Going Cold Turkey With Artifact

Artifact, the new collectible card game by Valve and Magic creator Richard Garfield, mostly gets rid of flavor enhancers. There’s basically no progression, no omnipresent carrot dangling in front of your nose, no regular guaranteed drip of rewards for the time you put in. And as expected, a sizeable amount of players is furious due to the absence of these mechanisms.

That’s what you get for not satisfying your players’ addiction.

First off, a remark: Yes, as any other CCG Artifact also features the good old and highly questionable “booster packs”. At their core those randomly filled packs of cards are just lootboxes. But thanks to Magic: The Gathering they’ve been around long enough to not be the focus of the currently ongoing debate. The resulting business model however can and should of course be critisized. And yet, beyond the initial entry fee, the game is arguably less expensive than Hearthstone and the likes, at least when it comes to assembling a useful collection without having to put in dozens of hours of currency grinding.

So what are players missing? Exactly, that very grind. Evidence can be found in countless Steam reviews and reddit postings:

  • “Because there’s no progression system of any kind, there’s no real reason to play the game.” [Steam]
  • “Expecting people to ‘play for fun’ […] is ridiculous.” [reddit]
  • “Every game you win and play will feel unrewarded and just a waste of time. […] There is no XP, no ranking system and no virtual currency (or arcane dust) earned through winning.” [Steam]
  • “After 1 hour I had nothing to do […] no daily grind for currency” [reddit]
  • “Every other card game has a ingame currency where you can grind to progress but not here. I am already bored of this game as there’s no method of progression.” [Steam]

In stark contrast, let’s look at a statement made by Artifact’s project lead Brandon Reinhart:

“At its core, we want you to play the game because you enjoy playing the game.”

The gaping hole between a significant part of the player base and the philosophy of the game’s creators is exemplary for how deeply engrained extrinsic motivation and explicit progression are in the mind of the modern-day video game audience. The idea of playing for the sake of it seems to elude many players, some even think it’s completely absurd.

Beyond the self-contained “Gauntlet” runs, there’s barely any metagame in Artifact.

At the same time, the implicit progression in getting better continuously by grappling with the depths of an interactive system is one of the most genuine and enriching forms of player progression there is in the medium. But it has problems. It’s not obvious, hard to grasp, too “self-driven” and thus barely reaches through to the masses.

On the other hand, the idea of steadily rewarding the steady grind is easy to understand. Put in your time, do the work, get rewarded, feel good. A process that works for pretty much everyone, especially when it’s so often missed in the harsh reality of daily capitalist routines.

Now, a game like Artifact might alienate many players and even throw them out after just a few hours due to the missing progression mechanics. But did those players really enjoy the game itself then? And if they did not, isn’t that a healthier and more responsible way to treat your time? In the end it comes down to this: Do you want to spend a limited but truly and honestly enriching number of hours with a game; or do you prefer running the treadmill forever?

The core gameplay in all its complexity is just as uncompromising as the overarching experience.

A couple of years ago, Richard Garfield’s “A Game Player’s Manifesto” spoke out against games that “set up an addictive cycle for players susceptible to that behavior”. At least partially it seems like this sentiment has bled into Artifact’s design. For once, it’s quite refreshing not having to constantly think about ways of optimizing your daily quest output or your “number of matches per hour” to grind up the ladder as quickly as possible. In this sense, the game is a brave and uncompromising effort, not just in terms of progression but also its highly complex gameplay that doesn’t seem to care all that much about the “casual” audience.

We’ll have to see how firm Valve will remain in this philosophy and if the game can make other developers or even some of its players rethink the concept of “progression” as a whole. One can always dream.