Q&A: Ken Rolston's development secrets of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Here's the full transcription of Gamasutra's epic livestream chat with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion's lead designer Ken Rolston.

Last week, we took a journey back to the world of The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion to stream a chat with lead designer Ken Rolston about his work on Bethesda's breakout role-playing game. Today, we've taken the time to transcribe our conversation with Rolston for your full perusal. Read on for some in-depth insights on his work on Oblivion and its predecessor Morrowind!

This interview has been lightly edited for clarification. Gamasutra's Alex Wawro and Bryant Francis both peppered Rolston with questions.

Alex Wawro: Hello and welcome to Gamasutra’s Thursday stream. Today we are playing Oblivion. I am Gamasutra editor, Alex Wawro and I am joined by Gamasutra contributing editor, Bryant Francis and most importantly, Oblivion lead designer Ken Rolston. Ken, how are you doing?
Ken Rolston: I am perfect in every way. 

Wawro: Ken, I was surprised. You know, when we first started corresponding about this you mentioned to me that you had sort of been idly considering doing some of your own livestreaming, some of your own YouTube video production. I kind of wanted to get, pick your brain of what you think the value is there and what makes you excited about returning to older games and sort of sharing your experiences working on them.
Rolston: Well the larger concept is that I don’t believe that any work of literature or art, and this, I must admit is “Light Classics,” but this is a form of art, depends on the creator, the text, and the viewer or the reader. And I’m always very interested in the various different ways that people write criticism. And in terms of games they also do Let’s Plays. So I was interested for myself, I wanted to go see how other people played my game, because when you design a game you don’t really have a lot of feedback from your audience. So you don’t know what they’re going to appreciate and enjoy.

And then after the game is completed, you get to watch and find out how people really play your game. And from my point of view, I said, “Well, what would it be like if the designer of the game went and became the audience for his own game and started to play it. And then tried to do a let’s play, which then became kind of a story about my relationship with making the game.” So it’s just a dumb opportunity to try to blend the user and the creator in a way that an open game does accidentally and trying to be a little more purposeful about it. I was just doing experimental crap, that’s all. 

Francis: Yeah, my question first, Alex, is did you just try to light this church on fire there?
Wawro: Uh, look. Oblivion is part of our classic games series. It’s a little older. It’s been a while since I’ve played this game. It’s been a whole week in fact, and I kind of forgot which was the crouch key and which was the cast key. Turns out C is cast and Control is crouch. I won’t make that mistake again, I promise. 
Francis: Yeah, I guess I’ll jump off with a question that Mitchell Sabbagh, who joins us very regularly in the chat wanted to ask for you, Ken, how do you feel your design philosophy evolved between working on Morrowind and working on Oblivion?
Rolston: Uh, I believe I did not have a design philosophy when I was doing Morrowind. By the way, you have now joined the Temple Climbing Club. This, by the way, for Morrowind, was the idea of open world means if you make your own fun then you decide on your own goals. And in Morrowind, we decided that one of the ways to play the game was to be the Temple Climbers Club. I’ve never seen anybody climb one of the religious buildings in Oblivion. So you accidentally joined a very important freeform gaming group. 
Wawro: And now I have a new purpose in life. 
Rolston: I’m sorry, I’m going to go back to your question, now. 
Francis: No, that was important. 
Rolston: How did my philosophy of development evolve? I think it did not exist at all before Morrowind, and then once I had a chance to see how people played with things in Morrowind, I began to try to have more explicit conversations between myself and the player in the non-quest dialogue. I didn’t work nearly so much on the detail level of Oblivion. They’re almost two completely different lead design concepts. In Morrowind, I essentially wrote the outline of all the quest lines. There were only three designers, so that was practical. And I made an awful lot of the content myself.

"I essentially wrote the outline of all the quest lines. There were only three designers, so that was practical. And I made an awful lot of the content myself. "

With Oblivion, I made hardly any of the content myself, just a few scraps in the main quest and a couple of different quests. So my design was changed from a highly centrally controlled, centrally authored content to something which had as many different voices as possible. All the different designers, I wanted them to take my rough outlines for the designs and then remove the content of the outlines and simply make sure they hit all the basic elements, but have completely different content. That result, for example Emil [Pagliarulo], did amazing work with the Dark Brotherhood, I could never have done anything like that. Emil’s skills are completely different, orthogonal to mine. And the thief system -- the thief guild quests by Bruce Nesmith were completely different than any of the other quest structures. So the way it evolved in that sense was in the way the development evolved.

