Artifact vs. Auto Chess: Good Ladders Have Rungs

Artifact, Valve’s very own “Dota Card Game”, is struggling. The number of concurrent players has dropped below 1,000. You basically can’t find a match in the less popular game modes anymore. The game’s total Twitch audience rarely reaches above 100 viewers.

It’s a very different story for Auto Chess, a mod for Dota 2 made by a small Chinese team called Drodostudio that has become massively popular over the course of the last months, bringing in hundreds of thousands of players at peak times. Many big card game streamers made the switch. It’s not surprising that Valve already has its eyes on the phenomenon.

Beyond the Dota universe, both games also have a similar target audience: competitive strategy gamers. While Magic creator Richard Garfield’s Artifact is a traditional collectible card game at its core, Auto Chess rather stands in the tradition of “set collection” games such as Alhambra, Lost Cities, Sushi Go or even Mahjong. However, both games offer immense depth and speak to an audience of hardcore players wanting to dive deep into the mechanics to discover ever more strategic nuances about it.

So why is Artifact in such a bad state while Auto Chess is thriving? There are certainly many arguments to be made. For example, the decision of hiding Artifact behind a paywall and, at the same time, following the “pure game” approach without any extrinsic motivators probably hurt its popularity quite a bit. But even just looking at the core gameplay itself, one can find reasons for the vast disparity in reception between the two games.

“Ha! Two of a kind!” Congratulations, you already have a basic understanding of Auto Chess.

The fundamental difference lies in the accessibility for newcomers (and by extension also viewers). In Auto Chess most players will have a rough idea of what’s going on after just a few minutes of playing the game. They receive a random selection of five heroes each turn. Picking the same hero multiple times is good, because three of the same can be combined to a stronger one. Pretty much anyone can grasp this mechanism within seconds.

The next level of gameplay isn’t much more complicated: Heroes of the same category (such as “Warrior” or “Orc”) unlock special synergy bonuses. Just those few rules allow players to form a concept of what makes for a good or bad move in the game. And even on this basic level they can have fun with the core drafting gameplay already.

Obviously they merely understand a fraction of the game’s depth at this point. The abilities and behaviors of different heroes, meta synergies between the categories, transitions between line-ups over the course of a match, the many nuances of the gold economy, the highly complex aspect of positioning — all of those are not yet considered in the players’ decision-making process. And the thing is, that’s great! Beginners already have their first rules of thumb, within the drafting, to hold onto while discovering the rest of the system.

“What the hell is going on?” Artifact throws you in at the deep end.

Artifact on the other hand basically confronts players with its full complexity from the start. Of course they still learn new things over time, but it takes a while to even reach the point of understanding the game well enough to form a coherent picture of what constitutes a “good strategy”. Not many players are willing to make the necessary effort if they’re not well-entertained on the way. The missing “feel-good” progression doesn’t with this help either.

The key issue: Artifact lacks heuristics for beginners. The way towards the first strategic guidelines, that players could cling to, is simply too far. The “heuristic ladder” is missing rungs at the lower levels. Remarkably, Richard Garfield and Skaff Elias, the minds behind Artifact’s design, emphasized the importance of “zero-level heuristics” in their 2012 book “Characteristics of Games”:

Beginner heuristics, also called “zero-level heuristics,” are particularly important. Players who first learn the game need to have some idea of what they are trying to do and how they might go about it. Even heuristics that look quite ineffective from an advanced player’s point of view may serve, since beginners can use them against other beginners and hope over time to improve their heuristics. But with no good zero-level heuristics, the game may be so unenjoyable the beginner simply gives up.
Richard Garfield and Skaff Elias knew better.

So the game’s creators were very much aware of the importance of multi-layered heuristics, but still couldn’t avoid the problems the game now has. Now, there are some “echochamber” accusations. Testing seems to have happened mostly with card game streamers and pro players. The game may have been developed in a “stronghold” of experts way beyond “level zero”, losing sight of large parts of the player base. That’s speculation though.

The take-away is clear in any case though: Players, and especially beginners, need easily accessibly points of reference to make their way into a complex ruleset. It’s not so much about perfectly planned-out tutorials, but more about elements of the system itself that can be grasped intuitively. That way players can build a solid foundation of understanding to build upon step by step.