While at PAX West, I had the chance to play Artifact and speak with programmer Jeep Barnett and Lead Designer Richard Garfield. PAX West was the first public showing of the game, and the first time that most press had the opportunity to check out the game as well. Artifact is more or less complete, releasing November 28th on PC, but there's no doubt the feedback from the event will make some small changes.
I spoke to Richard and Jeep mostly about how Dota was translated into a card game, but we also get into what exactly sets Artifact apart from other card games on the market right now, particularly digital ones. Before that, I'll give you a quick overview of how Artifact works so you have a better understanding of the interview below. If you have a good idea already, feel free to skip straight to the interview.
Quick Artifact Gameplay Description
The above image shows a single lane, or game board if you want, out of the three you'll have to concern yourself with. At the bottom are the cards that make up your deck. While some may summon allies on the board, the vast majority of those cards are spells, buffs, or something else along that line. This deck is also carries with you along the three lanes. Blue cards can only be used by blue heroes, red cards by red heroes, etc. So, part of the strategy is knowing to hold a card until the next lane if it would be better suited there. Once it is used, it's used.
Every round you'll have more mana to use cards, similar to Hearthstone. Each lane has its own mana pool to work from, so it's always in your best interest to use all that you can in one lane before you move onto the next.
The creeps from Dota are randomly spawned on lanes between rounds and placed in random open slots. You're deck has five heroes in it that you can have out on any lane at any given time. Between rounds, if a hero is available—they can be killed, spend time in the fountain, which you can see in the top left of this screenshot, and return—you can choose which lane they go in. They will be randomly placed into an open slot in that lane.
Where they are placed is important as each card faces a particular direction, either in front of them, to the front and left, or to the front and right. That is who that card will be doing damage to with their attack. If they are facing an open spot, that damage will be down to the tower. Once a tower dies on a lane, it opens up access to one of the team's Ancients, which when that dies, that team loses. If all towers are down, all lanes are able to attack the Ancient, which has one health pool, unlike the individual health pools of each tower.
A round goes back and forth as you and your opponent take an action, whether that's playing a card, using an item or ability on a hero, or anything else. At any point you have the opportunity to pass your turn, which then gives your opponent one last turn before the round resolves itself. For example, in the above image, you can see some heroes are going to die because they are covered in big red X's.
Once a round is over, after you go through the above process for all three lanes, you'll be given the opportunity to purchase items from the shop. When you kill an enemy hero, you get five gold, and an enemy creep yields one gold. There are some abilities that give you gold too. In the shop, you'll have access to three items. One is completely random and comes from the secret shop, another is random from a shop deck you have built, and the other is a random consumable that you have also built into your shop deck. For the two slots from the deck you've built, every time you purchase something, something else replaces it, which you can then choose to buy. Items from the shop can be equipped to heroes, which given them permanent buffs for the remainder of the game—even if they die.
After that, you do your hero placement and the whole process repeats. There is a lot more complexity than the brief description given here, with a ton to consider when you sit yourself down to play it. Luckily, a beta should be arriving sometime next month to give everyone a try.
Jeep Barnett and Richard Garfield Interview
TechRaptor: I come from someone who played Dota more than card games, I'm slowly being introduced to them now—we have a ton of people on staff way into card games. I was just wondering what made you—'cause it is my understanding that you had this idea for a game first, and then you approached Valve about it. What made you choose—think Dota was a good fit?
Richard Garfield: Well, what I was after was a card game, an electronic card game, that felt epic, and, uh, there were a lot of tools I had, was thinking about to get to that to happen. Once I connected with Valve, we began to look at what properties they had that would make sense, including the possibility of making an original property. But, Dota had a really rich fantasy lore, which could be used, which helps, helps a lot. It's also flexible that we could add things as necessary to, to make the game as good as it could be. And, uh, so in the end it seemed we were getting a lot more from the Dota flavor than we would be by forging our own or using TF2 [Team Fortress 2], even though I love TF2.
TR: Yeah, yeah.
Jeep Barnett: Or Portal where there is like only eight characters total.
TR: True. So is the Dota lore featured a lot in the game, like it shows up a lot?
Richard: Well, yeah.
Jeep: Yeah, our writer on the game Steve, he does writing for Dota as well, and so he has been planting seeds for the lore for this game in a bunch of the dialogue that has come out in the recent updates. So, they talk about a lot of the events that are happening within the lore of this game, and as well as he is really trying to take the backstories of the different heroes and kind of delve deeper into them, or delve deeper into the relationships between those different characters. So when you get two characters on the board, you have a relationship. If they are on the same side, you know, they will be talking about like 'let's go, we can do this together' and from the opposite side it's like 'you backstabber, you traded on me.' So, yeah it does a lot of that type of stuff.
TR: Will players need to have a good Dota knowledge going in to see the benefits of that?
Jeep: I don't think it's necessary. I think if you're a Dota player, there is a lot you get out of it in terms of you recognize the heroes and the spells that they're gonna bring with them and the types of things they're gonna do. It makes things familiar, when you see the card 'Gank,' you have an idea what it's gonna do right? So, I think it does help but you don't have to be a Dota player. There is a lot of people who we've watched play the game who have never played Dota or don't know anything about it. Now they've sort of grown an affinity with Bristleback or Axe or whoever. Now when they go play Dota, they go play those characters.
I dunno, it reminds me of back in the day there was this card game Rage, which is based on Werewolf, and after playing Rage for a long time, I started getting into the RPG for White Wolf called Werewolf. I understood all the concepts I learned from the card game, even though the lore goes the other way. I think it is interesting to move back and forth between those different games that use a shared universe.
