Saturday, December 01, 2018

Initial Thoughts: Artifact

Valve's new digital collectible game, Artifact, launched this past week.  I've had the chance to play a few games, craft a couple decks, and give the market a whirl.  Below are my initial thoughts on what I've experienced and where I would like to see the game improve.

When I first opened Artifact the game dropped me into a tutorial game against a bot.  The tutorial game advanced quickly and taught the basics.  Another tutorial game followed teaching more nuanced mechanics.  The tutorial did a good job of making me feel ready to play against other players.

After the tutorial I was dropped into a menu screen that was a bit confusing.  Having come from playing a good bit of MtG Arena lately it was a little bit of a shock to see so many options.  On top of collection/deck building options there was solo play (against bots), casual play (free modes), tournaments, social play, and a special event called "Call to Arms". 

I opted to jump into the casual constructed best of one queue.  I selected one of the pre-constructed decks given to new players who bought the game and a game was found within seconds.  The game started and after a couple turns it was obvious I was NOT ready to play against other players.  Effects were triggering, cards were being played, and I had no idea what was going on.  After following Artifact for the better part of a year, having watched endless streams, this came as a shock.

Artifact is a beautiful video game.  I emphasize video because Artifact has a lot going on visually.  This is not just a card game in a digital medium.  The board is an actual environment.  There are two animated imps that fly around carrying you and your opponent's deck and prompting you to take actions (or cringing/cheering at the action you just took). 

However, in this visual feast what is happening in the game is easily lost.  That card your opponent just played?  It disappeared and maybe you saw the animation on what it targeted.  It may not even have been a card; it could have been an activated ability or an item effect.  Add onto this confusion with a board that is really three boards (called lanes) and the fact that some actions occur in other lanes than the one you are focused on the player can lose track of what is going on.

This was the major wake up moment for me that Artifact was not just another card game.  As I continued to play and learn how to interpret actions that were occurring the more my thought on the game shifted from card game to strategy game.  After several rounds my mind was settled: Artifact is a strategy game that decided to use cards as a representation of units and actions in the game.

One could argue that Artifact is a card game taking full advantage of running on a digital medium.  There are a lot of random aspects; from random creep cards that spawn each turn with random directions they may attack to many cards with a percentage chance to do something.  These random actions happen seamlessly thanks to the power of a computer.  In a physical game this many random play elements would not work.

My contention will be that Artifact could have represented all components of the game via 3D models.  The game board could have been a top down battlefield map without a "board game" feel.  Units could have been 3D models.  And the game would likely feel exactly the same!  Why it was made as a card game I don't know and I'm not sure if it helps or hurts in the long run.  Thus far I am not convinced that Artifact should be treated as a digital card game or compared to games like MtG Arena.  It is much more comparable to it's source, DOTA2, than MtG Arena.

One thing I can say though is I'd love to see some key UI concepts lifted for MtG Arena and applied to Artifact.  MtG Arena does a masterful job of distilling a complex rules set from paper MtG into an understandable user experience that doesn't require years of MtG experience to understand.  One of the best features when playing MtG Arena is that every card or effect that is triggered does two things very well. 

1) It stays open for long enough for the opposing player to register and allows for the player to acknowledge the action (or respond if applicable)

2) The game displays arrows that show what card/effect targets what.  If there are multiple targets/sources then there are multiple arrows.

While the arrows and stack of actions can grow large and complex it helps newer players navigate a very complex game with little trouble.  In fact; I'd say it makes MtG look like a very simple game.  Over time as a player grows comfortable with MtG Arena they can skip through most of the actions.  Plus there is the option to flip into a full control mode whereby every small action is taken manually which allows for advanced players to execute some of MtG's more complex plays.

Artifact really needs some sort of equivalent.  When a card or effect is played the game should pause, show the player what initiated the action, draw arrows between targets and initiators, and then let players click to allow the game to proceed.  While there is no ability for an opposing player to "interrupt" an action as there is in MtG there is still the need to allow the opposing player to process what just occurred.  Especially as a digital game where the player can't point or indicate what they are doing.  The player is completely reliant on the UI and the current state of Artifact's UI is mixed.

On top of needing to improve the UI to show interactions better the games iconography could use some polish.  As mentioned above; Artifact is very much a video game.  The eye popping visuals, voice acting (every card's lore snippet can be voiced out loud), and 3D board are very well done.  But many times that comes at the expense of being able to quickly ascertain what is what.

The biggest "huh?" of this category are the Improvements cards.  These cards, once played, establish a permanent effect for a single lane on the board.  However, instead of representing the played improvement as a card it is instead converted into a TINY (relative to the rest of the game elements) floating disc with very hard to distinguish symbol.  The disc then fires out, visually, it's effect (if applicable).  As many of these effects happen at the start of the turn in the lane right after the sweeping camera pans over the board they can be easily missed.  And good luck new player if you don't have initiative and your opponent drops a card or triggers an effect right away; you will have a heck of a time trying to figure out that improvement. 

Improvements should be represented as cards in a second row next to the tower in the lane.  Period.  Get rid of the floating discs.

Also of concern is the icons on cards that indicate what card type they are.  With the almost full-art approach of the cards (art takes up majority of what you see of a card) the icon can quickly get lost in the background.  Especially item cards where you are trying to determine what slot they go onto heroes (fortunately the game warns you if you are about to accidentally play one item over another slotted item).  I'll also briefly mention the color of the rarity symbols on some COMMON cards make them look exactly like the RARE color.

