In 2017, during DotA 2’s premier tournament, The International, Valve took the opportunity to tease their newest project. The crowd waited with bated breath as the word “Artifact” flashed across the screen underneath a snazzy logo. Their excited gasps quickly turned into a chorus of boos as the rest of the teaser played, revealing the dreaded words “The DotA Card Game” underneath the name of the game they had been excited for just moments earlier. Some might call that a bad omen and say Artifact was cursed from the beginning. Nevertheless, Valve powered onwards with Artifact.
At the time, and maybe even to this day, the gaming industry was experiencing a severe case of card game fatigue. Ever since the incredible success of Blizzard’s Hearthstone, a card game set in the Warcraft universe, several developers have tried their hand at releasing their own online card games. This is part of the reason the crowd bemoaned the announcement of Artifact.
Despite a frosty initial reception, fans of the genre began to get excited about Artifact. It was a Valve game, after all. A developer known for delivering on incredible multiplayer experiences such as the aforementioned DotA as well as Team Fortress 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
However, nothing was quite liking making a card game. It requires meticulous design to ensure that gameplay functions correctly with a diverse library of cards. Cards need to have interesting interactions to allow for the development of new strategies and multiple strategies need to be viable at once or else the metagame gets too stale. Valve also needed to add enough unique elements to their card game to differentiate from the flood of similar games that had recently hit the market. Knowing they needed an experienced hand to help design their game, Valve brought in legendary game designer Richard Garfield.
Richard Garfield has designed a multitude of games, card-based and otherwise but he is best known as the original inventor of Magic: The Gathering, which since it’s release in 1993 is still the most played paper-based card game in the world. Bringing in Garfield was an astute move by Valve as they needed serious design credentials to convince people their game would be unique among a stacked lineup. People noted Garfield’s prowess in developing card games that were strategically rewarding which pleased fans who were disgruntled with the overwhelming amount of random gameplay elements in titles such as Hearthstone. With a proven developer in Valve and a famous lead designer in Garfield, how could Artifact possibly fail to impress?
Through press conferences and online announcements, more information about Artifact was revealed to the public. A decision was made early on that proved controversial. Unlike its counterparts on the market, Artifact wouldn’t be free to play. The usual business model is to allow players to download and play the game for free and instead earn money from players who purchase card packs and engage in other monetised features such as additional paid modes. Gabe Newell, co-founder of Valve and star of the “Gaben” internet meme, explained during a press conference that his decision was made to avoid the game becoming “pay to win”. Optimistic players assumed that since they had to pay for the game, there would be in-game methods available to earn new cards. These players proved naive and the irony of Newell’s statement would later become clear.
Artifact was heavily marketed pre-launch to casual and professional players alike. Valve held a lengthy closed beta that was reserved for players who had been professional in other card games such as Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering as well as other industry insiders. Many of these early adopters praised the game’s mechanics and depth and some professional players even took the risky decision to stop playing their original game and instead started practicing Artifact in order to go pro when it officially released.
Artifact released on November 28th, 2018 and eager card game players flocked to pay the €20 price of entry to Valve’s newest title. Card gaming has always been a niche market so it’s no small feat that over 50,000 players logged onto their Steam account on opening day to play the game. At first, everything went smoothly. Much like their professional counterparts, players praised the strategic depth of the gameplay and were incredibly impressed at how Garfield and his team managed to transition the “three-lane” system of a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) like DotA to the card game board. Players also noted the respectable 228 card library that Valve promised was soon to grow larger.
However, after a few days of playing Artifact, its glaring flaws became apparent. The game’s monetisation model quickly came under fire as players grew dissatisfied. Despite paying $20 just to play the game, there was no in-game system for earning cards besides a game mode which required a ticket (which also costs) to participate in. In order to get new cards, a player had to purchase them from other players through the Steam marketplace.
To make matters worse, due to the nature of supply and demand prices were exorbitant in the first few weeks after release. With a small number of cards in circulation (because players had just started playing) and high demand for the most powerful cards, prices rose and rose. Top tier hero cards such as Axe were selling for over €20 (more than the price of the game) for days after release. Theoretically, a player who unboxes Axe in the free packs they get for buying the game could sell the card and make a profit on their game purchase.
Besides poor monetisation, the game lacked features such as a ranked mode and a quest system. It often felt like you were playing for no reason at all. There was nothing to work towards and you couldn’t even gauge how good you were compared to others. Within two months of Artifact’s release, the player base shrunk 95% from 50,000 average daily players in November down to approximately 2,000 in January. Today, Artifact’s average daily player sits at a pathetic 78. A dead game in every sense of the word.
Valve has repeatedly stated that they haven’t given up on Artifact and are working to fix its flaws but all signs suggest only a skeleton team has been left to develop the game which means players still playing Artifact are truly in it for the long run. Richard Garfield, who has since been laid off from Valve, later stated that he felt the game failed because of early negative reviews which warned players of the game’s expensive economy before it had been given time to properly stabilise.
The game’s situation recently reached such a low that it became a meme on the Twitch streaming platform. Since, by now, so little eyes are on Artifact, users of the platform began using the section of the website dedicated to the game to stream illicit content such as pornography and pirated movies. Tragically, the Twitch Artifact section debacle is the most thought anyone has given the game in months. It just goes to show, no matter how much money and how many big names are behind a project, nothing is ever too big to fail.