The runaway success of Axie Infinity and StepN has convinced a flurry of entrepreneurs that web3 gaming, where the ownership of in-game assets is in the hands of users via blockchain adoption rather than a centralized platform, is the future.
Some of the biggest hits in the space to date reward users with tokens that can be cashed out in what's known as the "play-to-earn" model. While P2E games have attracted millions of players and billions of dollars from investors, veterans of the gaming industry argue that they are fundamentally unsustainable.
These games are the brainchild of financial engineers aiming to get rich quickly rather than experienced developers building time-honored works, they say.
Axie Inifity's dramatic rise and fall is telling. After peaking at $754 million in November when bitcoin hit all-time high, the game's monthly sales volume plummeted to $4.5 million in July.
"Most gameFi developers are not game developers," says Maciej Burno, who's spearheading the new metaverse business of Polish gaming studio Reality.
Burno is among a spate of blockchain-believing gaming veterans around the world trying to take blockchain games to the mainstream. Their vision is to counter the public impression that web3 games, popularized by P2E, are all scammy and trashy. Instead, they want to build games that are both fun and sustainable, while introducing cryptocurrencies as a novel way to incentivize gamers as well as creators.
Is it a game?
The problem with P2E, as seen by See Wan Toong, a former senior technical director at Electronic Arts and CTO of web3 gaming startup Red Door Digital, is that users have to spend money upfront to start playing.
In Axie Infinity, users buy and breed cute blob-like creatures called Axies in the form of non-fungible tokens that are authenticated on the blockchain. Sales from the NFTs then go toward funding rewards for those who earn tokens by playing, and the tokens, the game's native cryptocurrency, can in turn be cashed out.
That means for the game to be sustainable, it must have a constant influx of new users or it loses its financing source. That's why critics compare P2E games to pyramid schemes.
Many of the P2E titles aren't really games by strict definition, Toong argues. They are more akin to decentralized finance, or DeFi, products with gamified features. Hardcore gamers dismiss Axie Infinity as "simple" or even "boring," not unlike the free-to-play, mindless mobile games that they have opposed for years.
But for those living in developing countries, the prospect of making several hundred dollars per month by clicking on a computer screen can be tempting. That's largely why Axie Infinity took off in countries like the Philippines during the pandemic when many people lost jobs. To them, the game is more like work than fun.
"I think there is a bit of elitism in it," Simon Davis, CEO of Mighty Bear Games, a Singapore-based web3 gaming studio that just raised $10 million in a token sale, says of Axie Infinity critics.
"There is a tendency in Western countries to dismiss things that are popular in other parts of the world and not be as respectful as you should be. If you look especially in Southeast Asia and Latin America, and countries where incomes are probably less high, people don't buy high-end gaming rigs and consoles. It's interesting to provide people not just with entertainment but also with potential economic upside."
"I don't like the term play to earn," continues Davis, formerly a design manager at Ubisoft. "I don't think it should be a primary motivation because you're playing a game to have fun. But someone can then decide they don't want to play the game anymore and get some of their investment back then. I don't see how that's a bad thing."
Play and earn
While Davis recognizes the value of P2E, like many other experienced game developers entering web3, he's pouring resources into perfecting the gameplay first and foremost. His studio had been producing conventional games, like an official Disney and Pixar game and Butter Royale, a hit on Apple Arcade, before turning to blockchain. It will soon be launching its first web3 title, a multiplayer third-person battle royale that incorporates the token economy.
Games can be both fun to play and lucrative, some blockchain game developers argue. It's not news that gamers are motivated to make money -- even in more developed parts of the world.
"Remember World of Warcraft? There is already a group of players in the MMO [massively multiplayer online] game who hire tons of people in Vietnam and Indonesia to farm gold," observes Toong.
"When you look at a traditional game, people are putting millions or billions of dollars into the gateway, but it's on the other extreme. They don't get any value back," adds Toong.
Burno agrees. "People want to play for fun and they are willing to spend money that makes them feel happy, but there are also those who want to invest, so you can give them a tool to invest."
Developers are also promised greater rewards from blockchain-integrated games. In free-to-play games, a common monetization model of today, developers earn income by pushing an update every "six to eight weeks," observes Davis. "Users get annoyed that you're trying to squeeze money out of them every two months."
In web3 games, in contrast, developers get a small percentage of every in-game transaction, which is recorded on the blockchain. "So the only thing you have to worry about is creating a game that people want to keep playing for a very long time and creating value for those assets of the players who want to trade between themselves," says Davis.
To make a blockchain game sustainable, Toong's Red Door Digital is taking a different approach from Axie Infinity. Users don't need to buy the platform's tokens in order to start playing -- unless they want to start earning or have real value in their assets.
When a game sustains a recurring user base, the value of the game will increase and external investors will join, reckons Toong. "All this increase in value then goes to the people who are playing to get financial returns."
Like many web3 games, Red Door Digital’s platform offers utility tokens, which are used like in-game currencies for purchasing skins, items, and so on, as well as governance tokens. Users who contribute to the game will get governance tokens and be able to vote on critical project decisions. The utility tokens can be traded, while the governance tokens have no liquidity to strip them of any speculative value.
While developers are still working to optimize their token economy, investors are already plowing big money into their nascent ventures. Blockchain games attracted a whopping $2.5 billion in funding in Q2, according to DappRadar, a data company that tracks decentralized apps. In H1, blockchain games accounted for about 30% of all the capital raised by private gaming companies, a report by investment bank Drake Star shows.
Despite the torrent of VC money floating into web3 games, some legacy studios and publishers seem to err on the side of caution. Tencent, the world's largest gaming company, has no development plans for web3 games that are of public knowledge.
"Reputation is a big thing for the corporate, so if anyone who creates this initiative fails, it's the end of their career. They will have to answer the board," says Toong. "So the only way is for them to invest in a crypto company or two to see how it goes."
The gold rush into web3 is also posing challenges to crypto skeptics in the gaming arena. An Asia-based game-focused fund manager is frustrated that investors he meets these days are overwhelmingly interested in knowing whether his fund has a web3 angle.
"If I say I don't, they don't want to invest."