The Originality | Associate Narrative Director, ArenaNet Guild Wars 2, Bobby Stein
There is a new world in games. We experience new things there and are deeply touched by the growth that we could never experience in reality.
A new joy can never be created on its own; it is created through combination of different experiences and passion of different people, which is channeled into new possibilities. People are gathered to create one game, and their different capabilities and passion for quality create a new game.
We create another world, collecting pieces of different experiences.
Diverse superiorities < The Originality >
“Of course, not everything you do will be successful. However, regardless of the result, everything you learn through failure is valuable, and it gives you the momentum to improve your games in the ways that players want. I always try to look beyond my comfort zone, read things that make me uncomfortable and understand the viewpoints that aren’t my own. I look for inspiration everywhere, especially from my colleagues.”
Associate Narrative Director, Bobby Stein
Figuratively speaking, I am a shepherd, herding stories. My job is to collect as many ideas as possible to drive them forward in the best possible way to provide interesting narratives to users. More specifically, it is to discover storytelling experts around the world, to support and help develop them, and to create even more interesting narratives based on strong partnership with our colleagues from other disciplines, including design, art, and cinematics.
What we do is similar to the way that TV shows mesmerize their viewers. Good game narratives are one of the essential mechanisms through which players get immersed in games for a long time. Players connect with characters in an emotional way through a well-developed story and are soon completely captivated by the game. It adds an even richer meaning to the experience.
Narrative design: a combination of story and technology
Narrative design is collaboration between story and game play.
The narrative design that we pursue is actually the combination of two core technologies: game systems and narrative presentation. Our writers focus on characterization, plot, and voice-over, while the game designers actually implement the scenes and sequences that provide the sense of weight given to the narrative. That is why we create every story together with game designers. Narrative designers should be faithful to this role as a bridge between the disciplines of game design and writing, never forgetting that the stories they’re writing are meant for interaction.
Diverse experiences are channeled into games
‘Coming back’ to games
I have always loved games, ever since my uncle let me play them on his black and white TV set back in the early 1980s. I have also enjoyed writing since I was young. However, I could not imagine that both interests would lead me to a career in game development many years later. I first started to write columns about games for various media in my 30s and got the opportunity to participate in game development at ArenaNet in 2005.
In fact, I tried various things before I entered the game industry. I've admired video production since I was young, and I worked in the field of TV and advertising for several years. After that, I also worked in the financial industry for about five years. Throughout that time, I became convinced that game writing was the best thing for me so I pursued it in earnest. I'm glad I never gave up.
Since 2007, I have been responsible for creative management. I hire and train people on game storytelling techniques. Developing serialized game stories is similar to the way dramas and novels are written, but with the addition of interactivity and non-linearity. There are a lot of parallels, thankfully. As a leader, I feel the most rewarded when sharing my knowledge and promoting the team’s growth.
‘Experience’ means ‘creativity’
It’s been a long, winding road to get where I am now. When I was little, I was interested in many different things, like math and science. I’d watch nature and science documentaries with my dad. I later wrote short stories in grade school, and eventually started making short films and sketches in high school and college.
Throughout my life I tried to learn and identify the most interesting parts of the games, movies, and books I was consuming, and I also drew inspiration from those around me by listening to their lived experiences. Developing an appreciation for all these things: storytelling, filmmaking, finance, science, technology, and empathy have converged into what is now my career.
For instance, what I learned from the TV and financial industries is directly related to the work of narrative design. Our team creates stories based on what they know, what they’ve researched, and through their lived experiences. And what I learned from the aforementioned industries is linked to understanding how to scope a project–how much time and labor is required to make something satisfying under constraints.
Growth is a lifelong pursuit
The most rewarding part of my job is when a story that we created had a positive influence on someone's life. I never get tired of hearing how our story resonated with them, how they overcame personal difficulties in their life, and the relationships they developed through our game. Recently, our team wrote the conclusion to our Elder Dragon story for the “End of Dragons” expansion of < Guild Wars 2 > . We’ve been working toward this for more than a decade! We’ve learned a lot over the past 10+ years that we want to apply toward the future. Now we’re looking forward to the next batch of stories to give our players something new.
