Its been a while since I last officially interviewed ArenaNet's Lead Writer, Bobby Stein, for a question and answer session. I think the last was back in July 2013. Having sat down with both Bobby and Steven Waller for a very brief discussion on Preparing For The Point Of No Return, there was too little time to really drill down on any specific questions. We did however decide that it would be good to get together at some point to discuss Guild Wars 2, its story and the Living World model. Fast forward many weeks and right before Christmas, Bobby was kind enough to put some time aside. Although we weren't able to ask several questions due to ArenaNet's strict policy on spoilers and future planning (we tried!), we managed a fair few. Here's how we got on.
Ten Ton Hammer: You’ve stated to me before that the Living World team drew influences from a variety of sources in the entertainment industry when constructing Season 2. Something that’s common is the use of "cliffhangers". Do you think these are always necessary?
Bobby: We looked at a lot of different types of entertainment—books, films, television shows, other games—for ideas on how we could evolve season 2 of the Living World. Granted, Guild Wars 2 is a game, not a television show, so we have to balance all the elements of a release along with the story and themes. Probably the biggest change we’ve made is adapting the season to fit a serial structure rather than an episodic one. Cliff-hangers are just one of the tools we use. We also try to tease plot points and do reveals in other ways where appropriate. So no, they’re not always necessary, but they are often effective.
Ten Ton Hammer: There’s a real mix of opinions on Living World Episode length. Some insist it’s too short, some find the bite-sized pieces fit their lifestyle perfectly. How do you go about judging what’s right in terms of play time?
Bobby: We’re not locked in to a specific episode length like a TV show, where they’re obligated to fill 23 or 46 minutes of airtime. We’re more flexible to adjust the story length as necessary (while respecting our schedule and resource constraints, of course).
We start out with the story we want to tell and the gameplay we want to build, and then the team works together to take those ideas, improve upon them, and build them. There’s always a balancing act; if you look at each of the episodes, the play length varies, but players can adjust playing through the content for their play style.
It’s a game first and foremost. The narrative needs to work in concert with the gameplay and not be separated from it. Episode to episode, we put a lot into the releases outside the story, and I think it’s important to remember that. We’re not just delivering a narrative but evolving a virtual world over time.
In short, we want each episode’s story to feel satisfying, leaving you with something to think about when that episode’s narrative is complete. It should also make you want to spend more time doing other things in our world when you’re done.
Ten Ton Hammer: A friend inspired me for this question (thanks Will!). Do you think the Elder Dragons are good antagonists? Do you think players find it difficult to hate them like we would a typical character such as Scarlett or Faolain because they’re simply a force of nature with basics needs and desires (to harm) rather than being complex villains we can truly despise?
Bobby: It’s true, dragons in our universe are forces of nature and not characters in the traditional sense. Because of that we try and emphasize how their actions are pulling the personal elements of our world apart – from races and regions to families, and even friendships.
Ten Ton Hammer: Something I miss a great deal from Living World is the amazing lip synching that was once a feature of all cutscenes and the lack of bespoke animations to convey character emotion. I think both of these would lift sometimes sterile exchanges to a much higher standard. Is this even feasible against your time constraints?
Bobby: It’s amazing how a few seconds of a well-crafted scene can speak volumes. We put a lot of resources into our cinematic presentation during season 2 to not just show big, epic events but to also bring the camera in closer for more intimate moments. In fact, a lot of energy was spent coordinating between narrative, design, animation, audio, and programming folks to build more of these moments, and to give them greater emotional impact.
My advice: be sure to log in for episode 8.
Ten Ton Hammer: To discuss Episode 7 briefly, it brought mechanics we’d never seen before and some of them I’d consider risky to almost enforce stealth on players was a brilliant twist. How did this idea come about and was it one of the more difficult Episodes to create? Were you worried people would just want to kill stuff?
Bobby: There’s something powerful about experiencing events from a different character’s perspective, especially when that means you might be engaging in acts that you wouldn’t ordinarily be a part of. Fan reaction has been varied and packed with emotions, with some people praising the decision as a bold move and others being repulsed at being “forced” to do some pretty horrible things as Caithe. We felt it was an important moment in the story that couldn’t be as effectively told any other way.
The way it came about was through a lot of discussion and debate among the team. It was a pretty hot debate, actually. We thought about just showing that moment in a flashback. We thought about just having the player be themselves and watching the situation play out. But we thought the most exciting thing was to have people relive history, so that’s what we went with. It was one of the hardest things to build in the release, but we felt it got the story across in some interesting ways while also opening up some cool gameplay.
Ten Ton Hammer:I’ve felt that Caithe’s storyline in particular was pretty dark: tortured Sylvari and slaughtering Centar. Can we expect more of this tone? I actually think it’s suits Guild Wars 2’s lore really well.
Ten Ton Hammer: While the current state of the Zephyrites seems quite dire, is there at least any consideration whether or not we will ever visit the beloved Labyrinth Cliffs again?
Bobby: Let’s not get so far ahead that we’re spoiling things for you. Who knows if we’ve seen the last of them.
Ten Ton Hammer: Are the Sylvari Dragon minions (purified or otherwise), please circle one: No/No
Bobby: That sounds like a great theme for a future episode.
Ten Ton Hammer: Internally, do the writers have a list somewhere of the open plot threads to use?
Ten Ton Hammer: Will the Priory Chef from the Echoes of the Past really make up a way of cooking Bloodstone Dust and Dragonite and make something useful out of it?
Bobby: Log in to Wintersday and talk to Sous-Chef Seimur Oxbone for more details.
Ten Ton Hammer: Can we get some canonical information about the maturation rate of Charr cubs? What age do they typically enter Fahrar, and what's the average age of a newly formed warband?
Bobby:There comes a time in a charr cub’s life when their primus takes them aside and tells them the story of the birds and the beedogs, when their voices start to deepen and…
Wait, why am I answering this question?
Ten Ton Hammer would like to thank Bobby for taking the time to answer these questions so close to Christmas. We would also like to thank the Guild Wars 2 Reddit community for submitting their own questions - we're sorry we couldn't pick more!