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The return of web3 games: What attracts players to games? And why web3 is really the salt and pepper to flavour gameplay (Part II)

In Part I (read here) , I wrote about the 3 participant personas of web3 games: the Patron, the Player and the Farmer. Attracting the appropriate ratios of Players to Farmers ensures an even balance of value creation and consumption within the game. The primary challenge that ‘Gen 1’ web3 games encountered was attracting demand (namely, drawing players in), so we will now dive into what brings players to a game.

“Come on in, just a little closer.” Screenshot of pre-alpha build of Mythic Protocol, an upcoming web3 action-RPG game

Extensive research has been conducted on game design, with literature dating back to 1982 with Chris Crawford’s seminal work on “The Art of Computer Game Design.”Plenty of research studies have since explored various game genres including MMORPGs and FPS, as well as topics including gamer loyalty and social interaction.

While there are numerous factors that have been identified as key drivers of game engagement, I believe most fall under 3 needs that Players are looking to satisfy:

  1. The need to escape
  2. The need to belong
  3. The need to achieve

The need to escape — A bit better than reality

First and foremost, games serve as a form of escapism for Players to detach themselves from the limitations of the real world, and satiate their imaginations with the impossible. This escapism is enabled by a few tenets:

  • Fantasy: Ability to express oneself in ways that would not be possible or condoned in reality.
  • Intuitive: Game mechanics that are loosely aligned to reality.
  • Interactive: For every action, there is a reaction.
  • Choice: Agency to choose different paths, instead of following a linear, predetermined one.

Without fantasy, a game would be more like a simulation — imagine a flight training simulator used to train pilots. Gameplay might entail 10–15 minutes of pre-flight checks which takes the participant hours to master, and upon take-off, it would be hours spent in the air (with no sights or sounds) to replicate the realities of airline flights, which results in unengaging gameplay.

Gamers seek detachment from reality.This can include ‘nose-thumbing,’ a term coined by Chris Crawford to describe the experience of playing a role that would otherwise not be acceptable in real life. This is best characterized by Grand Theft Auto, where the protagonist commits crimes freely with the explicit goal of evading police capture. This allows gamers to “indulge in make-believe behavior that they could never exhibit in the real world”.

This pursuit of fantasy must remain intuitive with game mechanics that are still loosely aligned to the principles we are familiar with in reality. Without intuitiveness, the game would not be enjoyable: a game that is overly detached from reality may be confusing and frustrating, such as a game where striking a sword against an opponent strengthens, instead of weakening them.

Another trademark of escapism is interactivity, where a gamer’s action inspires a reaction — one that typically has random, unpredictable elements. For example, playing with other gamers always brings interactivity: any action can elicit an unexpected response from the other. Without interactivity, the game would be more like a puzzle.Think of a Rubik’s cube: no matter how much or little effort the player puts in, actions inspire predictable reactions. . Whilst intellectually stimulating, the experience tends to be predictable and monotonous, once figured out.

Finally, escapism is incomplete without giving the gamer control to determine their outcome, at least to a certain extent. Without choice, the game would be akin to a story or movie, where the plot is set by the author. The participant is merely a passenger on the journey, following a linear path from start to finish, with no agency on the outcome or experience.

In short, games “transport the audience into a different world, to present experiences or feelings not often known in the everyday world”.

The need to belong — “I am the average of the five people around me…”

Games can act as a conduit to Players’ social identities. Social identities are defined as “the individual’s knowledge that [they] belong to certain social groups, together with some emotional and value significance to [them] of this group membership”, and Players often seek out the feeling of being part of something larger than themselves.

In particular, games help Players form their social identities across 3 stages:

  1. Social Categorization
  2. Social Identification
  3. Social Comparison

A game is usually an amalgamation of mini-communities — these are often in-game ‘clans’ or ‘guilds’ (not to be confused with web3 guilds with an asset leasing model), where players can group together based on commonalities or shared objectives. Social categorization is the first step where a player finds their place in one or more of these mini-communities.

