Rock Paper Shotgun Article 2 Analysis

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Welp, this is better late then never. Real life and other projects stopped me from writing my analysis of the latest Rock Paper Shotgun article on time. As compensation, I have added a bit more depth to this analysis, which hopefully you will find interesting.

Apparently the first Rock Paper Shotgun article was just a warm up, because the second one has a ton of new content. Lots of new information here, specifically about tournaments and the economy! I am going to follow the formula from my previous articles and focus on specific quotes that have new information, then theorize on what it might mean, or why it matters.

I recently had the chance to play it myself, and while I liked its mix of MOBA rules and card game systems, it’s a niche and complex game that won’t appeal to everyone. I get the feeling Valve is going for a dedicated audience rather than the biggest one possible, so opting for a premium price over a freemium model makes sense.

I have been getting this sense as well. The focus on hardcore players as opposed to casuals will make a big difference in the design of the game, and the potential audience. This is a bold move. If the hardcore card gamer audience doesn’t show up, Artifact could be a massive flop. It looks like there are enough seasoned card gamers out there that are excited that I am not worried. Still, experienced gamers are experienced because they are playing other games, meaning they are probably firmly attached to something else already. Peeling off lightly-invested players from other games is not exactly difficult, since many people are just looking to try what’s new. In the case of Artifact, Valve is chiefly targeting card gamers that have thousands of hours (and probably dollars) invested in Magic, Hearthstone, or similar titles. This is going to be a difficult feat, no matter how good Artifact is, or how powerful Valve's name recognition.

“We’ve experimented a lot with different types of free-to-play games,” Artifact programmer Jeep Barnett said, “and it really depends on what we’re trying to do with that game. With Dota it made sense because the original was free and players expected it. In this case, we find that having an upfront cost is going to better for the game long-term.”

Jeep-senpai spells out the rationale for “pay-to-play” more clearly than I had seen before. GabeN’s initial talk on Artifact did touch on the reasoning for going pay-to-play, but the reasoning wasn’t exactly obvious or convincing. Jeep saying “Yeah, we tried different models, but none of them really make sense for the game” is interesting. This also keys into ideas about payment distribution, and how it relates to the health of a game. Let’s talk about whaling.

As many of you know, a “whale” is a term for a gamer that is willing to spend lots of money on a game. It is a generally understood truth of modern gaming that the easiest way to maximize the profitability of your game is to focus on catching some whales, and then getting as much money from them as possible. Take a look at the following graph:

This represents the income-to-percentile distribution for a typical game that focuses on pulling in their income from whales. If you are not familiar with how percentiles work, you can read this as saying “the 10% of players who spent the most on the game contributed 75% of the total income”, and “the 10% of players who spent the least on the game contributed 1% of the total income", etc. I made this graph up myself, but it is not totally insane relative to what you might expect in a real game. Many “free-2-play” games make an inordinate amount of their cash from just the very top. In addition to the ethical issues involved in tricking people to become whales, this also leads to strange game design decisions. The developers are heavily incentivized to cater their efforts to this 10% at the top, while the other 90% of the population is secondary. I am not trying to accuse every game developer of being a soul sucking greed machine, but even your communication to the player base will be biased to a highly vocal and highly invested minority. Dr. Garfield’s “Game Player's Manifesto” does a great job of explaining the issues with whale-centric game design.

Let’s compare this to an alternative arrangement. I’ll call this “fishing”.


Now the payment is a bit more egalitarian. Even the players in the lowest percentiles are contributing meaningful to the game’s income. Yes, there is still a segment of the population that is investing a more, but their influence is far less impactful compared to the whaling situation. This will also encourage game developers to actually care about everyone in the game, not just the ballers. Of course, this has the side effect where everyone actually has to pay for the game, which I know not everyone is a fan of.

There is a lot more that can be said about each approach to monetization, but let's leave the topic there for now.

Programmer Bruno Carlucci added that “having an upfront cost gives you a set of things to start with, which then gives you the tools to go and find the things you want,” referring to Artifact’s Steam Market integration. You can buy and sell Artifact cards via a built-in storefront, which is another big departure from modern collectible card games where you build up your own static collection. An open card market could provide a preferable workaround to the RNG of opening card packs, ideally making filling the gaps in your deck or collection easier and cheaper.

This is a mix of stuff we already knew, stuff had been suggested, and stuff that is a little new. First, it seems like that the marketplace is specifically going to be built into the game, rather then the Steam Client or an external website. This is a good first step, since collection management could easily become a nightmare in Artifact if we had to exit the client to get the cards we wanted.

