s just too much. And when your spirit is broken, that’s a happy time for you.
So that’s what an open-world game is, and because we’ve made some open-world games before, we know what they’re supposed to look like. At the same time, we might be a little jaded with an unpolished presentation of open worlds because if you get into a world that’s really open and there’s nothing to do there? The bloom is off the rose. So [with Amalur] we’ve already been much more careful about making sure that the boundaries of what’s fun are clearly defined to the player, but subtly. That is, he never makes the mistake of thinking there’s fun over in that dark corner because we would hide something there, because we’ll never do that.
Gameplanet: When you say surprising interactivity with the world, what do you mean? Can you give us an example?
Rolston: If you go over a wall and see a door. The way you find it, you’ll say, “oh my god, I see that, look at that, that thing moved!” But it’s an interesting lead-in, because it’s not just the world that can be open and surprising but the combat [too]. I want the combat to have that hidden content in it.
And the hidden [combat] content is delicious, partly because you find it, so you think you’re smart. But also, once you’ve found that a certain class or event has candy in it? Then you’ll know, “I get candy every time I go up, and I don’t know what it is? That sounds like fun!”
Also, it’s not a burden, you don’t have to struggle and read the manual, you discover it. That, to me, is what open-world gaming is about. So I want to extend the open world definition of surprising interactivity not just to the setting – like you find a stone and it talks to you – but I also want you to also say, “Oh! That dagger talks to me! That dagger does something cooool!
Gameplanet: Character is what RPGs are all about. Can you talk about the character, his or her goals?
Rolston: I love the premise: you’re dead, and then you wake up. That’s a good start, but not only have you woken up, you’re the first person in history to have done this! This turns out to be of interest to different groups of people. Some people say, “gosh, that’s cool, I’m partly responsible for this, I think you’re excellent, I want to protect you.” Other people say, “I gotta get me some of that, even if it means straining you into a juicer and then drinking you.” So there’ll be people who might be your friends and people who might not be your friends, but the point is, they also don’t know why this is happening. It’s a mystery to everybody in the world, including the player who watches the narrative unfold.
So it’s a perfect premise where the player and the character are symmetrically ignorant, and therefore the reveals organically link the two. The player learns as the character learns. It’s a great way to identify the player with the character.
Gameplanet: How about character customisation?
Rolston: Oceans of it. Going back to that action-RPG point: it has to have all the things and RPG has in it, or it blows. So—
Gameplanet: Are we talking spreadsheets? Strength, dexterity?
Rolston: Actually no, we don’t use those things, we use other things, and – I’m sorry I shouldn’t be talking specifics because it’s morally wrong of me to give you specifics on systems at this point – but we have… different kinds of interfaces for that stuff!
Yes, think of it more as a skill tree or a Diablo-esque loot system and there are oceans of patterns. Therefore you know when you get the “X” then you want seven X’s and everything gets better. You’ll figure out the patterns.
Gameplanet: Is Amalur a litmus test for “Project Copernicus” (an unannounced massively-multiplayer online role-playing game set in the same world)?
Rolston: Huh, in other words, if Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning blows does “Project Copernicus” blow? I don’t think that follows. I feel confident that the world is amazing. I think it’s a nice package to showcase the virtues of Project Copernicus. They’re very different experiences, but since they’re about role-playing they have races and characters, and they have things in common. I have a feeling that if you like one, you’re very grateful for the other because “thank heavens I can buy it now and [MMOs] last longer.”
I don’t know, I don’t think it would ever have occurred to us to product test an MMO setting by making… Both of them are such bad ideas from a marketing and production point of view. They’re so hard to do, that you should never do one in order to test the other! You’re better to just have a great idea for both of them, they both have to be amazing on their own. As they are!
Gameplanet: Speaking of MMOs and RPGs, do you think there are too many on the market?
Rolston: How many top quality RPGs have come out this year? I think people are excited, I think this is another area that will never suffer saturation because they’re too hard to do – too hard to do at triple-A; too hard to do unpolished; too hard to open to a new audience.
When was the last time there was a new triple-A role-playing franchise? Maybe Fable. Then you go back a long time. Things like Might & Magic, or Wizardry, Thief, Bard’s Tale stuff like that. They used to be easier to make and were a bigger portion of the market, but now it’s just too hard!
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is coming to Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC in 2012. Read our preview.