Interview: Talking Guild Wars 2 End of Dragons’ soundtrack with lead composer Maclaine Diemer


Maclaine Diemer is the long-time lead composer for Guild Wars 2, with soundtrack credits going as far back as the very first Living World season, and most recently for the gorgeous score of End of Dragons. Music is an incredibly important part of setting the tone for a world like Tyria, and it adds so much emotional depth to its story in ways you may not even be aware of.

End of Dragons’ soundtrack was one of the things we noted as being particularly excellent in our early impressions of the expansion, so we are excited to have a chance to chat with Maestro Maclaine himself! 

MassivelyOP: Clocking in at 2 hours 20 minutes and 58 tracks, End of Dragons’ soundtrack is the longest soundtrack ever released for a Guild Wars 2 expansion. How long did producing this soundtrack take altogether?

Maclaine Diemer: I started working on it in earnest in March of 2020, doing some initial sketches of ideas to get a feel for what this new version of Cantha would sound like. Things really picked up in the fall of 2020 and got increasingly busy pretty much right up until a month or so before the game launched!

What is your favorite track in End of Dragons? Mine is the Tengu Village theme. I could stay there all day!

I’m glad you like that one! I do too, and it kind of stands on its own compared to everything else. I hate to give such a cliche answer, but I don’t know if I can pick a favorite track. I would say it’s probably one of the tracks that plays in New Kaineng, just because that’s where the three major elements of the soundtrack (orchestra, traditional Korean music, and electronic sounds) really get to shine. So it would either be Kaineng Riverways or A Future Carved in Jade, but that’s just how I’m feeling in the moment and I’m reserving the right to change my mind at any time.

What is the process of scoring a Guild Wars 2 release like? Are you able to get in and look at early builds of the maps and encounters for inspiration, or do you have to start working while there is nothing produced but concept art and storyboards?

It’s generally a mix of all of the above. There was a time when I was on staff where I could access builds in progress and just fly around to see things for myself. Now I work on a freelance basis, so for security purposes it’s not as easy, but my relationship with the studio is still very strong and I’ll ask for in-game video captures, concept artwork, and any kind of design and narrative documentation they can share with me. Then we’ll have regular meetings to discuss any changes to the story or key moments the team wants to highlight. After that, they kind of just let me go nuts, which I’m very grateful for! I’ve been writing music for the game for 10 years now, so in general I have a good sense of what is “Guild Wars‑y” and what isn’t, even when we’re stretching things further than we’ve ever gone before like with End of Dragons.

What lessons have you learned in your 10 years of writing Guild Wars 2 soundtracks that you think informed the music for End of Dragons?

The world of the game is always founded on it being beautiful. That goes for the visuals as well as the music. Fortunately, I like writing pretty music, so it’s been a good fit (in my opinion). Keep it pretty, and in general it works well for what’s happening in the game.

I’ve also learned that you can often go in unexpected directions and players will go along with you. When I wrote Rata Novus for the Heart of Thorns soundtrack, I was really concerned it would be too much for most people because at the time there was nothing else that sounded like that in the game. Players loved it, though! It kind of set a good precedent for some of the more experimental sounds we tried with End of Dragons, not being afraid to bring more “modern” or electronic elements to the forefront.

I’ve also learned that most players don’t like a subdued main theme when they log in! Believe me, I’ve seen all those comments over the years about the Path of Fire theme. I wanted to try something different and it didn’t work for a lot of people. I understand why. You want excitement and adventure when you log in! So I made a conscious effort to write a theme for End of Dragons that gets your adrenaline pumping!

The sound of this expansion’s music is very different from that of your previous, more traditional Western cinematic fantasy orchestral music. You cite Korean folk music as your primary inspiration for the overall feel of this soundtrack. Were you familiar with this style before tackling the End of Dragons score? Did you do anything to get yourself in the right headspace to compose in this style?

I had absolutely no knowledge of traditional Korean music before starting on this score. The studio made the decision to take traditional Korean culture as its primary influence for Cantha, so that meant I had to do some homework and keep doing it throughout the entire production process. The biggest concern was not recycling tropes or doing a kind of Hollywood pastiche of all east Asian cultures into one. I didn’t get it right at first and fell into that trap, even after having discussions with the studio about trying to avoid it. It’s not an easy task to catch up on thousands of years of another culture and assume you’ll just get it right away.

I was fortunate to have access to a lot of great people to ask them questions and have their help keeping me on track. I had some really valuable conversations with people at ArenaNet like SungHa Hong on the audio team and some of the additional composers and soloists like Andi Roselund, Michael Choi, and Sojin Ryy that were part of the external music team. I think asking for help, knowing the limits of your expertise, and being open to advice and criticism are essential in a scenario like this, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow while studying this beautiful music.

