For a new game from Valve, Artifact has had a rocky launch. A new card game based on the thriving Dota 2, developed by the creator of Magic: The Gathering, it seemed perched for success.
But less than a year after its launch, its support has plummeted. Player counts are low and its Twitch page became the target of jokes and trolls. In March, Valve laid it out plainly in a blog post: "Artifact represents the largest discrepancy between our expectations for how one of our games would be received and the actual outcome."
In an interview with Win.gg, former developers Richard Garfield (the aforementioned creator of Magic) and Skaff Elias elaborated on Artifact's issues. Some of the largest criticisms levied towards Artifact stem from its pay model; it follows a traditional card game model, similar to Magic: The Gathering, where you can either buy boosters or individual cards on the Steam Marketplace. Essentially, every card you own outside the starter pack, you had to buy. Valve has since instituted avenues for getting free cards, similar to popular online card games like Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering Arena, but it doesn't seem to have plugged the leak.
However, talking to Win.gg, Garfield and Elias don't feel "pay-to-win" is applies to Artifact. "'Pay-to-win' isn't a logical criticism of Artifact relative to other games," says Elias. "'More expensive than I'd like to pay' is, however, possibly fair for a lot of players."
Garfield attributes Artifact's issues to three core components: the poorly received revenue model, a lack of short-term goals for players like achievements or missions, and the "rating bombing," in response to the pay model.
"There were oodles of reviews that were, 'This game is great, but because of X I am thumbs downing it,'" says Garfield. "My understanding is that there were also many cases of people buying the game so they could rate it, then refunding immediately."
Garfield specifically mentions that while Magic players found the model "generous," players expecting free-to-play with grinding for cards found it "stingy." Their futures are now untied with Artifact's, as both are working on the physical card game KeyForge, though Garfield seems adamant that the Artifact model can succeed if delivered in the right manner.
"For example, it is simply a fact that the revenue model is more generous than Magic, and getting a top level deck is cheaper than in a comparable game," says Garfield. "Also, while there are complaints about RNG [random number generation], it is demonstrable fact that there is much more skill than comparable games, as indicated by the spread of rankings among the players."
While all that is true, I feel it misses the point of why Artifact struggled in the first place. Those revenue models are expected in the physical tabletop space, but the online card game realm is populated by games that offer at least some way to forge ahead without money. They don't demand the same kind of investment; a physical deck is something you build up over time and tune, taking it to local meet-ups and playing it over time. Online games can be played anywhere, anytime, and that constant accessibility has forged expectations of return on investment.
It's a shame, as the core gameplay of Artifact is pretty interesting and fresh. But while Artifact's model provides a novel contrast to the Hearthstone or MTG Arena experience, it's slim on extra content and asks for investment up-front, rather than a see-if-you-like-it tryout phase. Artifact's in hibernation now, with the developers at Valve presumably working on a way to either alter the game experience or discover the presentation that Garfield envisions will make it a success. But any hindsight now is 20-20, and what matters more is what Artifact can do to re-introduce itself to a competitive landscape.