The developers of play-to-earn crypto game Axie Infinity made headlines recently when they released a new “Lite” version that doesn’t require users to own NFTs to play. Instead, the game offers players an easier route to entry with non-NFT “starter characters.”
This is just the latest evidence of a trend taking hold across the blockchain gaming industry: Web3 studios releasing games that more closely resemble their Web2 counterparts in both accessibility and quality of gameplay. It is a transition that, however gradual, has some of us wondering how long it will take before that magic moment when Web2 and Web3 games become indistinguishable.
The new, more mature approach from studios that once favored speed over substance will almost certainly deliver one significant benefit: It will attract more players, sooner or later, to Web3 games.
Blockchain games with Web2 characteristics
There were signs this shift was on its way well before any games left the launchpad. In 2022 and early 2023, Web3 studios tapped the market for hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. And yet none of them rushed out any major releases. That wouldn’t be at all surprising in the Web2 world, where top-quality games can take three to four years to build. But it is a glacial pace for Web3, where developers once churned out games in the space of just two or three months.
In contrast to Web2, where games go through long and intensive periods of testing before they are released to the public, Web3 games were often launched relatively untested in the interests of speed. This was part of the reason for the primitive design of early Web3 games. Studios would launch games and let players jump in immediately. So in a way, this “testing” was done live — studios would continue to build and improve releases after they had been launched.
At times, this meant developers had to combat serious bugs and technical problems in real-time — problems that arose from the extremely short development cycles and lack of testing. This was frustrating for players — but since most were after earnings more than a smooth and absorbing experience, these early players kept playing.
This is now changing. The games Web3 studios are building today incorporate pre-launch testing, a factor in the lengthening of build cycles to a minimum of six to 12 months. Studios are now weighing time spent building games and user acquisition against how many users are retained, with the goal of achieving the highest rate of retention for the lowest rate of spend.
Notably, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the next Web3 games will have better graphics — optimization for retention doesn’t necessarily mean games will look much spiffier than before. While some Web3 games are aiming for graphics comparable to AAA Web2 games, it will be years before people can play them. After all, an average AAA game can take three to four years to build.
When Web2 players embrace Web3 games
Still, with the increasing convergence between Web3 games and their higher-quality Web2 counterparts and a conscious effort by Web3 studios to broaden their appeal, it’s not a question of if the Web2 community will embrace them, but when.
As the line between Web2 and Web3 games continues to blur, more traditional gamers will enter the scene. And gamers won’t be the only ones. Major Web2 studios are exploring how they can integrate blockchain tech into their releases. For instance, Sony is racking up NFT-related patent applications, while Final Fantasy creator Square Enix said that it would be taking NFTs seriously this year.
This melding of the two worlds won’t happen overnight, though. This is both because of the long development cycles of AAA games and because Web3 technology is still developing.
Web3 may not yet be at the threshold of launching AAA games — but it’s getting there. There are a number of Web3 games in the pipeline that have both far better gameplay and greater ease of access than before — features that game studios are hoping will attract members of the Web2 crowd. But building this larger, more solid foundation will require more time.
In the meantime, Web3 gamers are standing strong. And while there may not be as many Web3 gamers out there, most of them are willing to invest more time and resources in the games they do choose to play.
Soon enough, they’ll be rewarded as Web3 game studios refocus on quality and build better and more engaging games — until one day, the barrier between Web2 and Web3 games will disappear completely.