Source: Gods Unchained
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This piece was written by Alexandra Takei at Stanford GSB. Alex has a background in the gaming industry (ex. Blizzard and System Era Softworks) on titles like Overwatch, Hearthstone, Diablo, and Astroneer. Favorite games include: Devil May Cry 5, Disco Elysium, Hades, Persona 5, The Witcher 3, GRIS, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem Three Houses, Ruiner, Hearthstone, and League of Legends.
This is about Gods Unchained (GU), a TCG (trading card game) that went into development in 2018 and launched its beta in 2019. GU is one of the first games to incorporate blockchain technology into its economy, and its WAU and DAU sit around 80k and 8-12k respectively. The game was developed on Immutable X, a Layer 2 solution utilizing Starkware to trim down on proof of work Ethereum consumption. I believe GU is one of the most legitimate and underrated blockchain gaming experiences to date as it has bucked several anti-web proclamations such as “it’s a ponzi scheme,” “it’s bad for the environment,” and “it’s not secure.” In my conversation with Chris Clay, the game director for GU, in late May of 2022 he said “we often don’t get credit for many of the pain points we’ve solved”.
Unlike many of the Gen1 crypto games that fit squarely “Game-Fi” and and are top of mind in the crypto gaming genre such as Pegaxy and Axie Infinity, GU is a legitimate gaming product. There is actually something genuinely fun to do vs. the shallow game loops of Gen1 crypto games. If that’s the case, why do we never hear about this game? What is the hypothesis behind the $GODS token valuation when the development team has delivered a stalwart gaming product with the highest number of utility NFTs in any crypto game, created a vibrant universe with substance (lore, music, and art), built an economy that has yet to collapse (and probably won’t), and found environmentally friendly solutions to high volume trading? For context, a virtual world like SANDBOX can sell plots of land at a floor price of ~1.5 ETH on OpenSea on the promise that there will be experiences in the future (respective token $SAND with a market cap of ~$1.7B).
A game like Axie Infinity whose economy at this point is confirmed unsustainable by most institutional and retail investors, which has been hacked for $624M, and has game depth that is severely wanting, is trading at a price of ~$20 with respective token market cap of $1.2B at time of writing. Meanwhile, the token tied to a product with the fundamentals that the market is supposed to be rewarding is not appreciated nor paired with a billion dollar market cap. I had a few hypotheses such as there not being enough utility on the token (no staking yet) or that engagement had dwindled. However, that proved to be erroneous (there’s a myriad of uses for $GODS, as we’ll discuss), and although engagement has dwindled (see GU Analytics), the timing isn’t in lockstep with token decline.
It’s perhaps no secret that the token value on web3 games is more tied to earning potential vs. product fundamentals. The crypto gaming market is currently valued on principles of FOMO, hype, and its customers’ reward economies that are unsustainable in the long-term, favoring those who get in line early vs. those who are skilled. It is the market itself that is not mature enough nor ready to reward the correct products (to be honest, the mass market crypto gamer might not even know what to look for in a video game nor be interested in it). One could make the counterargument that it is not that GU is undervalued but rather that the speculator products like SANDBOX and Axie are simply overvalued. My point is that, because of the valuations, these games grab all the media attention and continuously put a “black mark” on crypto games.
My hypothesis is that at some point this will change and the market will course-correct (as it already has been, blockchain game usership has dropped down 28% in June from ~1.2M in May, Ethereum is down 70% since the start of the year, Luna chain collapse wiped out $40B in value). The market will begin to demand the products studios failed to deliver, regardless if it’s due to overconfidence (overpromising) or malice (rug pulling). I believe the survivors will be the games and services with true utility and fun, and this is why we should care about and study Gods Unchained.
Before I dive deep into GU (gameplay, economy, marketplace, etc.), I’d like to share some extra rationale behind writing this piece. I’ve been asking myself some existential questions about crypto and its relationship to gaming, whether it’s functionally doable, ethical, and fun. I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around why we need the blockchain for the newfound “conveniences” crypto gaming purportedly offers, struggled with the fundamental fact that so many crypto games (so far) aren’t what mainline (or the indie) gaming community would consider games but rather glorified button labor, and find the transition from $60 for Bioshock to $0 for League of Legends to a $200+ buy-in for a NFT game to be ludicrous. I’ve also had a hard time convincing myself that a game experience could be better or new design features could be deployed because of the blockchain. With Cloud Gaming, for example, we imagined a future of 1,000-person battle royales and live instance alterations made possible via the tech. What is it for blockchain and crypto? At the same time, designing a sustainable open economy is an exciting challenge for gaming economists.
You can read an analysis on the transition from web2 to web3 economies and the subsequent impacts on monetary and fiscal policy that I co-wrote with another student during our time at Stanford (Part 1, Part 2).
My journey began with Axie Infinity, and I will say that the gameplay loop is tragically uninspiring. I genuinely resonate with the world design; it’s cute, fun, and whimsical, but from a gaming perspective, I couldn’t make myself play even with an initial $800 investment and the ability to “play to earn” it back.
