Artifact: What Went Wrong?

Previously: Card Balance and ArtifactArtifact Embraces Card Balance ChangesReview: Artifact

Epistemic Status: Looks pretty dead

Artifact had every advantage. Artifact should have been great. Artifact was great for the right players, and had generally positive reviews. Then Artifact fell flat, its players bled out, its cards lost most of their value, and the game died.

Valve takes the long view, so the game is being retooled and might return. But for now, for all practical purposes, the game is dead.

Richard Garfield and Skaff Elias have one take on this podcast. They follow up with more thoughts in this interview.

Here’s my take, which is that multiple major mistakes were made, all of which mattered, and all of which will be key to avoid if we are to bring the combination of strategic depth and player-friendly economic models back to collectible card games.

I see ten key mistakes, which I will detail below.

Alas, we do not get to run controlled experiments. The lack of ability to experiment and iterate was the meta-level problem with Artifact. The parts of the game that Valve knew how to test, and knew to test, were outstanding, finely crafted and polished. The parts that Valve did not test had severe problems.

We will never know for sure which reasons were most critical, and which ones were minor setbacks. I will make it clear what my guesses are, but they are just that, guesses.

Reason 1: Artifact Was Too Complex, Complicated and Confusing

Artifact streams were difficult to follow even if you knew the game. As teaching tools they didn’t work at all. I heard multiple reports that excellent streamers were unable to explain to viewers what was going on in their Artifact games.

I was mostly able to follow streams when I had a strong strategic understanding of the game and all of its cards and recognized all the cards on sight. Mostly.

I was fortunate to learn Artifact in person with those deeply committed to it, at the Valve offices, and in a setting where I had several days with no distractions to become comfortable with the game and how it worked. All eight of us who were introduced to the game that week got what it was about and had fun. We were able to pass through hours of not knowing why our heroes had died or our cards hadn’t worked the way we expected.

But that’s all an extraordinary bar to entry. It also helped that we were playing against each other, rather than spikes from the internet beating us over the head with netdecks.

Valve did amazingly great work on the user interface that, in addition to making the game beautiful, made it as clear as possible what was going on at all times. It wasn’t enough.

What was enough was the same thing that Magic: The Gathering players need: A human who will sit down with you and explain how things work. No other solution comes close.

Whenever I talked to players who bounced off Artifact, even top professional Magic players, complexity was always the number one complaint.

I introduced Gaudenis Vidugiris to the game. He bounced off. Too complicated.

I introduced Sam Black to the game. He bounced off. Too complicated.

I played in a tournament match during the beta against Andrew Cuneo. He knew the basic rules but had no idea what was going on and felt lost and helpless. He bounced off.

Randy Buehler reported it took him about two weeks to start understanding things well enough to begin having fun.

If those four think your game is too complicated and hard to grasp, I have some news. Your game is too complicated and hard to grasp. There is no large audience that is more sophisticated than that, that wants more complexity than that.

Artifact when you don’t know what is going on is a frustrating experience. I was only able to enjoy playing Artifact when I was playing most days, and making it my strategic gaming focus, and giving games the attention they deserved. When I did that, I had some of the best and most intensive and interesting gaming experiences I can remember. Whenever I tried to phone things in, it became quickly clear there was no point.

Some of us stuck with the game through those problems and got tens or hundreds of hours of good experiences out of the game. But eventually it took its toll on all of us. When Valve started changing cards, I lost heart and gave up, no longer confident that my mastery of this complex information and its strategic implications would last long enough to justify the continued investment.

I loved Artifact. I love complex games and love that they exist and that others love them. It brings me joy to know others are building superstructures in Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress and Europa Universalis. Whenever I was at the World Boardgaming Championships I would devote entire days to games of Advanced Civilization, then I would check on those who devoted their entire week to a single game of Global War, and would have done the same for any games of Empires in Arms. But it is worth noting that as much as I admire them and want to try them, I have never played Global War or Empires in Arms. They take too long, require too much dedication, and I could never make it happen. They’re a bridge or two too far.