The specifics of how collection management works from a mechanical point of view are really important. In Hearthstone or similar games all you need to do in order to add a card to your collection is press a button. You have the dust? VOILA! New card is added instantly! For Artifact, I can easily imagine a world where adding new cards to decks requires navigating a bunch of menus and screens, or maybe it takes a few minutes for the transaction to be processed. These details might seem inconsequential right now, but in actually playing the game this will be a big hassle. Buying and selling cards should be as smooth as possible, and hopefully can even be done within the collection manager.

The "open card market" concept has a lot of implications. So far, everything suggests that Artifact's economy will be most similar to Magic the Gathering Online (*not* Arena), where collection management essentially involves "money" for cards. The specific implementation of this system in MTGO is pretty atrocious, where every transaction relies on 10 steps, and there are like a million different bots you have to deal with, and no one likes anything about it. It is a mess. Valve has the know-how and horsepower to build a more efficient system, but it will require a lot of work to get everything operating smoothly.

“People will be able to build decks for a couple bucks, very easily,” Carlucci said. “And you also retain the value of your deck, so if you spend some money and then you’re like ‘I’m done with this deck,’ you don’t lose that investment. You can sell those cards and buy another deck instead.”

PEOPLE WILL BE ABLE TO BUILD DECKS FOR A COUPLE BUCKS, VERY EASILY. Hold the goddamn phone. Couple bucks? Are we talking…. garbage tier budget decks or legit competitive material? Also, are we talking “build new deck from scratch takes a couple bucks” or “trade old stuff to buy a new deck takes a couple bucks”? Also, what exactly does he mean by “a couple bucks”? Like, does it matter what kind of buck, or does it have to be deer specifically?

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Obviously the exact answers to these questions are important, but if this is even remotely true, Artifact could end up being incredibly affordable compared to the competition. I have written extensively on the economy of different digital card games, and if you want to just “buy” a top tier deck you are usually looking at between $50-150 depending on the game and the exact deck. Given that benchmark, I have seen a lot of comments that seemed to offer unrealistic expectations about the cost of Artifact. Still, it seems like the cost could be a lot better than I had imagined. We will need more details obviously, but this is the first comment we has seen that even suggests a price point, and that price point looks amazingly good.

“We don’t want to do a ladder,” Barnett said. “We’re experimenting with different systems that are more tournament-oriented rather than ladder-oriented. The idea is that if you want a competitive experience, you get a more self-enclosed experience. A good inspiration we have is that Dota has these Battle Cups. Every Saturday you get to play in a single elimination tournament, and if you win you’re done. We feel that those experiences are better for people who actually want to try something out, it allows them to explore something. They know how many matches they have to play and win, which is much better than just playing this infinite grind that doesn’t really get you anywhere.”

Until I read this I didn’t realize how tired I am of laddering. When you begin a new game you feel like a scrub since you basically get a name tag that says “I suck at this game” when you start in the bottom tier of play. That doesn’t feel great. Also, when you get good enough to the point that you can consistently make “master” or “legend” rank the grind quickly begins to feel like a chore. When you are in that intermediate space laddering can actually be rewarding, so I understand why ladders are so common. It is nice to have some benchmark to compare yourself to so you can see your progress! Still, there are a bunch of other ways to achieve this without the use of a ladder system. I think DOTA’s MMR system is fairly attractive, as it does not reset every month. Reaching some new benchmark can still feel rewarding! This has its own downsides, but I am very interested by the space Valve is exploring.

I should also note that Jeep makes it sound like these details are not yet fixed. It is difficult to know how much of this is feigned ignorance to avoid questions, but if this response is legitimate that lets us know that Valve still has significant work to do before rolling out the game. I'm not quite sure what to make of that, since I have no hands on experience with game development. I would have guessed most of the efforts right now would be focused on applying the final layer of polish and fixing any remaining bugs, but I guess there is still more work that needs to be done on the actual game. This come up a few times in the interview, which makes me think there is at least some work that still needs to be done on the final game.

“We’re experimenting with a lot of things right now, we’ll probably have a better idea later,” Carlucci said. “One of the things about ladders that we’ve noticed is that they tend to optimize for, rather than the most fun deck or the best deck, the deck that can win 51 percent of the time as fast as possible. It not only affects the experience of other users who feel like they’re playing against a deck over and over, it also makes people play with decks they might not want to play with just because it’s the most optimal thing.”

This phenomenon not only influences deck choice, but also influences in-game decisions. For many people (myself included) I often resign games that are looking bad. Let’s say my opening hand is poor and I am against a controlling opponent. They are at a massive advantage, but it is going to take at least 5 minutes for the game to actually end. In that case I just concede and move on to the next game rather than play out the 5% chance to win. It is just a better use of my time to move on. If Valve chooses a competitive system that actually rewards win rate I will be more likely to actually play out the game. One could argue that this is a bad thing, as I am forcing myself to play out a losing situation, but you could also say this is rewarding players who truly push themselves to play their best.

