After going nearly two months without any communication, Valve posted to the Steam page for Artifact last Thursday, March 29. The brief message was frank and apologetic, with Valve admitting that “things didn’t turn out how we hoped.” The game “represents the largest discrepancy between our expectations for how one of our games would be received and the actual outcome.” It’s currently topping out at around 300 to 400 players daily, or roughly 0.06% of the game it’s based upon, Dota 2.

Nevertheless, Valve seems committed to making Artifact work, and they’re blaming themselves and not their players. That seems like an obvious admission, but it’s not always what happens when a game comes up short. The message stated that Valve is looking at Artifact’s “deep-rooted issues” and will “re-examine the decisions we’ve made along the way regarding game design, the economy, the social experience of playing, and more.” That means that updates will slow or even stop while the design team goes back to the drawing board to figure out what went wrong and how it can be fixed.

Here’s the truth of the matter: If your game is only attracting 300 players, you’re not going to tweak a few things to make it successful again. One option is a complete reboot, a la Final Fantasy XIV or, to a lesser extent, a major overhaul like Diablo 3 or No Man’s Sky. Those games, however, were still reasonably successful — or at least bringing in a decent amount of money — before their revisions, something that probably isn’t the case for Artifact. One could question whether Valve has the patience to invest those kind of resources into the game and, if it does, what that will mean for players who have already invested a lot into the game.

The other option, especially for a game with such a low player count, is going free-to-play.

As I hinted at in my F2P predictions piece in January, that would require a massive reworking of the game’s economy, which revolves around the price of cards. I also thought that it was possible Valve would simply shut the game down rather than go through all the work required to make it F2P. If the commitment really is there to keep it alive, as the blog post suggests, then F2P might still be on the table.

There’s little doubt it’s at least being discussed behind closed doors, especially seeing as how “the economy” was listed as one of the things that needed addressing. That was a central selling point of Artifact, and the reason why a fixed price was justified. It was an attempt to recapture the essence of the early days of CCGs — no doubt approved of by Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield, who helped design Artifact but was let go from the company last month — but one that will need to change if the game is to continue. I don’t think a complete shutdown is out of the question just yet, but if it’s not, the primary goal has to be getting new players in the door. Free-to-play can certainly do that, but it will require Valve to virtually abandon one of Artifact’s central tenets.

That’s going to take some time. If I’m going to be predictive again, I think we’ll hear something by this summer. Taken on its own merits, Artifact seems like it plays reasonably well, so maybe the gameplay doesn’t need much revision. As the phrase goes, “it’s the economy, stupid,” and if Valve can address that, it might be able to salvage Artifact from the scrap heap.

Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.

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