As they spend more time socializing with fellow members of the mini-community, an association starts to develop, leading to social identification. Finally, social comparison occurs when the player considers himself/herself and the mini-community to be “me” and “we”, and those who are not in the same mini-community as “others”.

Why is this important for game developers? Research has proven that players that aggregate in these mini-communities often become more engaged in the game, and in certain cases, loyalty to the mini-community exceeds loyalty to the game. One study showed that when clans (terminology used by some games for their mini-communities) switch to other games, players are inclined to follow them to the new games to stay relevant.

The need to achieve — “…but I am uniquely different”

Counteracting the need to belong is the need to achieve: “I want to be part of a group, but I also want to be recognized as a special, uniquely different individual”

From esports tournaments to leaderboards, almost all games support the need to achieve. What differentiates strong games is allowing players’ to align their in-game achievements with their distinctive personalities. In the words of Chris Crawford, “the acknowledgment we crave is not merely an acknowledgment of our existence, but of our personalities”. As such, a game that enables the expression of individuality of each player has the potential to leave a lasting impression: “My gameplay today has demonstrated my dexterity, my intellect, my communication skills, my craftiness, and overall, who I am”.

Web3 — The salt and pepper to flavour gameplay

Much of the discussion on engaging game play thus far has not included discussion of any web3 elements. I pose that a strong game does not need to be a web3 game, but a strong web3 game needs to have strong gameplay.

Having said so, I believe web3 elements are already well-positioned to enhance and augment the game experience. To be clear, these elements are no substitute, but instead act as a catalyst. One such element is the use of non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

NFTs are often used to represent in-game assets — these could be “core” assets such as the in-game characters (as in Axie Infinity), or “booster” assets such as weapons and armor that accompany in-game characters. NFTs could deepen the relationship between a player and the game in four distinct ways that were previously impossible:

  1. Increase fulfillment from the need to belong AND the need to achieve: When a player owns a game asset, their NFT is often part of the game’s broader collection, functioning almost as a membership pass to build a sense of belonging. Each of these NFTs are generally unique (hence the name, non-fungible), with distinct traits: no two are the same. This turns a “commoditized” membership pass into a unique one. NFTs are potent tools because they manifest a sense of belonging to the game, and a sense of pride in being unique and distinctive by owning a unique asset that is like no other.
  2. Create a sense of ownership and pride: NFTs are digital assets that players can own, and can represent their associations and achievements. This ownership is immutable thanks to the blockchain: even if it is eventually transferred, there will always be a record about the player who owned it before. Furthermore, before NFTs, a player can only ‘see’ their belonging or achievements by engaging with the game by logging in, or visiting the leaderboard. With NFTs, this belonging or achievement exists in their digital asset wallet, and acts as a badge of pride outside of the game.
  3. Enhance visibility, especially to those who do not play the game: The use of NFTs as profile pictures on social media or messaging apps is increasingly mainstream. This provides an excellent platform for players to enhance visibility and prestige, even to an audience outside of the game. This added recognition and self-identity is enabled by NFTs, which are often high-resolution images or videos that embody the achievements and belonging within a game.
  4. Improve liquidity (and soon, interoperability): While not the primary objective of playing the game, NFTs allow players to convert game assets into alternative forms of value, be it fiat or crypto, thereby improving the liquidity. While players previously had to leverage informal channels like forums and chat groups to buy and sell in-game assets, which could be risky (due to potential scams or contravention of game policies), NFTs offer liquidity to reward players. Beyond liquidity, interoperability of game assets (like the use of a sword in more than one game) is also another potential benefit of NFTs, even though applications today remain limited.

If you think we are missing out another critical ingredient to engaging game play, or have ideas on how NFTs can deepen relationships between players and games, please do reach out at qinen@saisoncapital.com

In Part III, we then discuss tokenomics considerations for game developers to build sustainable token economies.

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