A Model for Sustainable and Accessible Blockchain Games
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As you can imagine, working on Axie Infinity I think about how to build sustainable blockchain games… a lot. I get asked by many new developers on how they should think about building their blockchain games. The space is still in a nascent stage and there is continuous innovation happening everyday. A lot of mistakes and learnings have come from various games, with Axie Infinity being of course a major one as one of the pioneers. None of this has been done, everyone is learning. I’d like to share some of my latest ideas around components for a sustainable blockchain game model that can cater to the masses. These are my personal thoughts on the space as a whole and not the opinion of or specific to Axie Infinity. I’m open to feedback and these ideas will likely evolve over time. Some of the main goals for this model include:
Priming players to play the game for fun, and not just to earn
Optimizing onboarding for gamers
Structuring a sustainable in-game economy
This is all predicated on the game itself being very fun and players wanting to continually progress in some way. Across the blockchain space as a whole we all need to focus on delivering fundamental value. That’s the hard part, if that is accomplished then everything else is will come much more easily. The primary value most people get from spending on a product should not be just getting more money back. It should be things like fun, exercise, education, utility, community, expression, and many others. I will assume that is understood in this post, so I won’t be emphasizing it as much, although of course it is foundational. The focus will be more on the components that relate specifically to blockchain games.
To address the elephant in the room, some of you might be wondering if I am going to try to morph Axie Infinity to completely fit this particular model. There is a lot of history with the Axie game and franchise that needs to be respected so the short answer is no. Will I look at what elements make sense for Axie and work with the community to determine if they should be incorporated in some way? Yes. Some ideas might make sense for new Axie games, some for existing ones, and some not for any. I look forward to having many discussions with the Axie community around different ideas in the future.
Finally, the focus for this is around building for the long-term and creating sustainable value for all stakeholders over time. For teams looking for a quick buck in the short-term, this is not the right model.
This brings me to the first component of this model:
1. Priming players to play the game for fun, and not just to earn
If every player is coming into the game just to earn money then by definition the game economy cannot be sustainable (unless you are able to drive material and sustainable 3rd-party revenue such as through advertising). I dive into the details of that deeper in this previous blog post - the goal is not to create an impossible world where everyone can get $6 if they put in $5. The goal is to provide intrinsic value through the game, while sharing the $5 that players might put in back with them, in contrast to traditional games where the developer takes the entire $5 for themselves.
The big problem in the blockchain gaming space is that players are coming into all these games with the mindset that they should always come out net positive on anything they spend on in the games. Of course as game developers we cannot control how people think, but we can influence the narrative. Here are some ways to prime players to have the right mindset.
Stop Using “Play-to-Earn”
This is going to sound extremely hypocritical coming from someone who literally works at the company who coined the term and is the face of “Play-to-Earn”. However, coming into the company this is one of the first areas I wanted to change given the expectations it creates for every player that joins.
In theory the term is fine as in blockchain games you indeed earn and have unique ownership of those assets. The problem is that in reality it is being interpreted by people joining the space that everyone playing the game will be able to earn a consistent and indefinite stream of cash. As I mentioned, this is simply not achievable. This recommendation applies to every other X-to-Earn product out there as well, unless there is some external source of cash, people coming in are going to expect to earn more than they spend regardless of whatever else value they’re getting due to the narrative being sold.
In fact, the narrative can blind people to the value they are actually getting from the product. They might be having fun, exercising, learning, or gaining any other real fundamental value, but they will now still expect an ROI on their spend due to the narrative set forth and be disappointed if they don’t get it.
Axie Infinity benefited from the “Play-to-Earn” term that helped drive massive interest in the game and grew it to become the leader in the blockchain gaming space. However, as we’ve seen not just with Axie, but with multiple other games, there are consequences to this in that the narrative takes players’ focus away from progressing and enjoying the game, and more towards earning. This ultimately causes longer term sustainability problems that now need to be addressed. It’s a major insight that not just Sky Mavis but the industry as a whole needs to learn from.
Essentially, the term is setting the wrong expectations. At Axie Infinity we have shifted to “Play-and-Earn” but I personally still prefer “Play-and-Own” as I mentioned way back in September 2021, long before I joined Sky Mavis. I believe it expresses the unique value blockchain games provide while not creating unrealistic expectations.