The most extreme case might be, interestingly, the game Artifact was based on: Dota 2. Dota 2 takes dozens of hours before one is able to play the game as anything other than a training exercise. I tried to learn it by having someone sit down and play a learning game with me. It lasted an hour. At the end of that hour, I felt only marginally closer to understanding the game. I still was so bad at the game that I suspected I was hurting my team by doing anything at all rather than staying in the starting area doing nothing. 

Tutorials continue to be a grand unsolved problem. It’s not clear that most of them aren’t actively counterproductive for games at this level, and we shouldn’t just assign experienced players to teach and mentor newer players. No other tech is known to work (and for Dota 2, even that seemed like it wasn’t great).

Despite these problems, Dota 2 is huge, and hugely successful. Part of that is greater resonance. Part of that is path dependence, as so many players have made the investment and that has justified it to others. Part of that is that the game pays off in hundreds or thousands of hours. But it’s not like I can watch a stream of Dota 2 and have any idea what is going on in the sense that people watching Artifact don’t know what is going on. It’s not like I feel there’s a reasonable path to learning the game, even though I’ve wanted to at various points.

It is easy to see why complexity didn’t seem like a mission critical issue for the Dota 2 card game, when Dota 2 itself arguably has these issues even worse than Artifact. And as Artifcact designers Richard Garfield and Skaff Elias point out, even if you knock out 90%+ of all potential players with this, that still leaves plenty of eager potential participants. The point is a few players who love you, not to appeal to everyone.

I don’t think this had to be fatal on its own, but it put a lot of pressure on the game to deliver the goods elsewhere to make up for it.

Reason 2: Artifact Was Too Skill Testing

Artifact announced it was handing Stanislav Cifka a million dollars.

They worded this as an announcement of a million dollar first prize tournament. Technically, many of us had hope it might be us. But we all knew, in our heart of hearts, it was going to be Stanislav Cifka. He owned all of us throughout the beta, going through entire tournaments without dropping games. The one time I can think of he did lose, it was through a clear tactical error in the final.

I entered one Artifact tournament after the game premiered, and played in several beta tournaments. Results were, shall we say, mixed.

In every case, for every match that I won, I could point to impactful errors by my opponent.

In every case, for every match that I lost, I knew I had made key mistakes and deserved to lose.

Good players in Artifact have a huge advantage against bad players. Great players have the same advantage against good players.

If you had to line up players such that the player in front would dominate the player behind them such that an upset would be very surprising (so let’s say 400 ELO points distance), for Magic: The Gathering you’d get something like (Top Player -> PTQ Level Player -> Reasonable Store Player -> Bad Player) for four players in the row. I can see a case for three or five.

Chess would have (2800 -> 2400 -> 2000 -> 1600 -> 1200 -> 800) so it would have six.

Artifact would have at least six. It might have seven.

That is too much skill testing, especially for a game that people didn’t think was all that skill testing. Players noticed all the bad parts of too much skill testing without the benefits.

What made this hard to see? Artifact had lots of random events, but they were mostly small rather than adding up, so all that did was give better players unique situations to roll with and plan for. It had lots of decisions with long term payoffs, that compounded and played in to each other. Poorer players didn’t even notice many of the things that were causing them to lose. And this all plays into reason three.

Reason 3: Artifact Wasn’t Random Enough but Was Perceived as Random in Bad Ways

Randomness is vital to games. The biggest benefits of randomness are variety of game play and game situations, such that the game feels fresh, the opportunity for tension and surprise, the chance for players to beat players who are better than them so worse players so more matchups remain interesting and poor players do not lose interest, and giving players the chance to make interesting strategic choices where they have to decide what risks are acceptable and worthwhile.

As Garfield and Skaff point out in their textbook, luck and skill are not opposites. But Artifact definitely had (if anything) too much skill, and did not have enough luck. After a while, the games start to bleed together, following similar patterns. There are lots of little random events that can be good or bad for you, but those even out, so the better player reliably crushed the weaker player, more than in any other known card game.

The randomness the game did have was great. Knowing when to risk a bad arrow, or hope for a good one, and how to maximize your chances of getting one, was quite interesting, as was trying to maximize your chances of lining up well with where heroes would end up within a lane, or what would happen based on where the enemy placed their heroes versus where you would place yours, or your chance of getting the item you wanted out of your store, and so forth.