What I learn throughout the development of our creations fuels my personal growth as a storyteller and as a leader. I want to help my talented colleagues continue to learn helpful lessons, as repayment for the lessons they’ve taught me. Also, I would like to see < Guild Wars 2 > continue to grow not only as a game, but as a universe where we can tell captivating stories in whatever medium suits it best.
Diverse experiences build a strong team
Everyone wishes to live a joyful life, and it is our job to provide happiness to our community in the ways we can. To that end, we need to communicate with as many people as possible—by engaging directly and by listening. Understanding each other. It is something we will continually strive to get better at. Building a team consisting of people with diverse thoughts, experiences, and backgrounds is a prerequisite of a strong studio. It’s my job to create an atmosphere where they can collaborate respectfully, hear each other’s thoughts, and express their opinions in a transparent manner.
Creative projects like games are forged in an open environment. The exchange of opinions between teammates is a part of that process. Also, diverse ideas mean that we may connect with an even larger audience. The key is through understanding, through empathy.
The Diversity Committee
I am a member of the Diversity Committee of NC West/ArenaNet. It was founded to improve the way we hire and compensate our staff. We share grievances on behalf of our employees and make efforts to discover solutions to their problems. It's comprised of various leaders in the corporate hierarchy, who gather to discuss these matters, to become a bridge that connects to the top-level leaders in the company.
At the same time, we propose process changes to improve the systems that are either outdated or biased. It is also the Committee’s role to provide opportunities for everyone to raise their voice and to help the organization to grow.
One visible result that’s representative of the Committee is the “Narrative Mentorship Program”. Though I started the program before I joined the Committee, I’ve been able to expand its reach through their guidance. Through it, we have discovered promising talent from various walks of life and coached them on some of the techniques that are required to enter the gaming industry as a narrative professional. Some of our mentees are already working at various game development studios and publishers around the world, including NC West and ArenaNet. I’m thrilled for their success.
Challenging conventions while challenging ourselves
Change is never easy, while repeating mistakes is. Therefore, whenever I start to feel comfortable, I get nervous. If we want to offer better games to players, we shouldn’t be afraid to try new things. To innovate where we can.
Of course, not everything you do will be successful. However, regardless of the result, everything you learn through failure is valuable, and it gives you the momentum to improve your games in the ways that players want.
< Guild Wars 2 > was our response to provide more action-driven combat and a story-rich experience. I believe the chances we took are some of the reasons why < Guild Wars 2 > was received positively by the market, even though there are still areas we can improve in.
Unless you carefully listen to others around you and are open to the opportunities for change, you will never realize your potential. I had to be willing to accept advice and constructive criticism from my colleagues to grow. I always try to look beyond my comfort zone, read things that make me uncomfortable and understand the viewpoints that aren’t my own. I look for inspiration everywhere, especially from my colleagues.
The essential goal of narrative design is to engage players through the story. But stories aren’t always universal, and sometimes those stories don’t connect with portions of our playerbase. Opinions are varied, therefore we can’t take all feedback at face value. So, I always try to find the underlying consistent message from varying opinions to strike the right balance between our creative intent and the tastes of our community.
Our fans pay serious attention to all elements of our games including gameplay, art, and storytelling, so it’s imperative that we listen to their voices so we can continue to create even more interesting experiences.
When you fall, get back on your feet
You have to learn from your mistakes so you can get back up again. Growth is something you need to pursue throughout your life, and you should never stop learning. I want to continue to grow not only as a storyteller, but also as a manager. I want to continue to learn how games work in addition to the tools, workflows, and game engines that are foundational to what we do. I will continue to strive to create an environment where everyone can grow together with our business, regardless of discipline.
* The opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not reflect the official position of any of NCSOFT.