The more designers you have, the more opportunities you have to have a larger game with many different voices, many different styles. I think one of the great things about the Elder Scrolls games, as they’ve evolved, is that they have many more voices and therefore they suit the ears of the players better. By example, when I used to teach high school, I  used to hope that at least once in your life you found a teacher who was your soulmate. That was kind of what I wanted you to do in the games. I hope you find one designer that did some content that really was your soulmate as a player that was able to have his own particular personality and express it in the gameplay and the design.

Wawro: Hm, I wonder, you gave us the hot tip before we started that it would be wise to sort of expand the boundaries of a new Oblivion playthrough by opening up everything, looking at the game and opening up the Oblivion gates as well. Is there an area you would suggest that well shows off what you’re talking about here? Maybe it shows your hand directly or the hand of a designer you admire?
Rolston: Uh, no, because the possibility of a lead designer knowing the content of any Elder Scrolls game is diminishingly small. Morrowind is the only one I can really talk about, but I don’t think I’d actually played more than 60% of the built content when we released the game. I had certainly played it in prototype or white box or things like that, but you just cannot play the whole content, it’s just too big to put the iterations into it. So the reason I suggested wandering to different places, just be a tourist. 
Francis: Yeah, I was going to real quick, invite our viewers to give Alex -- Alex you’re still playing that pilgrim from last week, right? 
Wawro: Yeah, and I’m level two and I unlocked Oblivion Gates early, so if you don’t give me somewhere to go, we’re going to go to a quick death pretty soon. 
Rolston: Oblivion! Yay!

"The very first Morrowind was essentially a novel, the main quest, plus three or four or five or six other novels which are the main guild things. And then millions of little short stories."

Francis: Let’s see what pilgrimage our players want you to go on. So Ken, do you think that makes Elder Scrolls games kind of the equivalent of a short story collection? 
Rolston: Let’s see, the role playing game, in general, is the novel of the computer game class. So in this sense, it’s more like a collection of multiple novels built with different perspectives and settings. It’s really hard to come up with a literary comparison for the way it works. But for example, the very first Morrowind, was essentially a novel, that is the main quest, plus three or four or five or six other novels which are the main guild things. And then millions of little short stories that were either formally organized by quests or simply you drop a magic item into the world and that is a quest on its own. Once you discover the existence of the different items and you find out about them on the boards, you say, “I really want to have that bow.” Then that’s your story. 
Wawro: Yeah, absolutely. 
Francis: Alex, [Twitch Viewer] is advising that you guide Salamantha to Shaden Hall, if I’m saying that area right.
Wawro: Yeah, sure.
Francis: So let’s begin our journey there and see what happens.
Wawro: Alright, well I’m going to see if I can get away from this charming chap. 
Rolston: I’m not sure that you can teleport except when you don’t have enemies around you. So you have to have some kind of a solution there. See if it works. 
Francis: I guess my next question for you Ken, while Alex is trying to survive here...We’re talking about fast travelling, right now and I know whenever anyone is making a big fantasy game like this, you want players to experience the world and experience some kind of simulation. But why did you all decide to implement a fast travel system that worked the way it did? And how do you feel it affected that relationship players have with the world? 

"The player can always choose to walk, but the ability to fast travel lets you use the game in the way you want to use it."

Rolston: I think I learned the most about that from Mark Nelson, who was really like a second in command at that point for Oblivion. He was also a designer on Morrowind. He hated the concept of fast travel and Todd Howard wanted to have fast travel. And I think I fought it in kind of a casual way, but Mark fought it in a principled and heartfelt way. And both Mark and I were dead wrong and Todd was right, that what it did is it served the needs of the user. The player can always choose to walk, if he wants to, but his ability to fast travel lets him use the game in the way he wants to use it. I think it was foolish of us to believe that our experience of Morrowind should be the determining way that the game should be read. And I’m really glad that Todd, in almost every case, whenever Todd and I disagreed, Todd was right and I was wrong. 

