The International, Valve’s yearly Dota-devoted event, was the logical choice for the unveiling of an entirely new game from the publishing powerhouse. So why then, even with a captive audience of fanatic Dota 2 disciples, was the announcement of Artifact: The Dota Card Game greeted with a reception that ranged from tepid disinterest to rabid hostility?
An underwhelming reveal
It’s not the first time we’ve seen this sort of trailer, far from it. The idea is to tease a logo and drum up anticipation for a game without showing off any specific details. There’s usually an at least a couple at E3 every year.
But this isn’t a mysterious new property to be speculated on, or a revolutionary gaming concept, the details of which are the subject of whispered rumors in the dark corners of specialist internet forums. Nope. This is an online collectible card game or CCG. And although Valve has released next to nothing about the gameplay that Artifact will eventually offer when it’s launched in 2018, anyone who has played one of the dozens of CCGs currently available across all formats knows that, no matter how radical the design of this new take on the genre, there are some things that will definitely be present. There will be cards, an in-game economy for the purchase of said cards, and an ever-shifting meta. There’ll be other stuff too of course, but those things are a given.
This is why the logo tease is completely the wrong tool to use to announce Artifact. Instead, why not give a rundown of how the game will differ from other CCGs? Or maybe how this new game will relate to the Dota universe? There are already rumors about how some of Dota 2’s fundamental mechanics will be translated to the new format. And if Valve isn't quite ready to reveal that sort of information about the game quite yet, then, I don’t know, why not…wait? I get that The International is Valve’s big stage, but wouldn’t a new game by Valve garner attention whenever it’s announced?
The approach to the trailer assumed that there’d be an instant, automatic level of buzz about a Dota card game. Turns out that was almost entirely lacking.
I don’t think the card game bubble is going to be busting anytime soon, don’t get me wrong. And I’m not suggesting a Dota-themed CCG wouldn’t be an attractive addition to the genre. In fact, I think the opposite is true: I think Artifact has a better chance than anything released so far of supplanting Hearthstone from its seemingly unassailable throne.
Millions upon millions of gamers play CCGs every day and get a lot out of the experience they offer. But it’s hardly revolutionary design. And that’s the root of the underwhelming reaction Artifact provoked. If this had just been quietly and matter-of-factly announced at a smaller event, or even If Valve dropped it surreptitiously on Steam if might have caused quite a stir. But ‘just’ another CCG will never live off being the next big Valve game.
Whether Valve dropped the ball on this announcement or not, I don’t think anyone’s disputing that this game will be a massive success. I’ve no doubt millions of Dota 2 fans, once the release date nears, will be itching to get their hands on a copy of the game. And that, for many, is part of the problem.
From a business point of view, it makes perfect sense for Valve to develop a game with its already vast Dota 2 fan base in mind as a target audience. The problem is the first part of that sentence. The ‘business’ part. Valve has long been much-maligned for being primarily financially driven as a company. And it’s true.
On the face of it, resenting a big multinational company for wanting to make money seems patently ridiculous to me. Aren’t all businesses out to make money? Even in the games industry, games exist to make money, and, unless they are the lowest of low-budget indies, will not get made unless someone has faith that they will make some cash out of them. That’s capitalism, people, and gaming succumbs to its trappings the same as every other form of business.
So, if we can accept that developers and publishers are, first and foremost, out to make money, then why is that practice so abhorrent in the case of Valve in particular? Well, it really has less to do with what the company’s making, and a heck of a lot to do with what they’re not making.
Simply put, if Valve is making Artifact, they are not making Half-Life 3, and that’s a problem for some people.
If Valve blinked into existence two years ago, this issue wouldn’t exist. Don’t get me wrong, people would still resent it. That’s just a thing that people do. But there would be much less animosity because Valve wouldn’t have this legacy of innovation trailing behind it. Its problem is that people remember when Gabe Newell was a pioneering light in the industry. They remember when Valve was pushing boundaries of game design. And, perhaps most hurtfully of all for Valve, they remember when Valve made games that were more than thinly disguised cash cows.
Valve is seen as existing now just to become a more and more wealthy business. But that makes people even more baffled why, now that the company has more money than God, they don’t use a bit of that spare lucre to try something a little new. Experiment a little. Or just give us Half Life 3. Please.
Artifact will probably be an excellent game, in the same way as Dota 2 is an excellent game, in that it is well-designed and compulsive. But I’m going to stick my neck on the line right now say that the way Artifact will be most well designed, that is to say, the element of its design that will be the most successful will be the part that makes people want to spend money on it. And that won’t be an accident. It’s the thing Valve has designed it to be best at, and where the majority of its production resources will have been spent. And that’s the sort of cynicism people pick up on and have strong reactions to. Not all people, sure. But enough to create the kind of backlash we’ve seen already, and that’s before anyone’s seen a single screenshot of the game.
Andy is a freelance writer for Game With Your Brain. You can follow him on Twitter.