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Hearthstone: Kobolds & Catacombs
Manuel García/Sandra Molina/Blizzard Entertainment

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How Blizzard uses comics to tell new stories outside of its games

A peek at Hearthstone and StarCraft’s ongoing comic adventures

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

For Blizzard and many of its fans, storytelling and lore are just as important as gameplay. Two recently launched comics, released to build upon the lore of Hearthstone and StarCraft 2, are the company’s latest effort to give fans more of what they want from Blizzard’s worlds outside of the games.

Hearthstone: Kobolds & Catacombs, the digital trading card game’s latest expansion, launched earlier this month. Today, Blizzard’s released a short-form comic under the same name. Written by veteran comic book writer Mark Evanier, and illustrated by artists Manuel García and Sandra Molina, the Kobolds & Catacombs comic, “Up Comes Down,” tells a whimsical story that runs parallel to the game, which itself wasn’t built with traditional game storytelling in mind.

Robert Simpson, lead editor for publishing at Blizzard Entertainment, tells Polygon that the company’s comics are all about story expansion. The goal, Simpson said, is to “expand the world, and expand on the storytelling that you can experience in game, but not directly.”

“With this expansion, we’re taking a deeper dive and look into their world in more detail,” Simpson said, adding that Blizzard and its comic creators hope to create a new experience for people who are coming to the games, both as veteran players and new ones.

Artwork, from pencil sketch to final colored illustration, from Hearthstone: Kobolds & Catacombs
Blizzard Entertainment

“In general, what we’re trying to do is flesh out that universe,” said Lydia Bottegoni, senior VP of story and franchise development at Blizzard. “We think about that world and what kind of stories might develop from it.”

Bottegoni said each of Blizzard’s game teams, across Hearthstone, StarCraft and Overwatch, give its comic writers opportunity to “create worlds and universes from an angle that’s not inside the games.”

Blizzard contracted Mark Evanier, perhaps best known for his work on comic series Groo the Wanderer and the biography of Jack Kirby, Kirby: King of Comics, to translate the themes of the Kobolds & Catacombs expansion into a new side story. Evanier and Simpson worked closely with the Hearthstone game team to craft a short story that matches the lighthearted tone of the card game, while also exploiting Evanier’s talent as a comedy writer. Readers get to know the Kobolds of the expansion and Marin the Fox, an adventurer and “cunning rogue,” introduced in Hearthstone’s new expansion.

“One of the goals we have with all the comics we do, with Overwatch and Hearthstone, you can read the comics and play the game and have a full experience,” Simpson said. “If you’re a new player, that’s a great way to learn about the universe. But if you’re only playing the game it’s not necessary to read the comic.”

Hearthstone: Kobolds & Catacombs
Blizzard Entertainment

Where Kobolds & Catacombs’ comic is supplemental in its lore building, Blizzard’s StarCraft 2 comics are taking a slightly different approach. They’re effectively continuing the story of the StarCraft 2 trilogy, giving fans of the sci-fi strategy series another way to engage with its characters and worlds.

StarCraft 2: Shadow Wars is tied to StarCraft 2’s War Chest add-ons. Players can purchase those War Chests to unlock new skins, player portraits and other cosmetics, as well new chapters of the Shadow Wars comic. Those purchases contribute to StarCraft 2’s esports scene and fund tournament prize pools.

Unlike the Hearthstone comic, Shadow Wars is deeply rooted in the series’ canon, Blizzard said. As such, they’re written in-house by lead writer Valerie Watrous. The stories introduced fans to a new character, Terran Marine Elms, who offers a new point of view on the StarCraft conflict. Elms serves as both a new character who offers a fresh set of eyes for StarCraft fans and someone who can help new players catch up on two decades of existing lore.

StarCraft 2: Shadow Wars — Part 5
Blizzard Entertainment

“Part of the plotting of War Chest was to create new characters who serve as POV characters into the world,” Simpson said. “So as you’re learning about them, they’re learning about the [world of StarCraft].”

For the second batch of Shadow Wars comics coming in the game’s second War Chest, Blizzard is doubling the length of each new chapter, based on fan feedback. Fans have reacted positively to Blizzard’s comic ventures, Simpson and Bottegoni said, and the developer is taking that feedback into account with each new comic.

Simpson, who’s been working in comics and publishing for more than 35 years, including work on the Warcraft, Diablo and StarCraft prose novels at Simon and Schuster in the late ’90s, said that working on digital comics affords the teams a lot of flexibility.

“The fun thing about Blizzard being a digital company is that we have a fast reaction to everything we release,” he said. “The message board is flooded with comments [every time we release something]. We can work at a pace where we can take that feedback into the next comic and the next ...”

Sometimes, though, Blizzard will collect its digital stories for physical versions, but the decision to do so is often based on desire from the community, Bottegoni said.

“We are always talking about what we can do, how we can engage the players,” she said. “We listen to our players and to chat boards and community. We’re actively talking about [more print comics] for sure. We try to listen to the community to see if there’s appetite.”

StarCraft 2: Shadow Wars — Part 5
Blizzard Entertainment

The decision about how components of each game’s lore work their way into games, cinematics, novels or comics depends on the specific slice of story. Digital comics have a comparatively short development time compared to, say, a 3D-rendered cinematic for Overwatch or World of Warcraft, making them ideal for short-form, lower budget (and lower risk) storytelling. It all comes down to what Blizzard’s storytellers are trying to accomplish, Bottegoni said.

Whether it’s “backstory, lore, game world narrative ... or are we just trying to excite players and just give them something to whet their appetite?” That, she said, helps dictate the medium, run-time and how much space storytellers have to communicate with fans.

“When I started in comics in ’82 we always used to joke that comics were movies without a budget,” Simpson said. “You didn’t have to worry about CGI, permits, extras ... Comics are still often at the forefront of storytelling. Their visuals, you can bend and twist them in ways that you just can’t in any other storytelling format.”

Hearthstone fans can read the new Kobolds & Catacombs comic at the game’s official website. Part four of StarCraft 2’s Shadow Wars comic is also available at that game’s official website, with part five scheduled to arrive Jan. 5, 2018.