The problem is that if you add up a lot of little random things, you get far less than additive amounts of net randomness in the result. But you might get more than additive amounts of perceived randomness. Players see each individual random element as part of a constant barrage. And the randomness that Artifact did have was too often the kind of explicit non-card-draw randomness that creates player ire and complaints.

Mark Rosewater and others who work on Magic often note that players react to different kinds of randomness in different ways. Coin flips and die rolls are the worst, when one outcome is clearly good for a player and the other bad, because they stick out as explicit intentional randomness. There is a reason we all hated Frenetic Efreet, and why we don’t make cards like that anymore.

The arrows of Artifact felt to players like that kind of randomness. As opposed to drawing different cards in the wrong order or wrong place, or having the tools for the wrong matchup, which are forms of randomness people accept.

The distributions of heroes, and who lined up against who, especially in the opening, was the same. Sometimes you would have heroes face off and someone would go back to the fountain on turn one. Other times, they’d miss each other entirely. That was a big swing that players had little control over, although they could build their decks to assert more or less control over it. The secret was that losing those flips was much less bad than it appeared, since the hero comes back two turns later to the lane of your choice and not that much damage gets dealt to the tower. It definitely risks a runaway via item purchases, or perhaps very quick tower kills, but it’s quite manageable by design. Thus, it didn’t actually let bad players beat good players that often. But it sure felt like it did.

The lesson is to do your best to hide your randomness where it isn’t viewed as the bad kind of random, and to make sure it is available in at least some large chunks. Artifact’s best randomness was the placement of heroes simultaneously, because it doesn’t feel like randomness. The shop items also felt ‘fair’ because they were drawing cards from a deck.

Reason 4: Artifact Had No Meaningful Outer Loop

When Artifact launched, you could enter a casual queue and play matches that meant nothing. Or, you could enter a competitive queue that cost $1 (one ticket, if you played keeper draft you had to bring packs as well) and returned slightly less than that in value. That seems like the actual minimum charge required to keep the matches interesting without embracing toxic free-to-play style mechanics that would have destroyed card value along with the overall game experience. So hats off to them for charging just enough to keep it interesting, and not a cent more.

The problem was that this was all you had to do, unless you found a tournament online that would last all day and was definitely a niche product.

Winning at first did not bring any benefits whatsoever, beyond the small return from the tournament itself. The only benefit of winning was you played against harder opponents, but your rating was invisible to you, so you got to experience the frustration of not winning more when you got better at the game without the reward of knowing that you were improving via the rating. There were no larger prizes or thresholds or other things to aspire to, beyond what the community created for itself.

Later, Artifact added experience points and levels in a tacked-on fashion, parallel to the ratings that actually mattered and continued to remain hidden. The new system meant that if you played games, you had a number that slowly went up, which slowly gave you a small number of packs and icon rewards, and allowed you to have a higher number next to your name. It was really weird that I could know how many games my opponent played, but not how good they were in any real fashion. This seemed to not fit a game that was so much about skill.

There was no meaningful ‘collect cards’ outer loop, because drafting cards was not a practical way to assemble what you needed – any reasonable person would simply buy what they wanted, especially once the prices started coming down. There was no meaningful achievement loop. When I thought about playing games, I did not expect to get any form of reward beyond the game itself, other than the opportunity to improve my skills. In today’s world, that is not acceptable.

What should Artifact’s outer loop have been? At a minimum, Artifact could have had a system that allowed qualification towards its big prize tournaments. Given Artifact’s emphasis on skill, giving players a competitive structure to climb seems like the obvious thing to do, and was something that was promised in the form of a million dollar tournament that was never delivered – which at least to me severely damages the credibility of future Valve promises. Artifact should also have given players the chance to know their true Elo ratings. What they did offer, in the form of cumulative rewards, was much better than nothing, but the rewards quickly became few and far between in a way that felt super far away, leaving players without realistic aspirations, and strongly encouraged players to play only a small number of games before mostly maxing out. Without getting into the weeds here too much, there are a lot of ways to vastly improve how much such a system encourages play.

Another key part of the outer loop is ‘keeping up’ with expansions. When one plays in Arena, Hearthstone or Eternal, one is constantly aware that one’s collection naturally decays over time, with continuous play required to get the cards to keep going. The only alternative is payment. Artifact of course was planning to have expansions, but not even one of them was ever announced. This was an underappreciated huge deal. Without knowledge of a future expansion, the most important and unique outer loop of all was crippled – my collection was complete and would remain so for the indefinite future.

