Over the past week or so, all the desperate flailing about the so-called "metaverse" took a step forward as major video game companies like Ubisoft and EA announced their belief to investors that NFTs and blockchain tech are the future of the industry.
Meanwhile, Silicon Valley has dumped trucks full of money into the blockchain games space. Mythical Games, the developer of Blankos Block Party—an early access Fall Guys-esque game in which players earn or buy blockchain-linked items and sell them to other players—raked in $150 million from investors including a16z at a $1.25 billion valuation this week. That makes at least one NFT-focused game company a market unicorn. At nearly the same time, blockchain gaming studio Faraway, makers of a shooter called Mini Royale, netted a $21 million funding round from investors including a16z and Lightspeed Venture Partners.
Probably a good deal of big budget video game companies telling investors that they believe NFTs are the future can be chalked up to the fact that this space is raking in cash, and that's the kind of thing investors like to hear about. But, with EA and Ubisoft's announcements, the initial success of some indie games in the space, and the emergence of business models like free-to-play among big budget publishers, there's good reason to think that a major studio will soon take a crack at a blockchain-based game, specifically what's known as a "play-to-earn" game.
"[Blockchain] will imply more play-to-earn that will enable more players to actually earn content, own content, and we think it's going to grow the industry quite a lot," Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot said in an earnings call on October 28. "We've been working with lots of small companies going on blockchain and we're starting to have a good know-how on how it can impact the industry, and we want to be one of the key players here."
So, what is play-to-earn, and why might a company like Ubisoft be interested in it? Well, play-to-earn games mix regular video game stuff with investing and having an actual job that you make money from.
Imagine your average gamut of in-game rewards—skins, rare items—but tied to a token on a digital ledger that you can keep, or sell for money. In Blankos Block Party, players are rewarded for completing challenges with NFTs tied to items that can be sold on a peer-to-peer marketplace to other players for money, and in-game currency. The developers of Blankos Block Party also drop hype-y NFT collections—for example, Burberry-themed skins—that can sell for hundreds of dollars each to players seeking in-game clout or an investment. Players can also buy a currency called Blankos Bucks with real money and buy NFTs, and Mythical Games takes a cut of transactions on its marketplace.
Axie Infinity is another extremely popular play-to-earn game that integrates NFTs, developed by Vietnam-based studio Sky Mavis, and it handles things a bit differently: to play the game you have to invest ETH into "breeding" cute little NFT-linked characters called axies that fight in a Pokémon-esque battle mode. Players earn tokens by battling, and can breed axies and sell their NFT-characters on a marketplace. It's an investment… that you play. The game has become so popular that it's become some people's full-time jobs in the Global South, with players earning thousands of dollars per month.
Ubisoft has already taken steps into this world by investing in smaller blockchain gaming companies. The company even has an internal Blockchain Initiative that developed a prototype blockchain game called HashCraft. In HashCraft, players mine a blockchain to generate islands that they "own," and then can create challenges for other players on their island. Ubisoft never came up with a monetization strategy for the HashCraft experiment, but Nicolas Pouard, VP of Ubisoft's Strategic Innovation Lab, told Decrypt that, while a bespoke cryptocurrency may come with too many headaches, “On another hand, NFTs could redefine in-game items purchases.”
While many investors and pundits have lauded the integration of NFTs and games as enabling a "metaverse" where you take your items with you wherever you go online, it's much easier to see how something like Blankos or Axie fits with what video game companies are already doing, and doing well. Free-to-play, pay-to-win, and gambling-like gacha mechanics are already common in games. Ubisoft and EA already sell players items and skins, and the popularity of Genshin Impact showed that the gaming public is not exactly averse to even more crass forms of monetization.
Players have also been converting in-game currency and items into real-world money in unsanctioned, sometimes shady ways for years now, be it via elaborate World of Warcraft gold-selling operations, or individual players selling RuneScape and Steam cards for cash. What Ubisoft and EA are describing is not all that different, but formalizes this practice by way of the blockchain, and, critically, makes them more money along the way.
A major criticism of games like Axie is that there's not much game there. But what if there was a Final Fantasy XIV-like MMORPG, but with rare sponsored item drops from brands like Supreme that can be sold on a marketplace to other players for a profit, and you can actually earn money from playing it all day? What if you could play it on your phone, at any time, like Genshin Impact? What happens then? I have a feeling that not only would that be wildly successful, but some players may go full Matrix-mode with it as they seek a source of income in our still rather desperate post-pandemic economic situation. What took off in the Global South with Axie may well take off in North America, but with a more accessible AAA sheen. Honestly, it may not even need to be that elaborate. A mobile-only game would probably do the job.
People already play video games like it's their job, even if they're not a Twitch streamer or eSports star directly making money from their hobby. But what if you could? What if a game could be your actual, normal-ass job, even if only part-time?
Well, that would be terrifying, and soon we will see whether or not the major video game publishers are serious about making it happen. And if they don't, then someone else might.