Venture capital and retail investors are shoveling money into upstart crypto gaming projects, hoping the “GameFi” movement can spark a similar run to DeFi’s historic rise to over $200 billion in total value locked (TVL).
So far, however, the actual results have been mixed, with top gaming industry talent remaining divided on the prospects of “Web 3 gaming” – a banner term for games with built-in blockchain-based features such as non-fungible tokens (NFT) or in-game currency that can exist outside the walled garden of the game itself.
In the past year, investors have poured over $3.6 billion into crypto gaming startups, according to investment firm Drake Star Partners, and with this funding have come reports of GameFi companies luring top talent away from major gaming industry players.
For instance, Polygon Studios – the NFT and gaming arm of the Polygon blockchain protocol – recently made headlines for hiring Ryan Wyatt, the head of YouTube’s gaming vertical. The project has also poached top executives from Mythical Games, Riot Games and Amazon’s (AMZN) cloud gaming unit.
This hiring and funding spree in GameFi has not been without its critics, however, particularly from gamers who view the emergence of in-game NFTs and “play-to-earn” models as little more than a cash grab. In November 2021, EA CEO Andrew Wilson described NFTs as core to “the future of our industry on a go-forward basis,” but after backlash from fans and employees he changed his tune.
“Right now it’s not something we’re driving hard on,” he said in February, according to a report in gaming publication Kotaku.
That wariness also extends to the developer community, research shows. A January Game Developer Conference survey of over 2,700 game developers found 72% of developers characterized their companies as “not at all interested” in adding NFTs to their games. Additionally, according to the report’s authors, a “vast majority” of developers spoke out against “their potential for scams, overall monetization concerns and the environmental impact.”
Despite the mixed signals from industry professionals, multiple crypto gaming founders told CoinDesk he tide may be turning in a positive direction for the industry.
“We have not yet seen the talent drain that DeFi has, but in the last month alone I have seen an insane amount of talent go from Web 2 gaming into Web 3,” said Immutable founder Robbie Ferguson. “I think this will be one of the things that helps bridge the gap between how game designers view crypto gaming right now and how Web 3 views it.”
Speaking to CoinDesk while in attendance at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Soban “Soby” Saqib, co-founder of NFT game platform Ex Populus, noted that the emergence of GameFi is just one of many macro trends to consider in the gaming industry.
“Think about movie studios: There’s no new [intellectual property] coming out. Same thing is happening in gaming, there’s no new IP. The gaming industry is going through the ‘Great Consolidation,’ people are being bought out and talent is being let go,” he said.
Indeed, the trend of major studio buyouts could be giving GameFi an opportunity to offer “a better life” with more freedom for ambitious game developers.
“People who have built out careers – worked 10, 20 years at Blizzard or Riot – you don’t think they have their own ideas they want to work on? We give people the opportunity to work on their own IP,” he said. “There’s only so much room to grow in a AAA studio.”
Ex Populus recently hired a director from the Netflix series “Love, Death and Robots” and has two unannounced, high-profile hires from major studios in the works – in part because the startup can offer more flexibility than a major studio, said Saqib.
There also may be an element of workers trying to catch an emerging trend early. Immutable’s Ferguson, who was also attending the GDC at the time of the interview, noted the majority of the talent drain is taking place “at the senior rung, where people are thinking strategically about where gaming is going.”
Immutable currently has 190 full-time employees, and is aiming to grow to 400 by the end of the year. Notable recent hires include Justin Hulog, former general manager of Southeast Asia at Riot, and Tommy Daniel, a former head of business development at Unity – and that senior-level mobility is a trend happening “across the industry,” Ferguson added.
The excess of VC funding doesn’t hurt, either: Immutable has “6x’d” their referral fees to over $20,000 for a successful hire, according to Ferguson.
“In general, Web 3 gaming is going to outpay Web 2 gaming by a significant margin,” he added.
When will GameFi break out?
The talent exodus at the executive level has yet to filter down to rank-and-file creative talent, but Ferguson believes it’s just a classic example of change happening slowly in the industry.
“Developer reluctance will absolutely slow adoption, but it’s just a normal part of the model of gaming shifting. We saw it with mobile gaming adoption, we saw it with free-to-play adoption – a large percentage of gamers hated the idea of free-to-play, but now it’s ubiquitous and commonly regarded as better for players. We’re going to see the same thing where people become passionate about how these games achieve better economies for players,” he said.
Loopify, the pseudonymous founder of blockchain gaming development studio Endless Clouds, told CoinDesk that publishing a big hit is easier said than done because of the combination of proficiencies it requires.
“I believe the hybrid of traditional devs joining crypto-native founders is what will create a good game,” they said. “The typical situation that I've seen is blockchain games that are currently being built either don’t have a strong team with experience working on games before or a clear vision.”
All three founders CoinDesk spoke to pointed towards smaller-budget, “hungrier” studios as likely candidates for solving the puzzle of having a fun game with a functioning crypto-based internal economy, rather than from an incumbent gaming studio.
“The gaming industry is a copycat league,” said Ex Populus’ Saqib. “All we need is one really good NFT game, or even a team that comes in and really uses NFTs to support indie creators.”
Ultimately, the process of getting developers on board could mean that investors looking to corner the next macro trend need to practice patience – a hard truth for those who expect GameFi to mirror DeFi’s stunning rise.
“It just takes time to build games. When you consider that threshold that needs to be met, then you compare it to the attention deficit disorder that plagues crypto, it’s not a good match,” Saqib warned.
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