In this exclusive interview, I sit down with ArenaNet's Lead Writer, Bobby Stein, to discuss all things story, delivery and the pressures since launch.
Lewis B: It's been almost two years since we last spoke over on Tap-Repeatedly.com. A lot has happened since then, most importantly with the very successful launch of Guild Wars 2. As the lead writer, how did you and your team find this period? Do you feel you reached the goals you and your team set for yourself? (i.e an immersive, ever-changing, story driven world?)
Bobby Stein: The post launch euphoria lasted all of about a day. Right after we released Guild Wars 2, I was already assigning team members to work on our next batch of live releases. While we were thrilled that the game sold (and continues to sell) very well, all we could see were the things we wanted to improve. You can't pour your blood, sweat, and tears into something for more than five years and not see a million things that you'd do differently, if given the chance.
We made some internal changes to the team that, while drastic, improved our ability to concentrate on the story and dialog. Editing, which was formerly a sub-team of the Writing Team, was spun off to become a core services group. We then assumed storytelling responsibility for the Living World initiative, whereas before we were solely responsible for event and ambient (a.k.a. non-story) content.
Have we reached our goals as a team? Some. I think we've successfully created a handful of new characters that contrast with our existing iconics. Players either love or hate them, which to me is a good sign.
I'm also really happy that we've been able to give our existing characters, including some lesser-known ones like Lord Faren, some additional screen time. We've also tinkered around with some story delivery mechanics like flythrough cinematics in Flame and Frost, and our improved cinematics which debuted during Dragon Bash. I think our strongest storytelling moments come when we successfully integrate story into the gameplay, like we saw in the Flame & Frost: Retribution dungeon, for example.
Lewis B: How has your role changed since launch? Are you finding you still have time and freedom to iterate and craft your story lines/angles surrounding new content?
Bobby Stein: My role has evolved in several ways, which has made my job more fulfilling to be honest. Before, I was “the dialog guy” who was responsible for ambient and event VO and text. We assisted other teams that required writing support, but we did not have a large role in design and story decisions. I'm now directly involved with approving and guiding the stories and themes of each release.
My team is now more fully integrated with the design process, where we are responsible for the stories, characters, and presentation of those moments. It's a simultaneously wonderful, humbling, daunting, and frightening position to be in. When you couple that with multiple teams producing thematically connected stories in short development cycles, it's often stressful. But now that we've gone through the motions a number of times, it's getting a little easier to manage.
The real work comes from the people who are doing the implementation.
It's people like the narrative designers, writers, gameplay designers, artists, programmers, audio engineers, QA analysts, editors and other folks who are executing on the shared vision. I give creative direction and story guidance, and get my hands dirty writing once in a while, but the bulk of what you see and hear is due to the collaborative efforts of multiple Living World teams.
Lewis B: There’s a huge push at the moment at ArenaNet to produce said content quickly, to guarantee something new for the player base every month. A large amount of this obviously involves the writing teams. How are you finding this challenge? Have you had to drastically change the way in which you work?
Bobby Stein: We’ve had to adapt to an entirely new production process to write stories for the live game, which has required us to approach each release’s narrative needs very differently.
The tough thing about the Living World concept is that stories should mostly be self-contained within two releases. That's not to say that the characters can't have longer arcs or be involved in subplots, but the immediate stories need to wrap up rather quickly due to some internal dependencies and how we're dividing up labor and so on. That can make it hard to give the sense that the world is evolving, especially when some of this great new content is removed shortly after it's been released.
We’ve listened to feedback and are evolving the concept of what our Living World releases can be. Now that we have four development teams up and running with longer lead and production times, we’re going to focus on building experiences that have a larger effect on the world. That includes leaving more content behind for everyone to experience for years to come.
Late last year, we were initially tasked with drafting a scalable, high-level story that could play out over months or years if necessary. We had to put enough thought and detail into the character arcs while also leaving plenty of wiggle room to account for design flexibility, art ideas, and team input. And while this was happening, our tech team was overhauling the tools pipeline so that multiple groups could be building content simultaneously without getting in each other’s way.
