Some thoughts on Artifact; microtransactions and unmoderated live chat

Having escaped the clutches of both the Dota 2 and Hearthstone, two games which have collectively soaked up thousands of hours of my life, not to mention hundreds of dollars from my bank vault, the news that Valve was making a card game that seemed similar to Hearthstone but using the dota 2 characters and aesthetic was something that I was vaguely interested in but determined to ignore.

A couple of days ago however, gamesindustry.biz released this insightful interview with Jeep Barnett and Richard Garfield, the game's lead programmer and designer respectively, and I couldn't help but take a peek. I'm going to summarise a lot of the key points they make if you can't be bothered to read it, and highlight some things which deserve to be talked about. Some of them are... worrying.

First and foremost, each developer goes to great pains to separate Artifact from Hearthstone, though without any real explanation as to what the differences in gameplay are. To anyone who's ever read an interview with a developer attempting to hype up their game, it's standard PR stuff;

"When Artifact was announced, the obvious and most immediate comparison many made was to Hearthstone. At absolute surface-level, it's a fair one. After all, Hearthstone's popularity both as a casual game and a competitive title have been thus far unmatched by anything else in the genre, so any up and coming online card game will naturally be compared to it. However, as I found out from demoing the game, the simple fact that both are games you play with cards is about where the similarities end. Barnett and Garfield seem to agree with that separation."

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Fine. Stay tuned, I guess. What came next was pretty surprising though:

Beyond the actual gameplay, Artifact has something else that makes it incredibly unique: its monetization style. The game will cost $20 at launch, which will get players two starter decks (everyone gets the same ones) and ten packs of random cards. From that, there is absolutely no way for players to earn more packs by playing the game. Everything more must either be bought with real money, or traded for on the game's market

The heavy dependence on microtransactions, and the fact that in order to compete at a high level required you to spend hundreds of dollars per expansion, was the main reason I quit Hearthstone, even with it's ingame currency and ability to craft, recycle and unlock new cards organically. The fact that Artifact aims to skip this and jump straight to a purely microtransaction-based card economy is, for me at least, an instant red-flag; I'm not interested in supporting that business model. Beyond that, it seems extremely shortsighted to disregard the relatively recent backlash consumers have had over microtransactions and loot crates in other games. I guess this is going to come down to the pricing strategy of packs, and drop rate of the best cards - however taking into account the way that valve has monetized content in Dota 2, I fully expect this to be aggressive. The article even goes as far as to say:

A marketplace on its own may create the potential for an interesting in-game economy, but it sounds as though Artifact all but requires a constant cash flow from its participants. At launch, there is no way to earn packs through play, and in fact there is no single-player campaign, ranking system, or really anything to Artifact other than playing the game with someone else for fun. "It's not pay to win," Garfield said. "It's pay to participate. Any hobby you have, you have to invest something. If you play tennis, you buy a racket. So here, we've got a model where you can put in a very modest amount and be competitive. We can control that in the sense that common cards in this game are very powerful. We expect top-tier play to include a lot of common cards. We also make sure that rare cards that are there are not so rare they drag prices up.

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The next highlight is also concerning, though for different reasons:

The game will also feature live chat that allows players to communicate with one another during a match - even strangers. I asked how that chat and the community in general would be moderated to discourage bad behavior, but neither Barnett nor Garfield could offer any specific idea of tools that would help someone avoid a random internet stranger hurling insults at them during an Artifact match.

At this point I had to briefly stop reading for a while. The words "shortsighted" and "naive" pirouetted across my mind as I blinked at the wall.

"Psychologically, we find that people misbehave when there is somebody else to observe them misbehaving," Barnett said. "When it's a one-on-one game, what is my motivation for saying something awful? But when you're in a game with a bunch of other people and you say something, a bunch of other people laugh at you, so something happened. We tend to see people behave very differently in one-on-one situations."

Haha! Oh wait, they're serious. Hmm. Well, I know a lot of people look back with a fondness for the original Uno release on Xbox 360 and it's live webcam interactions (I specifically remember Jeff talking about his match against a room full of dudes racking up lines of cocaine as they played Uno, which is pretty intense), but as someone who has spent many years on the internet, and interacting with other human beings on a daily basis in the real world, not to mention the 7+ years I've spent moderating this website, and taking into account the current level of openly vitriolic lawlessness both on the Steam forums and within the communities of existing steam games (I'm looking at you, Dota), the idea that people will play nicely among themselves simply because they're not playing for an audience (unless they're streaming I suppose, but that'll never catch on, right?) is the icing on the "we're completely out of touch" cake that Valve seems to be baking.

More importantly though. it's irresponsible; these developers are essentially opening up another avenue for people to be harassed, and for the people that seek to harass to do so without punishment. As white men they may not be as sensitive to the kind of casual offhand abuse that women/LGBT+/non cis/non-white people have to deal with on a daily basis, but it's bizarrely insouciant of them not to acknowledge that harassment and trolling is a common 21st century problem, that game communities are often plagued by casual sexism, homophobia and racism, and that others might not have the same painless experience as they themselves did on their internal test server; Maybe I'm just a cynical bastard, but to not pre-emptively have a system in place to deal with that inevitability seems either extremely negligent or extremely sheltered.

EDIT: I initially misinterpreted the article and assumed this "live chat" would be in video form, though upon review that was apparently a hallucination on my part. While a regular text chat certainly limits the potential for misuse, it's still remarkably naive of Valve to assume that no moderation would be required and, as such, I stand by my original criticisms but have removed my dumb joke about unsolicited solitaire dicks. Thanks.

Anyway, I'm sure you can disable the live chat, and I'm sure you can mute or disable all chat completely (as per Hearthstone) but if you're going to include those things even as an option then you can't simply leave it unmoderated; I'm fed up with developers creating platforms for abuse and then not taking responsibility for the behavior of the players who use them. Valve in particular has a terrible track record when it comes to moderation (readers of my blog will know that their terrible automated moderation system is one of the reasons I stopped playing Dota), and this interview gives the impression that they not only have no interest in addressing it, but don't even consider it an issue worthy of their attention.

I appreciate it's still early, and there's no sense in writing a game off long before its release, but it's hard to stay optimistic in light of this information. I'm sure there are people out there who have more patience than I do and/or find those random online interactions entertaining, but personally it's not worth the risk.

Thanks For Reading

Love Sweep

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