Artifact needs to improve the user experience.  Not only for the players playing, but for streaming (which is now a key piece for games of this nature).  As I mentioned I watched a lot of streamers play before the game released.  I am shocked (baffled even) how many core concepts I missed because they simply don't come across on a stream.  Having played now there is so much more that I understand about streams but still have a hard time actually tracking either in game or in a stream.

Underneath the UI is a decent game.  I've enjoyed the matches I have played thus far and Artifact is the first "card game" where I've felt I am not directly reliant on the draw of cards.  The game offers so many other decisions to make that whether you drew the right card to play or not is not as impactful.  This is helped by each lane of the board having its own resource pool (mana) which eliminates the need to draw basic "land" cards. 

One area I was nervous about going into the game was the random elements, but after playing matches the random elements don't sway the game very much.  For cards with percentage base effects I never felt like they were priced (in regards to in game resources) in a manner where they felt broken.  Yes, there are times where Cheating Death (arguably the most disputed "random effect" card) is going to result in a "really!?" moment, but if you look at the cost to play and the set up required to benefit there is no other way I see the card existing.  If the card was changed to a more specific effect it would either be completely useless or so expensive to play that it becomes a fringe card.

The other major random components are the creeps that spawn in the lanes each round and how placement occurs for those creeps as well as heroes.  Players select what lane a hero enters but not what specific spot they enter in.  They could be placed against the opposing players best hero, placed against a creep, or land in an open slot with a free shot at the opposing tower.  This can result in some frustrating moments where a player's hero is put in a no-win situation, but more often than not the placement just changes the way the player will approach their turn.  It really becomes a strategic component for better players to adapt to the environment. 

Also randomly assigned is the direction a creep or hero attacks.  It may be straight ahead or to the left or right.  This means a player could play a strong creep into an open lane only to have it randomly attack left and miss an opportunity to hit the opponent's tower for damage.  Frustrating when it happens, yes, but it is also part of the strategy in each lane and rewards strategies designed to go wide and push out creeps/heroes so they have no other option than a straightforward attack (the random attack direction doesn't apply if there is no other target).

Randomness is part of Artifact and it's neatly woven into the strategy and tactics of the game.  It will bite a player every once and a while, but if player's focus on the right decisions rather than banking on random results they will win out in the long run.

The game being split into three lanes also opens the door for creative planning.  Players have to win two lanes by destroying the tower in each or win a single lane twice by first destroying a tower and then beating a stronger tower (called an ancient).  I have now played in enough games to know there is legitimate opportunity to build decks and play in ways that either prioritize the first lanes or focus on the last lane in some regards. 

Just last night I had a game where I gave up on the last lane knowing that if I could win the first two lanes I could beat win before my opponent won twice in the last lane. That was not my strategy going into the game but my switch to a focus on the first two lanes paid off as I ended up with just enough damage to finish the middle lane and win.  The key moment was on hero re-deployment my opponent chose to double down on the last lane to finish the game while I opted to not defend and risk being able to take the first two lanes.

That game made me feel good.  It made me feel like I outplayed my opponent.  At no point was I waiting to draw the right card.  My opponent made a choice and played towards it.  I took a risk and played towards it.  Looking back at the game I realize what felt like a risk at the time was actually the right play.  With what I had I had a good chance of winning the first two lanes.  My opponent had a guarantee to win the game in the third lane and likely had plans to deal with any defense I threw in.  That win still feels good a day later.

And that is the magic I've found with Artifact at this point.  That game was with a deck I constructed myself from cards I got from packs and a few I bought off the market because I thought they'd be fun to try out.  Playing the game and realizing my choices during the game matter as much as my deck construction is a good place for a game to be at.  I can get past the poor UI experience if the underlying gameplay is rewarding.  Throw in the other game modes I've not tried yet and I think Valve has a solid game on their hands.  It won't be for everyone, but for those that enjoy tense gameplay with rewarding decision making then this is the game.

I feel remiss if I don't mention the monetization model for the game.  The game costs $20 to get in the door and then the competitive modes cost tickets ($1 each) to play in.  The keeper draft modes cost tickets plus the purchase price of packs.  Players can also buy and sell cards on the market (top end cards are going for $20+).  There are free versions of all modes to get players comfortable before committing to spending event tickets.  None of the free versions reward cards or resources and are just for practice purposes.  There is also a special event (and assumed to be more) where players can play with decks they don't own. 

Ultimately the core gamers that stick with Artifact will end up paying to play and I think most will feel validated with the experience they have in the game.  There will be a subset of card game players who don't adapt well to Artifact's more-strategy-game-than-card-game approach and thus will feel jilted by having to pay to play in some modes, but those folks wouldn't likely stick around in a free-2-play model either.  Either you will like Artifact or you won't.  If you do you can play the free modes or you can pay to play wherever you want to be at.  The market will give those that want to the ability to buy the deck they want to play. The market will also give players ways to pull value (in the form of Steam wallet cash) if they are winning more than losing (event ticket modes pay the winners in packs which can result in excess copies of cards to sell on the market).

I need more time in Artifact to determine where it fits in the long-term (I'm still really, really liking MtG Arena), but right now I've found myself enjoying the game and feeling good paying up for some cards I wanted.

Things I want to try next:
1. Draft (casual phantom first; then keeper)
2. Competitive constructed
3. Play more Call to Arms to see how different deck types play out (without having to source the cards)
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