The excitement that arose around Valve's announcement of Artifact in 2017 initially had less to do with the type of game Artifact was, and far more to do with the fact that Valve was making a game at all.
Jokes about Half-Life 3 aside, the company had grown into a quieter developer post-Dota 2 than it had been previously until Artifact, with the company's acquisition of Campo Santo earlier this year seemingly turning the dial back up to 11.
But for Jeep Barnett, one of the programmers on Artifact, there hasn't been a time he can recall when Valve didn't prioritize making its own games.
"Valve is a very interesting place," Barnett said. "We work in strange ways. We've always developed games. I'm a game programmer; I've been at Valve for thirteen years. With one exception I can think of, the entire time I've been at Valve, I've always worked on games and there have always been games in development.
"There have definitely been times where I focused more on features of Steam, things like broadcasting or workshop or big picture, Steam controller, VR, all these other things. But [Artifact] started over three years ago. It's been in development for a long time. It takes us a long time to be happy with the things that we're making, to show publicly in a place like this. We're our own harshest critics sometimes. We always have irons in the fire and as soon as they're ready, we push them out."
Barnett is working on Artifact under the lead design direction of Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering. Garfield initially approached Valve with the idea for Artifact as a game that could successfully carry the strengths of physical cards to video games. The two formed a partnership to create the game, and the Dota 2 theme and elements came along later as the team recognized the strengths of pairing Artifact with their MOBA's vast lore.
When Artifact was announced, the obvious and most immediate comparison many made was to Hearthstone. At absolute surface-level, it's a fair one. After all, Hearthstone's popularity both as a casual game and a competitive title have been thus far unmatched by anything else in the genre, so any up and coming online card game will naturally be compared to it. However, as I found out from demoing the game, the simple fact that both are games you play with cards is about where the similarities end.
Barnett and Garfield seem to agree with that separation.
"I don't look at Artifact as being a challenger [to Hearthstone]," Barnett said. "We started Artifact years ago, and when Hearthstone came out, it proved that we weren't just crazy for thinking a card game is a good idea, because clearly there's an audience for it. And we think that just having that audience out there, having Hearthstone appeal to an audience that is maybe very new to card games is great, because it's creating a bunch of people who will be excited about other types of card games they've never played before.
"It's not a zero-sum game. All these different games interest people in other games that are of similar types. And I'd definitely say that a lot of feedback from people on Reddit is saying things like 'I've never played a card game, but Valve is making one, so I'm really excited to see what they do with it.' And I think that's going to make new types of players who play card games who will go play Hearthstone as well."
"But card games, there are a lot of things you can do with them. The world has room for bridge, and poker"
Garfield added: "Hearthstone does what it does exceptionally well, and we really admire the design. And we certainly didn't aim to compete with them in the sense that they already do what they do very well. But card games, there are a lot of things you can do with them. The world has room for bridge, and poker."
Beyond the actual gameplay, Artifact has something else that makes it incredibly unique: its monetization style. The game will cost $20 at launch, which will get players two starter decks (everyone gets the same ones) and ten packs of random cards. From that, there is absolutely no way for players to earn more packs by playing the game. Everything more must either be bought with real money, or traded for on the game's market, where individual cards can be purchased or bartered for just like one might do at a physical card shop for something like Magic: The Gathering.
"The market is really a key piece of this game, it's one of the main things we thought was interesting about it," said Barnett. "You see so many digital card games that don't allow you to actually have the ability to trade cards with other players, or to say, 'This is the specific card I want' and then go get it. So with the market you can buy individual cards you want, or you can buy individual packs."
Garfield promised "zero grinding", adding: "Free play always comes along with suboptimal experiences, because you have to sacrifice something for free play. What we were after was something where you could shift your collection around freely, but you felt you had an investment in a piece of the game."
