No matches

It’s been a bad first month and a bad end of the year for Artifact. After launching to much hype and expectations, Valve’s card game is still struggling to retain the interest of more than a few thousand players.

That isn’t to say the game is beyond redemption. In its core, Richard Garfield has made a great game, which had the misfortune to launch fully naked. Valve have been doing their best to tailor some clothes, but there’s a long way still to go.

It’s a harsh sentence, but Artifact must have a successful 2019, or it will go the way of the many card game pretenders who came and went without a trace, failing to leave any sort of impact. The current numbers and their downward trend suggest that not even balance patches and featured updates aren’t enough to stabilize the game, so Valve’s next moves have to be truly big ones. But what exactly?

1. Competitive ladder

“Grind” is a dirty word in gaming and is never associated with any positive emotions. Whether it’s for items, heroes, ranks or currency, the grind has always been synonymous with tediousness.

But what it’s also synonymous with is a sense of purpose. In every ongoing, multiplayer game, players need a reason to return day by day and keep investing their times. Merely beating their opponents is not enough — there needs to be more to it. Their wins need to mean something, they need to be part of a larger context.

Valve already acknowledge that by introducing the leveling progression system in Artifact, but it’s not enough. Garfield and co. built the game to be competitive at heart, yet the heart of any modern competition — the ladder — is missing.

Having a ladder in a competitive game is not just another form of skill measurement. A well-designed ladder gives a player both a sense of accomplishment and a goal to strive for.

One can argue that Artifact already does a lot to incentivize competition through the Gauntlet and the automated tournaments, but these are unnatural habitats for what we could title “the mid-tier competitor”. The mid-tier competitors are right between the aspiring professionals and the absolute casuals and will often make the bulk of a multiplayer game’s player base. Actual tournaments are perhaps too much for such type of player, while the simple leveling progression is but a tiny carrot on a short stick.

Having a ladder in a competitive game is not just another form of skill measurement. A well-designed ladder gives a player both a sense of accomplishment and a goal to strive for. The two come together for that critical dopamine tick which then gives the player a reason to return and keep on playing. The grind becomes meaningful and, ideally, enjoyable.

Take a title like StarCraft 2 as an example of the latter. Blizzard’s RTS offers no grind for heroes, cards, or currency. There is nothing to unlock and no collection of any sort to fill out. Yet its players stick to it, because even just the ability to climb up leagues and divisions and track the season-to-season progress is enough reward.

Even if just getting better is the majority of the playing experience — as it is in Artifact — it still needs to feel tactile.

Artifact is doing a great job catering to its casual population. It’s doing an even greater job catering to its hardcore population. But that “mid-tier competitor” who is currently considering whether to play Artifact or MTG Arena, or Hearthstone, doesn’t have much incentive to launch Valve’s game. A ladder system will be a step to giving them a purpose.

2. A non-Valve esports approach

For all the growth esports has experienced over the past decade, there’s hardly a game developer that’s got it just right and perfect. Examples vary from Riot Games’ iron fist, totalitarian approach to League of Legends, to Valve’s nonchalant treatment of their esports titles.

One might think that the more freedom and more breathing room does a developer give to its esports, the better they will grow. In most cases that is correct, but this only works with games which develop the grassroots type of esports ecosystem, i.e. one which naturally develops from within the community.

Valve can’t wait for Artifact to grow large enough to become an esport, because Artifact itself is not growing.

Artifact isn’t one such game and there are no signs that an esports scene will gradually form without Valve’s interference. The few tournaments held so far have been met with mild to no interest and this will continue to be the case as long as player numbers keep dwindling.

Valve can’t wait for Artifact to grow large enough to become an esport, because Artifact itself is not growing. The company’s move is then to step in, create its own lucrative esport system and use it as an advertising tool to potentially attract more users to Artifact.

The Overwatch League is the very definition of an artificial league, but is still beneficial for the esport. Photo by: Blizzard

I will admit, this is an approach that would usually furrow my brows, as I’ve always firmly believed that esports need to feel natural, and not plastic, artificial and forced. History itself has proved that such strategies are rarely effective, but sometimes it’s the only way to go.

When I say Artifact needs a “non-Valve” esports approach, I am not saying Valve should go the Riot Games or Blizzard way. They cannot, however, treat Artifact the same way they’ve treated CS:GO and the majority of Dota 2’s esports life. To succeed, Artifact esports needs a vision. It needs a coherent structure, it needs money, it needs a larger purpose, and it needs to make pro players’ efforts worthwhile. If Valve drowse in a lull, hoping that third-party organizers will contribute to Artifact’s success, they’ll wake up to find that most of their players have left for MTG grounds, where the grass is not only greener: it comes with salaries and contracts, too.

3. In-game tournaments that matter

From day one, Artifact’s biggest strength has been its in-game tournament system. It’s a feature that’s been desperately lacking and largely requested by communities in other card games, yet Valve’s product had it in beta already. Unfortunately, as with many game modes in Artifact, that one too is not used to full potential.

The problem circles back to one of Artifact’s core problems: many of its game modes are not attractive enough to warrant continuous use. If a competitive ladder is the incentive for the average player, tournaments with actual prizes will reward and attract the more devoted players and potentially even create an aspiring competitor for the average Joe.

If this was any other game, to ask so much of it after a month of existence would be unfair, but with Valve’s and Garfield’s names come expectations with size to match.

There are a number of ways to better utilize in-game tournaments. Valve could easily take a page off of Wizards book and create various competitive events for those seeking different experiences. A best-of-1 free tournament can nurture the competitive spirit. Best-of-3 events can be the testing ground for hardcore players, likening the online experience to actual tournaments. The game can have pauper tournaments and draft tournaments and offer a variety of entry costs and prize payouts.

The latter don’t even have to be in the form of free cards or packs. Cosmetics alone are enough incentive in other games and is another feature the community has been asking for. And once an esports ecosystem appears (see point #2), the in-game tournaments can then become how players qualify for LAN events from the comfort of their bedrooms.

What’s most important is to make any experience not feel hollow. The reason why won’t play any of the current in-game tournaments is the same why they won’t play casual or stop leveling after they farm their packs and tickets for the season: there’s nothing tangible to fight for.

artifact tournaments

Artifact in-game tournaments currently offer no incentive, besides boasting rights.

Fortunately, Valve have already shown they have the right idea of where to take Artifact. The Call to Arms event has its own ladder and manages to appeal to both casual players (free decks) and veterans (ranking system). The progression and skill rank systems are great foundations to a full-blooded competitive incentives. The changed approach to balance changes further shows that Valve are willing to adjust at the sign of severe problems, which in turn is necessary to develop a healthy esports scene.

If this was any other game, to ask so much of it after a month of existence would be unfair, but with Valve’s and Garfield’s names come expectations with size to match.

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