Valve’s first new game in half a decade, Artifact, launched Nov. 28 to high anticipation and even higher expectations. Born by the mind of legendary game designer and Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield, Artifact was set to make waves — but all we’ve seen so far is a plummet towards failure.
A fortnight later, the grim reality of Artifact is a downward spiral of player outflow. By the end of the first week, the game had lost more than half its player base. By week two, the average player count was down to mere 10,000, dropping lower by the day.
So, what happened?
Opinions and axioms naturally vary. Some will speak of the game’s overwhelming complexity as alienating to players. Others will point out how difficult the game is to watch, making it very Twitch-unfriendly. Third will talk about balance, fourth will bring up toxic cards and RNG and their infuriating experience against Cheating Death and 11-attack Bounty Hunters.
And then there will be perhaps the largest group of people, for whom the root of the rot lies in Artifact’s monetization.
Artifact’s monetization easily stands out as one of its biggest strengths and is not at all the game’s core problem.
These people, however, are wrong. While the following is certainly an unpopular opinion, Artifact’s tribulations have nothing to do with what it charges its players. In fact, Artifact’s monetization easily stands out as one of its biggest strengths and is not at all the game’s core problem.
The latter statement is likely one that will be dismissed without further thought and slingshot the naysayers straight to the pits of the anonymous message boards, explaining with condescension and blessed ignorance how “they stopped reading at…”. Yet that doesn’t take away from how convenient — and yes, fair, too — Artifact’s monetization fundamentals are.
Let’s start at how…
Games are supposed to cost money and $20 isn’t really much
Not being free to play is what Artifact has got a lot of bashing for, but it’s an unjust demand. Expecting a product to be handed out for free when it took a whole team of developers to put together is nothing short of naïve. Justifying it by saying how Valve are making millions off Steam already, so they can afford to peddle a $0 game is absurd as well.
Things cost money and Valve’s ask for $20 isn’t really much in the scope of how much games of Artifact’s caliber cost. The sole reason $20 look like a lot is when Artifact is directly compared to its competitors, all of whom are free-to-play. What is often overlooked, however, is why these games cost nothing to enter in the first place.
Take Hearthstone, for example, which launched in 2014 to become the genre leader. There, Blizzard’s decision to make HS free-to-play was a calculated one. It was based on a number of factors, not the least of which being the game’s pioneer position in an unexplored market. Hearthstone’s initial announcement already faced critique and general discontent so a free-to-play model had to be done to lure the masses. The open entry invited more people to try a product they hadn’t seen before (Hearthstone wasn’t yet another MOBA, after all), which in turn allowed Blizzard to make profits off of card packs being purchased by the ever-growing millions. Smart.
While Artifact’s $20 price is some barrier on its own, it wouldn’t stop players who would really like to play it. It certainly wouldn’t explain the continuous drop of players either.
Could it then be the expensive cards you have to buy to play constructed? No, that’s not it either, because…
Artifact remains among the cheapest card games out there
Seeing how a single hero like Axe used to go for $15 (with Drow Ranger not far behind at $10) and cards like Annihilation selling for $5 apiece, how can the above sentiment be true? Yet the fact remains that, when one draws the line, it costs less to collect Artifact decks compared to other TCGs on the market.
Take two of the most expensive decks in the metagame right now: the blue/green Selemene Storm deck which Hyped used to win WePlay; and the standard red/green midrange/ramp list. Provided you haven’t got any of the cards required, each of these decks will cost you around $55. And the black/red aggro like the one Hoej created? It goes even lower at around $28 these days.
A quick browse through the prices of paper or online Magic: The Gathering decks, starting from $70 and up, will come as a sharp contrast. A competitive paper Jeskai control, for example, goes between $400 and $600. Yes, it’s made of real cards that have real value, but such is the case in Artifact too due to the existence of the Steam market.
Artifact’s problem isn’t that it wants you to invest in it: every card game does. The problem is that it does it so bluntly.
Artifact also offers the unique feature of purchasing (and selling) the exact cards you want, rather than opening hundreds of packs and hoping for them to drop. Want an Axe? Spend $10-15 and now you have it unlocked for all your red decks, reducing their total price significantly. Need your third Annihilation? $5 and it’s yours, right then and there.