Gods Unchained was different, however. I’ve hit Ethereal Diamond (11th out of 12 ranks), stomping on crypto gamers and an army of bots. I’m not a great TCG player, but an avid one. I was a Rank 3 Hearthstone player prior to the alteration of the ranked ladder (bomb warrior for dayz) and a platinum Legends of Runeterra player. I was an early adopter of the YuGiOh Dueling Network (rest in peace) and collected cards as a kid. My Gods Unchained experience defied what I thought of as a typical clientless, web browser, more amateur crypto gaming experience, and I’m pumped to share my discoveries.
Gods Unchained Executive Summary:
1. GU has successfully circumvented one of the most notorious problems in Web3 economies — high monetary entrance fees — by making the game entirely free to play (no NFTs or tokens required to begin playing)
- Mimics onboarding patterns of traditional Web2 F2P games and truly democratizes access¹ — anyone, no matter how rich or poor, can play
- Delays the crypto wallet requirements, which involves immense amount of installation and player persistence, especially for those unfamiliar with crypto, thereby broadening the funnel
2. GU uses its Web3 economy to influence player decisions, innovating on game design in the TCG genre
- Gauntlet System coaxes players to play a variety of Gods, encouraging acquisition of multiple decks and mastery over different playstyles
- On the macro level, it may also solve a challenge all TCG’s face in “meta stickiness” (in a Web2 TCG where the main motivation is winning, you might not risk playing a “non meta” deck, but in Web3 you can “bribe” people to play different decks — duality of motivations)
3. NFT minting/fusing process naturally burns NFTs, helping to mitigate inflationary curses of Gen1 Web3 games and is likely key for the long-term health of the economy
4. GU’s player base is 80% playing, 10% earning, and 10% investor² — a boon when it comes to player engagement, but a false promise when it comes to interoperability³
- Earn rate on $GODS from ranked event is low (~1.8–3 $GODS at almost 1:1 conversion to USD) and time-consuming
- Sell-through rate on prior NFT cards can be low, locking up a player’s investment in assets, exactly as they are in Web2 (the player must “foresee” what the meta will be to own cards that are popular in standard play in order to sell them — if a player is trying to sell their deck, it likely means that deck isn’t in meta play and not as valuable)
5. Although “fun” compared to other live Web3 games, GU is probably ‘middle of the pack’ compared to Web2 TCGs
- Late game takes too long to reach unless at the top echelons of play
- Favor mechanic is interesting but potentially ‘snowbally’
- Deck management UI/UX is unintuitive, and card purchasing on Immutable X takes forever (no cart feature)
- Technical aspects aren’t at par with AAA TCGs (low frame rates, frequent disconnections, etc.)
Gods Unchained’s gameplay is fairly similar to other TCG games like Magic, Legends of Runeterra, and Hearthstone. Players build a deck thematically-anchored around a God (there are six to choose from: Death, Deception, War, Light, Nature, and Magic) and do battle 1v1 against an opponent. If you are very unfamiliar with TCG mechanics, you can read more here.
Players are given a starting deck for each God class, creating an environment concomitant with web2 F2P. Players can immediately engage in a tutorial or ranked play upon downloading the client.
Above details the six Gods available to play and their total cards in rotation. Although GU is entirely free to play, players of lower skill will struggle to climb into higher ranks with the free, less innately powerful cards. This is fairly standard for TCGs.
There aren’t a lot of gameplay modes in GU. A player’s options are essentially Ranked, Player vs. AI, or Direct Challenge (challenge a player directly); however, ranked ladders are typically the highest engagement driver in competitive games, and GU does have an MMR matchmaking system to pit players of comparable skills against one another.
Although not a mode within itself, the Gauntlet as an overlay system is worth mentioning. “Running” the Gauntlet is how a player generates GU’s soft variable currency FLUX. The Gauntlet hands out FLUX rewards for winning (note: not just playing) ranked games with a specific God but caps out at three wins per God. From a high level, this encourages players to rotate decks (i.e. not play the same God over and over) and may help mitigate meta staleness — a plague ubiquitous in TCGs. For details on FLUX reward payout, see Currency System (III/IV) — Uncapped Soft Currency (FLUX).
Innovations vs. Other TCGs
It’s important to call out the innovations in game design that make the game fun or different from other titles. Below are my perspectives on innovations on game design (note that if you are unfamiliar with TCGs this is hard to understand, but if you’re a crypto designer and you want to build a successful TCG economy, it might be useful to get playing):
(1) Pre Game: Mulligan & God Power Select
- Player draws 3 cards and can choose to mulligan 1 card 3 times
- Player selects 1 of 3 God Powers
- Core Innovation: God Power choice allows players to flex expertise on matchup (i.e. mitigates structurally bad hero matchups)
- Core Innovation: Multiple mulligan phasing reduces random draw frustration (a systematic issue in the TCG genre)
Note: a “mulligan” refers to the common process in card games in which a player can reshuffle cards to draw a better starting hand. If you’d like to read more about mulligans, you can click here.
(2) Early Game: Early Board Dominance or Clear
- Players play cards according to mana wheel resource and card cost; the player who goes first has “one bag of tricks” (extra mana coin), and the player who moves second has 3 “bags of tricks”Core Innovation: Extra mana coins give rise to complex early and late game strategy, i.e. when to drop higher-costing cards to pressure opponent.
