Oh, the life of a massively multiplayer role-playing game. Modern games typically evolve and grow even after they're fully released, but MMOGs have strikingly lengthy lifespans. Guild Wars 2 is no exception; the Living World's second season has just reached its mid-season finale, so it seemed like a great opportunity to talk to developer ArenaNet about how its artistic and musical themes have matured to suit the expanding story. Thankfully, chief art director Daniel Dociu and composer Maclaine Diemer were gracious enough to fill me in on their roles in Guild Wars 2's continued development. (Fun fact: Dociu was the character reference for Half-Life 2's Father Grigori!)
Diemer was also kind enough to provide photos and video of his orchestral sessions with the Brandenburg State Orchestra Frankfurt, which took place at Konzerthalle Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Shadow of the Dragon is Diemer's own work; composer Leif Chappelle composed The World Summit. May those clips delight you as much as they delight me!
The Music of Guild Wars 2's Living World, Featuring Composer Maclaine Diemer
You created the first new music for Guild Wars 2 since the original Jeremy Soule score. What are some of the ways you stay true to the original music without sacrificing your own musical desires? Ultimately, how important was the original music when crafting your own tracks?
Jeremy's music is something I'm always cognizant of when writing my own music. I listen to Jeremy's music every day in one way or another, and my hope is that the music I write can hold its own alongside his. He obviously casts such an enormous shadow over the Guild Wars franchise and it's impossible to ignore that. When writing music that needs to fit into a sound or mood already established by Jeremy, I try to make sure I don't deviate too far. If it's for something new, like the new Drytop map we've introduced in Season 2 of the Living World content, I have a bit more leeway to try some things I might not otherwise, and that's very exciting.
Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that I am not the only person who has contributed new music since the game shipped. One of our game designers, Leif Chappelle, has contributed several pieces, and a composer named Stan LePard wrote a few early on as well.
Game composers aren't just composers, but performers, conductors, and producers in their own right. What roles do live musicians play in the score, and what role does technology play? In today's musical climate, is it difficult to balance those roles?
The music technology available these days (speaking specifically about orchestral sampling software) is both a blessing and a curse to the composer, I think. On the one hand, it does something that wasn't really possible 15 to 20 years ago. It allows you to hear in a pretty accurate way what your music will sound like when played by a full orchestra without having to actually go out and hire one to play it. On the other hand, it can cause you to misrepresent what a real orchestra is actually capable of. Woodwind players need to actually breathe every now and then (much to my chagrin). Whether using samples to just demo a piece or for the final product, I always try to take reality into account when I'm writing. I don't want to set false expectations when it's time to record the real thing.
With Season 2 of the Living World, we recorded most of the music live for the first time. It was something I had worked towards for the last couple of years, because no matter how good the samples are, they just can't match the emotion and expression of a room full of incredibly talented musicians bringing a piece of music to life. However, there are some samples mixed in with the live recordings, mostly percussion. It's easier to control the mix of big drums or loud cymbals if they are separate from the rest of the orchestra. In some of the battle music, there is some sampled brass in there as well to bolster the real thing. If this were a Hollywood production, we might be able to hire a dozen French horns, but in reality we only had four. The samples just give it a bit more punch, but are mixed low so that the real thing takes precedent. There's also some synth stuff here and there as well. It's toned down compared to a modern military FPS or sci-fi game, however. It just helps to add atmosphere.
How frequent and detailed were your collaborations with the art team? Did you see the new content in action before you began to write, or were you part of the design process from the beginning?
In a perfect world, audio and music would be heavily involved right from the very start, but that's rarely the case, especially with the speed with which we put out new content. Fortunately, it's very easy to go talk to the writers and designers whenever I have questions about lore or important story events. I'll also check out any new concept art (my favorite part) and take some screenshots in game. Our internal documentation is also pretty extensive, so I can look at what's being planned, then go check it out for myself in the game. Often times the content won't be complete, but I can at least get a sense of what the high level mood is all about. It's still a little bit of a roll of the dice when it all comes together in the end. Before we recorded the music live, our art director, Daniel Dociu, put together a video showing off the new areas for an internal company presentation and used my demo versions of the music to play over it. It was the first time I was able to hear everything in context with the final polished maps, and it was a HUGE relief that it all worked together really well.
