How play-to-earn made us learn


As with most game design and development companies, we have also been exploring the blockchain game space. We were tasked with three play-to-earn style games at the end of last year and we definitely learned a whole bunch of things, which I would like to share for those of you considering dipping your toes into this space.

What are play-to-earn games?

Play-to-earn games are games where the player earns currency (in most cases crypto or virtual currencies) to play the game. With the introduction of cryptocurrencies, they have also achieved real-life value, meaning that what you previously earned as in-game currency, typically only for re-use inside the game, now can be traded into real money. Some of the early examples are Axie Infinity and prior to that even Cryptokitties if you want to go and look up examples.

As a game designer, the purpose of any game is to make the game as attractive as possible to your target audience and to keep them engaged and engrossed in the gameplay. It typically means you need to know your player well and that you then create something compelling that they can get emotionally involved in. Something that can make the player feel a sense of achievement, a sense of loss, a sense of joy, etc. So a whole range of emotions that help with the exploration of the game and a real mission inside the game.

A lot of the early generation of play-to-earn games tend to focus on breeding or spawning a digital character and entering them into battle to earn powers or trade them as collectibles. Typically, nurturing and collectibles are part of a larger game scenario with some interesting narrative or mission. What we see in the current selection of play-to-earn games is that the gameplay actually doesn’t evolve much beyond play and collect your reward.

Is greed the main driver for play-to-earn games?

For the games I have enjoyed playing, I am either the helpful aide to a character on a hero’s journey or I have specific missions to accomplish from collecting things to battling monsters, solving puzzles, and overcoming obstacles. In the play-to-earn games, we were asked to design, the interesting part of game-play was removed and replaced by either a betting mechanic or a timer upon which people collected their token reward. The skill acquisition and randomness of who will win was removed and replaced by a set of rules that would identify how and who won. Often also written into the smart contract that had to be forced into the game engine.

It made me wonder at the time of the requests for these games, why the most enjoyable bits of a game were being removed. The answer was that players in the ‘crypto’ space just want fast cash. That left me even more puzzled, surely wasn’t blockchain and that whole movement started to create something better than fast cash for the few that have the cash to invest in the game in the first place. Anyway, we decided to leave our opinions to one side and get on with production.

I put it down to the fact that it must be a game genre that simply doesn’t really appeal to me. It is normal for people to like certain kinds of games more than other kinds of games. I simply didn’t see the point of creating a game where the outcome was always you win and earn x amount and the owner of the game dictates in their smart contract when that is. It reminded me of the movie line ‘the casino always wins’. It is also no surprise a lot of the early play-to-earn games are built by casino-style operators and people that earned their wealth by trading.

Games should be fun even when you earn

Further research into what others in the game industry are saying about the play-to-earn space, echoes what we found. Many game designers are critical of the genre because it hasn’t got enough compelling gameplay.

Let’s be clear, earning virtual currency in a game is nothing new. In a lot of games, you earn by either producing and nurturing items or battling and winning items or territory. In most cases, these are point scores used to level up your character, your environment or simply level up in the game. So the mechanics by themselves have been around for a long time. Buying skins for your character or new battle equipment has been part and parcel of many games. Typically it has been part of designing for that emotional desire to be able to win or do more things within a game environment. It is the emotional connection part that makes well-designed games so much fun and brings people back to play time and again.

The novelty with play-to-earn really comes from the value of what is done inside the game to also have value outside the game in the real world. But what is mostly missed is that sense of achievement when you win an epic battle or the satisfaction of seeing your environment or character grow and become better. Most play-to-earn games rely on repetition and easy wins, rather than skills and development inside the game. Some of the early excuses were that it is about making the most of blockchain technology, where really most game engines can do the legwork and you simply use the blockchain as the cash-in and out mechanism. That is my personal view at the moment in any case.

From a motivational design perspective, you will have people who will still keep their spending inside the game and stay loyal to the game, but a good percentage will see it as a way to earn extra cash. For these a whole secondary economy evolves where they either program bots to carry out the repetitive tasks that guarantee rewards (anyone remember the cat walker bots in 2nd Life?) or hire people to play for them and give them a share of the wins (Axie Infinity have a model that allows this).

What is encouraging however that there are projects in the web 3.0 space underway that allow for great games to be possible. I saw some Sim City examples and others that are starting to look like they are more fun and designed to have fun.

