Play-to-Earn Will Make the Pie Bigger

Despite being ostracized by the broader gaming community, financially-motivated players could unlock remarkable growth in both gaming and crypto, says Leah Callon-Butler.

AccessTimeIconFeb 27, 2024 at 3:18 p.m. UTC
Updated Mar 8, 2024 at 10:14 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconFeb 27, 2024 at 3:18 p.m. UTCUpdated Mar 8, 2024 at 10:14 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconFeb 27, 2024 at 3:18 p.m. UTCUpdated Mar 8, 2024 at 10:14 p.m. UTC

You could think of Bitcoin as the original Play-to-Earn (P2E) blockchain game: A digital treasure hunt where players use computer power to solve complex puzzles and mine for coins. The more players participate, the harder it gets, and the reward increases. The coins you earn can be used to buy things or trade with other players.

Addictive as it is infuriating, Bitcoin is rule-based and competitive, it keeps score and it’s fun. The emergence of smart contracts made crypto look even more like a “real” video game, with builders adding new features to blockchain’s financial rails — like playable characters in the form of NFTs and peer-to-peer battles with immutable results.

These days, crypto games have leveled up again to include worldbuilding and lore, next-gen graphics, and immersive experiences. This has spurred a whole new category in crypto and in gaming, attracting funding, talent, and new users to both.

The crypto industry has struggled for years to onboard new users, so there was incredible excitement when millions of noobs flooded into Web3 via games like Axie Infinity, enticed by the prospect of earning magical internet monies just by playing a video game. Of course, anyone who even remotely followed the trend will know that it wasn’t that easy: the first iteration of Axie’s P2E model turned out to be flawed, and eventually, the economy buckled. Still, for a lot of people, the original idea of combining playtime with the ability to earn an income felt like a dream come true.

Those on the traditional gaming side were less enthused. Industry veterans were outraged by the idea of mixing finance and fun, chanting party lines like “make money at your job, spend money on your hobbies.” P2E advocates were accused of being soulless profit-seekers hellbent on pilfering virtual economies and sucking all intrinsic enjoyment out of games.

Personal preferences often fueled these detractors, like this guy admitting he didn’t understand P2E and that he just wants to be left alone to go buy a console and his two copies of Zelda. Lucky for him; he can do that whether P2E exists or not.

This never-ending conversation about “what a game should be” is pointless. Fun is a hugely abstract concept, and what's fun for one person is not fun for the next. Today, the video game industry is bigger than music and movies combined, having grown from $59 billion to $165 billion in 40 years. It is projected to be valued at $474 billion by 2027.

It grew not only by selling more consoles and more copies of Zelda to the same customers, but by broadening the definition of gaming to appeal to new audiences. The games industry expanded when it acknowledged that Candy Crush players are looking for something different than Call of Duty or Wii Sports players.

This didn’t come easily, though; the industry has a track record of resisting innovation. Developers of full-priced AAA games hated free-to-play (F2P) games that zeroed the cost of getting started. Hardcore gamers ridiculed the simplicity of casual and hyper-casual games. And devotees to console and PC denounced mobile when it was first introduced.

Today, the latter in each of these examples are cornerstones of the industry because they discovered — some might even say created — new markets that supersized the pie rather than slicing into existing revenues. P2E could follow a similar path by catering to a massively underserved market segment — that is, players who play primarily for money.

From Chinese gold farmers in World Of Warcraft (WoW) to Venezuelans in Old School Runescape, financially-motivated players have been villainized by more conventional gamers in multiplayer online games — tarred as unwelcome outsiders, accused of undermining, hacking and cheating, and blamed for causing instability within virtual economies.

Otherwise known as grinders, extractors and speculators, these player types have even led other players to take on the role of virtual pest controller, going out of their way to find and exterminate gold farmers caught in the act. Game publishers, too, strictly prohibit and ban players who trade their assets for real money outside the game’s walled gardens.

