New phenomenon turns players into investors

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The Daily

This column was first published in SvD Näringsliv, in Swedish, on October 11th, 2021.

When I started, I played almost four to five hours a day, says John Ramos, a 22-year-old man from the Philippines.

It sounds like a quote you’ve heard many times before from someone caught up in a gaming addiction. But this is something else, and it ends in a different way than they usually do.

Ramos has made gaming into a job. He has recently bought several homes with the winnings he has accumulated in the game “Axie Infinity” since he started last November. It is part of a new phenomenon in the gaming and crypto world called “play to earn”.

Behind the game is the Vietnamese game studio Sky Mavis, which was recently valued at $3 billion when the American venture capital giant Andreessen Horowitz invested in them. It is a company that has only existed for three years. Development has been rapid – and continues to do so. Revenue from purchases inside Axie Infinity is projected to reach $1 billion by 2021, with 17 percent of that going to Sky Mavis.

The trend is in an early phase, but can also be found in Sweden. The game developer Antler Interactive is developing a game called “My Neighbor Alice” together with the blockchain company Chromaway. It uses its own cryptocurrency Alice, which was publicly launched in March this year. While the trading of Alice is already underway, the actual game itself is not finished yet. It is expected to be released sometime next spring.

Making money playing computer games is nothing new in itself. But “play to earn” still differs from e-sports and game streaming to the extent that it is the game itself that generates the revenue – not the viewers and sponsors around. E-sports is rather similar to regular sports in its business model. You play to collect virtual objects and cryptocurrency within the game itself, and it can then be traded on crypto exchanges outside.

It may sound like a small difference in the grand scheme of things, but it turns the traditional business models of the gaming world upside down.

Normally, the revenue for a game goes directly to the gaming company that developed it. Sometimes the money is shared with game publishers who helped develop and market the game. Somewhat simplified, you can say that the more people play, the more profitable the game becomes – regardless of the underlying business model.

With “play to earn” you also play games, but the difference is that the more people participate, the more valuable what you own in the game becomes. You as a player thus profit from the success of the game by the fact that the assets you have acquired in the game get more potential buyers. The most expensive Axie – a cartoon animal that looks like a mix of a cat and a fish – was sold at the end of last year for about 125,000 dollars.

The more people playing, the more people can participate in the trade. Seen from this perspective, it is more like a cryptocurrency or a common stock, where the value is governed by supply and demand. If you then drape this trade in a game, you get a hybrid where players have clear incentives to spread the game on to others. You don’t spread the game necessarily because it’s so much fun – but because you can profit from it yourself.

This development is interesting and fast-growing, but it also brings with it an aftertaste of industries that one might not want to associate with. Recruiting new players to make one’s own investment more valuable is similar to MLM (multi-level marketing, i.e. sales where individuals sell directly to other individuals) and also has some similarities to pyramid schemes.

When you start playing computer games to earn money, many new questions appear. Is this entertainment or an investment business? Is it perhaps more like a casino than a board game? In an almost lawless land between gaming and cryptocurrencies, we’ve only seen the start of this trend – and its problems.

This column was first published in SvD Näringsliv, in Swedish, on October 11th, 2021.

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