Artifact Update: Tournaments and Economy

Vignesh Raghuram

17o, May, 2018
While there haven’t been any other press events at Valve headquarters, it looks like the good folks at Rock Paper and Shotgun have released a 2nd article on Artifact. There is a ton of new information here, especially about tournaments and economy. And since all of this just uses one article as a source, I am just gonna focus on specific quotes in the article and theorize on what it might mean, and why it might matter.

I recently had the chance to play it myself, and while I liked its mix of MOBA rules and card game systems, it’s a niche and complex game that won’t appeal to everyone. I get the feeling Valve is going for a dedicated audience rather than the biggest one possible, so opting for a premium price over a freemium model makes sense.

This leads us to think that Valve has chosen to take the same approach that it took to Dota 2. A bold move of focusing on hardcore players as opposed to casuals. This will make a big difference in the design of the game, and the potential audience. Experienced collectible card gamers are currently playing other games, meaning they have probably firmly attached to something else already. Peeling off lightly-invested players from other games is not exactly difficult, since many people are just looking to try what’s new. But in the case of Artifact, Valve is targeting card gamers that have thousands of hours (and probably dollars) invested in Magic, Hearthstone, or similar titles. This is going to be a difficult feat, no matter how good Artifact is, or how powerful Valve's name recognition.

“We’ve experimented a lot with different types of free-to-play games,” Artifact programmer Jeep Barnett said, “and it really depends on what we’re trying to do with that game. With Dota it made sense because the original was free and players expected it. In this case, we find that having an upfront cost is going to better for the game long-term.”

While GabeN’s initial talk on Artifact at Valve headquarters did touch on the reasoning for going pay-to-play, it wasn’t exactly obvious or convincing. Jeep saying “Yeah, we tried different models, but none of them really make sense for the game” is interesting. This also keys into ideas about payment distribution, and how it relates to the health of a game.

Paying upfront for the game is egalitarian. This way, even the players in the lowest percentiles are contributing meaningfully to the game’s income unlike other card games like Clash Royale, Hearthstone, etc which relies on ‘Whales’ to keep them afloat. Yes, there is still a segment of the population that is investing a more, but their influence is far less impactful compared to the whaling situation. This will also encourage game developers to actually care about everyone in the game, not just the ballers. Of course, this has the side effect where everyone actually has to pay for the game, which not everyone is a fan of.

Programmer Bruno Carlucci added that “having an upfront cost gives you a set of things to start with, which then gives you the tools to go and find the things you want,” referring to Artifact’s Steam Market integration. You can buy and sell Artifact cards via a built-in storefront, which is another big departure from modern collectible card games where you build up your own static collection. An open card market could provide a preferable workaround to the RNG of opening card packs, ideally making filling the gaps in your deck or collection easier and cheaper.

This is a mix of stuff we already knew, stuff had been suggested, and stuff that is a little new. First, it seems like that the marketplace is specifically going to be built into the game. This is a good first step since collection management could easily become a nightmare in Artifact if we were limited to the existing Steam marketplace.

The specifics of how collection management works from a mechanical point of view are really important. In Hearthstone or similar games, all you need to do in order to add a card to your collection is press a button. Do you have the dust? VOILA! A new card is added instantly! For Artifact, I can easily imagine a world where adding new cards to decks requires navigating a bunch of menus and screens, or maybe it takes a few minutes for the transaction to be processed. These details might seem inconsequential right now, but in actually playing the game this will be a big hassle. Buying and selling cards should be as smooth as possible, and hopefully can even be done within the collection manager.

“People will be able to build decks for a couple bucks, very easily,” Carlucci said. “And you also retain the value of your deck, so if you spend some money and then you’re like ‘I’m done with this deck,’ you don’t lose that investment. You can sell those cards and buy another deck instead.”

This is massive news for the community, if this is true, Artifact is easily the most affordable compared to the competition. If someone wants to just “buy” a top tier deck in any card game like Magic: The Gathering, Hearthstone you are usually looking at between $50-150 depending on the game and the exact deck. Given that benchmark, Artifact is looking even more enticing for the casual player. We will need more details obviously, but this is the first comment we has seen that even suggests a price point, and that price point looks amazingly good.

Likewise, Valve wants to diversify Artifact’s competitive experience by offering alternative game modes. “We want to do limited (a mode where you draft a deck from random cards),” Barnett said. “We’re still working on the design of it so it’s hard to promise something very specific. We’ve been testing those internally and they’re really, really fun.”

This statement is a bigger deal than it might seem. Most card games are designed with limited in mind. For example, in Magic the Gathering I am under the impression that equal time is spent on limited and constructed design. This confirms that Artifact is not limited in any sense whatsoever, be it deck size, turns, etc.

“One of the most important things, and we learned this from our other games as well, is that we let the community figure those things out,” Barnett said. “Rather than deciding ‘this is how you’re gonna play,’ we’d rather give the community the tools for them to be able to make those formats. So tomorrow, you wanna run a tournament and you say ‘I only want cards that start with the letter ‘C.’ You can build that and you have the tools to make sure that the people playing that tournament follow those rules. The limit is not what we decide, but rather the imagination of the community.”

This is quite a big deal for the CCG genre. First off, ignoring the bit about special rules, this gives the community tournament hosting tools from day one. This may not seem like a big deal, but this was not a reality in Hearthstone for a very long time. Even now it is impossible to host a user-created tournament through the Magic the Gathering Online client. Valve is clearly a big believer in e-sports, so having versatile tools like this (if done well) can help build a competitive community.

Aside from the competitive angle, we also have the possibility of “fan created formats”. Obviously, a lot depends on how versatile the tools are, but at the very least I expect formats like “pauper” (only “common” cards) “blitz” (5 second time limit per action) and “highlander” (no duplicate cards in your deck) to be playable. If the tools are more powerful we could imagine game modes where the sizes of creeps are different, starting life totals are changed, the shop could work entirely differently, placement of creeps could be un-randomized, etc. If these are successful, one could imagine some fan-created game modes becoming tournament-supported formats (just like Dota 2)

Artifact not only creates holistic games, it does it quickly: the turn timer is about 45 seconds, and games usually last around 12 minutes according to Valve’s internal testing.

12 minutes is not that long, but 12 minutes is not short, especially for a Collectible Card Game. This is probably an average, meaning that two slow decks played by slow players would probably take close to half an hour. That is still not crazy, since games of Dota 2 and League of Legends often take longer than an hour. It should be noted though that Artifact’s games will be longer than games of Hearthstone or Magic.

The specific points about the economy and tournaments seem to be the most important points from this news release. It seems like Valve is taking a slow-release approach to Artifact-related news right now, rather than the giant blitz from March.

With TI right around the corner, we should expect a slowdown in ‘Big Announcements’. So let’s just be patient and wait for them Beta keys.