During a public hearing on November 27, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced a commitment to investigating loot boxes in video games.
“Given the seriousness of this issue, I think it is, in fact, time for the FTC to investigate these mechanisms to ensure that children are being adequately protected and to educate parents about potential addiction or other negative impacts of these games," New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan told FTC Chairman Joseph Simons during a subcommittee hearing. She then asked the FTC to commit time to investigating the issue and the FTC said yes.
The next day, developer Valve released Artifact, it’s first new game in five years. Artifact is a digital collectible card game (CCG) like Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering Arena. Players collect cards, build decks, and challenge people online for dominance. Both Magic and Hearthstone allow players to earn new cards by playing the game. Artifact doesn’t. The only way to get new cards in Valve’s new game is to buy them, either by purchasing them individually off the Steam marketplace—from which Valve takes a cut—or from packs of random cards, which function exactly like loot boxes: Players are paying for some kind of rewards, but they don't know what reward exactly. It's a gamble.
Artifact is a good game, which comes as no surprise since Valve knows a thing or two about making video games. It's easy to forget because the company rarely releases new games these days—it's more focused on making heaps of money off its giant digital game platform Steam—but it is the same company that gave us Half-Life and currently maintains two of the most popular competitive online games: Counter-Strike Global Offensive and Dota 2.
Artifact is based on the latter, and yes, it's a very well designed card game, but the monetization system tarnishes it. Valve is great at making video games, but it’s even better at making money and Artifact is a perfect machine designed to efficiently extract value from its players. It does so by selling players card packs. You don't have to buy them, and I can imagine myself having a lot of fun with Artifact without buying any packs if I tried. But the problem is that I can't escape the feeling that Artifact was designed for the specific purpose of selling card packs, and that the fun is just a side effect. Every game is designed to make money, obviously, but Artifact's monetization methods are so precise and calculated, I can't get past them.
As for the game itself: Artifact transforms Dota 2—Valve’s 2013 multiplayer online battle arena game—into a card game. In Dota 2, teams of five players fight for control of a large map split into three lanes that feed into each team’s home base. Towers and computer controlled creeps defend each lane and players control powerful heroes that both defend their own base and push through the opposing team’s defenses. The team that plows through their opposition’s defenses and destroys the enemy's base wins.
In Artifact, players control an entire Dota 2 team and manage both the placement of five heroes and the minutiae of battle in every lane. Each lane represents a separate game board and a round of Artifact is divided between these three different boards. The player uses five heroes deployed across these lanes while playing cards from their hand that enhance the heroes, hinder the opposition, and cast spells with varied effects. Each lane has a tower with 40 health and destroying that tower exposes the core—another tower with 80 health. The first player to either knock down two towers or expose the core and destroy it wins.
It’s an aggressive game with little room for defensive play. You can’t "turtle" in Artifact. In Hearthstone or Magic, players have the option to attack. In Artifact, each round always ends in a battle. Before the assault, players take turns playing cards that modify how that attack will play out. They can buff heroes, manipulate cards positions within the lane, or deploy more creeps or heroes. Once both players are done casting spells, the two sides clash and play moves to the next lane.
Artifact is a slowed down and tactical version of Dota 2. There’s a strategy in deciding which lane to attack and defend, where to press your advantage, and when to retreat. Sometimes I would leave a lane undefended so I could focus on the other two, other times I would focus down one lane so I could destroy a tower and whittle away at the core. Heroes die, but they resurrect a few turns later and players can deploy them to any lane they want.
After paying $20 for Artifact and working through its tutorials, I wanted to build some decks and start getting to know the game better. I immediately wanted to understand how its market worked so I could learn the most efficient way to earn cards. Most digital CCGs allow players to earn a currency through playing the game they can then use to purchase cards. In MTG: Arena, winning matches earns gold which players can use to buy card packs. It’s the same in Hearthstone and both games have a system whereby you can trade in duplicate cards for individual cards you want.
There’s no such system in Artifact. If you want more cards, you have to buy them. There’s no way around it. After completing the tutorial, players receive 10 packs containing 12 cards each and 5 event tickets that allow them to participate in tournaments and drafted games. Tickets sell in packs of 5 for $5. The 12 card packs are $1.99 each. Each pack contains random cards and you will receive duplicates you can’t use. Players can sell those duplicates to other players on the Steam marketplace or grind them up for event tickets.
Right now, there are 280 cards in Artifact and PC Gamer estimated that completing a collection of the initial run of cards will cost around $300. That’s comparable to brute force buying all the cards in a Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering expansion, but the difference is that both of those games have methods by which players can grind out cards for free. I’ve never spent money in Hearthstone and I’ve only spent $5 in Magic—the cost of a “welcome pack” containing discounted card packs. I play a little Magic every night and always walk away with a few new cards. If I wanted to play Artifact, I’ll have to spend money. That’s after I’ve already put down $20 for the base game.
Players have always been able to buy their way towards good decks in CCGs. It’s why I quit playing Magic: The Gathering in the real world and took it up again when Arena came out—I’m just not going to spend hundreds of dollars to stay competitive every year. Valve will release more card sets for Artifact and as the game grows, the only way to stay competitive will be to pay.
CCGs have always had a hard time keeping the casual player interested. When I was playing Magic in high school, I realized that I was going to have to spend a lot of money to keep up with everyone or just stop playing. So I stopped. With Hearthstone, Blizzard created a game where the casual player could pop in, play a few rounds, win some cards, and still feel like they were having fun. Artifact is a regression, a move back to the bad old days of CCGs when card shops were dominated by neckbeards wielding suitcases of cards you’d never seen and couldn’t afford.
CCG card packs are the original loot boxes. The games rely on players spending lots of cash to open randomized packs of cards in the hopes of getting something they need to complete their set. The argument from some parents and legislators is that the these loot boxes represent a form of gambling where players pay in a few dollars to get randomized rewards. In 1999, parents for two 9-year-olds claimed Nintendo had gotten their kids addicted to gambling thanks to the Pokémon CCG. The parents mounted a class action lawsuit against Nintendo and the case rattled around the courts for years before a federal judge finally dismissed it. Video game companies such as Valve popularized this form of monetization in the digital realm and all those old arguments against them—that they’re predatory and create an unfair advantage for the wealthy—are back.
Artifact will be a success. It’s sleek and polished and fun. Two adorable gremlins float around the decks and they’re beautifully animated and silly. Each individual card comes with a fully voice acted bit of lore that plays when you click on them in the deck builder. It’s more complex than Hearthstone and faster than Magic: The Gathering. I want to invest my time in it, but I never will because its monetization system sucks.