You didn’t stick strictly to one style of music, though. Given Cantha’s advanced technology, you also sprinkled in some more synthetic and electronic sounds. Tell us about that process and where you found your inspiration for it.

This was also a directive from the folks at ArenaNet, and I was happy to oblige! There have always been very light synth and electronic elements in Guild Wars 2, but it’s been subtle and often relegated to a background texture. The obvious exception is the Super Adventure Box stuff, but that’s kind of its own thing. Ultimately, the world of Tyria is a fantasy setting and not science fiction, so I knew there would have to be a balance of just how electronic things could be.

There’s no shortage of pure synthesizer sounds in the music, but I think the most important expression of the high tech Cantha sound comes from the electronic processing of acoustic instruments. Usually you don’t do things like put distortion on a gorgeous solo cello performance, or put phasers and delays on woodwinds, but we did just that, and I think it works really well. It kind of acts as a bridge between the two very different aesthetics and feels like a Canthan interpretation of the traditional Guild Wars sound, like it’s naturally emerging from that civilization.

I love music with unique instrumentation, and this soundtrack has that in abundance. Can you tell us about some of the more unique instruments used in this soundtrack? Which was your favorite to work with? Was finding musicians who have mastered these instruments a challenge?

This could be an entire interview in and of itself! I could go on at length about all of the traditional Korean instruments on the soundtrack because I think they’re all really special. If I had to pick a few, my favorites would be the daegeum, which is a type of bamboo flute that has a special hole covered by a membrane that buzzes and vibrates when the player hits certain notes or blows a little harder. It’s an unmistakable sound and sets it apart from a lot of other bamboo flutes in the region.

Another is the gayageum, which is a plucked zither along the same lines as a guzheng or koto. The big difference is its strings are made from wound silk, which has a slightly duller sound but also allows the strings to be bent quite a bit, allowing the player to put in all sorts of heavy and wide vibrato that is one of the defining characteristics of traditional Korean music. Both the daegeum and the gayageum are featured on over half of the tracks in the score, so they’re really the heart of the music.

The other one that I love and wish we could have found more opportunities to use is the geomungo. It’s also a type of zither, but it has frets kind of like a guitar and is played with a stick as a plectrum instead of the player’s fingers. It has this really great boxy, throaty, and percussive sound to it. The woman who played it, Gina Hwang, was so cool and such a great player. I was just in total awe of her abilities and hope I can work with her more on something in the future.

In End of Dragons, players are, of course, revisiting the beloved Cantha region first seen in Guild Wars Factions. How much did the soundtrack of that campaign influence this soundtrack?

There was some influence, as there always is with the music that predates my time working on the game. There are nods to a few themes here and there throughout the score, but the Cantha of End of Dragons has had 250 years of development. That doesn’t mean they’ve completely left the past behind, but a lot can happen in that period of time. Here in the real world, we’re still listening to Mozart, of course, but my guess is he’s not selling as many records as BTS in 2022!

I know that, for budgetary reasons, many of the instruments we hear in a lot of video game music are synthesized with virtual instruments, while some are recorded live by real instrumentalists. Roughly what percentage of the End of Dragons soundtrack would you say was which?

The entirety of the orchestra is all live, thanks to the wonderful musicians of Nashville, TN. The exception is the percussion like timpani, cymbals, and that kind of thing. I would love to do a 100% live orchestral session for the game some day, but there are practical concerns that prevent it. The Korean soloists are all live as well, of course. And of course, the actual synthesizer sounds themselves. So I would say about 85-90% of the score is live, which is a wonderful thing!

Your bio says you are a multi-instrumentalist. Does much of your own playing find its way into Guild Wars 2, or do you stick mainly to composing?

I try to do whatever I can live just to give things a human element, but my primary instruments are more the rock band kind of thing like guitar, bass, and drums, which there isn’t really much call for in Guild Wars 2. I have played guitar on a few tracks in the past, though. I can also get a sound out of just about anything though, given enough time! I’m always on the lookout for unusual sounds, and have a huge collection of miscellaneous things lying around. I’ve played some flutes, some tuned percussion like these weird metal plates I have, some hand drums, and even a “travel” didgeridoo which is about the size of a paperback book. Even if it’s just a little shaker or something, putting in a live element always makes the music feel much better.

Thank you so much to Maclaine Diemer for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to us and for his excellent contribution to Guild Wars 2: End of Dragons. I hope we continue to hear his music in Guild Wars 2 and other games for years to come!
Flameseeker Chronicles is one of Massively OP’s longest-running columns, covering the Guild Wars franchise since before there was a Guild Wars 2. Now penned by Tina Lauro and Colin Henry, it arrives on Tuesdays to report everything from GW2 guides and news to opinion pieces and dev diary breakdowns. If there’s a GW2 topic you’d love to see explored, drop ’em a comment!
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