The return of web3 games: Who is taking part? The Goldilocks ratio of players to farmers (Part I)
“We are gamers, so we know how to build games”
The recent crypto bear market has cast a shadow over web3 games. Whilst Axie Infinity brought web3 gaming to mainstream consciousness, it is now frowned upon by buidlers and investors alike. Just as excitement over the “play-to-earn” phenomenon emerged suddenly and rapidly in 2021, the skepticism over the very same phenomenon has accumulated in a similar fashion, with more than a handful “writing off” web3 games as a fad.
Yet I believe we are at the cusp of an evolution, where we can look to the next generation of web3 games emerging as higher quality, more sustainable and most importantly, more enjoyable. As students from Stanford Graduate School of Business write, “Gen 1” web3 games were built by “crypto natives, game enthusiasts and traditional finance professionals”. This led to the fallacy: “We enjoy playing games, so we know how to build games.” The equivalent of this would be: “I enjoy eating delicious food, so I know how to be a Michelin-star chef,” — a misguided belief that can unravel quickly.
The next phase of web3 games will be built by strong game developers who already have experience in building fun and engaging games without the shackles of rushed token launches or ponzi-like game economies, and are now looking to elevate the game with web3 tools. These are buidlers who understand that a web3 game is a game first and foremost, while tokens are accompaniments that deepen engagement and engineer incentives, but cannot replace strong gameplay.
These web3 games will be more than games — they will be economies, driven by supply and demand, possibly underwritten by tokens and access gated by NFTs. In this multi-part series, we explore building health economies, discuss mental models for supply and demand, and highlight best practices around web3 game tokenomics.
In Part I of this series (this article), we discuss who is participating in the game, and discovering the Goldilocks ratio of players vs. farmers. In Part II (read here), we breakdown what attracts players to games, exploring the 3 common needs — to escape, to belong and to achieve.
We have started this conversation with the ‘demand-side’ of the equation, before discussing the ‘supply-side’ of tokenomics, because tokenomics are not sustainable without a product (in this case, a game) that is in demand. A game with no demand is effectively dead.
Patrons, Players and Farmers
Demand for web3 games come from 3 persona groups — patrons, players and farmers
- Patrons are die-hard believers who often have a ironclad belief in and support of the game. Patrons are often the early adopters in the community — the investor who writes a cheque before a line of code is written, or the individual who joins a new Discord server and starts conversation religiously. Patrons often feel emotionally connected to the game or the team behind the game: a passionate but small group.
- Players are true gamers who participate in the gameplay for a variety of non-financial reasons. The player is someone who invests a non-trivial amount of time to engage in the game, and at best, considers the financial reward as a fringe benefit.
- Farmers focus almost exclusively on the financial upside from the gameplay. The primary objective of investing time in the game is to earn a financial return that exceeds the initial cost of participation in the shortest possible time period. Examples of this include the popular Axie Infinity scholarship model, where farmers would invest in in-game character NFTs and instead of playing, rent the characters out to players on a revenue-sharing model.
These 3 personas are not mutually exclusive, even within the same game. It is entirely possible for an individual who begins as a Patron (before the game is launched) to transition to a Player (when the game launches), then onto a Farmer, due to a change in family circumstances. All 3 personas are usually present to some extent, yet one will be the dominant persona at a single point in time.
The challenge for game developers is to keep a close pulse on the demographics of their population and how they shift over time. All 3 personas are necessary to build a healthy web3 game ecosystem. The Patron is needed to seed initial confidence, attracting Players and Farmers; the Player is needed to engage with the game and consume/utilise game assets produced by Farmers; the Farmer is needed to produce game assets for the Player, especially those who are time poor.
The impact of a imbalanced population is evident among “Gen 1” web3 games like Axie Infinity, especially between Players and Farmers. When the population’s majority are Farmers, excessive value is extracted from the game, while there are insufficient Players to consume the economy.This leads to “ponzi-nomics” — a situation where the value of game assets is largely supported by new entrants, until the supply of players runs out, and the token price craters.
Patrons will always remain a small but important proportion of participants, and have a less material impact. So, what then is the Goldilocks ratio of Players and Farmers?
A quick online literature review does not reveal much insight, but having informally surveyed several game studios with a track record of building games with decent traction among non-web3 audiences, the consensus is 7:3 — out of every 10 participants in a game, 7 or more have to be Players who consume game assets while 3 or fewer should create assets as Farmers. This ratio is anecdotal: if you have evidence to prove or disprove this, please do reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org — we would love to engage.
In Part II, we will explore the 3 elements that draw Players to games and explore the utility of NFTs in enhancing the game experience — read on here. In Part III, we then discuss tokenomics considerations for game developers to build sustainable token economies.