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Likewise, Valve wants to diversify Artifact’s competitive experience by offering alternative game modes. “We want to do limited (a mode where you draft a deck from random cards),” Barnett said. “We’re still working on the design of it so it’s hard to promise something very specific. We’ve been testing those internally and they’re really, really fun.”

This statement is a bigger deal than it might seem. Most card games are designed with limited in mind. For example, in Magic the Gathering I am under the impression that equal time is spent on limited and constructed design. Not only does it sound like these cards were not originally created with limited in mind, Jeep makes it seem like the rules of limited are not even set! Obviously it is possible for the limited environment to still be good, but this particular statement is…surprising.

“Cards will rotate. That’s a good thing in general, [because] it avoids things like power creep,” Barnett said. Power creep is when new cards replace old ones because they’re just objectively better versions, and if left unchecked, it makes new expansions less and less exciting. “It also makes it more accessible for people that want to jump in a couple years down the line. They don’t have a backlog of cards.”

Rotation seems like a must in modern card games. Can’t say I am surprised to see this, but it is reassuring. I am pretty sure this has been at least suggested before. I could run down all the virtues of rotation, but if you have played card games a while, this should be pretty obvious.

“One of the most important things, and we learned this from our other games as well, is that we let the community figure those things out,” Barnett said. “Rather than deciding ‘this is how you’re gonna play,’ we’d rather give the community the tools for them to be able to make those formats. So tomorrow, you wanna run a tournament and you say ‘I only want cards that start with the letter ‘C.’ You can build that and you have the tools to make sure that the people playing that tournament follow those rules. The limit is not what we decide, but rather the imagination of the community.”


This is a really big deal. First off, ignoring the bit about special rules, this gives the community tournament hosting tools from day one. This may not seem like a big deal, but this was not a reality in Hearthstone for a very long time. Even now it is impossible to host a user-created tournament through the Magic the Gathering Online client. Through my time with Eternal I have been involved in some tournament organization work (as a caster) and I can tell you that having in-client tools for hosting would be a MASSIVE deal for helping organize our events. Valve is clearly a big believer in e-sports, so having versatile tools like this (if done well) can help build a competitive community.

Aside from the competitive angle, we also have the possibility of “fan created formats”. Obviously a lot depends on how versatile the tools are, but at the very least I expect formats like “pauper” (only “common” cards) “blitz” (5 second time limit per action) and “highlander” (no duplicate cards in your deck) to be playable. If the tools are more powerful we could imagine game modes where the sizes of creeps are different, starting life totals are changed, the shop could work entirely differently, placement of creeps could be un-randomized, etc. If these are successful, one could imagine some fan-created game modes becoming tournament-supported formats. Specifically something like Blitz-Artifact would be a blast to watch played competitively.

the turn timer is about 45 seconds, and games usually last around 12 minutes according to Valve’s internal testing.

Interesting. 12 minutes is not that long, and I had been bit worried that games of Artifact could end up being a bit on the longer side. This might have been informed by watching all these gameplay videos where a reporter slowly reads through all their cards, and finally passes the turn after 2 minutes of doing nothing. Still, 12 minutes is not short, and this is probably an average, meaning that two slow decks played by slow players would probably take close to half an hour. That is still not crazy, since games of DOTA and LOL often take longer than an hour. It should be noted though that Artifact’s games will be longer than games of Hearthstone.

And when you do hit bad matchups, you’ll have more ways to respond thanks to your item deck, a bundle of neutral cards that’s paired with your main deck. As Carlucci puts it, your item deck is basically your side deck, a collection of hand-picked tools to advance your strategy or defend against strategies you’re weak against. Card games are at their best when they give players effective ways to respond to popular strategies, and Artifact’s item decks do just that, which gives it a unique and powerful advantage in building and balancing an enjoyable meta.

This is very similar to some comments from the previous article, but they are still worth point out. The item deck is going to be a big deal in terms of the strategy and deck building of Artifact, and I am anxious to see more item cards!

Another great article! The specific points about the economy and tournaments seem to be the most important points from this news release. It seems like Valve is taking a slow-release approach to Artifact-related news right now, rather than the giant blitz from March. Part of me is worried that we will need to wait until TI 8 for another round of big announcements, but I guess I should just be patient. Thanks for stopping by, and be sure to check out the Reddit thread to discuss any of my theories of comments! Also, if you haven’t seen it yet, I did a wonderful interview with Elyot from Lunark Studios where we talked game design, Prismata, and speculated about Artifact. Take care everyone!