If possible, the even better option is to not use any of these terms. Just make an awesome game where people see the trailer, art, gameplay, and want to play cause it looks fun.
However, realistically, marketing a unique aspect of a game is extremely important for user acquisition given how crowded the gaming space is. Everyone should just be cognizant of the implications of certain terms used on how players will view the game.
Align Pricing to Value
Think of F2P mobile games you’ve played and the price points of in-app purchases, for many people spending $0.99 to get a power-up takes deep reflection before they can pull the trigger. Now imagine people needing to spend $1,000 for a basic in-game asset just to start playing a game, given the magnitude of the purchase relative to what it is, people feel that they have to think in terms of ROI and when they will make back their initial spend now.
This can be solved by implementing systems so that people can a) start enjoying the game for free and b) purchase base game assets at reasonable prices that align with their in-game utility and not earning potential at a given time.
For example, in Axie Infinity during the spike last year a floor Axie was over $300 so anyone who wanted to play had to spend in excess of $900 just to get started. That amount of investment to acquire the base asset to get started in a game is very high relative to any other traditional games, so there becomes an expectation that some of it will be able to be earned back. Some ideas on how to solve that include anchoring the Axie breeding price to a relatively low USD value or providing a system where a few specific NFT Axies can be minted and purchased in unlimited amounts at a low price for people who just want to get started, with the revenue from that also going back to players.
In other blockchain games where assets are primarily minted directly from the developer instead of being generated by other players, developers should optimize those prices so players can focus on playing the game and not getting an ROI. Yes, in the short-term you can hype up the game, sell $10,000 NFTs, and get millions of dollars in your bank account today… but many of your players will be focused on getting $10,000+ ROI back and not the fun of your game which will make it unsustainable in the long-term. The magnitude here is actually not the specific problem, as there are game players who spend thousands of dollars in traditional games over time and don’t need an ROI because they gain the value in fun, progression, expression etc. The pricing just needs to be matched to the underlying non-monetary value players get from it. They should feel that by spending the money they are getting the equivalent and reasonable amount of non-monetary value, and so do not need monetary ROI to justify the purchase to themself.
This is not to say people can’t value your assets at much higher prices in the secondary market, that is totally fine and actually now your players feel good about their purchases and will continue to purchase more. A Charizard Pokemon card can be worth thousands of dollars but a pack of Pokemon cards where you can get one costs $4.99. Since the price of a pack of cards is low, buyers don’t expect to be able to earn anything or pull a thousand dollar card to feel good about their purchase. The not as rare cards they might get from the $4.99 still gives them enough value for them to feel good about their purchase.
A big problem in the space are games doing pre-sales for NFTs or tokens before they have anything built. Again, especially when those prices are not negligible people will have major expectations now around what they will be able to earn when the actual game comes out, and will not be able to focus as much on just the fun aspects, collecting cool stuff, achieving goals, and progressing in the game world.
There will always be some pressure for teams to get more funding early on but I recommend developers do it in ways that don’t involve selling directly to players as much as possible.
Developers should build the game, allow people to go deep into it, and then let them decide to buy weapons, resources, cosmetics, power-ups, and anything else that will ultimately enhance their gameplay, progression, and the emotional value they’re getting from the game.
Market the Fun
I’ve said a lot of things you shouldn’t do that make players focus on earning over fun: don’t use play-to-earn, don’t set unreasonable prices relative to value, don’t do pre-sales… So what should you do? Market the fun! Just like non-blockchain games - show off the art, unique game mechanics, and the amazing achievements players can reach.
People have traditionally primarily played games for emotional value, understand what your game is focused on providing and lean into that in the marketing. There are numerous models that can help you think through what your players might care about including the Bartle taxonomy of player types, Quantic Gamer Motivation Model, and Player Experience of Need Satisfaction Model.
One final tip - unless you only want to cater to the still relatively small crypto crowd, also avoid adding terms like “crypto” and “blockchain” into the name of your game. This will help drive interest from more mainstream gamers who may be averse or intimidated by the crypto world.
2. Optimizing onboarding for gamers
As a continuation to the first component of priming players to have the right mindset before even playing a game, all of those aspects actually also align to driving more mass market adoption for people who might not have experienced blockchain gaming yet.
The early gameplay should focus on having them learn, progress, and develop intrinsic motivations to keep playing the game. As they reach a point where they can interact with blockchain assets, the experience needs to be optimized so that it’s not overwhelming for them to onboard into it.
