Crypto enthusiasts and gamers. Two groups of people whom many outside observers would have believed to be a perfect pairing. Instead, they have ended up largely at odds. Taken at first glance it does not make much sense – here are two tech native audiences, both of whom pride themselves on a hacker mentality and a penchant for being early adopters to new forms of technology, and yet for the most part the purist gaming community has loudly and soundly rejected the attempts of the web3 crypto community to make any successful inroads.
Gamers are, perhaps understandably, deeply suspicious of the motivations of the web3 community. This isn’t without some basis – the sheer number of bad actors and scams within web3 has made anyone on the outside, even people who would normally be sympathetic towards technology that is still fairly flawed, very skeptical. It only grew worse when some of the much maligned eight hundred pound gorillas of the gaming industry seemed to jump into the NFT market half cocked, sensing an opportunity for profit generation without much in the way of thoughtfulness or care for whether it would benefit the gamers themselves. Those gamers who aren’t distrustful of web3 are shocked by the naivete often displayed by the web3 community. Startups saying they are going to build the next great MMORPG over the next year with a few million dollars and a team of ten feel tone deaf, as if they’ve never understood the massive investment required in terms of team, time and expertise to build any game, let alone an MMO. That’s when they aren’t just scams. Even less ambitious game types, like MOBA’s and card games can still take years of development by teams numbering in the hundreds.
To be sure, there has always been tension between the gamer community and innovation. Traditionalists decry anything that can be seen as simply a way to make money off the back of the gaming community. Importantly, while many outspoken voices derided the introduction of live service games, loot boxes and free to play games as mere money sinks, those ‘innovations’ became cornerstones of modern game development and, though grudgingly, accepted as part of the state of gaming today.
So why the more insistent resistance from gamers towards anything that remotely smells of web3?
It feels like pay-to-win
Nothing is more widely denounced than when a game introduces pay-to-win functionality. The largest free-to-play games that have in-game purchases have largely and smartly remained strictly in the camp of selling items that were cosmetic in nature. There are some notable exceptions – for instance in most of the card games like Hearthstone how well a player does is ultimately a function of the cards they have and if they have more money to spend they will in turn have more and better cards. While conceivably one can acquire all the same cards through simply playing more it will take many orders of magnitude longer to do so. Web3 games, which almost always have significant NFT elements, are oftentimes accused of being a fairly severe form of pay-to-win. The fear being that in a world where you can sell your most powerful items or characters for real world cash the winners will ultimately always be those with the deepest pocket books, not those who have the most talent or make the greatest investment of time and effort.
Building successful game economics is really, really hard
The more ambitious games being developed use multiple tokens and thus have to be extremely thoughtful about potential inflationary and deflationary pressures. In MMORPG’s, which have vibrant economies of their own but are of considerably less complexity than what is proposed by more ambitious web3 games, they get it wrong all the time. New World, the somewhat recently launched Amazon MMO, had to perform triage on their broken economy several times over. And this was a game with a staff that numbered in the thousands and founded by a team that had built multiple MMORPG’s. All of which is to say, building a game economy is hard for a large team under less complex circumstances. Web3 games are largely being developed by smaller teams and have greater complexity. In short, the degree of difficulty is higher while the team executing it is oftentimes far more limited in both experience and bandwidth. As a result the gaming community is oftentimes highly skeptical when whitepapers are released announcing grand ambitions around building vibrant economies stated by people without an experience in game design or advanced economics (yes, some game companies hire economists to help design their games).
In general, ambitious games are, in general, really hard to build
Almost every whitepaper articulates grand plans for their game. It is not uncommon to read something along the lines of: It’s going to be World of Warcraft meets Hearthstone meets League of Legends. Rattling off three of the most successful games of the past twenty years and then articulating at a high level why they should work together and why NFT’s, tokens and web3 are going to make it even better feels to anyone versed in the gaming industry or game design as the peak of hubris. And there are dozens of these whitepapers out there – brimming with confidence in their ability to build something earth shattering with far fewer resources and experience than anyone that has come before.
The gameplay loops are fundamentally unfun
Perhaps the biggest issue of all is that most of the web3 games are web3 first, games second. As any game developer will be quick to point out; if you don’t have an enjoyable gameplay loop all the other bells and whistles – graphics, world building, storyline, soundtrack – cannot save the game. And thus far the core gameplay loops of most web3 games have been what feel like bootleg knockoffs of more popular existing game properties. Problematically, the majority of Axie Infinity players are playing the game to make money, not because they find the game fun. This is in part a symptom of the fact that many of the web3 games up until this point have been made by individuals who had more experience with web3 development rather than game development.
The encouraging news is that everything listed above is not endemic to web3 but is rather a function of a huge number of inexperienced people rushing into an opportunity long on ambition but low on experience and knowledge. Those people, more often than not, will flame out fairly fast. Unfortunately no small amount of investor money will burn up with them as web3 entrepreneurs have at times proven more adept at telling stories than building products. However, there is reasons to be optimistic. There are some great entrepreneurs building web3 games who have raised significant sums of capital, hired experienced game industry veterans and managed expectations to an at least somewhat realistic level. In fact, the most self aware of these developers whom I’ve spoken with acknowledge these reservations and are in turn eager to show to the gaming community that they get it. There will be a great web3 game and while there will certainly be holdouts within the gaming community who refuse to acknowledge that, the majority will be grateful to see the medium continue to evolve.