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How developing Guild Wars 2's living stories is like writing for TV

Guild Wars 2’s living stories initiative has been a huge success, and that’s testament to ArenaNet’s dedication to the idea. In the last year, they’ve fundamentally restructured their studio around a rotating system of tiny teams, each assigned three or four months in advance to one of the game’s bi-monthly updates.

As new characters develop and stories connect, I have to ask: how on Earth do their writers keep up?

ArenaNet president Mike O’Brien explains: “The basic answer of it is we’ve got an amazing writing team, and they plan out way, way in advance of any of this living world development: what overall you’re going to see in terms of character development in the game, in terms of big emotional beats that we want players to experience in the story, in terms of what’s going to be happening in the world of Tyria.”

Those writers then collaborate with the living world teams, who O’Brien empowers to “do something that’s going to rock the world”.

“So the writing team sits down from them right from the beginning and says, ‘Here’s the character development we’re trying to see, here’s the overall story arc we’re trying to see. What can we do that’s going to be a really amazing world-changing event that furthers the character development and furthers this overarching storyline?’,” he says. “And then they sit down together and design it.”

“It has a lot of similarities to the way that a television season can play out,” adds WvW coordinator Devon Carver. “Like with a serialised show with a through-line, the writing team know the big beats that they want to hit, they know the important things that need to happen. But then when it comes down to the nitty-gritty and the details, the teams that are involved in actually building that content have a lot of control over what ends up being created.”

ArenaNet keep track by defining the large events in their plotlines early on - but allow individual teams the freedom to come up with ideas within that framework.

“Also, it allows us to adapt to things that come up and really resonate with both the community and the internal team,” says Carver. “So if we create some number of characters in one living world release and everybody is really excited about them, we can find ways to bring them back later - even if we don’t really change the arc of the whole storyline that’s playing out.”

Ultimately, that broader arc has to ensure that Tyria is “a place players want to come back to”. 

“So the world is the bit that needs to be the most compelling,” concludes game design lead Jon Peters. “You can kind of see that in the living world releases that we’re doing. They have become and will continue to become more world-driven. That’s going to be more the theme going forward rather than less.”

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