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Telling a coherent story of any kind in an online game that spans multiple years and expansions is no easy task. And if you're interested in the intricacies of that particular type of storytelling, you may want to check out this GamesIndustry.biz interview with a couple of ArenaNet's narrative designers where they talk about working with scheduled content, putting the players at the center of a story, gradually adding new features and characters, and more, while using Guild Wars 2 as an example.
How do you juggle a story with thousands of smaller sub-stories, hundreds of characters and locations, six years of narrative backstory, five years before that of prequel story, and millions of main characters all experiencing that story in different ways?
"You have to plan," Alex Kain tells GamesIndustry.biz. Kain is a narrative designer on Guild Wars 2, a six-year-old MMO that's about to see the release of the fourth season of its "Living World," a story-driven series of content updates. He, along with fellow narrative designer Aaron Linde, have worked on a wide range of different narratives in their careers. But MMOs with longform storytelling over months and years require a different approach from just about any other genre.
"Very early on, ever since [Narrative Director] Tom Abernathy joined us, there's been a big emphasis on what he refers to as 'breaking the story,'" Kain continues. "That's figuring out what beats you want to hit, what characters you want to develop over time. And figuring out how you're going to tell that across a larger, longer arc. When you're dealing with an MMO, it's like working on a television show. You're not just working on a single thing."
"On the other hand, there's a huge benefit to it," adds Linde. "We have the opportunity to get feedback constantly from our playerbase. We do releases every two months on average, constantly, and we're in a constant dialogue with our players. We get to see how they react to it. On release days, we're watching the Reddit threads, we're looking for people to get really excited for our stuff. That helps us determine what we're going to go in the future.
"Releasing on that kind of schedule gives us advantages you don't get on a three-year product cycle, like where you spend the whole time just praying, 'God, I hope people like this. I hope we don't screw this up.' But here we launch something, we see how it does, we take what we learn from it, and we keep soldiering on."