If you’ve paid even the slightest bit of attention to the blockchain gaming space, you’re already familiar with a three-letter word that’s come to define this growing gaming sector in the past years: play-to-earn. The world first heard about play-to-earn (P2E) games thanks to Axie Infinity, the massive blockchain gaming juggernaut that aimed to reward players with real money in return for their time and effort.
But it’s been a long five years since Axie first showed up on the radars of the terminally online. Today, the game is still reeling from a massive $615 million dollar hack, and the recent crypto downturn compounded by reports of the near-exploitation of some of its players has led to a steadily declining player base.
Despite these setbacks, blockchain game developers believe the space remains open for a new industry titan to emerge. And it won’t offer players games with explicit play-to-earn messaging. Echoing the sentiments of Brazillian game developer Mark Venturelli, there is a growing belief in the blockchain gaming sector that, indeed, play-to-earn mechanics have no place in gaming.
So what will take its place? Play-to-own gaming. Instead of offering players financial rewards as incentives to play, there is the belief that providing players real ownership of their in-game rewards, items, and characters is the way forward.
When blockchain integration goes wrong
On the ground, the play-to-earn model has left many gamers worldwide left holding the bag. When games shut down, and their community support dwindles over time, players who’ve poured in hundreds of hours onto these games are left with nothing but wasted time and worthless collectibles. Case in point, when F1 Delta Time — one of the oldest existing NFT games on the market — unceremoniously shut down in April 2022 due to licensing issues, owners of its licensed NFT cars suddenly found their utility vanish. At least you could play with Hot Wheels. With no game surrounding them, these NFT cars became useless.
However, looking at F1 Delta Time from an optimistic perspective, it’s hard to place all of the blame on the developers. Licenses are a tricky business, even more in games that hope to function as ongoing live-service platforms years after release. Sadly, you can do much worse than building an entire platform and in-game economy on a licensed product in terms of stability. The founders of NFT Worlds did so on Minecraft using an (admittedly sophisticated) mods system. Now they have to do what their more successful contemporary Decentraland did — actually build a game.
Thankfully, things move fast in Web3 — and it looks like blockchain game developers are ready to try new things. Although the NFT space as a whole remains rightly skeptical of Pixelmon’s tentative second attempt at life following the massive backlash faced following its first mint, the controversial project’s new leadership has shown some understanding of the broader blockchain gaming space. For example, this second time around, Pixelmon’s new leadership appears keenly aware of the increasingly negative optics associated with play-to-earn gaming. Instead, it has shifted toward something many developers in the space fully believe in: play-to-own.
Blockchain developers shift away from P2E
But what does ownership have to do with gaming? According to WAX’s Chief Gaming Officer Michael Rubinelli, it’s everything. WAX has established itself as a veritable hub for Web3 gaming, becoming a thought leader in the space. In an interview with nft now, Rubinelli was deeply critical of the play-to-earn game model, calling it a “failed miserable experiment.” Like Venturelli, Rubinelli believes that introducing the possibility of earning real-world money into a game inevitably leads to that becoming a player’s main focus while playing the game. Instead of, you know, having fun.
“When you have ‘earn’ in the title of a movement, that is its singular focus,” he said. “Like anybody, the only thing I’m going to care about is the ‘earn’ piece of it right? And in that regard, you’re going to attract people that only care about profit or revenue. It’s really detrimental to the [blockchain gaming] movement. It’s super hurtful. It’s terrible, it’s cancerous, it’s toxic. And no surprise, it’s doomed to fail, and everything that models itself after it is gonna fail as well.”
But from where does the spite toward play-to-earn gaming come? To start, it’s what bad actors can do when they get rolling in a play-to-earn game. “Every project craters. There are rug pulls. There are terrible things that happen because they’re built by people that are harsh and mostly focused on a profit for themselves, and maybe a little bit for the players. [The players that do profit do so] in an unsustainable [and] unhealthy way, and it creates all this scar tissue and all this blowback and it’ll never ever work,” he said.
The worst offenders, Rubinelli claims, are developers who don’t even bother trying to make their games fun, instead focusing their marketing on the integration of blockchain technology, even in the title. “You have to start with the game. It has to be fun to play. If the game isn’t fun, what’s the point? Like ‘I hate this but I do it anyway.’ Well, that sounds like a job to me. It doesn’t sound like a video game. Sounds like a video chore,” he said.
A model that works
According to Rubinelli, ownership has been a concept familiar to gamers for generations. The mainstream gaming industry just hasn’t caught up yet. Somehow. Speaking on WAX’s latest title Blockchain Brawlers, Rubinelli highlighted the pedigree of one of its key developers and the impact his past work has had on pop culture at large.
“Dude, it’s a game designed by [Magic: the Gathering creator] Richard Garfield. In [Magic], 22 billion cards have been traded since 1995 from player to player. Let’s start with that premise,” he said. Instead of blatantly modeling this upcoming title to entice players with promises of financial gain, WAX has instead set up a system that’s been proven for decades to work. “When you win stuff and when you lose stuff, it’s your own stuff that you want lost. So when you lose it, you can win it back,” he said.
Other developers in the space have bigger ideas for what play-to-own can entail. Don Norbury, Head of Studio for upcoming Web3 first-person shooter (FPS) title Shrapnel, believes blockchain technology can enable gamers to unlock more profound levels of storytelling in-game. Placing players in a damaged near-future where an asteroid collision causes the titular shrapnel to rain down on the earth, players must compete against each other in a bid to collect scarce resources.
“We believe that having strong world building — having your own theme and aesthetic that people can relate to and then, in turn, start to build their own story within it is important,” Norbury said in an interview with nft now. “We’re not making a sandbox-style game where you can make everything under the sun. You are going to be making things that are in the Shrapnel universe. […] Our goal and our vision, when we look longer term. is the community effectively takes over [the game.]”
Specifically, Norbury hopes this upcoming title will offer players that level of expression via the creation of in-game maps. Like the highly-popular Forge mode found in the Halo series, Norbury hopes that players will make full use of the tools Shrapnel will provide. “There’s a tipping point where most of the maps that are being played [will be] user-created. We think that’ll actually happen very quickly. [Eventually,] our seasonal updates and sample content [will] just be a blip on the radar. That’s how we know we’ve succeeded in doing our job,” he said.
A million-dollar idea
But what happens when an in-game map in Shrapnel goes viral? What if one of its players happens to create the next industry-defining game genre? They’ll own it — and will have fewer barriers to cross to bring it into the mainstream. Both Norbury and Rubinelli have shown a keen understanding of this possibility, since some of the most-played games in the world started out as mods of popular games.
Counter-Strike — initially a Half-Life mod — birthed a new breed of fast-twitch ultra-competitive FPS titles. PUBG — which started as an ARMA 2 mod — was the first big battle-royale shooter. However, one game might exceed all others in approaching Norbury’s vision for Shrapnel: DOTA 2.
Currently one of the most highly-played games on Steam, DOTA 2 began as a mod of Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne. It reimagined real-time-strategy gameplay, integrated it with role-playing-game stat-based mechanics, and was designed as a purely competitive endeavor. But what made it so revolutionary — and in line with Shrapnel’s goals as a title — was how it did all of that while providing millions of gamers a way to engage deeper with Warcraft characters and lore.
Through the paradigm of play-to-own gaming, ideas can finally retake center stage, ahead of the promise of in-game rewards. “For us, a true healthy self-sustaining, economy requires deeper community input and value. And a lot of that for us is the content [players make] that bubbles up to the top. It is also a super valuable piece of input from the community. So when we say production input, we don’t just mean people who are creating maps as an example. We mean actual valuable things that are being done by the community in the Shrapnel universe,” Norbury said.