Reason 5: Artifact Had No Good Budget Format

What is so weird is that they ran cash prize tournaments in a very good budget format, called Commons Only, during the beta. This format spontaneously turned out to foster interesting play that focused on lane resource allocation, as playing only commons means that mostly things in a given lane remain stuck in that lane. This is an excellent way to get one’s feet wet, as the game does not need to be grasped as a unified whole in the same way. It had several viable decks at the highest level that covered the four colors.

Then for some reason, this did not become a default format to offer players. I still have no idea why, beyond fear that players might not feel enough need to buy more cards, but I don’t model Valve as thinking that way. Without a budget format that could sustain itself, the game seemed much more expensive and off-putting, as playing Artifact with inferior tools can be very disheartening.

This then made Artifact’s economic model seem and be worse than it would have been otherwise, making one of their biggest problems even worse.

Reason 6: Artifact’s Economic Model Was Marketed Poorly and Misconstrued

I put this before the important real flaws in the economic model because I believe that perception of Artifact’s model as greedy, stingy, unreasonable and out of step with the times was far more hurtful than the real flaws it had. Artifact had in effect a perfectly reasonable economic model, but players did not see it that way.

What happened? A lot of it was the way the model was presented. Artifact did not highlight its customer-friendly economic features.

Artifact charged minimal amounts for tournament and draft participation, even allowing you to play for free if you chose to do so, at the expense of your opponents not having a strong incentive to give the games their full attention. When entry was charged, the rake taken on it was very small.

This is a big deal. In all the other collectible card games I know, playing limited is something you earn through grinding, or something you buy at remarkably high hourly rates. 

In Artifact, once you pay the initial $20 fee, you can draft as many times as you want, for free, forever. 

That’s the best drafting deal ever offered, and that is how Artifact’s offering should have been framed. It is also how the bulk of players should have been playing the bulk of their games.

If players had thought of Artifact as a $20 experience that allowed you to play its primary mode of play forever, and also gave you assets you could sell to get a lot of that $20 back (in the first week you could get more than all of that $20 back, although that did not last) then players would have seen that this is a good deal the same way that paying $30 for Slay the Spire or $60 for Dragon Quest XI is a good deal. You then have an option to play constructed, which can cost up to a few hundred for a complete set of playable cards, but there is no one forcing you to do that if it is not interesting to you.

The cost of constructed in Artifact started around $200, then decreased as the game failed, but $200 for a full set of playable cards from a large set compares favorably to what you would pay in other similar games. It compares even better if you consider that you can sell those cards afterwards and hope to potentially even profit, and you can choose to buy only those cards you need, without having to go through a super inefficient dusting or wildcard system.

But none of that mattered, because all people heard was ‘Artifact is not free to play.’ This cached out as two things: Artifact costs $20 initially (whether or not this was at first effectively $0 given that the cards you get along with that can be sold) and Artifact does not reward your daily play with cards that suffice to let you build a constructed deck. Players only considered the question of ‘how generous are you to people who don’t want to ever pay money but do want to build a collection’ and generally looked for markers of generosity within the free-to-play business model I consider deeply flawed, rather than considering the system holistically or comparing it to a normal pay-to-play title.

Thus, players got angry, and the game got review bombed, and professional reviews constantly referred to the game as greedy and as using an aggressive, outdated business model. Once that becomes the story, you’re in deep trouble, whether or not it is accurate.

Reason 7: Artifact’s Economic Model Was Flawed

As much as I will defend Artifact’s economic model as being unfairly maligned and having the right overall concepts at its foundation, the execution of those ideas was botched. One of the ways this happened was very not subtle and should have been obvious, especially since I tried to caution them about it. The others were understandable mistakes that would have been difficult to notice in advance.

The big mistake was to lock all transactions to the Steam Marketplace, preventing players from transacting with each other directly, and then take a 15% cut of every transaction.

15% is a freaking huge fee, and the desire to collect that fee ruled out any ability to loan cards or give cards to friends. Thus, the ability to let a friend play a deck you’ve assembled, or try out something cool, was gone.