TR: Everybody is familiar with Magic: The Gathering or has heard of it. What was the core idea that made you excited to make a new, another card game with what started Artifact?
Richard: Artifact's roots certainly go back to the very first time I tried to put Magic on the computer and realized how poorly it was designed for that translation. Magic's timing system works really well face-to-face, but when you're on the computer it just doesn't. So, basically ever since then I have been trying to figure out how to best get that experience on the computer. Several years ago, there was a bunch of electronic card games that came out, and I was excited by many of them. I really like the genre, but one thing that kept on hitting me was how the experiences felt like they were simplified from the paper experience. One story I tell is that I finished playing a game on the computer and sat down and played a game of Magic and found myself with 30 token creatures in play. So, you know, why can't we have this sort of epic quality to the computer game? It should be easier, not harder. So that was one of the fundamental inspirations.
TR: Now that it is part of Dota, how much as Dota the game influenced Dota: The Card Game, well it's not Dota: The Card Game, but Artifact? So, was the three lanes originally part of the idea or was it 'we are going to do three lanes because it's Dota' or what sort of stuff came in because of that?
Richard: Three lanes definitely came from Dota. If it weren't for Dota, I might have still come up with it, but it's very natural for Dota, and it resonated with my idea that card games aught to be play in matches where you play more than one time, because people play a card game once and then they lose and feel like 'I have the worst deck' that's the end of it. But that's not true, you have to play several times. By having it so that you play three games simultaneously, which is each lane, and you have to win two out of three, you see that you have these successes and losses and has more of a larger scope than just playing one game.
TR: Has there been any challenge in interpreting the heroes into a couple of different variables to put in the game?
Richard: I should also add, before getting into that, the other major influence from Dota is this aspect of the heroes, which absolutely wouldn't, I don't think it would have been there if I hadn't been working with Dota. The fact that you have this small number of heroes that really determine the way your game plays, and that those heroes are there throughout the game affecting things, it's been very well captured in the card game. In fact, people who sit down and play the card game are often amazed when they play a card and it buffs their hero, and they say 'wait a minute, this is permanent?' then the hero dies and he comes back 'he's still got it?'
TR: That is the exact reaction I had earlier.
Richard: It is completely different than most trading card games. What was your other question?
TR: Is it hard to translate heroes from a Dota game and still have them feel similar to what people are already familiar with and put them in the card game?
Richard: Yea, it can be a little tricky. Usually when we look at a hero we try to pick one, maybe two key aspects of that hero. One sort of becomes a passive or an active ability, and the other becomes one of their signature cards that gets shuffled into your deck. But yes, since most Dota heroes have four specific powers and maybe other things, we try to pick a slice of that hero that we think is applicable to the game in an interesting way that can be translated to the rules in this game. Because, you know, they are not exactly the same. We think that in the future, a hero we have already done previously, we'll do another version of that hero that looks at a different slice of their abilities or different personal aspect or personality. And then there are some aspects that are really unique to card games or maybe to this game specifically that didn't fit onto an existing Dota hero. That's the case that we created a new hero specifically for the game that sort of embodied the things we thought were important.
TR: Is there any one mechanic or set of mechanics that you're excited for veteran card game players to see? Not all card games are the same, but there are similar mechanics throughout. Is there something in Artifact that you're looking forward to those players seeing?
Richard: There are certainly a number I really look forward to people experiencing and appreciating. One I already mentioned is the fact that these heroes are the pillars upon which the game is built and they're constantly affecting the game and growing and being weakened too, there are a lot of really nasty hero hosers from the other side. But another example is the equipment deck. The equipment, you have ten cards you choose on your own. You have four different consumable withdrawals available, and then there is one wild slot where there are cards that could come from anywhere. I really like the fact that you could start playing this game, and something should be in the shop that you didn't put there and it just pivots the direction the game is going.
Jeep: And also, the strategy around what you build into your item deck is so complicated, it's one of those things that even though we have been playing the game for years, it's probably the aspect we feel the least confident about that we're playing it correctly or to the best possible way. It's so hard to figure out if you should have a lot of low cost stuff, only the high cost stuff and save your money, a mix of both, more than ten items, maybe thirty and have a high money deck. It also depends on the heroes. If you have heroes that can gather you a lot of money, you want to do high cost cards, but if you have lower attack power heroes, then it's like the weaker stuff keeps alive. It's really, really hard to figure out how to build that deck.
Richard: One other answer for card gamers, when I play Artifact, afterwards I often feel like I have not played—people comment on how it feels that there is too much to keep track of, there's so much going on. And I think that somebody who comes from Dota or a real-time strategy game like Starcraft may be more familiar with this sort of feeling, where there is a lot going on to keep track of. They are used to managing that sort of strategic space, where card gamers are—some of them are being introduced to that for the first time, and it feels—like I get frustrated when I play Starcraft because there is so much strategy and I just can't juggle it all at the same time. But here, I feel like it's that range of things, I'm managing it, and it's going at a pace I can manage, but it's still driving me, it doesn't feel slow.
TR: Is there anything else you want people to know—what's the thing you're most excited about the game?
Jeep: So, I mean, this is very general, but just the fact that everybody now is coming out and playing it and excited. It's super motivating for everyone on the team to see people really enjoying their games. So, I just wanna get it out there and get it into people's hands, that's the biggest thing. I dunno, do you have anything else to add.
Richard: I think my previous descriptions of things that are standout features of the game, the heroes, the lanes, the range of strategy, I really think it's a good mix, and I'm looking forward to people trying it out.
TR: Thank you guys for your time.
Artifact will be releasing for PC on November 28th.