What’s more, by making its cards tradeable through Steam, Artifact offers a much fairer exchange system. If you opened a Kanna in a pack but have no intention of ever playing blue, the card exchanges itself on the market for Time of Triumph, and some uncommons to go with it, too.
The more I think about it, the more I believe that Artifact’s problem isn’t that it wants you to invest in it: every card game does. The problem is that it does it so bluntly, because it expects you to know that playing card games always take a toll on the wallet. A casual player doesn’t want to be reminded, through seeing dollar signs and event tickets every step of the way, that TCGs are continuous investment. They want the accommodating experience of “start playing our game for free but end up spending the same money anyways, because you won’t realistically grind day and night to collect 300 unique cards every two months, would you?”
So, if Artifact’s monetization is so fair, why the player outflow?
The latter is the first major reason I see for Artifact’s declining popularity. Valve’s game is being too honest about wanting its players’ money, but honesty isn’t always smart. And when you’re competing against other great products on the market, it’s definitely not smart.
What I also believe, however, is that this alone wouldn’t cause the loss of 50,000 players in two weeks. To me, Artifact’s biggest sin are its poor, downright nonexistent, player acquisition and retention mechanisms.
Valve’s ambition to appease the elite few therefore created a dangerous echochamber of feedback.
When it comes to player acquisition, Artifact made the mistake of choosing pro players as its spokespeople, both to Valve and the public. For all their combined experience, pros don’t necessarily make for good designers. And given how in every game the professionals are a disparagingly small percent, they make for even worse marketers. First and foremost, pros care about their careers and making a good game for them and the latter will almost always collide with what makes for an appealing game.
Valve’s ambition to appease the elite few therefore created a dangerous echochamber of feedback. For almost a year, Artifact remained closed out for the outer world, alienating the wider audience and getting no input from it. As a result, Artifact feels like a game designed by the pros for the pros. If that was Valve’s intention, they should be happy with the 10,000-player average, though I’m skeptical it’s party time at the Bellevue offices.
The lack of player retention, however, remains Artifact’s biggest sin in my book. Beyond the few enamored by the game, players will find few reasons to invest time and money in it and it’s all because Artifact simply doesn’t offer them such options.
Consider your choices of game modes. You can pay a ticket and play the Gauntlet where you’ll likely be smashed to pieces before you can make a return on investment. If the game is so complex that even invite beta pros make technical mistakes all the time, then what chance does a new player stand?
Players will find few reasons to invest time and money in it and it’s all because Artifact simply doesn’t offer them such options.
The counter argument is that there are free casual modes for such players to learn draft and constructed, but there’s no incentive to playing those either. They give no tangible rewards. Instead, their “reward” is making you better at the game, which isn’t a concept that can be immediately appreciated by everyone.
Even though they aren’t locked behind a ticket, casual modes aren’t technically free either. 3-4 games of Artifact can easily be more than an hour’s worth of time and most players will want a sense of progression at the end of it: a pack, a card, a ticket, a cosmetic, a rank-up. Anything that makes you feel the time investment was worth it and gets you that dopamine tick.
Instead, Artifact players are faced with a Sophie’s choice: pay to play and feel a mounting pressure as you struggle to not lose real money; or spend hours on end with nothing more to show for than “I think I am getting better at this, maybe.”
The solution to the player retention and acquisition issues isn’t apparent either. As Artifact comes with a card market attached, any system that allows players to expand their collections by just grinding in-game will immediately lead to devaluation of the cards. A simple ladder system might’ve been enough to give competitors purpose at the start, but with the player count so low, I doubt it will be enough to have a defibrillation effect.
Perhaps an option where casual wins earn players a progress towards an event ticket, similar to how recycling unused cards functions would work. This could create a natural chain of 1) grind a ticket while learning; 2) use the ticket to test your skill in the Gauntlet; 3) play for rewards without the monetary pressure of having paid a dollar for that ticket. Such system wouldn’t deflate the market either, as cards will still have to be won or purchased.
Would it work? Perhaps. Perhaps not. What I know is there are much smarter people working at Valve and for Artifact’s sake, they have better come up with some answers.