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Hearthstone’s new expansion makes me wish more games let you be evil

It’s good to be bad.

There’s no dancing around it – villains often make or break a world. Whether it’s aesthetically or narratively, a good villain makes any story that much more intriguing – and video games are no exception.

So why don’t we get to dabble in evil (not counting playing Bowser in Mario Kart) more often?

That was the very question the Hearthstone development team asked themselves when cooking up the next expansion to the now five-year-old card game – Rise of Shadows.

The new expansion is centred around a collection of villains from expansions and adventures of previous card sets. Arch-Thief Rafaam from 2015’s League of Explorers heads up a wretched quintet that includes Madame Lazul from the Whispers of the Old Golds cinematics, Dr Boom of numerous set notoriety, Kobolds & Catacombs’ King Togwaggle and Hagatha from The Witchwood.

Releasing in early April, Rise of Shadows will not only usher in a new standard year of competitive play for the popular esports title, but also kick off an ambitious year-long narrative for the game – something Team 5 have never attempted before.

While previous expansions have had a self-contained narrative within them, all three of this year’s new sets will have a common story threaded across them.

I, for one, am really interested to see how they go pulling this off. For a card game with very mobile game DNA, Hearthstone’s expansions do a surprisingly good job whisking you away to new little words each time a new set rolls around.

Hearthstone creative director Ben Thompson.

Hearthstone creative director Ben Thompson. (Photo: Blizzard Entertainment)

How they go about building a semi-cohesive story across three card sets that feels organic and genuine – while also not leaving people who jump on later in the year clueless – will be worth keeping an eye on.

It’s a risky but intriguing move, and I spoke to creative director Ben Thompson about why they made such a move.

“Playing games growing up, playing with toys, evil always [had] the coolest toys,” he said.

“I remember talking to [production director] Jason Chayes and [former game director] Eric Dodds after League of Explorers came out. The team itself and, ultimately, the players got really excited about the formation of this team of good heroes- the idea of Reno, Elise and everybody coming together.

“Not soon after that, the question immediately sparked of “Well, every good group, we’re all comic fans, we’re all movie fans, we read books. Every good group of overwhelming power and goodness always has a counterpart. Who is their evil? Who is the side that counters them?” and it immediately just captivated us.

“But then we started to have an in tandem conversation. Behind one of the things that we’ve always loved rallying behind as a team, is the vibe of a set. What is the kind of way in which we’re changing from “Okay, that one was really dark” “This one’s a little more light-hearted but it’s got a fun kind of a twist on it that makes you smile a little bit, or this one’s kind somewhere in between” and having those discussions kind of inevitably lead towards the, “But how can we tell stories?”

“There was an inherent quality to the fact that you got four months in a vibe and you switch it entirely, that kept us from being able to really dig in deep and find a really long story narrative that we could get into.

“As more and more of these villains started to come to bear, one at a time, you know, looking at Hagatha, Dr Boom, Rafaam, we started to realize “Guys, that’s the cast we’ve been looking for.” That’s that group of evil come to bear and now if they realize the same thing and start to form that team, we would be doing a disservice to that kind of story if we didn’t take the full three expansions to tell it.

“It was just kind of an alignment, a perfect alignment of the stars with all these different goals, that kind of came to bear around this idea of all of this could be done and if we have any guts, we’d give it a run in 2019. And I couldn’t be happier with the team or prouder of them for what they’ve come up with.”

While the inspiration for a villain-centric expansion may have some from a place of nostalgic wonder, making them the face of the first phase of new narrative territory for the game is a smart move.

Rise of Shadows’ cast of villains. (Photo: Blizzard Entertainment)

While League of Explorers had a lovable cast of characters, nothing would have been lamer than kicking the new year off with some more goody two shoes parading around trying to save the world.

Seeing this new world through villainous eyes certainly has me very excited for what’s to come – especially if it ties in with the the mysterious single-player mode they teased in the Year of the Dragon announcement.

While I did have concerns that layering a card game with too much story would make it needlessly inaccessible, Thompson did claim ensuring each of 2019’s expansions was still an intuitive jumping-on point for new players was paramount.

“It is a question, it is a concern. I think it tends to be more of a story driven concern, so I think from a design prospective, we have to make sure that we’re not tiering the design in such a way that it feels like, “Well I haven’t read book one. I don’t understand who this character is, or what they do or how they’re doing it.”

“So if we start to lean too much into design that stacks or tiers on the previous ones and the understanding of them, we run a risk. It’s got to be one of those perfect scenarios where the story’s there if you want it.

“Thinking of it like a World of Warcraft quest line would be a way the way that I look at this. You look at the Warcraft quest line, and you read it, you’re going to be more rewarded by the richness of the story and you’ll feel even more maybe tied to and excited by what you’re given in terms of items or things like that.

But if you don’t read it, it’s not making you a worse player. You’re still getting out of that a really rewarding experience with the kind of items, and the kind of worlds that you’re exploring. I hope, and we’re definitely trying to gear it towards the same thing happening for Hearthstone.”

While only a handful of cards have been revealed so far, it’s very clear they’re really looking at elevating the narrative component of the game to a level nobody probably ever thought it would.

Could it prove to be the reinvigoration some think the game needs? We’ll have to wait and see.

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