Opinion: What will Artifact on mobile look like? If it's anything like PC, it'll have a fight on its hands

By Nick Vigdahl 06 Dec 2018 2

Valve Corporation has a long history of developing popular and successful video games, although lately they’ve been relying on the veritable money-printing machine that is Steam. They’ve finally released a new game, Artifact, and it’s a big bet in the crowded collectable-card game (CCG) genre.

Artifact is based on one of Valve's most-successful games of all time, DOTA 2, and takes a crack at differentiating its gameplay from Hearthstone and other options in this space. While interesting, those differences aren't getting nearly as much attention as the way Valve is monetizing Artifact. With the game coming to iOS and Android in 2019 it's worth looking at what Valve is doing with Artifact's pricing, and how it might manifest on mobile.

Artifact Mobile 1

Gold Standard

The standard CCG take on monetization is to sell randomized packs of cards, but to also offer the 'grinders path' by allowing 'free' players to earn in-game currency with which they can pick up packs without spending money. The main reason to do this is to pump up the active-player count so players willing to spend money don't have to wait in long queues for an opponent, the surest way to kill a CCG. Valve has eschewed the grinders path entirely and at present the only way to acquire new cards is to buy them with real money or win them playing 'expert' constructed or draft events, which costs money to enter in the form of event tickets. 

Valve has set up Artifact to be very profitable starting with a $20 purchase price on Steam which is another departure from the usual model: CCGs are usually free to download. Your initial investment gets you ten of Artifact's twelve-card packs and five event tickets. It's effectively a starter kit and naturally you'll want more cards. Packs cost two bucks and additional event tickets run five for $4.99. You can also purchase individual cards from other players through the Steam marketplace, from which Valve also takes a cut.

Artifact Mobile 3

The reaction from many players and games media has been negative. Artifact has nearly ten-thousand "mixed" reviews on Steam. A great many of these can be broken down to, "pay to own, pay to play, pay to win," with a primary gripe being the inability to grind out packs without spending money. It's a predictable response, given the genre norms, and Valve has made some minor concessions to the complaints so far in the beta. They recently added a card "recycling" feature that lets you convert 20 unwanted cards into an event ticket where previously the only way to unload cards you didn't want was to sell them to others.

There could be more changes coming, but I'm betting we won't see anything as extreme as the addition of an in-game currency and a way to grind for packs. Valve seems to be making a play for gamers willing to treat Artifact like a hobby and invest accordingly. Their bet is that they can attract enough players to not have to rely on free-to-play grinders to fill their queues. It's not a crazy idea by any means and has worked for twenty-five years for the original and most-successful CCG of all time: Magic: The Gathering (MTG).

Artifact Mobile 2

There's no way to grind free physical packs of MTG cards, after all, and you can't "dust" the cards you don't want to craft ones you do. Paper MTG and digital Magic: The Gathering Online (MTGO) cards have been resold by third parties as singles since the game was born (though Wizards of the Coasts can only dream of a cut). There's a big benefit to this kind of a system for paying players as you can buy just the cards you want instead of packs which is often cheaper when building constructed decks. The ability to resell cards also opens up a lot of options to reinvest in the game or spend that money elsewhere in Steam. Valve seems to be going for the same players that made MTG the behemoth it is today.

Artifact on Mobile

Agree with it or not, this is Valve's monetization plan for Artifact and the game's coming to mobile next year. We can only speculate on what a mobile version of Artifact will look like, though a $20 price tag will be a much tougher sell on the App Story and especially the Google Play store than it is on Steam. They could drop the price and provide fewer initial packs and event tickets. Either way however, Steam players may balk at having to buy into mobile in exchange for cards they probably already have. The other option, and one that would assuage existing players, would be to make the game free to download but push a 'starter IAP' on new players. This is the likeliest option.

Artifact Mobile 4

The bigger hang-up will be the secondary card marketplace. It's difficult to conceive of how Valve could implement anything similar on iOS or Android. They can, and likely will, direct mobile players to Steam for the full functionality of card resale and purchase. This would put mobile-only players at a distinct disadvantage, with no ability to sell cards they don't want and fully reliant on packs and expert events to get any new cards. A partial solution would be for Valve to directly sell popular cards or bundles of cards via in-app-purchase though this could be tough to balance with the player-driven marketplace on Steam.  

How will mobile gamers react to Artifact? Well, it's going to get pummeled in the user reviews. Premium isn't popular on mobile. Neither are games listed as free that end up requiring a purchase to continue (just ask Nintendo). Free-only players will stay away. There are mobile players that don't mind paying money for a good game, however, this site exists because of them. There are certainly CCG players who don't mind paying to try new cards, new decks, and to keep up with a metagame. They probably don't write many grammatically disastrous user reviews on Apple or Google's stores, but they are out there. Valve's betting they can find them and time will tell if they're right.

At the time of writing, there was no official information on the mobile version of Artifact, but it's still still being worked on as far as we know. In the mean time, you can play on Steam.

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