Francis: I’m kind of curious how you and your fellow coworkers on this game handled disagreements like that. Creative stuff like that is kind of a weird place where you have to either have faith that you’re right or someone else is right. And when no one’s sure who’s right, you have to debate -- hopefully debate and not argue  about it. But how do you as a team come to a consensus on those kinds of things. 
Rolston: I think there are many different roads to enlightenment in this department. And I characterize BethSoft in the most positive way as the “raised by wolves” school. All of us are very very independent and sure that we’re right. And we fight like cats and dogs, but I think conflict is very good in this particular sense that we all shared love for one another’s peculiar points of view.

And also we were so lucky, by the time we were working on Oblivion, is we knew we had done something that nobody else could do, and therefore we felt very good about it. But we none of us were really particularly sure we knew how we had done it or what kind of basic principles made it art. And we felt like they were always evolving, so that process of conflict was part of the fun of it.

And I’ll say particularly in the case of fast travel, Todd, and almost in all cases of the design things, Todd as the producer had the capacity to rule programmers to secretly or above board go ahead and stub in something as a prototype. And once you’ve got the prototype to use as an argument to beat your companions with, you’re almost certainly going to win. But at the same time, it’s so possible with the editor, for us, if we believe that what we’re doing is right, we could go and stub something in and prove the kind of experience to a certain extent using the editor.

"The Skyrim Engine is such a fabulous tool because it lets us all be designers individually in a brute force way, whether we’re specialists or not. "

I think the key thing that may be mysterious and not well understood by other role playing game developers, is that the tool that BethSoft used and evolved from Morrowind and through now the Fallout Gek and the Elder Scrolls development -- I don’t know what it’s called nowadays -- The Skyrim Engine. It is such a fabulous tool because it lets us all be designers individually in a brute force way, whether we’re specialists or not. Programmers, artists, can stub in things and we can make a cogent case that is experienceable in the alpha version of the game. Overnight! And then jam it down the throats of our learned disquisition and debate society.
Wawro: [laughs] Yeah, I wonder where that philosophy and where that toolkit came from. Because I remember when I was younger, I remember the first big thing I got into modding was Morrowind. And it was because of the approachability of the Elder Scrolls construction set. And that has given these games an enduring life post-launch thanks to all the vibrant mod scene that sort of spawns up around every single one of them. I don’t remember, did that really come into its own with Morrowind, do you recall?
Rolston: Yes.

Wawro: Do you remember, obviously, you might not have been involved in these conversations, but do you remember what the thinking was at the studio in making that kind of toolset available to the audience. 

"The tools themselves are a language of development that makes it possible for everybody in the team to feel like they’re making something and that they understand how everything else is made."

Rolston: I was there at that time, we had made a false start on Morrowind earlier and then we put it aside and we worked on Redguard and -- I’m going to forget the name of other -- 
Wawro: Battlespire?
Rolston: Battlespire. We were working on those with the tabled the work on Morrowind. But we had made a list of ten features that we wanted to be able to celebrate as objectives in our development. And also to use all the way through advertising and public relations when we got to trying to sell the product. And one of those ten things was an editor that you could create content with. That was a consumer facing decision relatively early on, but also whether we were conscious of it or not, it was a necessary condition of making a game this large. We needed to have a tool that made it possible to make the game quickly and then iterate it. There are some great games, I’m going to -- It’s probably an Ubisoft open world, modern world shooter. One of the first great shooters based on -- Set in Africa, does that ring a bell?
Wawro: Far Cry 2.
Rolston: Far Cry 2, one of the great designs of all time, but it was primarily scripted. And that meant that it was very brittle and very hard to revise on the fly. So once you had content, you couldn't learn from that content from playing it. Whereas with our editor, we were constantly able to evolve our idea of what was fun in play. Also being able to build a world that large meant that it needed to be easy to do it. And having a kind of user-faced design meant that those tools would work for just about anybody in the development team.
Wawro: Right. I, am having a hard time stealing anything because I forgot how hard it is to be a brigand and a malcontent in this game. I also wanted to ask, in the last couple of years, Bethesda has sort of broke big on the back of Oblivion it launched Skyrim and did quite well there and did quite well with the Fallout games. Some game developers have come out and sort of publicly championed the studio and said that, “It makes very iconic, unique games. Games that in many ways, only Bethesda can make.” And they attribute it to sort of a looking in from the outside, they say a key part of that is the studio’s unique culture. It’s rare that we get to talk to somebody who worked there for quite a long period of time and also had meaningful experience elsewhere. I know you worked in tabletop role playing games at west end, you worked on Kindoms of Amalur: Reckoning, you’ve worked, I think, on Hinterlands recently. So I kind of wanted to get your sense, as someone with a lot of experience at different studios and different environments, is there anything interesting or unique about the way Bethesda Game Studios makes games?

