Inside the Vault: Kurt Kuhlmann


Today’s Inside the Vault is about senior designer, Kurt Kuhlmann. Kurt has worked on a few Elder Scrolls titles including Oblivion. Much of how we implement quests in the Construction Set, especially when we transitioned to Oblivion from Morrowind, was conceived by Kurt. He once made a web version of the board game, Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, after we became addicted to it in the office.

What’s your job at Bethesda?
I’m a Senior Designer.

What other games have you worked on?
I started at Bethesda way back in … 1996 (wow, time flies). I was the most junior designer imaginable, coming in at the end of the Daggerfall death march. An interesting introduction to the game business, to say the least. I did the initial design for Morrowind, when it was originally going to be the immediate sequel to Daggerfall. Then when that project got shelved, I was one of the designers on Redguard. That’s still my favorite project, probably because it was much more of “my baby” than any other game I’ve worked on — it originated in brainstorming sessions between Todd Howard, Michael Kirkbride and myself. Many a Fuddrucker’s burger were consumed while we worked on Redguard… Those were also the days when we were so small that I ended up building several levels in 3D Studio Max, writing dialogue, designing puzzles, scripting — a nice bit of everything, which is still what I prefer when I can get it.

After Redguard I left Bethesda for a while and worked at a company in Colorado called VR-1 than nobody’s ever heard of, because almost nothing we did ever saw the light of day. Then in 2003 Todd lured me back to Bethesda to work on Oblivion. For Oblivion, I was primarily responsible for the main quest. I was also the lead designer on Knights of the Nine.

Sort of to the side of all this, I’ve published two wargames (you know, the kind with a paper map and cardboard counters), one self-published and the other through a wargame publisher.

What is the best part about working as a designer? The worst part?
Best part is certainly the chance to get paid to do something as fun as designing games. I’m still very aware of how lucky I am to be doing something I love. Maybe that isn’t exactly answering the question. I think it’s the collaborative process that I like best — designers work closely with programmers, artists, level designers — everybody on the development team. The process of taking an idea, which starts out as just a thought in your head, and working with other creative people to turn it into something real, is pretty amazing.

The worst part… there really isn’t anything I dislike about being a designer. Maybe losing an argument to Todd. But luckily, I hardly ever lose…

How did you get into the industry? Do you have any tips for breaking in?
That’s a long, convoluted story. Like most people (at least most people of my age) it was a series of accidents, although my path is probably even more roundabout than most. I was in grad school at Duke, supposedly working on my Ph.D. in history but really trying to figure out what I should do with my life (having learned almost too late that I didn’t really like teaching or doing research — oops). Since I had always liked designing games, I started applying for designer jobs (I have no idea anymore where I was finding these — perhaps on whatever primitive series of tubes existed in those ancient days). Bethesda called me up from North Carolina for an interview, I guess mainly on the strength of my wargame design, and as I mentioned, I got hired in as the most junior designer possible. But I was completely psyched to have the job, and in fact couldn’t believe what they were letting me do right off the bat. “You mean, I can just make this dungeon any way I want?” “Yes, that’s your job. Go away please.”

So… showing some previous interest (and finished work) as a designer is good, even if it isn’t directly related. In my case, what also helped me out was leaving the game industry for a while and learning programming (again, mostly by a series of happy accidents). That eventually turned into a job at VR-1 as a programmer, and that experience has been invaluable coming back to Bethesda as a designer. Being able to look at the C++ code, and discuss with the programmers how the various systems will actually be implemented, has been a great asset. If you’re technically inclined and also have an interest in design, you can only help yourself by learning C++ or (even better) working as a programmer.

What would you say is your personal favorite game of all time?
That’s a tough one. I’m going to confine my answer to video games (board games it would probably be Titan). And basing “favorite” on “number of hours spent”, I’d have to go with Civilization in all its forms, closely followed by Company of Heroes (my current favorite) and maybe the various Ultimas (which sucked up many of my teenage hours).

What games are you looking forward to?
I have 3 little girls (0, 3 and 6) so I’m always way behind the times compared to other folks around the office. I’m just now getting around to playing Guitar Hero for the first time… looking forward to Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty 4 (see what I mean?). Oh, you mean games that haven’t actually been released yet? Far Cry 2 has really got my attention — Clint Hocking is a really smart and ambitious designer and I’m interested to see where he’s going to take the possibilities of a dynamic, open world in the FPS genre.

What makes you get out of bed in the morning?
I often go to sleep mulling over some design problem or other, or thinking about a story or setting element. When I wake up, I often have an insight or a good idea that I need to write down or discuss with someone. There’s nothing better than loving your job!

Worst job you’ve ever had?
Manning the meat rake at Taco Bell. I do not kid. That job was so bad that even my mom encouraged me to quit. Food service industry: not for me. I preferred working a pesticide packaging line at Dow Chemical, if you want to know how much I disliked my Taco Bell gig…

Any other hobbies and interests? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Hobbies and interests? Spare time? Hahaha. Did I mention that I have 3 little girls? I used to have hobbies and interests… wargaming, which has merged into Eurogaming (any game that I can’t finish in an evening is just too long for me these days). I read a lot of various kinds of books — I still read a lot of history, plus sci-fi and the occasional fantasy (assuming it comes recommended by someone I trust — too much drek these days to pick randomly). I still play video games as much as I can find the time for. Plus hiking and camping when I can find the time.

