Artifact case study

This is quite different to the rest of my blog posts, but since taking on the role of “Game
Producer” I’ve started to look at games quite differently. Valve hadn’t released a game since 2013, so this was a rare chance to follow how they approached it with Artifact.

Artifact is a card collectable game (CCG), so it’s a completely different genre to ours but I was still hoping to learn a few things.  I’m going to briefly analyse the parts of the release that interested me most. Feel free to add your thoughts to the comments section below.

The big reveal

Valve chose to announce their new game at The International 2017, the annual championship for one of their biggest games Dota 2. Just to give some context for those who don’t know what Dota 2 or The Internationals is:

  • TI7 Total Prize pool: $24,787,916
  • TI7 Average concurrent viewers: 4, 676, 749
  • Played in a 14,000 seat stadium

So it’s fair to say, the stage doesn’t get much bigger for a video game announcement.  However, the reaction to the big reveal was probably not what Valve employees were expecting. Have a look for yourself…

To be honest, I wouldn’t look into the reaction THAT much. The people in the audience aren’t all going to be card game players and they have been begging Valve to make other sequels for years. However, it is worth remembering this crowd reaction as you read through the blog.

The card game market

Since the release of Hearthstone, the digital CCG market has grown and matured extremely well. It generated approximately $1.5 billion in 2018 and is expected to rise to $2 billion by 2020. That’s not far behind how much money is spent on FIFA each year!

So it’s not surprising Valve chose this as the market to move into when you look at the numbers. The problem is that it’s an over-saturated market and games like Hearthstone are well established. As someone who didn’t play CCG’s, I couldn’t see a huge difference between the popular titles.

The esports scene isn’t huge for CCG’s, but top players can make a good living from streaming and regularly placing well in tournaments. To learn more about Artifact’s biggest competitors, see this esportobserver article.

The price is right?

This is by far the most controversial announcement Valve made, leading up to the Artifact launch. In a market where most games are free to play, Valve put a $20 price tag on Artifact. They justified it by saying players will get a bunch of packs included and the game won’t follow a “pay to win” model. At the time, the hype around Artifact was pretty big and they had a very engaged following on reddit. There’s no doubt they lost a lot of potential customers with this decision, but I’m guessing they wanted to position themselves as the “elite” CCG? 

Beta testing

Valve chose to only have “closed” beta testing. They invited pro players from existing CCG’s as well as popular figures from the Dota 2 community. They wanted to make sure the game appealed to Dota fans, but was challenging enough for the “hardcore” CCG players to make the switch.

Everyone had to sign NDA’s and no beta keys were publicly available. Followers on reddit would get little bits of information leading up to the release. The beta testers were tweeting a lot during this period, with only positive words to say.

Closer to the release date, a private tournament with a $10k prize pool was streamed live on twitch. This was the first opportunity for the redditors to see the gameplay. It didn’t disappoint. The hype around the game was huge at this point and people couldn’t wait to get their hands on the game. It looked like Valve’s strategy to generate hype had worked perfectly, without having to do any major marketing campaign.

The release

The game released late November 2018, just over a year after it was announced at TI7. The game had just over 60,000 users playing on release day, which is pretty good considering the price of the game. They had server issues, so I’m guessing they weren’t expecting that many users… which is a good problem to have!

So now we get on to the juicy bit, where it all starts to fall apart. There were some MAJOR gaps in the product that Valve released. Now I’m far from an expert on CCG’s and very inexperienced when it comes to being a game producer, but to me these were some pretty obvious gaps.  I didn’t follow the reddit threads much, but here’s the flaws that I saw or experienced:

  • I think the root of most problems come from running a closed beta with only a select group of people. I’ve always welcomed anyone to play our beta, as I’d rather smooth out the issues now instead of when the spotlight is on the fully released game. I’m not saying a game should be designed around the people on reddit, but remember what happened to EA?
  • When everything is hidden to the public during beta but the testers are giving it huge praise… then expectations keep rising uncontrollably. Especially when you price your game much higher than your competitors.
  • Users knew what the to expect from the core gameplay, but most other aspects of the game were unknown. Again, something that just drives up expectations as customers expect the same quality throughout the game. 
  • Leaderboards are a pretty standard component of most games these days. People like to “grind” their way to the top and have targets to aim for.  Without them, I think a lot of people played for a few days and then thought… okay what next?
Valve did fix the leaderboard issue and give users incentives to play more in the next patch. Unfortunately, once these changes came out the active players had already dropped below 7,000. Here’s a few videos that may interest you if you wanted to hear some other perspectives.

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