Maclaine Diemer opens up about composing Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns

Today we are sitting down with ArenaNet Lead Composer Maclaine Diemer, who players might best know from his work on Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns and Living World Season 3. Diemer picked up the baton from Jeremy Soule, the original composer for the base game, and has been pumping out terrific music for the MMORPG ever since.

Massively OP: At this point in your career at ArenaNet, how many pieces of music have you composed for Guild Wars 2?

Maclaine Diemer: I think about this from time to time, but I honestly don’t know. I’d say it’s in the “several dozen” range, between all the holiday festivals, Living World content, Heart of Thorns, and other miscellaneous stuff like cinematics and marketing videos. It’s exhausting just thinking about it!

How much music have you made for the Living World seasons?

Season 1 had the least amount of music, maybe 3-4 pieces total. Season 2 had about 40 minutes of new music, and Season 3 so far has probably 20-30 minutes and counting.

Are there ever any tracks that are made and recorded but aren’t included in the game? What’s the process that goes into selecting them?

This has only happened a couple of times. The issue usually is that either a) the content changed from what was originally planned when the music was written, or b) I didn’t think the music was up to snuff. A is something I can’t control, but B is all on me, and I try to be very careful that that doesn’t happen often. The orchestra plays the notes on the page beautifully, but if the notes I wrote aren’t as good as they can be, there’s nothing they can do. This happened with the original Heart of Thorns theme and a piece called “Lion’s Arch Reborn.” It’s a shame to have to not use a recording, but the final versions of both of those pieces are stronger as a result, in my opinion.

What track has the most significance to you, personally?

Boy, there are so many answers to this. If I had to pick one, I’d say it would have to be the very first piece I wrote that was included in game. It’s called “Halloween in Tyria,” and you can guess which holiday festival it was for. It was my first chance to prove that I could handle taking over the music, and I knew it was a big opportunity. The response from fans and from within the company was extremely positive, and it paved the way for everything else that came after it.

As the original Guild Wars 2 soundtrack was composed by Jeremy Soule, how do you see the difference between your and his style? Is there a difficulty in creating music that won’t seem out of place when put alongside the original score while still being a different style?

Style is a tough thing to nail down. Jeremy’s work is beautiful and of course has a heavy influence on what I do. I always try to make sure that my work can stand next to his in the game. His music is grand and sweeping in its scope. I hit those moments occasionally, but I admit that I like to see how far I can go in the opposite direction sometimes. I like to breakdown a piece to maybe just a single section, a single set of instruments in a section, or even a soloist. When you pull the music apart so much, the bigger moments stand out that much more.

The only difficulties I have are when I want to stretch things a bit. I’ve been very surprised at the response to when we do push things. Heart of Thorns has some pieces that are very different than Jeremy’s work, and things like Super Adventure Box are completely out of left field, and yet fans have been very open and accepting of that stuff. It feels good to know that the music we’ve created really adds a lot to the game experience and is a major component on what has made Heart of Thorns successful.

What’s the basic process in creating a track? Are you given projects from up on high for specific zones? What research and information do you accumulate before you start making the music?

I try to get involved as early as possible when new content is being worked on. I’ll discuss things with the narrative team and the designers to see where they think music will fit in and what emotional beats they want to hit. Occasionally they’ll come to me first with a specific request, which I always enjoy. I want to make sure the team knows I’m available and very willing to make music a special part of the game.

From there, I’ll read our internal documentation about what the plan is for the content, as well as look at any relevant concept art. If the environment art team is far enough along, I’ll fire up the game and fly around in the area, taking screenshots for inspiration. I’ve even found the official Guild Wars wiki to be very valuable if the content is referencing some deeper lore for the game.

After that, I just plop myself in front of a piano and hope that inspiration strikes and keep working on something until it’s done!

Where and how often do you record with an orchestra? Is it always the same orchestra?

We’ve worked primarily with two orchestras for most of the live tracks. One is located in Germany in a city called Frankfurt (Oder), which is not the Frankfurt most people know in Germany. The other is located in Budapest, Hungary. They’re both fantastic orchestras, and I’m always happy to work with either one. We tend to average one big recording session a year, although with Living World Season 2 we did it in two smaller sessions. We’ve also done some work with players in Seattle, but that’s just been separate sections just for strings and brass. I’d love to work with a full orchestra in the hall in Seattle at some point in the future. It sounds beautiful there and it’s always a pleasure to be in the room live with the musicians.

What do you encourage players to listen for in your tracks?

I would hope that players are able to make the emotional connection to the game content the music was written for. However they get there is fine with me. Often times, I think of each piece as being a journey in and of itself, telling a piece of the game’s story in musical form. Hopefully that comes across.

If you had to pick a short thematic description for Heart of Thorns’ score, what would it be?

Darkness punctuated with moments of hope and wonder.

What are you working on now for ArenaNet?

At the moment, I’m focusing on Living World Season 3, as that’s still ongoing.

Thanks for sharing with us!

MMOs are meant to be heard as well as seen, and chances are that music ties your memories to these games more than you might realize. Every two weeks Jukebox Heroes listens through a game soundtrack and picks out the highlights to share and discuss. And if you like this column, then don’t miss the author’s MMO music podcast, Battle Bards!
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