Free-to-Play to Play-&-Own
I mentioned it briefly in the previous section but having a free-to-play model is extremely powerful in acquiring players and allowing them to just focus on the game itself with no friction. The only reason they will genuinely want to keep playing is to achieve in-game goals for emotional reward, which is what traditional gamers are used to. You want to make sure that players maintain their intrinsic motivation over time and in the long-term.
Then, driven by that motivation, they may be able to earn or want to purchase NFT / token assets eventually that will help them advance towards that motivation, not to earn money. This is where they transition to Play-&-Own. The magic here is that they will have unique ownership of those assets that they could never have had in Web2 games, which adds a layer of joy, delight, and emotional reward. That is what really drove me to come into this space - that magical feeling of owning digital assets, similar to the joy I have from owning all of my physical collectibles. Of course, they will have the option of selling and trading those assets too, but that won’t be the primary driver for why they obtained them. Their emotional attachment to the assets will be much stronger as well.
Also, the ideal way to structure this is so that if a player does not want to interact with the blockchain side at all, they don’t need to. They should be able to treat all of these assets as just in-game assets like Web2 games, and only mint them into a blockchain wallet if they want to.
3. Structuring a sustainable in-game economy
For any game, regardless of blockchain or not, there needs to be a balanced economy to ensure that players can progress at rates that are fun and be motivated to keep playing over time. They are balanced through proper structuring of sources (emission) and sinks (burn). The overall motivation of the game drives the economy forward so that players continuously want to earn and use more resources.
The problem with many blockchain games is that they have not been structured properly to achieve this balance and players are coming in with the mindset to earn. Players are constantly trying to optimize for the ability to sell tokenized resources for fiat eventually instead of sinking them to progress in the game.
Also, due to tokens having real world value that players care about, inflation actually matters a lot more in Web3 since its price will be affected. Whereas in Web2, even as many resources inflate it doesn’t matter to players as much as they cannot trade them and there is no real fiat price attached to it.
Here I’ll be touching on a couple aspects specific to tokenized economies that should be considered as part of this overall model.
Tokens as a Hard Currency
In many free-to-play games there is a two currency system consisting of “Soft Currencies” and a “Hard Currency”. The Soft Currency is usually earned and used in abundance throughout the game to progress. The Hard Currency however is usually much more difficult to earn, primarily obtained through in-app purchase, and has the ability to have a much larger impact on the game progression. For example in Clash of Clans the Coins and Elixir are the Soft Currencies and the Gems are the Hard Currency.
This system allows free-to-play players to enjoy the game and progress primarily using the Soft Currency, while more hardcore and paid players can earn or purchase the much more tightly economically controlled Hard Currency to progress faster or enjoy premium content.
My idea here is to take this concept and apply it to blockchain games in a way where off-chain resources are Soft Currencies and an on-chain resource (token) is the Hard Currency. This would work well because:
Free-to-play players can progress and enjoy the game using the Soft Currency without any inflation risks to the Hard Currency token.
There will be no uncapped free Source for the Hard Currency token as it is given out in tightly controlled amounts, or purchased. The amounts given for free will require significant effort and achievement. It can be variable and dependent on how much is actually being used over time.
Many existing designs around the utility for Hard Currencies already exist that can be applied to ensure there is strong demand in-game to use it assuming the game itself is motivating.
Control Token Earning per NFT asset
Hard Currency tokens can be more accessible to be earned in-game by players who have NFT assets as those NFTs would be hard to earn or cost money to purchase too. However, there should be mechanisms in place to ensure that a single NFT asset cannot earn tokens infinitely or else you can easily have runaway inflation over time.
NFTs should have mechanics that allow for tokens to be used to increase their utility to progress in-game and continue to earn tokens over time, to ensure there is a proper balance of Sink vs Source of the token.
These are just some of my thoughts after being in this space for the past few months on how blockchain games can be developed to be more sustainable and accessible. You can see there’s an emphasis on helping people feel the value of the game itself with the blockchain components as additional value on top, and not the other way around. To be clear, this is just one model I think could work well, there are many others and variations of this one I also think could work too. There are trade-offs to every model.
I am bullish on the future of NFT games, digital ownership, and believe we’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible. I’m excited to see how the space evolves and many more unique game models emerge over time!