"Bethesda has a long institutional memory. The personalities in it have fought with one another and worked together for a long time."

Rolston: I think the key part to making Bethesda is the longevity of the major players. It has a long institutional memory and the personalities in it have fought with one another and worked together for a long time. That’s probably the most important thing. But also the tools themselves are a language of development that makes it possible for everybody in the team to feel like they’re making something and that they understand how everything else is made. It might well be the only studio that has the ability to see all the way sausage are made in a sympathetic way. I think something like Ubisoft with its very very large teams who all do very specific tasks, that is a very high polished production model. That might be a Hollywood model for making great polish.

But I would also say that BethSoft is about not making polish. And I don’t mean that in any way negative. That there’s a level of jazz to what’s going on rather than a classical music coming from a script. If it isn’t clean, but it’s fun we can understand it. That comes partly from being able to make new stuff, but anybody can just go in and see how it’s done and say, “Oh, I understand that. Maybe we can do this instead.” And I think it creates a development environment where everybody feels they understand at a higher level of sharing what other people do and how what they do affects day-to-day development. 

Wawro: Nice. I think we lost --
Rolston: And they have ownership! I should have said ownership. You can break things and fix things very quickly and then have somebody make them better. So when you own something that somebody can make a little bit better really quickly, you have that relationship with those people working with you. 
Wawro: Yeah, I think we lost Bryant there for a sec. Bryant are you still --
Francis: I’m back, I was yanked out of the room by dark-suited men and had to fight my way back. 
Rolston: He’s probably been impregnated. If there was an ovipositor involved, Bryant, you probably want to have that looked at.
Francis: They’re just suits, they probably wanted money! [Ed. note: Bryant was not impregnated]
Wawro: Bryant are there any hot suggestions from the chat on what we should do next? Because I tried to get into some thieving and it didn’t go so hot.
Francis: I’ll give a shoutout to the chat again to invite them to give suggestions for Alex for what kind of adventure he should put himself on. I don’t even know, what do you do in this city? I didn’t make it this far in my brief adventure into Oblivion last time, so I don’t even know what the central story of this city is myself.
Rolston: I think the important thing, for example, if Alex wants to have more fun is to stop doing the things that he’s struggling doing and just deciding he wants to do something else. For example, the lockpicking interface is probably not one of the finest moments of any immersive open world game. There were many mini games that were proposed for Oblivion. That was a period of time when minigames were really really cool. Like I can’t remember there was a pipes minigame in which you tried to figure something out by having water move from one place to another. That was a very hip --
Francis: BioShock had that one. 
Rolston: Precisely, so that was the flavor of the month at that point. And you are fortunate not to have had a armor repairing minigame and for example the speech craft minigame in this thing is certainly not one of our finest moments and I bless Bruce Nesmith for making as not horrible -- Oh, that’s a nice pose.
Wawro: That’s a good statue. 

Rolston: That is very nice. Now what you’re doing, actually you should just try to attract people to how beautiful you are, Alex. Pose in different places, look fetching. 
Wawro: I’m going to change into some snazzier duds, yeah.
Francis: Yeah, now the question is getting clothes. Actually, jumping on lock picking real quick, Nat Kidno would like to know is there a specific reason why lock picking pauses the game as opposed to Morrowind where it’s real time.

