The pivot to “trading card games” for some companies brings up questions of intent, and Artifact, the new Dota 2-themed trading card game, is no exception. It could be a drive for players to blow real money on the Steam marketplace, or Valve could just be extending their “loot crate” experiment to a wider audience.
Regardless of the intentions Valve may have, what the Dota 2 community is anticipating is the lore — a part of the game that has been severely lacking in the MOBA-riginal version. If Valve takes care, this can even be a segue for newer fans to enter the Dota 2 community at large.
Preparing for the sheer amount of lore
At the moment, the lore for Dota 2 is extremely spotty. The developers had to take care in regards to what they took over from its original custom-game version in Warcraft 3, as they were on thin ice with the competitor studio after taking Defense of the Ancients to boot. While the lore has some cohesion, players entered the remaster anticipating the future of gameplay, and Valve put much of their focus there.
Over the years since Dota 2’s gradual release, the community has taken Valve’s occasional drops of story—through Arcana items, in-game hero lore and comics—and pieced it together. The comics have given some insights into the lives, motivations and histories of many characters, but fans have worked extrapolate many of the smaller details.
Jake “SirActionSlacks” Kanner, the Dota-based content creator and comedian, has spent much of his spare time this past year working on a series specifically for this purpose. He’s a self-proclaimed lore expert, with knowledge of not only Dota history, but that of Warcraft 3 as well.
When Valve announced Artifact, Kanner was one of the direct targets of the initial marketing. The official Twitter account briefly engaged with him, and Kanner is one of two people the account follows (with the other being an ex-team manager and community organizer).
In fact, one of the Artifact writers, Steve Jaros, personally reached out to Kanner on Twitter, claiming that Kanner wouldn’t be prepared for the sheer amount of lore.
But such amount of effort clearly wouldn’t be aimed at solely one person. In fact, appeal by lore is nothing new, and it’s a strategy that Valve would benefit from using.
Effective emotional pull
Right now, some of the most popular games are those that engage fans beyond the game itself. Overwatch, the popular Blizzard “MOBA”-shooter, is a direct esports competitor that taps into the lore aspect of its fandom.
Overwatch makes much of its microtransaction money off of loot crates, much like Valve’s multiplayer games (though Overwatch has the $30 price tag as well). Many of these cosmetics hint at history, such as Reaper’s “Blackwatch” skin, while others play at the reputation of the characters, like Soldier 76’s dad-like Grillmaster skin.
The impact exists beyond money and moves into fan retention. The different personalities and stories of the characters in Overwatch have effective emotional pull, keeping attention pointed at the game even as players drift in and out. As new characters are shipped out by Overwatch, within hours, they’re already shipped in other ways by vigilant fans.
The good news for Dota 2 is, like Overwatch, it’s a game that can be exited and re-entered, with only the punishment of missing patch changes. Tutorials and “casual” game modes like Dota Turbo can be a way to return to the game with little stress. Then, when players exit the game client, many may wish to engage with the concept of Dota 2 in a variety of ways. Yet gameplay chat is exhausting, and it’s frankly difficult to keep up with esports.
There are only so many ways a game can pull in new and returning players on a gameplay-oriented strategy alone, but an influx of lore can retain a much-needed new, and relatively-casual audience. Story and “fluff” are welcome content for players wanting a break from the more grinding aspects of a complex, intense game like Dota 2. An emotional pull, through story, gives players another reason to keep the MOBA on their minds.
Artifact can be a perfect excuse for Valve to finally dive into this strategy. If there’s as much lore in Artifact as writer Steve Jaros teases, then both Dota 2’s main community and its card-playing sister community will have a new way to more frequently engage with these games, no matter how intense they get.