On Tuesday, during the second night of The International's main event, Valve announced Artifact, a new Dota 2 card game. The reception was lukewarm, to say the least. Despite the fact that virtually no details about Artifact were revealed, in a world that already has Hearthstone (and Elder Scrolls Legends, Gwent, and… ), it's hard not to sympathize with those who think that Artifact is just another attempt to cash in on the popularity of digital trading card games.
But what if Valve isn't interested in making a card game simply because its competitors have been making card games? A better explanation, I think, is that Valve isn't developing Artifact because it wants to make new games, but because it wants to make new markets.
Without getting too far into academic jargon, Valve is an exemplar of what's often called "platform capitalism." Instead of developing products, companies working in this vein develop platforms that create spaces where different kinds of exchanges can take place, and then take a cut from those exchanges. Steam is a prime example.
Though it began merely as a tool to keep Valve's own games up to date, it quickly expanded to a service primarily focused on distribution and facilitating trade among users. As Gabe Newell explained in 2013, "our job is to maximize productivity of users in creating digital goods and services. The markets will determine what the marginal value add of each of those activities are."
So far, this strategy has done wonders for Valve because it puts most of the work on players and developers, with very little expense from Valve. Taking a fraction of the value of each transaction is (almost) pure profit, so small wonder that Valve has the highest profit per employee of any company in America. The frustrating truth—and this is probably what's behind all this boos and groans— is that Valve doesn't have much of a reason to make games anymore because the profit margins on games are miniscule compared to what it gets from opening its own markets (and, by the way, what is Dota 2's unbounded ecosystem if not platform capitalism for esports, putting the "real" work on everyone but Valve?).
But if Valve is going to make a game, a card game is a very attractive option. A card game fits neatly with Valve's version of platform capitalism. To put it bluntly, Artifact isn't about making a Hearthstone-killer, but creating a new market to exploit.
With that in mind, we can make at least one prediction about what Artifact's design might look like. Deck building in Artifact will probably be less about opening card packs a la Hearthstone, but encouraging players to head out onto the Steam market to get the cards they want. For that to work, there will need to be a lot of cards in Artifact (and with Dota 2's 113 heroes, 148 items, and close to 500 abilities that shouldn't be an issue).
From that perspective, Artifact is a lot more likely to resemble Magic: The Gathering than Hearthstone. In fact, Artifact may very well be more of a trading card game than Hearthstone ever was. Despite having all the conventions of a TCG, the only "person" you ever really trade with when you're playing Hearthstone (or whatever) is Blizzard itself. Valve has plenty of reasons to take a different approach with Artifact. Is it so hard to believe that a company that's been letting users exchange virtual goods with each other for years will design a trading card game that leverages those very systems?
Of course, that's strictly speculation, and we won't know for sure what kind of game Artifact is until it launches in 2018. But it's crucial to keep in mind that a trading card game perfectly fits the mechanisms that Valve already has in place. Calling Artifact a Hearthstone knockoff isn't even half the story.