Lessons we learned

As lessons go in the decentralised space of blockchain, some of the people would rather remain anonymous. In principle, I have nothing against that as long as anonymity is not synonymous with bad actors behaving badly. Where possible conduct reference checks and build in moments very early on where payment is due to protect your work and business. In the case of our three games, we did exactly that we looked for deposits (which by the way we do on all of our projects) and those were promptly paid out. However, when we looked for future stage payments those became an issue.

We raced to the end of production and paid out several freelancers as well as our team to deliver in vastly ridiculous timelines. As it turns out people in the crypto space looking for games, may well have played them as kids but they don’t all have a good idea as to how games are made and what it takes to make a good game. Education is a big piece, but don’t be surprised that it will fall on deaf ears, especially if they have a community that allegedly is jumping up and down impatiently for the game to be released. Or at least that is what they will make you believe. Always join the community to check-in if this is true and to check that there is indeed a community. It is something I didn’t do for these games and regret in hindsight, I did join the Twitter feed of the companies nevertheless.

Anyway, with our games made, we looked for a final transfer of funds, and then all of a sudden it started raining change requests and alleged issues. We had the games running on our servers, so we knew before handover that they worked. For a while, we facilitated some of the changes but ultimately reached a point where we had to draw a line and stop making any further amends without extra funds.

We have since learned that the person in question has a history of non-payment and most likely is a wider scammer than we could have foreseen. We are working with investigators to hopefully prevent further incidents like this. What we learned way too late is that we could check the history of the person through the blockchain ledger comments based on their deposit. In the ledger history, we can see the person being flagged as a scammer. An expensive lesson learned here.

As a CEO you then look back and wonder, if you would have made different decisions that would have prevented this. In the future, we will look for a bigger percentage deposit to cover higher % of the costs upfront rather than a smaller percentage and a risk fee if someone wants to do business in an anonymous fashion. If you are a registered business with known directors, we can be a little more flexible. Too much of the risk equation was on our side and they did deliver some initial deposits, but we should have stopped when after the 50% mark no more was forthcoming. Lesson learned.

Making games blockchain-friendly takes more than a wallet connection. With more and more companies looking to integrate to many chains and wanting to build better games, it is great to see the number of services, interfaces and API & SDKs enabling this also coming to the market. In some of our games we were asked to go against game engine logic and the running of gameplay, which can be hardcoded into a game, but one always wonders why. Again it comes to a lack of understanding of game engines on one side and blockchain requirements on the other, so we have a way to go before it alll runs smoothly from one to the other.

The one silver lining is that we can now offer the games to someone else, non-payment means the buying parties cannot use the games seen that they don’t own the IP. We can request for engines to take down what is effectively ours. So if you know anyone in the market for these games, please put them in touch with me. Here is a bit more information:

Games for sale

Voxel art games arcade with retro games

We have a voxel art games arcade with several games in it for sale, think retro games in an arcade environment where each game has a high score leaderboard as you see in most game arcades. We have 8 playable games such as space invaders, pacman, and other arcade-like staples, where you can aim to be the highest-scoring player. We can embed your logo, tailor the colours to suit your branding, and add as many or as few games into it as you wish.

Dragracing game

We also have a drag-racing game, where the main gameplay is the race in different settings. It involves a bit of nifty keyboard work to ensure you make the most out of your car. We have 4 environments to race in: urban, meadows, dessert and countryside. We can embed your logo and tailor it to your desires and players.

Casino environment

Finally, we have a casino environment or casino metaverse with a male and female avatar. They can walk around, dance, and sit down at slot machines and game tables, which can then be linked to games for people to play. Both avatars are stylishly dressed to enter the casino environment. When they walk up the steps, they enter a casino and can take a seat at a slot machine or a roulette table or even do some dance moves on the dance floor. Unity project rendered for WebGL aka web browser access.

For the time being, we have removed all blockchain components which would link to wallets and set rules as to who can or can’t take part in games. Each game can be customised to work to your requirements. At the moment all builds were for web browser use, but this can be adapted to mobile or console outputs as well. Each game was built with Unity, so if you would rather buy and tailor it yourself then that is also an option.

If you would like more information on any of these, by all means, get directly in touch with me and we can give a demo and more details of pricing, hosting and other requirements.


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