Idea Exploration: Should Web3 Games Launch as Web2 First?
Order of operations matters in shaping player expectations, culture, and narratives.
A decade of Product and Growth experiences working on Axie Infinity, Pokémon GO, Figure 1, Rakuten Kobo, and Facebook. (Twitter | LinkedIn)
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We’ve seen that having real-money assets involved in a game can have a substantial impact on its player culture and expectations. It may make more sense for many Web3 games to launch and operate for some time as a fully Web2 game first. The goal of this idea is to help generate a player culture focused on the gameplay first, rather than financial considerations.
This approach primarily applies to games where Web3 components are not part of the core game loop. e.g.
FPS games where the cosmetic skins are on-chain
Card games where the cards are on-chain
RPG where the assets are on-chain
In these examples, the core game loops generally do not require Web3 interactions.
For games where Web3 is tightly woven into and an integral to the core loop this idea is not applicable. It’s also not applicable to casino type games where financial components are core to the game itself.
Impact of real-money value assets
Unfortunately, many Web3 game launches are shrouded with thoughts of financial upside and speculation by its players due to the default real-money value of its associated on-chain assets. Many of these same players played, loved, and spent tons of money on Web2 game assets as well, but the attribute of assets having real-money value changes their perspective. Suddenly, they view the game more from a financial perspective than just an emotional one. They’ll become more cognizant of financial ROI and opportunity costs from all of their game actions.
This changes the dynamics around their motivations to play and may lean them more towards extrinsic than intrinsic. They end up seeing assets as financial objects more than emotional attachments within this atmosphere than they would have if assets actually had no monetary value.
They might keep playing for financial reasons more than just intrinsic enjoyment. This also removes the ability for the developer to understand the intrinsic value their game is truly delivering to players. Short-term retention and engagement metrics would be skewed.
In some cases, the assets end up being much more speculative than being backed by actual demand they have from their utility within the game experience. If the actual demand is low enough, the market will eventually collapse.
Of course, there will be cases where a game launched as Web3 is good enough to drive legitimate demand for assets, a player culture with enough focus on intrinsic goals, and be successful even with the financially-skewed mindset their players may have adopted. However, it will be harder and in that case they may still suffer from a player culture leaning more towards profit versus gameplay than ideal.
Fun first, then ownership
On the other hand, if a game launched fully as Web2 first, they could validate and ensure players at scale enjoy, want to spend, are motivated to progress, and love collecting assets in the game for the intrinsic value the game delivers. They can also ensure the player culture is established around these intrinsic values first, and players are very focused on getting the best assets to flex, progress, socialize, achieve, and emotionally connect with. Metrics around retention and engagement will be true indicators of their game’s fundamental value to players.
Once that's all established and clear, the developer can give players immutable ownership of their beloved assets by allowing the assets to be minted and traded on-chain as it will be clear that asset values are supported by real intrinsic demand and the strong player culture built around the game. Of course, the developer would have had to be thoughtful and plan beforehand how the Web3 economy and systems would work even as they created the Web2 version, so that it can be added onto the Web2 components seamlessly afterwards.
There would still be players at that point that try to optimize and profit from the real-money value of the assets, but it will be supported by real demand. Lots of people buy/sell Pokemon cards for profit, but this only works because there is already massive intrinsic demand for the cards from fans who have strong emotional connections with the individual Pokemon characters and IP.
If Fortnite decided to put its skins on-chain today and those skins gained real-money value, there is no doubt their value would be backed by intrinsic demand from the player base who cares deeply about their skins. However, if Fortnite had real-money value skins from Day 1 that could be cashed out, I imagine it would still be generally successful but how would that have changed its trajectory as well as the culture of the player base?
Order of operations matters in shaping player expectations, culture, and narratives. In this case, it might always be better to ensure those are focused around the fun first, before allowing any financial components to enter the picture.
I would love to hear thoughts from others on this topic. Please comment!
Philip, I love both your post and its timing.
I've been struggling to wrap my head around why certain aspects of Web3 are non-starters for good game design. You've called out the low-hanging fruit: expecting immediate ROI biases both players & devs towards extrinsic motivations. Monetization-first strategies may hit certain emotional triggers like addiction, fiero, or even kvell (when your players become stakeholders they take great pleasure in their adopted project's success), but those aren't "fun."
They can be positive emotions! But they're temporary. Illusory. And they're not the same as "fun."
What I like about your pitch is that you're applying the "fun first" strategy of free-to-play and other Web 2.0 patterns, and we know that works with more than a decade of evidence and best practices.
Not that I haven't seen Web3 projects try to emulate the best of Web2 already, mind you.
I've thought long and hard about why I keep seeing NFT projects & Web3 games with otherwise excellent aesthetics (and large marketing budgets!) fail. Some of them are stunningly gorgeous. Some have amazing utility. Some are trying novel, new things that deserve to be explored.
But the vast majority are fixed upon closed supplies - printing 10,000 unique NFTs for instance - and for the longest time my mind has been fixated in the idea that THIS is a core cause of Web3 problems, because I believe that early virtual economies in MMORPGs proved that these closed economic loops don't act as markets and thus quickly fail via speculative spikes followed by inevitable crashes.
I think I've been ignoring some other causes that lend evidence to support your "Web2 first' pitch.
1. Rigid Rules == Boring. Many of these games have extremely rigidly designed rulesets that reflect the constraints of writing smart contract code. That also means they're more easily subject to mathematical analysis. It follows that "solved games" are less interesting and fun than "unsolved games." We're seeing the blockchain equivalent of tic-tac-toe being presented as state of the art, when in fact... they're meh.
2. Over-reliance on Game Theory. I know people in Web3 absolutely adore Game Theory, but we have to admit that in practice that GT's perfectly rational, abstract models fall on their faces when confronted with human psychology. It really doesn't work any better in blockchain than it works for American politics. Yet again and again I see core game loops and tokenomics based on GT instead of trying to find the fun first and delivering a great product.
I think there's this strange, unspoken addiction to algorithmic perfection and mathematical precision that is choking the life out of what's really possible in Web3 games.
That's why I find your article so compelling.
After all, if you're designing for immediate ROI in Web3 you have to "get everything right" out of the gate. Is it any wonder that Web3 gaming projects spend $50k-$100k to have tokenomic reports written about their "utility token" by leading analysts so they can hopefully demonstrate just that much more legitimacy to their communities?
I agree that employing the Web2 pattern first allows you and your community to find the fun the fastest. This is the method we're adopting for our first Web3-compatible game: Niftiez. Web3 believers should be able to demonstrate that you can deliver an amazing and fun game without asking players to install a wallet on Day One!