Valve's New Auto Chess Game Is Already Way More Popular Than Artifact Ever Was

The failure of Dota-themed trading card game Artifact might have left Valve with egg on its face, but the company has now scraped off that egg and made an omelette with Dota Underlords. Valve’s take on the obscenely popular Auto Chess genre hit a peak of nearly 180,000 concurrent players today, almost tripling Artifact’s all-time peak and planting a flag firmly near the top of Steam’s most-played games list.

Underlords, which went into open beta yesterday, has already hit a peak of 179,019 concurrent players. It isn’t hard to see why: It’s a polished take on Auto Chess with more effects and personality than the original, as well as some smart streamlining of integral mechanics such as items. Its interface still needs some work, but it’s already a heck of a good time.

Unlike Artifact, which launched to immediate criticism, Underlords has largely positive Steam reviews. One of the most upvoted reads: “What Artifact should have been.”

According to Steam Charts, a third-party database of Valve-provided Steam data,Artifact’s all-time high is 60,740 concurrent players — a number that precipitously dropped off not long after the game’s launch toward the end of 2018.

The card game faced widespread complaints about its cards-for-money-based system. Unlike its competitors (notably, Hearthstone), Artifact forces you to spend money to get the best cards — you can’t just earn them through play. Players also didn’t love what they perceived to be RNG mechanics, nor were they fans of other ways the game encouraged them to spend money.

At the end of March, after a period of prolonged silence, Valve announced long-term plans to overhaul Artifact, but it has no timeframe for when that process will be complete.

While Artifact was cratering, Auto Chess’ star was on the rise. At the start of the year, the Dota 2 mod — which has been likened to deck-building card games despite focusing on pieces instead of cards — became one of the most-played anythings on Steam. Its mixture of casual-friendly design, mid-match progression, ocean-deep strategic variety and just the right amount of randomness becomes immediately (some would say horrifyingly) apparent.

Despite mechanical differences, some fans likened Auto Chess to Artifact, saying that modders made a better Dota card game than Valve. Unsurprisingly, Valve has now emulated it, and the digital storefront-operator-turned-game-developer is already reaping the rewards.

League of Legends developer Riot’s version of Auto Chess, Teamfight Tactics, has been a huge success, taking over Twitch after its open beta launch earlier this week and causing test servers to buckle under constant strain. Underlords seems to be headed down a similar path, though the servers seem to be doing much better.


    I downloaded this on my iPhone but can’t play it because the font is so small I can’t read it! Valve, you are making me feel old!

    “digital storefront-operator-turned-game-developer”

    They were game devs first. Made a little game called Half Life, maybe you’ve heard of it.

    Anyway, this game is pretty fun. There’s some UI bugs going on but I’m enjoying it a lot so far.

    I'm not seeing it. Played 5 hours until 4am and then bounced off the game hard.

    The game involves buying heroes from a fixed pool with the aim of buying most or all of the heroes associated with one or two specific tags. Unfortunately, it because clear after a while that this was largely random.

    Sometimes two or three other players are aiming for the same tags and you're all hosed before you work that out. Sometimes heroes you're looking for are just sitting on other players benches out of sight.

    There's some minor placement mechanics as well, but these are almost completely tag related as well, which returns to the getting hosed on tags problem again.

    This takes a long time to work out because each game lasts a good hour and you need to run 3-4 full games to get the hang of things and realise how easily it is to be screwed.

    I didn't see many dropouts when I was playing, but I expect this to start creeping in as well once people start realising earlier that they've got a losing hand.

    And I wouldn't read anything at all into the player numbers at the moment. Underlords is free to play so obviously thousands are dropping in to check it out at launch. Artifact always had a high cost buy-in but still had 60k players at launch.

    And furthermore, Underlords has no built in monetisation at all at the moment, so it's currently hard to claim it's pay to win. The jury, however, is still out on whether it's going to remain that way with Valve promising a range of such mechanics such as cosmetics and battle passes.

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