Game players, especially those that play fantasy games, have a certain expectation of what kind of music they will be hearing. Are you most concerned with meeting those expectations or subverting them--or a little of both?
I think it's important to at least satisfy what people expect from a game like Guild Wars 2, but that doesn't stop me from trying new things when I feel it's going to make the music stronger. It also allows me to stretch as a musician and composer, which is important on a personal level. There are some orchestral colors that I'm trying out that I don't hear a lot of these days, and I'm trying to get some of that happening in my new stuff. Jeremy's music makes use of these wonderful, complex chords in the string section, but there are other sections of the orchestra that I feel can be just as beautiful and complex.
With the new Drytop map, since it's all about this windswept desert environment, I wanted to convey that in the music. So, you hear much more of the focus being put on the woodwinds. The things they play have these pulses and swells, like wind blowing through a canyon or over a sand dune. You almost never hear that much woodwind stuff these days in games and movies, I think, but I just love the way that section sounds, so I'm writing for them to satisfy myself.
Also, every once in a while I catch myself slipping something into the music that surprises me. I absolutely love the pop, rock, and soul music of the '70s, and there have been a couple of times where it has come out in unexpected ways. There was one time I was noodling away on something on the piano, and I realized a melody I was working on had striking similarities to a Carpenters song. Most recently, it happened with a chord progression for one of the new Drytop pieces, where it was the same jazzy chords from a Kool and the Gang song. By the time the pieces are finished, it's all been mutated a bit and covered up with the orchestration, but I like leaving things like that in there as an homage to music I love. Your own work is the sum of your influences, so you might as well embrace it. I'm sure Kool and the Gang had a place like Tyria in mind when they were writing their music.
The Art of Guild Wars 2's Living World, Featuring Chief Art Director Daniel Dociu
Players had a chance to affect the course of the story during the Living World content. How did this impact the way you built environments and individual assets? Were choices set up in such a way where the art team wasn't drastically affected, or did you have to be particularly nimble?
The needs of the Living World content have most definitely reshaped, rather thoroughly, our art asset production pipelines. The ambitious release cadence has acted as a forcing function reconsidering our established approach and procedures. The emphasis has indeed been on improving planning, interdisciplinary communication, shortening the duration of the iterative process, enhancing our ability to test and react promptly, as well as to distribute and stagger the production towards multiple releases across several teams. Also, allowing more interaction on the player part with the environment often entails building multiple states for certain props, which results in an increase in workload and complexity.
The game draws elements from science fiction, fantasy, and elsewhere. This allows you to make environments and characters incredibly diverse, but you must also combine those into a cohesive visual language. What are some of the way you make Tyria look like one consistent world in the midst of the racial and environmental variety?
The coherent look is primarily the result of the many years of combined experience the more senior members of the art team bring to the process. The style is mostly passed along through tribal knowledge from the many artists on the team who've been part of building the franchise for over a decade to the younger newcomers. I often say: a Living World calls for Living Art which is why our art style is constantly yet organically evolving. Also, I have never been obsessive about consistency: monotony and redundancy bothers me more than eclecticism. Within reason occasional aberrations from consistency add plausibility and spice to our world.
You collaborate with the composer to ensure a cohesive audiovisual experience. Are there changes you have made based on the music that you have heard, or has there been any kind of musical inspiration that led to a particular design?
Sound and visuals go indeed hand-in-hand and communication happens both spontaneously as well as through structured channels. We share our most recent experiments with the sound team and vice versa. As far as music is concerned, probably the closest collaboration takes place during the development of in-game cut-scenes or promotional trailers, where storytelling is especially critical and greatly benefits from musical support.