At Bellevue-based ArenaNet, creating a video game world from scratch is a monumental and satisfying undertaking.
Full disclosure: I’m not a gamer. But as a writer, I have an inherent appreciation for storytelling, and video games certainly can fall into that category. I’ve often wondered how different the writing process is for a book or screenplay versus a video game. After spending some time with a couple gentlemen from a local gaming company, I can now say I get it.
Video game writers and developers basically are creating a world from nothingness: “And on the third day, the writers created the antagonist, and it was good.” Well, bad, I suppose. After all, they are antagonists. The creators of these worlds are tasked with developing rich, compelling content that would make Hollywood screenwriters run screaming from the room. And they absolutely love it.
Mike Zadorojny is the lead designer, and Bobby Stein is the studio narrative director at Bellevue-based ArenaNet, which creates the popular online fantasy games Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2. If anybody could tell me the process for writing a narrative video game, it was these two.
“For us at ArenaNet, we do not subscribe to the auteur method of doing things,” said Stein. “Everything we do is very collaborative. From story concept to execution, it might start with one group, but it quickly encompasses leads and creatives from all the different disciplines.”
Lots of bodies. Check. No divas.
“And we don’t really care where the ideas come from,” said Stein. “We’re constantly taking inspiration from all around us, our past experiences, TV shows we’ve watched, books we’ve read, other games we’ve played. And those ‘a-ha’ moments we’re always looking for come from many different people here. Writing for a game is truly a team experience.”
Linear vs. Non-linear Storytelling
The challenges of telling a cohesive story in a video game are indeed different than making one for film or television. One of the main differences is non-linear storytelling. In film and television, you have a beginning, middle, and end, but in games the story takes place in a completely realized world, so your experience of different plot points might change depending on your own actions. The player has the ability to push the story in another direction. Said Stein, “We generally have two types of story in a game: One is called the main line, or through line, or the golden path, which is the linear, classic story. But then we also have the story of the world, which is nonlinear, where you can experience it in any order.”
For Guild Wars 2, the Golden Path is, in simplest terms, a player, usually of humble beginnings, who grows into a hero and puts down a dragon that is threatening to destroy all life. There are twists and turns, and the player can make a lot of choices, but at the end of the day, it’s about stopping the dragon.
Besides nonlinear storytelling, the other major difference between traditional media and gaming is scale. Games are a lot bigger, like to an order of magnitude bigger. Stein once did a calculation and found that a typical motion picture is about 10,000 words, or a thousand lines of dialogue. But when Guild Wars 2 was shipped, it had 90,000 lines of dialogue and around 2.5 million words. To put that in perspective, War and Peace had 587,287 words.
The Never-ending Story
Guild Wars 2 is an online MMO, or massively multi-player online game, and since ArenaNet treats the game as a service, it is constantly adding content patches — new stories, new episodes that drop every couple months to give a new direction for where the world is growing and evolving. That means the story process is never-ending — the writers and designers are constantly developing new storylines and characters.
“In Guild Wars 2,” said Zadorojny, “there’s the one main storyline, the dragon. But that’s not the only threat in the world. For each content patch, we add in small-scale stories that are behind the scenes. For example, there are enemy factions that are teaming up together, and you start seeing the effect of these alliances in the world. So normally peaceful areas start becoming more hostile; more weaponry starts showing up. So now it’s become a mystery as to why this is all happening. We can introduce new characters that influence these events. Players now have to figure out who these new characters are, why they’re doing these things, what’s their motivation. We may also add in new land masses that players have never seen or experienced.”
In this regard, it is similar to a television serial, where each episode adds new developments. The difference is that there are dozens of micro-stories woven throughout that the player may or may not experience, but have to be written nonetheless.
Creating a large-scale game such as Guild Wars 2 is a monumental undertaking. “From concept to when we put it on the store shelves was about five years of development. MMOs are an investment,” said Zadorojny.
And it takes a lot of bodies. ArenaNet has about 150 people completely dedicated to developing and sustaining the Guild Wars world. And according to Zadorojny, everyone is fully invested.
“For us it was important to create this really big world that felt alive, so we wanted to make sure we got it right the first time,” Zadorojny said. “We wanted players to feel they could explore what was over the next hillside. That was the scope we set for ourselves.”
Stein said, “We’re very collaborative. We all know we’re going in the same direction. How we get there is the exciting part.” But once they get there, it’s an immense feeling of satisfaction. Creating an entire world from scratch is a biblical undertaking, so that feeling is entirely understandable.
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of “425 Business.”