Reader Comments

  1. A most versatile full life indeed. Chance and preparation what a wonderful combination 🙂

    Redguard was pretty amazing and the graphics very futuristic for the time. Its pretty uncanny how it captures the 3d perspective that was to come with MORROWIND and OBLIVION. And to think MORROWIND could have ended up looking like DAGGERFALL if it had not been canceled.



    Hello, I am sorry my English, but sere shortly. I am a great fan of your series of elder scrolls, and I think that one of his greatest virdudes is able to choose a large number of characters. Argonian, Orcs, Khajit, elves … I believe that this wide range allows play very differently, in oblivion he created at least 10 different people. Serious disappointing that Fallout3, but I hope that the game for the 2008, could not take more than a man / woman. It should do if the fan of the old fallout, but magnificent games are very old. Times have changed and the selection of characters is more a reality. Which ones? Very simple:
    Super – mutant: The mother of the protagonist was exposed to FEV During pregnancy.
    Insect – mutant: I can not think of anything but it would be great, do an experiment?
    The reason for that history will not change with the race protagonist is very simple: As was brought up in the shelter as a human, the actor will be almost human. And on the outside, people will have seen so many things that do not seem weird.
    Total voluntarily resigned and the rights on these ideas for the sake of the game (just in case)
    I hope that consideration with these requests, thank you, thank you, thank you;);)

  3. We don’t care what makes Kurt Kuhlmann get up in the morning. We only care about Fallout 3 being as good as Fallout 2. Just do your job, Kurt Kuhlmann. Do your job.

  4. Bah…. did he even played Fallout at all? And by the way, is that such a difficult question to ask??? Just go “Have you ever played Fallout 1 or 2?” and there you go. Frightnin’ to think most devs are doin’ their so called dungeons without even playin the original fallout….

  5. Kurt is one of the lead designers on Elder Scrolls games not Fallout. Unfortunately even Kurt is looking forward to First Person Shooters not RPG’s.

  6. Why are you guys always so negative? There is a perfect way to ensure you are getting the purest Fallout experience possible… go play Fallout 1. I’m reminded of the folks who refused to see Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy because the hobbits feet were too small. Give me a break. Bethesda has a proven track record of making great games. I, for one, am excited to see what they can do. Perhaps they change some things, perhaps their vision is slightly different than Interplay’s. So what! If they’re restricted by the confines of purists, then the game might not live up to it’s full potential. They need to have the creative freedom to make decisions that are right for Fallout 3… not Fallout 1 or 2.

    My only concern is that I hope Bethesda does not transition some of the features seen in Oblivion, such as “insta-travel” and “difficulty-scaled enounters.” I beat the main storyline in Oblivion at level 6. Seriously. I just happened to find the right portal and, using sign of the Atronoch, I was nearly invincible. I welcomed magical attacks because they powered my heal spells. Bow and arrow did everything else. Maybe I just had the right character for the job, but I was seriously disappointed to beat Oblivion’s main storyline at only level 6.

    I sincerely hope Bethesda doesn’t make the same mistake with Fallout 3. Otherwise, I have the utmost confidence that they will flesh out a fully believable post-apocalyptic world. I’m excited to see what they come up with. — John

  7. Inside the Vault? I thought there’s sth about Fallout3 in here. What is going on with this game? Why Fall 2008? Why wait THAT long? Update this site and tell sth about F3.

  8. This is a cool idea. Showing us a little bit about the people involved with FO3 gives us a good idea of what kind of talent is being devoted to the best series ever.

  9. Fallout 3 have to be good ! I’m pretty sure that it will ! And i’m sure that guys that are working on this game will avoid errors like those that were done by devs of DeusEx 2.

    Just take your time, think, imagine and give us the BEST !

  10. Sorry for all Bethesda guys, but with this Fallout 3 you are simply killing the saga.

    Taking a great classic like fallout and making what you are trying to make… Sometimes better be quiet and not touch what is a classic and one of greatest masterpieces of PC Game world.

    Fallout 3 is profanation, and only a way to gain money with a classic, converted to a crappy game.

  11. It’s pretty clear from reading most of the Dev’s postings that they are all;
    Fans of RPGs
    Fans of MAKING RPGs
    (for the most part) Big fans of Fallout…like you…..and me..

    so…stop whining, making assumptions that its a cash grab, complaining about purity and tradition

    rememeber….Fallout was born from a traditional PnP GURPS tabletop RPG, if all the purists back then had had their say, we probably never would have seen 1 and 2, let alone be able to gripe about 3

  12. Kurt, if you’re reading this, I have a one-signature petition requesting that you tell us what, exactly, the hist did to the Daedra during the Oblivion Crisis. Yep, MK spilled the beans like he always does. Filthy with it, he is.