One of the hallmarks of Guild Wars 2, aside from its visual beauty, has always been its soundscapes. For Path of Fire, the most recent expansion, ArenaNet enlisted the help of composer Maclaine Diemer. We spoke to him about his work, and the upcoming vinyl release of the soundtrack.
MMORPG: Tell us what got you started in music, it is such an amazing job to be a composer.
Maclaine Diemer: This could easily be a very long answer, so I’ll try to keep it brief. I played trumpet when I was very young, all the way through high school. I began playing guitar as well when I was about 12, and during my teen years, slowly spent less time playing the trumpet and more playing the guitar. I ended up going to school to study music as a guitar player, but was very quickly humbled by the other amazing students there. I figured it would be a better use of my time to try to learn to be the best musician I could possibly be, not just the best guitar player, so I started to study piano, songwriting, synthesis, studio production, and anything else that seemed interesting. As I got close to graduating, I did think about how cool writing music for games would be as a job and pursued it a little bit, but put most of my energy into playing in bands and trying to be a rock star. I spent the majority of my 20s touring around the US and occasionally Canada, playing shows and having all sorts of rock and roll adventures. It was an amazing time, but as the years went on, it seemed less and less likely that the rock star thing would pan out, so I decided to switch gears before I got too cynical and jaded about a career in music.
At the time, I was in a band with a person who was also a programmer at Harmonix Music Systems, a Boston based game studio known for making music games like Rock Band. He knew I was interested in working in games, and the studio was expanding at the time, so he said he would pass along my resume to the hiring manager. They hired me, and it really changed my life. It was the first time I felt like I was at a job where I liked everyone around me and was doing something I loved and was good at. I spent a couple years there before I felt like I needed a change of scenery. The job was great, but I was tired of living in Boston and was looking for a new challenge. I applied to tons of different jobs all over the world, but the only studio that got back in touch with me was ArenaNet. At this point, I thought my career would be strictly sound design for games, not music. It’s hard enough to break into the industry for game audio, let alone for music, and I was perfectly happy doing just sound design, since there’s a crossover in the skills required to do both. After a couple of years doing sound in the run up to the release Guild Wars 2, the studio decided to change the way they handled music, from an outside contractor to someone in house. Originally, I was tasked with finding the person to hire since I was “musical”. I realized that this was an amazing opportunity that would probably never come up again, so I asked the studio if they would let me take over. It was a massive risk, since I had absolutely no track record of any kind to prove to them I could score a big game like Guild Wars 2. After making my case and asking to let me prove myself, they agreed, and it’s something I’ll forever be in their debt for. My life had already changed once when I got into games, and this was an even bigger change, because it was quite literally a dream come true.
MMORPG: You created a beautiful soundtrack for Guild Wars 2, I still listen to it in my car, what is you inspiration for the world?
MD: Thank you! The inspiration can come from many different places, but most often it comes from discussing the story with the design and narrative teams to see what kinds of emotions we want to convey for different areas and different story steps along the way. The depth of knowledge these teams have for the lore of Guild Wars, and the incredible effort they put into developing the story of the world further is always amazing to me. Then, of course, there’s the art team. I’m always blown away by the talent of everyone on that team, and how well they capture the excitement of the world in a single image. I spend a lot of time poring over their work and it never fails to inspire me. Also, if the new maps and content is far enough along, I’ll load up a build of the game and play as much as I can, taking screenshots along the way.
Another major influence, of course, is the musical tone already established by Jeremy Soule in the original Guild Wars and the core version of Guild Wars 2. He created such a wonderful tapestry of music for the game, and I’m always trying to make sure that my work fits in alongside his as best as possible.
MMORPG: There is something epic about high fantasy music, how do you see it unfolding when you play the game?
MD: My intention with the music is always to make sure it serves the emotion of the story being told, whether it’s a frantic boss fight or a quiet moment where you’re just exploring a new area. I think it’s important to know when to have big drums pounding and loud horns blasting away and when to scale back a bit. The wonderful thing about the music being primarily orchestral is that it can cover that whole range easily. Whether or not my music is capable of taking full advantage of what an orchestra can do is another story, but I try my best!
MMORPG: A huge difference from Rock Band, what is your favorite thing about composing for video games?
MD: It’s literally a dream come true. I’ve been making music in one form or another since I was very young, and had so many times during my life where I wasn’t sure I’d be able to have a career making music. I’m so grateful to ArenaNet for the opportunity to do it at this level. Outside of that, I think the most rewarding part is meeting and hearing from fans and feeling their love for the game and the music. Composing is mostly a solitary thing, where 90% of the time you’re locked in a room with a piano or a computer trying to come up with something new. When the game or expansion is finally released and the music is out there in the world, you start to see whether or not your work resonates with the players. I’m always humbled by the fans who take the time to notice and appreciate the music. It makes everything I put into each piece worth it.
MMORPG: Many of the songs go from melodic like “A New Journey” to chaos filled with drums like “Army of the War God” how do you approach these styles?
MD: It’s important to mention here that I did not write any of the combat music that’s in Path of Fire. I’ve written my fair share of combat pieces for Guild Wars in the past, but when it was time to work on this expansion, I decided to get some help. Personally, I don’t feel like writing big action music is a strength of mine, so I wanted to get some people involved who I thought would do a better job. Wilbert Roget, II and Brendon Williams are both incredibly talented composers, and I think they really nailed it. For some pieces, I would send them a melody or bit of thematic material to use as a starting point, and they would take it and turn into something jaw dropping and powerful. My preference lies in writing the softer, prettier things in the game, and I love that there’s such a strong contrast between my work and theirs.
MMORPG: Many players hear theme music when they play, what is your choice of background music during your normal day?
MD: Well, if it’s a work day, I of course have to listen to my own music all day. Sometimes I wish I could listen to music more just for pleasure during the day. When I’m done working, I like to mix it up a bit. I’ll listen to classical music like Debussy, Mahler, Rimsky-Korsakov, or Ravel, whose composition and orchestration are second to none and their work is deeply inspiring. I’ll also listen to film scores to try and learn from all of the great composers in that world like John Williams, James Newton Howard, Basil Poledouris, and Miklós Rózsa. I do think it’s important to listen to a wide variety of music, though, and not just the same kind of thing you write. Lately I’ve been listening to pop acts like Lucius and Ryan Adams, who I think are just incredible, and even Kanye West’s most recent album, which I love. My latest obsession as of this week is totally out of left field, however. I’ve been really getting into the original cast album for Steven Sondheim’s musical Company. There’s some amazing word play in the lyrics and the way they’re set to the music, and the music itself is really wonderful and different than your average orchestral score.
MMORPG: What are some of your plans for the future in video games?
MD: At the moment I’m enjoying a bit of a break after a year and a half of hard work on Path of Fire, but it won’t be long before it’s time to ramp up again for more Guild Wars content. There’s a lot of exciting stuff coming up, and I’m excited to see where that leads me musically.
The soundtrack is also available for immediate digital download: