Play to earn economies as base layer protocols for games
The biggest P2E ecosystems will be community first.
Player retention in gaming is everything.
Despite this, publishers optimize for company profit at the cost of player value and well-being. They are able to do this due to their end-to-end ownership and control over the development, distribution, and management of games. A prime example of this is Electronic Arts (EA), a game publisher that has gained a villain-like role in the gaming community due to their prioritization of their own microtransaction monetization models over the player experience.
- In 2017, EA released Star Wars BattleFront 2 where players either had to play 40 hours to unlock a single character such as Dark Vader or instead pay for it. The company’s response to the backlash is the most downvoted Reddit comment in history, highlighting the hostile publisher-gamer dynamics:
- With approximately 30% of the company’s overall revenue coming solely from FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) loot-box style item sales, leaked company documents demonstrate the company’s priority to capture microtransaction activity: EA claims that “All roads lead to FUT” as “FUT is the cornerstone and we are doing everything we can to drive players there.”
The core vision behind play to earn (P2E) is to address these issues by offering real player ownership of in-game assets and their surrounding world, ultimately creating greater stickiness and retention of communities. In contrast to the current global 30-day retention rate of 3% of mobile games, we have seen some initial success with the first prominent P2E ecosystem: Axie Infinity — which has a D0-D90retention rate of 40%.
Edit: Not everyone who downloaded Axie Infinity was able to play, hence the actual D1-D90 retention rate is approximately much higher than 40%.
The problem with Web 2.5 Games
As a result of Axie Infinity’s success, we’ve seen a surge of new P2E ecosystems attempting to replicate similar success. Despite this, many of the projects still aim to centrally control and coordinate the end-to-end production of games — thus potentially replicating the same structural mis-alignments found in legacy games.
These Web 2.5 games look to leverage ‘crypto as a feature’ by enabling digital asset ownership via NFTs or financial ownership of an economy via ERC-20s, but at the same time aim to limit context and participation around other more cryptonative properties of ownership, such as governance. Typically, the teams behind Web 2.5 games look to build highly polished but closed ecosystems where the entire player experience is centrally controlled by a single organization. These projects consider themselves ‘game first’ and mostly still optimize for Web 2 growth metrics, arguably under the same value extractive mentality as those of legacy game publishers.
“We are implementing NFTs as we think it will generate more revenue. We believe that players are willing to spend more if they believe those assets will go up in value.”
— Game Studio [Name undisclosed]
Analogous with CeDeFi, these games look to build closed-loop, centrally-controlled ecosystems on top of inherently open and permissionless crypto networks.
While we don’t expect all P2E ecosystems to be decentralized from the start, anticipating a more gradual process of decentralization as seen with Axie Infinity, we believe this Web 2.5 trend of game development stems from a fundamentally incomplete understanding of composability, interoperability, and the power of decentralized coordination technologies.
We believe that Web 3 games will win over Web 2 and Web 2.5 games because they leverage community ownership, real economic value, and native composability to drive greater player adoption & retention. We believe that the Web 2.5 approach to building P2E ecosystems is not enough to prevent the value extraction of communities. This is because there would still be key reliance on a single coordinating party that owns the end-to-end development and management of the economy and end player experiences. Instead, we believe we need to treat P2E ecosystems as open source public goods where all aspects of the economy and surrounding play experiences are built out in the open.
The verifiability of the system establishes trust that the system undeniably does what it says it does, and the consensus of participants about the information in the database establishes an unquestionable truth.
Through token incentives and community ownership, we are able to unbundle the role of a publisher through a bottom-up set of contributors, players, and guilds which instead drive worldbuilding, product development, and governance. By bringing these responsibilities out into the open, we are no longer dependent on a single company to achieve the goals of the entire ecosystem but can leverage open-source contributions from anyone on the internet.
Instead of thinking about P2E as standalone games or ‘apps’, we believe P2E ecosystems are about building self-sustaining virtual nation state economies that community members can trust, collectively operate, own and build on top of.
Play to earn economies as virtually governed nation states
Due to the live economics at play, the P2E dynamics surrounding games take on a whole new level of importance. These economies are not only just places where community members play, but also worlds in which they have financial upside, ownership over revenue generating businesses & valuable digital assets, and defined jobs & responsibilities.
We can think of P2E economies as virtual nation states. Its citizens will want to live in the most democratically well run country with the best opportunities for them (fun, work, social, culture). For these virtual economies to retain its community members, they must fairly and transparently make decisions that have serious economic implications to their citizens such as:
- Economic policies: eg. In-game asset supply, balancing mechanisms
- Monetization: eg. value accrual mechanisms, transaction fees
- Treasury: eg. What community initiatives should be funded?
- IP: eg. How should the intellectual property of the ecosystem be licensed?
Rather than pure user growth, we believe community-run P2E economies will optimize for functional governance, the ‘quality of life’ for their community members, ‘GDP’, and economic stability. And in turn, by making decisions better aligned with the interests of their community members, they’ll not only retain but attract better community members by providing a safely managed economy to rely on (Public Goods & the Protocol Sink Thesis). The virtual nation-state analogy becomes ever more real as we increasingly spend more time in virtual spaces and are able to take our identity, friends, and assets with us as we move from world to world.
Play to earn economies as community distribution platforms for an open-source ecosystem of builders and creators
Unlike Web 2 games where data is siloed by centralized databases, P2E economies can act as open, interoperable SDK-like platforms upon which contributors can build in a permissionless manner. This enables us to treat the economy as a base layer protocol for other community-generated games and experiences to emerge — where each one acts as a new user acquisition channel for the ecosystem while also being another driver of engagement for the existing community.
And by doing so, we are able to offer the opportunity for developers to build and ship games to a live and vibrant community from day 1.
Within the Axie Infinity ecosystem, this may look like funding new mini-games that help drive certain goals of the Axie ecosystem such as: better player onboarding, where the creators of the mini-games are rewarded with tokens in real time in correlation to their game’s onboarding success rate. By avoiding reliance on a single team, and by building out in the open, a game is able to scale the width of product insights and approach product development in a far more scientific and engineering-based manner.
This ecosystem approach can be applied to all other operational areas of the P2E ecosystem from community development to areas such as worldbuilding and lorecrafting (think community fanfiction or other derivative works that would typically be forbidden from monetization in traditional models). Grassroots capital allocation can emerge via large-scale community funding mechanisms such as quadratic funding or even player-owned guilds that steward certain responsibilities and tasks, such as Axie P2E scholarship guilds that help drive distribution.
With players having greater control and mobility in the metaverse, we believe interoperability will be a core driver of cross-world distribution. The more open and integrated these economies, games, and worlds are, the more creativity can take place through experiments and permissionless integrations, widening the top of the funnel for the P2E ecosystem. We believe that interoperability is more than just about “bringing your sword from one game to another”, but instead can exist in many forms:
- Cosmetic and visuals (VRM avatars, cross-world visual traits, etc.)
- Player-world interactions (On-chain physics engine as a shared standard for FPS games, assets that maintain cross-world integrity eg. a plant that needs to be watered in the same way across multiple worlds)
- Economic (Allow users to buy and sell assets with other game tokens or earn discounts for using the tokens of other games/worlds)
- Reputational (Cross-world verifiable credentials)
- Achievements (Complete bounties in-game X and Y to unlock a badge)
- Economic sinks and faucets (Burn X and Y game assets together to produce a unique skin/cosmetic item)
- IP (Seeing lore and characters in one P2E world in another virtual world)
- Access (In-game item that enables virtual access to virtual spaces across multiple worlds)
We believe the opportunity cost of not building for interoperability will overshadow the net cost of doing so.
Play to earn economies as sinks and faucets
Economic sustainability and growth occur when the value flowing into a system is greater than the value leaving it. In game design, the mechanisms influencing value flows in an economy are sinks and faucets:
- Sinks take supply of an asset out of an economy
(eg. SLP burned through Axie breeding fees; breeding is incentivized in general to build stronger teams and obtain higher rewards)
- Faucets inject asset supply into an economy
(eg. SLP earned by completing quests or battles)
For economies to be sustainable, the sinks need to take more of the token supply out of the economy than the faucets that bring the token into the system, otherwise, there will be natural downward price pressure as supply increases over time.
An example of a future token sink is the introduction of Axie body part vertically-integrated upgrades, whether cosmetic or rarity-related, purchased with SLP. Currently, the game’s only SLP sink has been overly reliant on horizontal asset production whereby Axies can come together and breed new ones, but the quality and general appearance of each Axie remains unchanged.
We can expect to see such tweaks proposed in other emergent P2E games too as they work towards economic sustainability. We can expect communities to crowdsource games and other player experiences that plug into the player economy as either new sinks or faucets — in order to achieve stability.
We may even see other allied virtual nation states integrating sinks or faucets of another economy into their own native experiences in order to assist another P2E ecosystem that is facing economic instability.
Rise of the Minimum Viable Game
We believe that the biggest P2E ecosystems in the future can potentially start out looking small and humble.
By considering P2E economies as the economic and social base layers for an entire ecosystem of games, we believe that building a P2E ecosystem is less about game development and much more about worldbuilding, culture, and incentive design of the underlying economy.
While we would agree that over the long term, well-designed games will engage and retain the biggest player bases, we don’t believe you need to necessarily launch a highly polished game from the start in order to be successful — but instead, a minimum viable game (MVG) that is enough to complete the economic value accrual loop.
One advantage of crypto is being able to immediately launch a token economy from day 0 and begin building minimally viable economic value accrual mechanisms long before there is a fully polished end player experience. This is in contrast to the waterfall development approach that traditional game studios take to launch fully polished games from the start.
A path to launching a minimum viable game may look like the following:
- Create a world that others want to belong to (designing a game concept, designing the lore, the aesthetics/visuals, creating a story, designing in-game assets)
- Distribute ownership of that world to a community (tokenize future in-game assets as NFTs and distribute them to early potential community members and players)
- Community launches a live economy token to bootstrap a live economy
- Community raises capital into a shared treasury
- Community launches a minimum viable game with token sinks
- The minimum viable game removes the economy token from the supply (this needs to be driven by an in-game player world interaction that players have an incentive to leverage eg. a player should believe that burning their tokens is worth it)
- More value accrued to the economy as tokens are removed from the circulating supply
- Value is reinvested into the game
- Better game and token sink is created
- Repeat Steps 7 to 9
We believe by building out the full economic value accrual loop early, P2E ecosystems are able to build games in a much leaner and iterative fashion with much less upfront startup costs.
Axie Infinity has perfectly embodied the concept of a minimum viable game as its first major raise came before the breeding and battle components were even released:
- December 2017: Concept and development begins
- February 2018: 900 ETH Origin Axie raise (~720,000 USD)
- May 2018: Breeding game release (introduction of a faucet)
- October 2018: Idle battle game release (introduction of a sink)
- January 2019: 3200 ETH Initial land sale (~400,000 USD)
- December 2019: Card battle game release
- May 2020: 4600+ ETH complete Quarter 1 land sale (~1,000,000 USD)
- November 2020: AXS Token Strategic Sale (860,000 USD)
- April 2021: Ronin Chain Migration
- September 2021: AXS Token Staking
Despite the game comprising over 2.5 million daily active users, Axie Infinity’s roadmap is far from complete. Axie Infinity’s focus on community building and their iterative development approach is a testament to how MVGs can be used to bootstrap large scale virtual economies.
A community first approach to building play to earn ecosystems
Driven by our hands-on experience building token networks, we believe that the most successful and vibrant P2E ecosystems will prioritize community and culture first rather than game play.
We believe getting worldbuilding, culture, and incentive design right is mission-critical for building a thriving P2E economy.
Worldbuilding — “Let’s build a world together.”
With the minimum viable game model, shared world building in an early P2E community becomes an important driver of engagement and participation. As such, we expect to increasingly see more P2E ecosystems take a content first approach (eg. Loot, Treasure, CryptoManga). We can expect that early user acquisition for P2E ecosystems will look more like skilled dungeon masters co-creating a D&D world with a community, especially when there is not yet a game ready or even one being built at that time.
One example of this is Loot; due to the Yearn-like fair distribution and creative potential of text-based NFTs, dozens of developers saw the potential of a new digital economy that they could build together. Over the following months, 86 community projects came up to expand the possibilities of Loot, including new derivatives, tooling, and guilds around items, maps, lore, and visual renderings.
While we currently lack the tools for player-driven world building, we expect innovations here over the next few years. We suspect generative AI technologies playing a key role as humans shift from a content creator role into a curator role. We see world building as a collaborative process that fosters a community of potential players and other contributors even before there is a game.
Culture building — “Come for the culture, stay for the ownership.”
People enter a community because they resonate with its culture, and they stay because they become owners of it. Culture is strengthened by demonstrating integrity around a set of values, and principles that inspires others to follow suit. It is co-created within a community, and thus why it is important to curate who is part of an early community.
While the legacy metrics place an emphasis on “how many players does your game have”, we believe P2E ecosystems need to focus on “who are the players and contributors”. As such we highly encourage P2E ecosystems to carefully curate it’s early community members and players. This can be done via manual whitelisting and other measures such as gated participation via pledge of allegiance or contribution.
“One thing that was important in the early days — many of our community members went “all-in” and needed Axie to succeed. Now, NFT community members are also prone to the “VC-effect” where they have too many eggs in too many baskets to care too much about 1 project. There was no diversification back then. Also large demand creates the need for lotteries and other Sybil defenses which prevents people from being able to get the allocation they want.”
— Jiho (Axie Infinity)
Getting the culture right will allow teams to fully take advantage of the fact that by unbundling the publisher, P2E games-as-communities increases the surface area on which values-aligned participants can create impact in the economies they are a part of, and enable them to accrue ownership in the worlds they help create.
Incentive design — “Rewarding valuable contributors”
While culture may initially attract members and contributors to a community, they only stay if they are fairly rewarded for their work and develop an ownership mentality.
When designing the distribution of in-game assets and shared upside in the economy, gaming studios should look to ensure that the most valuable community members and contributors are rewarded for their relative work and commitment. When this contributor feedback loop is repeated, trust, loyalty, and fanaticism are developed.
We think of token incentives as scarce resources that should be distributed carefully and meritocratically to the most valuable community members. We expect to see greater experimentation around token ownership and in-game asset distribution models. For example:
- Only guilds of a certain size or collective ‘XP’ are able to buy exclusive assets such as virtual land
- Certain in-game cosmetics can only be earned by deeply understanding the game’s lore by completing a rigorous knowledge exam
- Completing quests (either in-game or some other community bounty) as a way for players to whitelist themselves for exclusive item drops, which can subsequently serve as “badges” that signal their earned reputation
We believe P2E games should be careful about designing incentive structures that are based on gameplay alone. By doing so, they expose themselves to the risk of skewing their membership towards mercenaries, who are more likely to jump from game to game in search for higher returns (similar to how yield farmers jump from farm to farm in DeFi protocols). We believe that P2E economies should design their incentives to focus more on retaining missionaries and loyal community members as opposed to being used to drive pure user acquisition.
Rather than fancy graphics and large funding rounds, we believe the most successful play to earn games will start out with building a great culture, community and a vibrant economy first.
We are just at the beginning of understanding how to build out in the open. Our mission at 1kx is to become the most helpful investors to builders looking to build the next big play to earn the ecosystem.
If you’re building something in this space, we’d love to chat~
“If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together.”
Co-written by the 1kx team: Dmitriy Berenzon, Justin M. (AcceleratedCap), Michael Hua, Nichanan Kesonpat, Peter (pet3rpan), Christopher Heymann.
Thank you to all those who’ve helped shape our understanding of play to earn, including Jiho, Michael Arnold, James Young, Ryan Foo, Metaversatile