Exclusive Developer Diary and Interview on Returning to Elona
Elona is a famed, revered, and beloved place in Guild Wars lore. Since the announcement of Guild Wars 2, players have been dying to make their way back to the Crystal Desert. We are happy today to share with you an exclusive look at the recreation of the iconic locations in Guild Wars 2, and how ArenaNet is approaching such a herculean task.
MMORPG: Was the story in Path of Fire a long time in the making? Or did the team change direction on the path towards the Crystal Desert?
Matthew Medina: We started work on the Path of Fire story almost immediately after we shipped Heart of Thorns. Thankfully, we had a pretty clear roadmap for the story up front because Living World had set the stage for us and we knew that we were going to be chasing after Balthazar in the Crystal Desert. So the overall direction was pretty solid from the very beginning, but even with our end goal in mind, how we got there took time to develop, and it was a good few weeks of meetings and collaboration before we had the major chapters outlined and the main narrative beats that we wanted.
Scott McGough: We had always planned to return to the Crystal Desert, as far back as the launch of Guild Wars 2; we decided to take the story there after Heart of Thorns, and after Heart of Thorns launched, we worked in concert with the Living World Season 3 team to make sure we bridged the gap between Heart of Thorns, Season 3, and Path of Fire. The particulars of the story evolved over the course of the dev cycle, but we knew the action would center around Balthazar and his campaign to kill Elder Dragons.
MMORPG: Many Guild Wars 1 fans will be super excited to see their old stomping ground from Nightfall return to the franchise again- can we expect many throwbacks to the classic stories of the desert, or is this foray taking us outside the scope of Nightfall?
Scott McGough: We definitely set out to honor the region’s rich history while building on and expanding it for the modern era. A lot has changed in the desert region since the original Guild Wars, but players will recognize many key locations; we’ve also made sure to include plenty of callbacks to Guild Wars content. That said, we’ve also taken pains to show how the landscape, culture, and people have evolved and changed since we saw them last, having been shaped by the influence of Elder Dragons and tyrannical undead liches.
Connie Griffith: We were absolutely deliberate in trying to find ways to incorporate the events and places of Nightfall into Path of Fire. In fact, part of the challenge and excitement of going back to the Crystal Desert was trying to find a way to pick up old themes, revisit iconic locations, and honor the memory of Nightfall in a way that made sense given that two hundred years plus have passed. I know for myself, I definitely spent some time doing careful research and talking with some of the devs who’d actually worked on Nightfall, to get a better feel for what made certain places or events memorable to players and to make sure I did justice to them.
Matthew Medina: You’ll definitely see throwbacks! In fact, what makes Path of Fire special for us is that it’s a return to areas featured in both Prophecies and Nightfall, so there’s opportunities to return to many of our iconic locations from the first game and check in with how they’ve evolved. It was a boon for us to have so many important landmarks from the annals of Tyrian history. In fact, one of the challenges we faced on the story team was working out how to incorporate places relevant to Guild Wars lore without it feeling like we were just taking players on a tour of Tyria. In the end, we landed on what we feel is a good balance of returning to historic locales and discovering new places both in the story and in the open world.
MMORPG: Guild Wars 2 allows players to play as many of the races of Tyria - but lately the story as taken a very human centric approach, from the White Mantle to the Human gods, even as far as players of all races taking life binding oaths to join a secret human organization. Has this been a conscious move for the story team, or just the natural development of the plot?
Matthew Medina: More the latter, in that we’ve known for a while that we wanted to account for the story of the human gods, and so the nature of the plot and character moments required to address that narrative has shaped some of the content around the Living World and Path of Fire to be more human oriented. It wasn’t a deliberate decision along the lines of “let’s do human stories for a while”.
