Even with the onset of crypto winter, there’s still no doubt that blockchain gaming could drive Web3 adoption. But proponents of Web3 gaming are often looking in the wrong place. If Web3 gaming is to introduce mass audiences to crypto, developers need to refocus on what matters to real gamers — fun, playability and utility.
If 2021, as a dozen headlines boasted, was the year crypto went mainstream, 2022 has already given plenty of fuel to the naysayers. But as easy as it is to say that the market’s dramatic tumble proves it was built on sand, that’s missing the point. All it shows is that price speculation is not enough to support a healthy market; and surely that’s no surprise. What insiders understand, of course, is that blockchain is about so much more than coins. Gaming is one of the sectors that stands to benefit most from the tech – and the one that is set to underpin mass adoption, for good.
The real reason to get on board
The difference between the hype and the long haul comes down to use case. When a crypto project is just about the token, it will be at the mercy of market whims. Similarly, market participants who are only looking for a quick return will leave the arena as soon as things get bloody. But in the case of games, blockchain’s benefits (including the tokens!) solve real problems, delivering intrinsic value. That’s why, increasingly, games dominate blockchain activity.
As Web3 proponents argue, decentralization changes the internet’s basic power structures. In the case of gaming, that means recognizing and supporting players as co-creators of value, not just customers. It’s long overdue. Gamers are the lifeblood of games, especially in this era of online gaming in which social interaction (both within the game, and on adjacent platforms such as Twitch) is a key attraction for players and a key driver of a game’s success.
Blockchain makes it possible for games to share control and rewards with players in a number of ways. Of course NFT assets are the most publicized way of doing that, lending real-world value to in-game assets and protecting them against deletion. But decentralization can also mean including gamers in game ownership and decision making. It can give gamers a way to keep a beloved but dated game alive even after the studio no longer supports it. These are all meaningful benefits that provide real incentives which have little to do with token value, and are therefore unaffected by a market downturn.
Early adopters lead the market
There’s another reason gaming is likely to drive mass-market adoption of crypto. Gamers are early adopters by nature – and where they go, the rest eventually follow.
For passionate gamers, getting the newest kit and trying out seemingly wacky ideas is part of the fun. They’re not put off by what others might see as too risky or too complicated. Just as games drove the home computing market in the 1980s, they’re now at the forefront of the metaverse. Gamers have long been accustomed to interacting in a 3D space online. They were hanging out in Fortnite and Final Fantasy long before lockdown forced everyone to get used to video conferencing – indeed, game spaces have been hosting parties and music festivals for years. With the megalith formerly known as Facebook going all in on convincing its billions of users to give the metaverse a try, gamers are already at home there and looking for the next new thing.
Game worlds are already populated with an eager online citizenry. These are the users who are a step ahead on all fronts: besides avatar-based interaction, they’re already comfortable with in-game currencies and tradable assets. That means crypto isn’t a big jump.
As yet, of course, most gamers are not on board. Roblox, for example, welcomes around 54 million players a day. At time of writing, the biggest blockchain games (Alien Worlds, Splinterlands and Farmers World) saw between 100,000 and 200,000 daily players. On the face of it, that’s a big gulf. But blockchain gaming is still so new, and given gamer readiness to explore crypto, we can expect rapid growth. As pure blockchain games make their appearance on the Epic Games store, used by 180 million gamers, a wider audience will be drawn in. A full half of Axie Infinity players, for example, had never used crypto before joining. That’s a clear sign of how games can smooth the path to adoption – but should we be worried about Axie’s dramatic recent fall-off in players? Or is there a simple lesson to be learned?
It’s about motivation
The early hits in blockchain gaming had one thing in common: like so much of the crypto market, they were driven by greed. From CryptoKitties on, these games were pitched as play-to-earn, enticing players with the prospect of big wins through flipping collectibles or earning tokens. The fact that Axie Infinity became a big hit especially in developing economies such as the Philippines, and especially when Covid-19 caused widespread financial insecurity, shows clearly that the main attraction was never the gameplay, but the token. So it’s no surprise that once the token started to lose value, players lost interest.
However, the game has evolved since inception, with updates adding a much wider range of activities, and may see more sustainable growth ahead. Other, newer blockchain games are also taking a very different tack, emphasizing adventure and excitement in genres from racing to RPGs. These developers recognize that play-to-earn isn’t enough: gamers are looking for fun, and without fun, you won’t attract the passionate user base that gives a game legs. NFTs are great as a support act, but not as the main attraction.
Go for the win
In the five years since CryptoKitties sparked a novelty craze, blockchain gaming has evolved dramatically, and the lessons are already clear. For decentralized games to achieve lasting success, they need to be designed just like any other game: with fun as the priority. Although the underlying technology raised barriers that made it easier to create games based around plain asset trading rather than anything more complex, that’s no longer an excuse. Platforms such as Ajuna Network are enabling developers to build sophisticated games with performance to rival any AAA title – and the need for that performance is clear.
Gamers are ready to embrace crypto, and where they go, the rest of the world will follow. The task for blockchain proponents is to make it worth their while with exciting titles and a real stake in the game. The hype is over; now the real growth begins.
Nicholas Douzinas is co-founder and head of business development at Ajuna Network, a Switzerland-based decentralized platform for blockchain gaming and GameFi. Before that, he founded or co-founded the companies Ebakus Blockchain, hoolio, and emaginal AG. He holds a B.S. in economics from the University of Warwick and an M.Sc. in international health management from Imperial College London.