To put it into perspective, our first two Living World releases, Flame & Frost: Prelude and Flame & Frost: The Gathering Storm, had extremely short development cycles. The common misperception about these two releases is that there was supposed to be a huge narrative component to them when in reality they were meant to provide context for upcoming releases which would have much more gameplay and story. In essence, we were rolling out the Living World story in small phases while our tech and design were being solidified.
We used a combination of the mail, achievement, and map systems to provide players some direction while we continued internal discussions on building a proper tracking mechanism that could guide players through the Living World. I’m happy to say that our latest designs will go a long way in solving many of the usability and contextual issues that players are facing when trying to experience the Living World story.
While it may appear to some that we're tying up simple short stories every month, there is a larger narrative that we're building toward. We’re about to make some larger reveals that will put the previous events into context. In my opinion, the best moments in our game are when our characters are tied to compelling gameplay and beautiful art, so that’s what we’re striving for.
We've had to rethink our methods of story delivery post-ship. We no longer rely on the two-shot cinematic conversations to impart plot. Instead, we try to involve characters in the action to tell the story as it plays out. The Living World allows us to take some chances and do new things with the Guild Wars 2 story, so you can expect some surprises in the coming months.
Lewis B: Can you let us in on how you and your team are now going about your day-to-day? Has there been any major hurdles?
Bobby Stein: We have four Living World teams simultaneously developing content. They've each been given roughly the same amount of staff to work with, including a narrative designer to shape the plot and characters for a given release and an embedded writer to assist with dialog generation and revision. The entire feature team works together to merge story and gameplay ideas. Once their plan is approved, they spend the next couple of months executing on those ideas with content designers, artists, animators, programmers, sound designers, and QA.
Our biggest challenge as narrative designers and writers is communication, and the first step is for writers to understand each content type and how it maps to the essential elements of story.
For instance, open world dynamic events are very good at conveying and reinforcing themes, but aren’t necessarily great for character development. They’re non-linear by nature in that they run independently of player progression within a linear story path, so you can’t expect people to engage in a dynamic event and to immediately understand its relevance to a certain character that may or may not be present. This was evident in The Secret of Southsun and Last Stand at Southsun releases. All the story details and characters existed in the world and were available for players to experience, but since players lacked a proper system to direct them through content in a linear order, many were confused at how things tied together.
In addition to learning more about mechanics from our peers in design, we started hosting collaborative discussions with all members of a Living World team. This way the team members can ask questions about the characters and arcs, provide us with feedback, and brainstorm ways we can tell the story through gameplay and art instead of relying solely on scenes and cinematics. When all members of the team are invested, the end product is always of a higher quality.
Lewis B: How do you see yours and your team’s roles evolving: Do you think that the majority of players really care about the story and written content within the game and wider genre, or is there a sense that it will forever be a niche for those who don't want to just quest hunt?
Bobby Stein: My team has evolved over the past two years. Where the Writing Team was originally a mix of writers and editors who were tasked mostly with revising existing dialog and focusing on dynamic events and ambient scenes, we’ve now become storytellers who are trying to evolve the existing narrative of Guild Wars 2 in new ways.
If anything, our jobs have become more exciting and challenging because we have to learn to think like designers and not like writers. Dialog is only a fraction of our responsibilities. In essence, we’re all moving toward being narrative designers in that we have to bridge the gap between story and gameplay. I couldn’t be happier about that.
Our players want to be entertained. If a story resonates with them, they’ll appreciate it. If it’s poorly executed or gets in the way of their adventuring and exploring, then they’ll have something to say about it. But story and characters provide the player with context and without them, the game is reduced to its core mechanics. So even players who aren’t paying attention to a character’s arc will have a small appreciation, conscious or not, that we’re providing something more than a list of tasks and rewards.
Again, our job is to bridge narrative and gameplay in such a way that they are interwoven and don’t overshadow each other. It’s a delicate balance, but an absolutely necessary one. We didn’t build a living game world just so people could kill virtual monsters. It’s there so they can live out their heroic fantasies, go on thrilling adventures with their friends, experience unusual situations, and do things that they can only dream of in real life.
Part two of our Bobby Stein Interview can be found by clicking on the Waypoint below!