Players ended up feeling tied to their cards a large percentage of the amount they would have felt tied with no ability to sell at all. One of the big advantages of having cards that can transfer is the ability to recapture value, but a 15% transaction tax makes that story far more difficult to tell. Another is to have tight markets so you feel like you’re getting a fair price when you buy or sell. Magic Online provides this through the use of trading bots, so you don’t feel like trading is too expensive. The problem is that if every card comes with a 15% fee, then that makes any profitable trading strategy need to widen out by 15% on top of the 15% fee, so they can pay the 15% when it’s their turn to pay it. So effectively there is a 30% gap between buy and sell prices, plus the profits to the dealers who are worried their inventory will lose value and at paying large costs to get rid of things they no longer want, so you’re looking at a gap of 40% minimum when you don’t have ‘natural’ flow to trade against. That is super punishing.

Combine that with an interface for trading where it suggests prices you might want to seek to pay, but which often fail to actually make a trade happen, and the whole experience is super frustrating. I felt bad every time I went to use the market for a non-trivial purpose, and all my dreams of speculation or investment in undervalued cards went away completely the moment I saw the market structure.

Even worse was that the game was creating sources of surplus card flow to be dumped onto the market, debasing the value of the cards. Starting a new account forced players to open $20 of product, without giving most people much reason to keep those cards, since they would end up mostly playing limited or leaving the game entirely. So why wouldn’t they reclaim what value they could by dumping everything into the market, even at a big loss? Then, when this flow pushed prices down, players saw cards as an increasingly bad investment, further depressing demand, and accelerating the downward price spiral set in motion by a declining player base.

We add to that the giving away of product in daily rewards. The daily rewards may not have looked like much to players, but it was still a large flooding of the market, because many of the players getting the free packs had no reason to hang onto them when they could get some steam credit by dumping the cards. I’ve been working on modeling this interaction for some time, and I firmly believe that you mostly must choose two of these three: either give cards away steadily for free, or allow cards to be exchanged freely, or allow cards to retain value. If you give away cards and let them be exchanged, the market floods and value is depressed. If you give away cards and want them to retain value, you have to lock those cards down (if not all cards) to avoid this. If you don’t give away cards for free, then value is maintained because incoming supply is always paid for, so unless you have a large decline in the player base, someone is paying for that supply at whatever price you charge.

If you’re going to have a marketplace and want your cards to have value, it imposes real restrictions on you. What you distribute has to be chosen very carefully. Players need to fully own their cards and be able to reasonably transfer them. Players need assurances that their card value will be protected.

You have to mean it, or it won’t work.

Reason 8: Artifact Set Expectations Too High

Artifact came from Valve and Richard Garfield, based upon DOTA 2, looking better and with more polish than any other digital card game has ever launched with by a wide margin. The game is gorgeous, the result of years of loving detail and care, and came after a long gap of game publishing from a studio with a long record of hits. It was presented as the Next Big Thing, and a lot of people got super excited. Tons of players tried it out when it launched.

Alas, a lot of those players had no business playing Artifact, because they weren’t the type of player who enjoys that level of complex strategic interaction. And also alas, the game launched essentially unfinished, because it didn’t have its outer loops in place in any form, and without a good way to bring new players up to speed, but it was presented as fully ready rather than early access.

This resulted in a strong early peak in users, followed by a huge decline, which looked like failure and also did terrible things to the market, and resulted in terrible reviews because people were evaluating the game against a standard it never had a hope of meeting.

If Artifact had launched first as early access, allowing players to first view it as a game in progress, all of that could have been avoided. It also would have allowed them to fix their problems before it was too late, because they would have avoided the next issue.

Reason 9: Artifact Did Not Run the Right Tests Because They Didn’t Test Their Economy

Artifact ran an extensive beta test where many of us played a lot of games. The problem was that what they didn’t do was test Artifact where players did not have full card access. Throughout the beta, players were given complete collections.

Which was super awesome for the players, and allowed us to better test the ‘final form’ of the constructed format. What it didn’t do was give an idea of how players would in practice interact with the game. What would their experience be? What would they choose to do, what types of decks would they build and face? Would the economy work? How would desire to build a collection interact with and drive player spend and behavior? And so on.

