From Oblivion to Big Huge Games

A conversation with famed role-playing game design icon, Ken Rolston, who recently came out of retirement to team up with developer, BHG

THQ today announced that it's entered into a partnership with developer Big Huge Games to publish a brand-new role playing game for Xbox 360, PS3 and Windows PC. The game is currently scheduled for release some time in 2009. Why should you care? Well, RPG master (or should we say dungeon master?) Ken Rolston, who most recently was the lead designer on the critically acclaimed Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, will lead the project. That alone should whet your appetite, especially if you're an RPG addict.

The 25-year veteran knows a thing or two about role-playing games. Not only was he lead designer on Oblivion, but he was also lead designer on Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (and expansions) and he contributed to a number of other Bethesda Softworks projects. He also worked for 12 years on award winning pen-and-paper RPGs, including Paranoia, Rune Quest, D&D, AD&D, Star Wars, among others. Rolston won the H. G. Wells Award for Best Role-playing Game in 1985 for Paranoia.

"I'm flabbergasted by the talent, craft and boundless energy of the Big Huge Games team," said Rolston, lead designer, Big Huge Games. "In such splendid company, I'm privileged to embark on a bold pilgrimage to create a refreshingly original RPG experience. I know eager game fans will share our excitement as we reveal further details in the coming months."

As for Big Huge Games, its founders Brian Reynolds, Jason Coleman, David Inscore and Tim Train have much experience working on strategy hits such as Rise of Nations, Alpha Centauri, and Civilization II, but the developer said that it's been thinking of doing an RPG for some time.

"We've wanted to do an RPG for years and I think we have a great direction that will knock everyone's socks off," said Tim Train, president and COO of Big Huge Games. "THQ's ability to create and grow new intellectual properties, and their reputation for fantastic developer support, made them the ideal partner to bring our dream game to market."

THQ is often thought of as a publisher that relies heavily on licensed material, but the company understands the importance of having strong IP in its portfolio as well (e.g. Saints Row, Company of Heroes, Destroy All Humans! and more). "THQ has built its business by identifying the right content to compete and win in the genres gamers are most passionate about," said Kelly Flock, executive vice president of worldwide publishing, THQ. "Partnering with Ken Rolston and the rest of the team at Big Huge Games is a major win for THQ and marks a bold, first move into the traditional Role-Playing Game space."

While THQ is keeping most of the details close to its vest, we tried to squeeze some information out of Tim Campbell, VP of Business Development, THQ, and Big Huge Games' Train and Rolston. Check out the Q&A below.

How did this deal come about? Was THQ just blown away by Big Huge Games' proposal?

Tim Campbell: Frankly, Big Huge Games' proposal did blow us away. They had a very clear vision of the kind of game experience that they wanted to deliver and as we delved deeper into their organization and talent base, we quickly realized that Big Huge Games was a first class developer with the tools, team, track record and experience to deliver on their grand ideas.

Big Huge Games was founded by veterans that have a deep strategy game heritage. Will this RPG have strategy elements as a result?

Tim Train: Oooh...there you go...tempting me to reveal things too early before we've had a chance to sort through all the brilliant ideas we want to try. In game development, it's always really hard to stay quiet about the ideas that are percolating through the prototyping process. However, we have learned the hard way that until you have demonstrated that a particular feature will work, you'd best not talk about it. I'm definitely looking forward to showing off some of our cool ideas.

Ken Rolston, you're a legend in the RPG field, both electronic and paper-and-pencil. Where would you like to take the genre next? What innovations can we expect?

Rolston: I'm actually a pretty conservative variety of visionary. In addition to our brilliant but secret central premise, and the addition of four or five original amazing major features and implementations we can't Wait to Reveal at a Later Date, I just want to make everything... story, characters, exploration, themes, setting, interactivity, entertainment, world class whacking and looting... just a little more perfect in every way.

As the lead designer on Oblivion, what did you learn about developing for the 360 so that you can make an even better product on that platform this time, or were you frustrated by any of the console's limitations?

Rolston: The 360 is a wonderful platform. I just want to do a better job of exploiting its many virtues... the Xbox Live achievements, for example.

Will this game be built from the ground up to take advantage of the different platforms—360, PS3, Windows Vista (with DX10)?

Train: We are designing the technology for this game with an eye to graphically blowing the doors off the different platforms. One of the most fun things about creating an RPG is bringing the world to life. Having the power of the 360, PS3, and the ever-evolving PC at your disposal helps immerse the player in the world and delivers a more intense gameplay experience.

Why is the game not announced for Wii? Is it perhaps the system's lack of power or the Nintendo audience?

Train: I love what Nintendo is doing with the Wii. However, I think the controller really lends itself to a certain kind of game that is very different from a traditional console RPG. We'd be excited to do an original game based around the Wii's controller, but don't want to just shoehorn in an interface designed for other platforms.

This is another massive single-player RPG like Oblivion, correct? Will it have any online elements?

Train: "Do you expect me to talk?"

"No Mr. Bond...I expect you to DIE" about...Fight Club...

Ken, what kind of feedback have you gotten on Oblivion that you can apply to help make a better RPG with Big Huge Games and THQ?

Rolston: Usability. I was shocked to discover how difficult getting started in Oblivion was for some casual gamers, and even for some experienced fans of the genre. And the interface is an amazing triumph in many ways, but still requires way too many clicks and too much of a lifetime spent in 'Menuland.' That's why I am really excited working with Big Huge. They totally care about usability, and feast at the table of elegant interfaces.

Storylines are obviously very important to the RPG genre. Ken, how much input do you have in crafting the story for this game, and where does your inspiration come from?

Rolston: I had a lot of early input in developing the narrative elements of the project, but Mark Nelson, my colleague at Bethsoft, and lead designer of Oblivion's Shivering Isles expansion, has joined the Big Huge team, and I'll be looking to him to do all the Real Work while I Mentor him and deliver Sage Pronouncements. And Doug Kaufman, my honored colleague from paper-and-pencil RPG days, has done a wonderful job on the characters and the basic themes and background elements of the setting.

My role model is Tolkien. Create a rich setting with profound themes, then create a varied cast of characters and an epic saga to guide the pilgrim through that setting. It's a simple scheme... but very hard to execute For the Ages.

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