Intro

Valve Corporation (referred to as “Valve”), a multibillion dollar gaming and publishing company (Chiang, 2011), released a digital collectible card game (CCG) called Artifact in November 2018. Over 60,000 players started playing the game on the first day. By March 2019 — only 4 months after launch — less than a thousand players remained, and Valve released a statement that they would cease updating the game to focus on re-examining Artifact’s core issues (Valve Corporation, 2019).

“Is Artifact a dead game?” “Yes. 126 players? oof. RIP Artifact, Nov 20, 2019 — Nov 13, 2019.”
“Is Artifact a dead game?” “Yes. 126 players? oof. RIP Artifact, Nov 20, 2019 — Nov 13, 2019.”
Figure 1. A website that exists solely to track current players of Artifact. Adapted from Is Artifact a dead game? Retrieved November 13, 2019, from https://isartifactdead.com/

Context

Artifact was first announced in August 2017 at Dota 2’s International tournament. The CEO of Valve, Gabe Newell, described how his team wanted to “build the best card game” (PCGamesN, 2018). It had an alpha phase with high-profile players from other CCGs like Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering Arena, which helped generate excitement for the game early on with their fans and their respective game communities (Akshon Esports, 2019). Nine days before launch, a closed beta version of the game was released to beta key holders — attendees of Dota 2’s The International 2018 and PAX West 2018 (Horti, 2018). Artifact was launched on November 28, 2018. It cost $20 USD to play the game, which came with 10 card packs. Players could not collect more cards unless they bought them from other players on Steam Marketplace (the full collection cost approximately $330 USD at the time of launch (Madigan, 2019)), or bought tickets to play the competitive draft mode (a mode that allows you to create a deck based on a random pool of cards) that would reward you with card packs if you won at least 3 out of 5 games.

Artifact’s game board.
Figure 2. A view of one of three boards in a match of Artifact. Adapted from Imgur. Retrieved November 13, 2019 from https://i.imgur.com/f54F4Mm.png
  1. Lack of clarity in the decision-making aspect of the game. Imagine an archer trying to hit a target. They need to decide where to aim the arrow and how much distance the arrow needs to fly. If the arrow falls short of the target, the archer understands intuitively that they need to draw their bow back more to make the arrow go farther to hit it. In Artifact, that kind of tacit knowledge of understanding which decisions would affect the outcome of the match was significantly harder to grasp, even among veteran CCG players.
  2. No skill-based matchmaking in draft mode. In typical competitive games, each player is assigned a matchmaking rating (MMR) by the game, a number that correlates to their skill level. Every win or loss affects a player’s MMR, with good players having high MMRs and bad or new players having low MMRs. With no purposeful matchmaking using MMRs, it was possible for professional players to be matched against new players.
  3. No global leaderboard. Implementing a MMR system also allows for an additional feature — the ability to show a global leaderboard of every player from best to worst. Leaderboards are particularly important to the players competing for the top spots, but even casual players use them for setting goals. Artifact was later updated to include a global leaderboard, but one that would reset every 2 weeks.
  4. Difficult to understand as a viewer. Although the game consisted of 3 boards, usually only 1 board was shown on-screen. Viewers of the game were forced into memorizing 2 other boards for the majority of the match as they were beholden to the players navigating the boards at their own pace. This is akin to having viewers memorize 2 chess boards while observing a third in progress.
A table showing peak player count over the course of 5 months, from November 2018 and March 2019.
Figure 3. Peak player count for Artifact in its opening months. Retrieved from Steam Charts, 2019, https://steamcharts.com/app/583950#1y

Human Factors

There are two psychological human factors that contributed to Artifact’s failure. One examines the player experience as the average player was not intrinsically motivated to play the game despite investing money into it, and the second, hubris, examines Valve’s attitude during the game’s development process. They only tested their game with professional CCG players and a subset of Valve and Dota2 fans. Valve believed that the ideal CCG their in-house team would want to play would also be successful in the marketplace (Eurogamer, 2018).

Analysis

The game elements previously described influenced player enjoyment of Artifact, which in turn affected their motivation to play (reynad, 2018). All five elements eroded the players’ inherent psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Conclusion

From the initial announcement right up until release, Artifact seemed to have so much potential: it was visually appealing, the rules were simple but strategies to win were complex, it attracted a large pool of competitive players from other CCGs, and it was built on an incredibly successful IP. However, it was missing the “fun” factor (reynad, 2018). Valve failed to meet the intrinsic needs of their casual players. By only allowing competitive gamers to provide feedback to the game, believing they were the only important audience to capture, Valve could not predict the game’s failure because it had not tested the game with the people who would make the game profitable. In the future, if Valve can fix the core issues of the game — high variability, unclear decision-making, no MMR-based matchmaking, ineffective leaderboard, and unappealing viewing experience — the game might increase its chance of success. Otherwise, Artifact might just end up being an artifact of the collectible card game industry.

Bibliography

Admiral Garp’s Grandson (2018, November 30). The most powerful card is credit card. [Steam review]. Retrieved from https://store.steampowered.com/app/583950/Artifact/#app_reviews_hash

Masters candidate at OCAD University, Strategic Foresight and Innovation.

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