These are super important questions. Artifact’s test of them was on launch day.

Arena solved this problem by running a beta with its full economy working as designed, with credits from card purchases being given when the cards were reset later. That solution is not available to a game with a full marketplace, especially if you want to predict player actions and market dynamics, so the problem isn’t a trivial one to solve. If I buy a copy of Drow Ranger in the market, someone gets that money, so Valve can’t refund it without taking those proceeds away.

My guess is that would indeed be the right thing to do – to take those profits away upon reset. For the test period, cards and packs cost Relics which can be bought with steam credits, and the market trades in Relics. At the reset, Relics are destroyed, and all funds used to purchase Relics are returned as either steam credits or as funds one can use to purchase selected items in Artifact.

The important task is to impose some set of reasonable card access restrictions, and see how players build decks, play the game and use the market in response to that.

Reason 10: Artifact Did Not React Well or Quickly to Initial Failures and Did Almost No Press

It is normal for a game to see a huge decline in play numbers over its first few weeks. No one knows that better than Valve. So it was understandable for Valve not to be too concerned about the decline in numbers over the first few weeks, until it was clear that the ongoing trajectory was not going to improve. More troubling should have been the reviews of various types that were coming in, the reports of players dropping the game or not streaming or watching the game due to complexity concerns, and other not-the-number-of-users red flags.

What initial reactions they did have, enshrining free drafting and giving a first draft of player achievements and rewards for playing, were good starts, but did not turn around the narrative. Valve counted, as it has done in other cases, on its players to get the word out. That didn’t work, and players continued to view the economy as greedy and the game as having nothing for them to do.

Still, those stopgaps combined with the excellent reception the game got from many lovers of deep strategy games, bought Valve some time. During that time, they could have made further improvements, offered more things to do, or at least announced future things and improvements that players could anticipate. They also did not engage in any public interactions that showed they were aware of the issues, or illustrated their thinking or intentions.

Also importantly, for a game whose core success strategy was supposed to involve top level competition, they left actual competitions entirely in the hands of outsiders. There were some cool tournaments held, but Valve itself didn’t have any planned or offered. Players who came to the game without knowing about the tournaments didn’t realize there was any organized play. What play was organized didn’t have a clear path to getting involved other than either knowing someone or signing up for a single elimination all day tournament through discord. When I say all day, I mean all day. I think giving us a few Grand Prix style events, with five figure prize pools, that could be qualified for via wins or win rates in queued events, would have gone a long way towards tiding things over. Having that feed into a fully announced and scheduled million dollar first prize tournament? Even better.

Instead, every week that went by we all wondered whether Valve would be willing to follow through, or would instead abandon its pledge. Which is what eventually happened – it turned out to be a conditional promise that had assumed the game’s success. Why were we still playing?

When the time came to address the metagame being stale, and people complaining about some cards being better than others, Valve responded not by printing or releasing new cards or expansions, but by changing cards via fiat. This got them a lot of initial good press they had at least done something to respond to players and shake the game up. I saw that response, and thought that perhaps my negative reaction had been premature. If they kept changing things to keep the game dynamic, and embraced this new system, that would be tough on card value and make it especially taxing on players who tried to take breaks from the game, but they would be providing new and different experiences, show responsiveness to the player base, and be able to iterate towards where they needed to be while we waited for the first expansion.

Alas, such iterated changes did not come, nor did more radical changes or any announced plans. When the first set of changes did not revive the player base on its own, that was it. So we never got to find out what that experiment would have looked like, or whether it would have worked. Nor did we try releasing the first expansion to see if that helped shake things up and make people think of the game as a changing and evolving thing.

I respect the hell out of ‘it will be released when it is ready’ as a principle of game creation. Kudos to those with the resources and determination to pull it off. But once one releases a game that requires continuous play and a critical mass of players, one no longer has the luxury of time. One certainly does not have the luxury of time with no communications.

Conclusion

Artifact was, as my review made clear, a uniquely amazing game in important ways. It did a lot of things uniquely right. Alas, it also did a lot of things uniquely wrong. I’ve listed ten. If we could fix one of the ten, could we have saved the game? My guess is that no one of them alone would have been enough to turn the game into a success if it were fixed, but each of them would have made a substantial difference. Solving a lot of them, I believe, would have been enough. While the complexity issue in particular is a huge deal, that complexity also brought many benefits, and I think that with proper handling of other issues the complexity problem could have been navigated, as it was in the original DOTA 2. It was the combined weight of so many different problems that ended up bringing the game down.