A marketplace on its own may create the potential for an interesting in-game economy, but it sounds as though Artifact all but requires a constant cash flow from its participants. At launch, there is no way to earn packs through play, and in fact there is no single-player campaign, ranking system, or really anything to Artifact other than playing the game with someone else for fun. Barnett clarified that these features may come later depending on what the community wants, but for now the team was only focused on releasing the core of Artifiact - something he'd repeat multiple times throughout our interview, including when asked about cross-platform play with the game's mobile version.
All that aside, I was curious as to how the team could justify a game that must continually be re-bought into to remain competitive. Garfield disagreed with the very notion.
"If you give Pete Sampras a shitty racket and you buy the best tennis racket in the world, he's still going to beat you handily"
"It's not pay to win," Garfield said. "It's pay to participate. Any hobby you have, you have to invest something. If you play tennis, you buy a racket. So here, we've got a model where you can put in a very modest amount and be competitive. We can control that in the sense that common cards in this game are very powerful. We expect top-tier play to include a lot of common cards. We also make sure that rare cards that are there are not so rare they drag prices up.
"If you give Pete Sampras a shitty racket and you buy the best tennis racket in the world, he's still going to beat you handily. I think this game is very similar. I think that's a key part of it. The best way to win the game is to get good at the game, to learn how to play the game with the right kind of deck, and to learn how to make higher-level strategic decisions. I think that's really the best way to learn."
Monetization is not the only place where Valve is trying a somewhat-unconventional spin on card game norms. The game will also feature live chat that allows players to communicate with one another during a match - even strangers. I asked how that chat and the community in general would be moderated to discourage bad behavior, but neither Barnett nor Garfield could offer any specific idea of tools that would help someone avoid a random internet stranger hurling insults at them during an Artifact match. At least at this point in development, it seems as though Valve is leaning on the hope that the community might simply not be a problem.
"Psychologically, we find that people misbehave when there is somebody else to observe them misbehaving," Barnett said. "When it's a one-on-one game, what is my motivation for saying something awful? But when you're in a game with a bunch of other people and you say something, a bunch of other people laugh at you, so something happened. We tend to see people behave very differently in one-on-one situations."
One thing Valve has made clear in other conversations about Artifact is its interest in the game as a potential esport. Indeed, with Valve's expertise on Dota and Counter-Strike and the very nature of the game, Artifact seems perfectly poised to burst into the scene once it launches. Barnett reiterated that for now, Valve is only focused on launching the very core game.
"I've been at Valve for thirteen years. With one exception, the entire time I've been at Valve, I've always worked on games and there have always been games in development"
Jeep Barnett, Valve
For Garfield, "serious play" is both a key element of the game's future as well as an idea with a fairly fluid definition that encompasses everything from massive tournaments to small, locally organized events to matches that take place "across the kitchen table."
"We really like serious play," Garfield said. "It's a very interesting to watch develop. We see serious play as being a tentpole under which anything goes. We don't want it to be narrow. We don't want you to feel like if you participate you have to be in this anonymous ladder. We want it to be so you feel like you can play with your friends or who you want to play.
"But there's also this aspect of serious play that some might want to participate in. One example I like to go back to is the NBA. The NBA is very serious, but, without the NBA you wouldn't have nearly as much casual play, and a lot of those players are going to sleep and dreaming they are going to be in the NBA. So we expect to back serious play, because we think that this game supports it, but that's not where we think everybody belongs."
Because Artifact is a brand new game and because of Valve's unique position as a company both experienced in large esports organization and with a lot of industry clout, I asked if the company would be making an effort to foster diversity in the esports community that would likely form around it. But like my earlier concern about community moderation, this was another area that Barnett and Garfield seemed to hope would take care of itself.
"We've already talked about next year we're running a tournament where the prize is a million dollars, but we think the format of a tournament with this type of game is probably going to be very different than the stuff we've done before," said Barnett. "So if you look at Magic tournaments, it encourages wide participation from lots of different players. I think Artifact's tournament will look a little more like that."
Disclosure: PAX organizer ReedPOP is the parent company of GamesIndustry.biz.