Verene: The sheer size of the story in Guild Wars 2 is massive – I remember a recent blog post saying that there’s 30 storyline splits in just the first ten levels. What kind of challenges did the writing team face in coming up with these branching storylines?
Peter: Our team had to constantly compare notes to make sure we were on the same page with the overarching storyline envisioned for our game and that we were hitting the right story beats to provide players with an interesting set of characters to spend time with. We wanted to be sure each of the many possible player decisions paid off in a satisfying way while also taking each of our iconic characters through an arc that saw them learn, change, and grow.
Angel: We started designing these storylines back in 2007, well before we knew exactly which game mechanics we would have available to us, so the initial designs were full of pie-in-the-sky ideas. As we progressed in the development process, we realized that we would never be able to do some of those things in an MMORPG environment, and we had to hunker down, evaluate, and redesign where needed. This meant that, in some cases, we rewrote the text for a particular portion of the story more than three times.
That’s iteration. With each redesign, the gameplay got tighter, and the story got better. The iterative process takes longer and produces a lot of discarded text, but it’s worth it because we come to a place where it all works beautifully together (text, gameplay, and art), and you get a final product that you can truly be proud of.
Bobby: Eric Flannum, Ree Soesbee, and Jeff Grubb drafted the personal story arcs near the beginning of Guild Wars 2 development, almost in a vacuum. This was at a time when the game’s core systems hadn’t been built yet and our content creation tools were in their infancy. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that the personal story team was formed and work began in earnest. That new group, consisting of various members from the content, lore, and writing design teams, revisited the original story outlines, making changes where necessary and iterating on the gameplay and plot until things felt right.
We learned some important lessons once our tools came online and we were able to build content inside the game world. Some character arcs and plot points that made sense in our heads showed less favorably on the monitor. There were logic gaps all over the place and many of our favorite characters came off as flat and uninteresting. After months of rigorous company playtests and feedback sessions, the story team went back to the drawing board armed with pages of notes. Encounters were adjusted, character motivations were shifted around, and thousands of new lines of dialogue and voice-over were implemented.
It was worth all the stress and aggravation, though, because the current versions of the starter story chapters (a.k.a. the “1–10 bits”) are more cohesive and engaging than the initial drafts. The story team gave the supporting characters more screen time with the player. They also implemented more ambient and triggered voice-over, which made for a more immersive play experience.
The writing team was then able to take the first draft dialogue, which was authored by various members of the story team, and further refine it to make it more conversational. A big part of the writing team’s job was to cut back on redundant information, rephrase lines to sound more in-character, and edit scenes and cinematics down to their most potent forms. The more time we had to spend on review and revision cycles, the tighter the scripts became.
So, the burden of personal storytelling was shared across maybe two dozen people. The designers came up with compelling scenarios, and with the story writers, they drafted the dialogue framework. The writing team further refined the dialogue for our actors to voice, and the animators brought it to life. It was a large collaboration that took place over several years.