Could the game still be saved? There is a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, legacy economic problems that will weigh on the enterprise, and the players have almost all checked out. At this point, time pressure is no longer a major concern, as everything that can be lost to delays has already been lost. If the game came back in a few years, with solutions for its problems and proper support including prize support, I do believe it can still be a modest success on its own terms. I do not expect that to happen.

The greater tragedy would be to draw broad conclusions about what is fatal to a game, and for Artifact to become a way to inhibit innovation and drive games towards becoming Hearthstone clones (or otherwise stick to existing templates) even more than they already do. The more we realize how many different ways there are to improve our prospects when exploring interesting new space, the better our chances for creating the next unique great thing.

 

 

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28 Responses to Artifact: What Went Wrong?

  1. deluks917 says:

    Maybe I am just in a weird bubble but a lot of my friends played artifact. Most of them didn’t think it was way too complicated. It is worth noting one of us beat San Cifka in a 15 game set for $5000 (I think he won 8-2, maybe 8-3). https://twitter.com/StanCifka/status/1094704187122900994

    We all love gaming lol.

  2. deluks917 says:

    (‘Naraj’ is a guy I chat with almost every day)

  3. Jon Ross says:

    I don’t necessarily agree that the game was too complicated. I am nowhere near a Sam Black level Magic player but I found the game reasonable to learn and play. Possibly my familiarity with Dota helped, but I kind of doubt it. I really enjoyed playing the beta for a few weeks and I’ve done a lot of thinking about why the enjoyment stopped and what the lesson for game design is.

    Ultimately I think the root cause was that games started feeling samey. This is partially due to something you touched on in 2 and 3, which is that the game is kind of sneakily more deterministic than it looks, but I think an even bigger contributor was card balance. After a while, you just get sick of lining up against Axe. Spells weren’t much better balance wise, with the usual suspects coming up over and over. I’m not sure the actual diversity in playable card pool was any worse than a typical Magic set, but it sure felt like it.

  4. Jorge says:

    “Artifact announced it was handing Stanislav Cifka a million dollars. They worded this as an announcement of a million dollar first prize tournament. Technically, many of us had hope it might be us. But we all knew, in our heart of hearts, it was going to be Stanislav Cifka.”

    No kidding. (https://thezvi.wordpress.com/2018/11/22/review-artifact/#comment-2835)

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  15. Volviq says:

    Great article. It’s really sad to read it as me too thought and still think of Artifact as a great game.

    One of the thing they could do with dampening the market especially after the awards update is to lock cards at certain dynamic, but not so dynamic price and make all transactions through Valve. You have some more or less stable price for which you can sell cards or buy it. Could result in a Valve going in red with the game, but at that point working hard to involve new players and balance the game will directly influence valve profit and give them more incentive.

    Also as in Dota 2 they could arrange some Battle cup tournament for some money. Not big, but enough for more and more players to come to game, buy better cards in hope of winning it and getting their investment back.

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  17. Antimediary says:

    The common comparison with Artifact is with Dota 2, as it’s the IP that Artifact was based off of.
    They’re also both ‘complex’ games. Complex in the sense of having lots of intricate mechanics that make up the game state. Dota 2 has its reliable vs. unreliable gold mechanics, while Artifact has its nuanced system of keywords and three lanes.

    However, I would argue that having high complexity in a game is fine. What’s more important in games like these is feedback on every individual decision.

    In Dota 2, there are clear mini-success and mini-fail states that build up over the course of a game. Destroy a tower, kill a hero, eliminate a Rax. These are clear moments of feedback that unequivocally gives Players an advantage. It’s like the game’s way of telling you, ‘Good Job’.

    But in Artifact, these same decisions all had to be interpreted. Only the language between the games was the same. For instance, killing a Hero or a Tower wouldn’t necessarily be the correct decision. Even typically simple decisions like ‘buffing a Hero’ or ‘winning a combat trade’ had to be weighed against everything else happening in the game. Every board state resisted simple answers.