Connie Griffith: I don’t know if this was a conscious decision so much as it was an inevitable and natural progression of the story, considering we were returning to the Crystal Desert and revisiting places that were important in Nightfall. Thanks to Palawa Joko, Elona’s been in isolation for the last few centuries so there hasn’t been much contact (or any) with some of the more recent non-human races. That being said, knowing that we would be dealing with one of the human gods meant that the narrative focus would inevitably shift to humans, not that the other races of Tyria aren’t also affected by Balthazar’s actions. Personally, I was really interested in what this would mean for the humans of Tyria and welcomed the chance to delve into what that meant for humans a bit more, especially for characters like Kasmeer who have spent their whole lives worshipping the Six.
Scott McGough: It was more of a natural development of the plot; whenever we can, we like to tie up loose ends or unresolved plot threads as part of telling the current story. Many of those loose ends were human-centric because original Guild Wars players and plotlines were 100% human, so the focus consequently fell on humanity.
MMORPG: How much time does it take to get the narrative off the ground and into the hands of the development team? How late is too late to make changes to the story?
Scott McGough: It’s hard to say, as there wasn’t really a distinct Narrative-only phase of development. Narrative and content design worked hand-in-hand on Path of Fire from the very beginning, so that the plot and character arcs evolved alongside the content and gameplay. We were making changes (polishes and clarifications) to the story presentation right up until the last possible moment.
Matthew Medina: The development team are pretty involved from the beginning. We have a really collaborative approach to our story with Guild Wars 2, such that designers and writers get together pretty early on, and even in pre-production designers begin implementing the skeleton of story beats that we’re pretty confident that we will have. One of the things that we’ve tried to instill in our studio’s culture is iteration, so the quicker we get things into the game, the quicker we can see what’s working and what’s not, and adapt.
Connie Griffith: I say this with love and a giant grin on my face, but apparently it is never too late to make changes to the story :D
On a more serious note, I’m really proud of the fact that our team is constantly trying to create story that is both meaningful and fun, but at the same time answer player expectations. You see, we don’t create story for a game in a vacuum and I would argue you can’t, at least not good story. As devs, we’re on the forums, on social media, on Reddit—we care about what players think and the emotional investment players have in our characters and story. If that means we sometimes have to scramble on the design side to make sure story is right, then sometimes that’s just what has to happen. In the end it’s absolutely worth it.
MMORPG: As something that threatens not just the Commander, but also the entire world, should we be expecting a big involvement from every order of Tyria in this story such as The Pact, The Order of Whispers or Charr Legions?
Scott McGough: There is an organized response to the crisis in the desert on a national level, but after Heart of Thorns (and as dramatized at the start of Living World Season 3,) the player character has stepped away from the Pact and its efforts to field a large-scale, international fighting force, and is now focusing on solutions delivered by a small, highly skilled guild of adventurers.
Matthew Medina: At the time of Path of Fire, only the Durmand Priory has sent representatives to the Crystal Desert, because of their intense interest in the magical history of this region. With a story of the magnitude of the conflict with Elder Dragons, there’s always a possibility that we’ll see the other forces from Central Tyria becoming embroiled in the narrative before too long.
MMORPG: The question everyone is dying to know- how big is the involvement of the other human gods going to be in the coming story?
Scott McGough: Good question! You’ll have to play PoF to find the answers.
MMORPG: Does the shift away from ‘hunting down the Elder Dragons’ allow the team more freedom in what stories they get to tell?
Scott McGough: It does. It allowed us to vary up the antagonist and avoid falling into the pattern of each expansion featuring a decisive clash with an Elder Dragon. It also allowed us to present an antagonist that is more personal and relatable than the Elder Dragons, who are so gargantuan, awe-inspiring, and utterly inhuman that they can come across as too alien and remote to react to the player’s actions.
Matthew Medina: On the one hand this does allow us, for example, to turn our attention towards antagonists who are more expressive and relatable, rather than an Elder Dragon which is more like a force of nature. But on the other hand, the Elder Dragons are always part of the backdrop of the main stories we tell in Guild Wars 2, such that even when we are dealing with other stories, they remain the most dire threat to the long-term future of Tyria. I personally think they make better contextual threats than they do as our main antagonists, however. I’m excited about how we are continually evolving this story around the looming threat that the Elder Dragons pose to the people of Tyria.