Even so, these extractors have persisted in games like WoW, Runescape, EVE Online, and Second Life, selling their hard-earned gold and other in-game resources on digital black markets, and living in terror that they’ll be banned for violating the game’s terms and conditions. Extractors who have made a career out of their craft have probably been banned more times than they care to count. Each time they get kicked out, they come back, and start again.

Even in Web3, where you’d think earning was widely accepted, these types of players got a bad rap for driving the rise and rise and eventual collapse of early P2E games from the last cycle. P2E became a faux pas and Web3 developers tried to distance themselves from the stigma by rebranding play-TO-earn to play-AND-earn, demoting the earning component to be equal or lesser to the fun-first mantra that is peddled throughout the traditional video game industry.

The Web3 space has benefited greatly from this, as builders have used the Crypto Winter to work on improving everything but financialization in their games. The recent release of exciting titles such as Pixels, Parallel and Nifty Island, mean that the usual complaints against Web3 games — like, they’re not fun, or their loops are boring, or their artwork is crappy — have largely been debunked.

The next challenge for Web3 builders is to make the virtual economy underpinning their games as healthy and stable as Switzerland’s, so that the P2E-inclined can be welcomed back with open arms rather than being excluded.

We could think about P2E gamers as good-for-nothing value-draining game-ruiners, or we could think about what they bring as a cohort of highly engaged, strategic players. Extractors can play an important role within a robust virtual economy by performing useful tasks in-game. Usually, these tasks require a great deal of time and some level of skill to complete, so time-poor players are happy to pay for the luxury of not having to do those tasks themselves.

To date, no one has designed a game to fully legitimize this kind of open market exchange and ensure it does not throw the economy completely off-balance. After all, it wasn’t possible for Web2 games to do this as it would have contradicted their own terms of service. In Web3, for the first time, we finally have a chance to integrate secondary markets to prove that in-game economies needn’t be closed nor centralized to stabilize, survive and thrive.

P2E models have been scrutinized to the nth degree for all their shortcomings, which means we must have learned a great deal about what-not-to-do in designing sustainable virtual economies. All games to date have had spenders and it's clear that some players enjoy the ability to earn. Problems come when everyone expects to earn, but someday, there will be a game that balances spenders and earners.

Web3 games will do better when they deliver P2E-driven tokenomics that are a core part of gameplay and that serve an essential purpose in the game’s virtual economy, engaging and rewarding financially-motivated players over the longer term. And that’s how we might just onboard billions more people to gaming, and to crypto.

Thanks to David Amor, David Z. Morris and Nathan Smale for reviewing and improving this article.

The author holds a number of cryptocurrencies, including Web3 gaming-related tokens such as AXS, RON, YGG and SAND, and is an angel investor in 15+ Web3 startups. See here for the Emfarsis transparency and disclosure statement.


Learn more about Consensus 2024, CoinDesk's longest-running and most influential event that brings together all sides of crypto, blockchain and Web3. Head to consensus.coindesk.com to register and buy your pass now.


Disclosure

Please note that our privacy policy, terms of use, cookies, and do not sell my personal information has been updated.

CoinDesk is an award-winning media outlet that covers the cryptocurrency industry. Its journalists abide by a strict set of editorial policies. In November 2023, CoinDesk was acquired by the Bullish group, owner of Bullish, a regulated, digital assets exchange. The Bullish group is majority-owned by Block.one; both companies have interests in a variety of blockchain and digital asset businesses and significant holdings of digital assets, including bitcoin. CoinDesk operates as an independent subsidiary with an editorial committee to protect journalistic independence. CoinDesk employees, including journalists, may receive options in the Bullish group as part of their compensation.

Leah Callon-Butler

Leah Callon-Butler is the director of Emfarsis, a Web3 investment and advisory firm with special expertise in strategic communications. She is also a board member at the Blockchain Game Alliance.


Read more about