    This ambiguity was both Artifact’s greatest strength and its greatest downfall. At its best, Artifact was a game in its own class. No easy answers and a high volume of meaningful decision making made for a really unique card game. It was the game that ruined Hearthstone and MTG for me, as they started to feel too ‘slow’ in comparison.

    But, good luck introducing anyone to the game. Good luck trying to get better at it either. If every decision has to be interpreted (especially when the results of decisions can be delayed for multiple turns), how is any player realistically going to get better at the game?

    It’s no wonder that so many people bounced off the game.

    • Kenny says:

      I have been frequently ‘bouncing’ off of games, even ones I’ve played for hundreds of hours, once I feel like they’ve recapitulated the complexity of my life itself. What you described with Artifact as a need for “interpretation” of every game state reads as ‘exhausting’.

  18. Anon. says:

    On #6: you could say the League of Legends economic model is fair, too. But when Valve made Dota they didn’t go with a “fair” model similar to their competitors. They said: everything is free, you don’t need to unlock anything, you just pay for cosmetics. Naturally, this created certain expectations for their Dota card game…

  19. One other aspect is that a lot of gameplay was about not playing. Preventing the other player from even being able to play cards was a core mechanic (maybe THE core mechanic), and often the way to do that was to play nothing yourself for a long time either. This is only fun when you’re on the giving end significantly more than the receiving end (aka beating up noobs or clearly worse players)

    I think it lead to a “death from the bottom” effect where the weakest players not only lost, but lost while basically not being able to play, and they’re like F this, and then the next-weakest players have nobody to style on and quit for the same reason, etc. The game has to be fun/productive in some way even when you’re getting smashed regularly to keep players around, and Artifact was the exact opposite of that. Combined with no external reason to play (no outer loop as you call it), retention at the bottom couldnt be anything but abysmal.

    MTG in general can be fun while losing (and it’s telling that Nexus and to a lesser degree T3feri and Simic flash are hated so much *because you can’t even play* or can’t play when you’re losing.), Arena has outer loops, and Magic has multiple levels of competition to conquer from being big fish at your local FNM to PT success.

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  21. The most frustrating thing to me as a casual player was that Artifact seemed determined to make learning to play the game as hard as possible. The “tutorial” was a joke, the AI sucked, they shortened the turn timers which punished new players even more, and AFAIR there was no option to rewind and review a game after it was completed. I’m learning to play chess with a phone app mostly by rewinding games I lost and identifying the 1-2 moves where I fucked up. The lack of review, along with cause and effect being hard to discern anyway because of strategic complexity, made it very hard to learn from my *own* games. And if I can’t do that, what’s the point?

    You can say that I have the option to learn from streaming players, but if that’s your mindset as a game developer I suspect your game is going to tank. I’m paying for hours of entertainment – I don’t care if the game costs $20 or $50 or $10-a-month or whatever if I get a few hours of entertainment out of it (which I eventually did with Artifact, in the last few weeks before it died). I’m the kind of customer a game dev needs to be profitable, a casual with high willingness to pay. But you’d have to *pay me* $20 to watch an hour of Twitch, and I know I’m not alone in that. If the barrier to enjoying the game is money that goes to the devs, I’ll pay that. If the barrier is a bit of money and hours spent watching someone else play, piss off.

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  23. vvv says:

    This was a great read – as someone who works in games, point 9 hit hard as a mistake we made in one of our games.

    Just a question – are you aware of the card game that the total war guys are making? what are your thoughts / expectations from that?

    thanks

  24. Kenny says:

    I enjoyed this, and your other posts about similar games. Are these all of the “collectible card game” genre?

  25. Helen Ramos says:

    Hi Zvi. Your latest results are a tragedy. For someone that talked so much shit about having a deck that “broke the format”, and then saying “he’s not sure” when it comes to the latest tournament results…I’ve heard you say before you’re not sure if you “have it anymore”. Well let me make it easy for you…YOU DON’T. Don’t let BDM fool you with his praise, you should go home and be a family man. Considering your supposed pedigree, your latest results are a travesty. Have some character and stop talking shit about how you MIGHT HAVE broke the format, and instead use that time to REFLECT on what’s going on.

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