"The virtue of having been a paper and pencil role playing game designer meant that I spent a period of time creating worlds and publishing them within say six months. So that meant you had to, out of nothing, create a world, make it coherent, and publish it immediately."

Rolston: There might be and guess what, I don’t remember. I believe that it is a more immersive simulation to have the real time passing, and I believe we could have felt that that was inviting the player to expect more from the experience than we had any intention to provide. Lock picking and for example another one of the great sad things is pickpocketing never has been the exciting immersive open world experience that it could be and that’s another great thing about BethSoft, we’re perfectly willing to give you a substandard quality of experience if it still gives you the choice and you can continue to have some fun with it.
Wawro: Yeah, I kind of want to dig into that little deeper because as I alluded to earlier you spent some time working on tabletop role playing games. Specifically I remember from my own youth a game called Paranoia. Oh! 

Rolston: Yes.
Wawro: I’m in trouble, hang on. I’m just going to back away slowly. So as I extricate myself from this particular predicament, tell me a bit about, if you can, about how your experience writing and designing tabletop games influences the way you go about making video games.
Rolston: The virtue of having been a paper and pencil role playing game designer meant that I spent a period of time creating worlds and publishing them within say six months. So that meant you had to, out of nothing, create a world, make it coherent, and publish it immediately. And then throw it away and go into the next one. So that high level of expectation of iteration is one of the virtues of working with paper and pencil. And particularly for Morrowind -- By the way, I celebrate you, Alex, for figuring out how to solve the problem. Running from it almost always is right approach. 
Wawro: That’s how I solve all my problems.
Francis: Did you just totally steal a horse and bolt out --
Rolston: Absolutely, head for the horizon at this point and then you get to become a tourist. I may have lost my thread on that question. Bryant, do you remember any of what I was saying. 

Horse armor!

Francis: You were just starting to explain how Morrowind related to your tabletop experience where you were building worlds out of scratch and getting them to work in a few weeks.
Wawro: And iteration, I think was a key theme there.
Rolston: Well that was the first key and the second key is that I probably have not been worth my pay in any game development environment as much as I was in the beginning of Morrowind, because no one had ever built a game this big and then tried to do the three to six months of preproduction for it. Because I had done paper games I could do, I could create a bible out of nothing quickly that had little elements of connection between characters in towns.

And knowing to do that, that everybody should know that every town has N number of people in it and each of those people in that town belong to one faction or another. And, for example, a guy living in one house belonging to the thieves guild and a guy in another house belonging to the thieves guild meant that they were friends in some way. What it was is it created a large number of intersection nodes in the setting that you could build a coherent story out of. And I knew to do that, because you need to do that for tabletop games.

But I also knew how to produce it and then give people the opportunity reading my documentation to say, “Oh this character could fit into my story,” or, “This guy’s got a personality that will fit really nicely into the story I want to tell.” And all of that work it brute force spewing. It’s the kind of spewing that very few writers ever need to be able to do. So a paper and pencil guy does it normally and -- I won’t say throws it away. He ships it and moves on to his next one. So that put me in a position to be really useful for Morrowind. And after that, having that as the model, most of the documentation and development of the other Elder Scrolls games was able to build on that inter-coherence. 
Wawro: Nice. I’m going to extricate myself from this tomb now. 
Francis: Ken, I have a question based on. Ken my question is -- Oh, am I having rough times?
Wawro: Yeah, but why don’t we just try to get your question out and we’ll see how it goes.

Francis: Okay, Ken, I last time made some comments saying even though I’ve enjoyed my time in the world of Elder Scrolls. Everytime I pop open the game, which ever one it’s been, I’ve always felt this very arm's reach between me and many of the motivating factors behind the world. The factions the quests, I’ll care about it if it relates to a character I can see in front of me or a location I can understand, but I always felt this distance behind the giant book of Morrowind lore or Elder Scrolls lore and what was in the game play. How did you sort of view all the work that had been done on the Elder Scrolls games at that point. All those story character relationships and how did it affect your approach to getting players to integrate with it.
Rolston: I think every player needs to have his own attitude about the way he involves himself in the game

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