(3) Mid Game: Win or Outlast
- Players deploy strategies to win by mid game or “outlast” their opponent; players begin to build up “Sanctum Favor” (for more details, click here) — in-game points used to buy auxiliary non-deck nascent cardsCore Innovation: Sanctum cards are a twist to strategic play, allowing players to augment their deck based on opponent
(4) Late Game: Big Cards come out
- Players continually “hit face” (attack each other’s Gods) until an opponent’s Life Points hit 0 (begins at 30)
- Core Innovation: Unlike most TCGs whose mana gain is linear, GU’s mana wheel is logarithmic, delaying the late game (longer matches) and making for multiple card combos and heavy card plays
(5) Meta Decks: What wins, gets played
- Players in web2 TCGs, especially on the ranked ladder, play the decks with the highest win rate and have very little incentive to alternate their strategy
- Core Innovation: Unlike web2 games who rely on persuading players to take certain actions, in blockchain games you can attempt to bribe them. This may help drive variety in deck types seen on the ranked ladder, thereby making matchups more variable and exciting.
Tokenomics / In-Game Economy:
Currency System (I/IV) — Overview
GU runs a three currency system: (1) a capped ERC-20 governance token ($GODS), (2) a variable soft currency (FLUX) and (3) a variable soft currency (STARS), each with its own specific use cases. This is structurally similar to a web2 F2P currency structure with the exception that $GODS, the governance token, is tradable and has utility beyond the GU ecosystem.
Cards as NFTs
You might be wondering, if this game is F2P, then where are the NFTs? The GU economy functions much like a combination of the Hearthstone card pack loot box model and the Legends of Runeterra discrete card purchase model; however, not all cards are created equal. The cards that are opened in card packs and given to players for free at the beginning of the game are “plain”, i.e. non NFT cards. In order to create NFTs out of these cards, you fuse duplicate copies of a plain card together + required tokens ($GODS + FLUX) as ingredients to mint an NFT.
- Core Innovation: Unlike web2 TCGs that have consistently faced quandaries around “what to do about dupes” (when players have many copies of the same card), GU has found an elegant solution to not only the “dupe problem”, but also the inflationary effects that plague Gen1 crypto games by naturally burning card supply.
There are four tiers of NFTs: meteorite, shadow, gold, and diamond (with est. 22M, 1.2M, 250k, and 50k minted NFTs respectively according to GU internal documents). To fuse each of these types of cards you need to meet specific requirements (detailed below). Building a deck with higher card quality is called “shining” your deck (i.e. a deck full of diamond cards is more “shiny” than a deck full of meteorite cards).
TLDR — How do I get cards?
Players have two options: (1) buy plain cards packs, open them, and see what you get or (2) buy the specific cards (NFTs) you want from a supported marketplace like IMX or Token Trove.
Currency System (II/IV) — Governance Token ($GODS)
GU’s governance token is called $GODS with a 500M fixed supply allocated across 6 use cases (Play & Earn, GU Reserve IMX, Community & Ecosystem Fund, Public Sale, Token Foundation, and Community Allocation with distributions presented below).
At time of writing, $GODS is trading at ~$0.82, down from its peak of ~$8. The token value has been in decline since late 2021, counter to the product’s strong fundamentals.
$GODS (from the player perspective) can be acquired by:
- Purchase of issued supply (e.g. through on-ramp CEX like Coinbase)
- Earned by playing Weekend Ranked Event (to be described in detail under “Play & Own & Earn”)
- Earned by selling cards
- Be given them via Community & Ecosystem Fund
$GODS has utility for:
- Buying expansion card packs
- Buying minted NFTs on IMX supported marketplaces
- Ingredient consumed to forge (i.e. mint) NFTs
- Staking for governance rights (not yet launched at time of writing)
$GODS (from the developer perspective) can be re-acquired by:
- Sale of expansion card packs
- Royalties on NFT trades (see marketplace)
- Held from the initial issuance (i.e. already in the treasury)
Currency System (III/IV) — Uncapped Soft Currency (FLUX)
FLUX is an in-game infinite supply currency tantamount to soft currencies in traditional web2 games.
FLUX can be acquired by:
- Playing the game by running the Gauntlet (see “The Gauntlet” above) with corresponding payouts below
FLUX has utility for:
- Ingredient consumed to forge (i.e. mint) NFTs
It is important to note that FLUX is a currency, not a tradable token. It belongs to, and only to, the account in which it is earned. This is different from the Axie Infinity model where SLP, the VST (or variable supply token) is an ERC-20 token (tradable token). The original design thinking around FLUX according to Chris Clay (lead GD) was two-fold:
- Allow the core cards (the plain cards given for free to start playing) to migrate to the blockchain (recall that plain cards are not NFTs and in order to mint cards into an NFT you need at minimum two copies of a card + FLUX + $GODS)
- Protect the game against bots since FLUX is accumulated through winning ranked games on the Gauntlet. Prior to the introduction of FLUX, bot accounts would play infinite games, accumulate cards, and then create NFTs. With the introduction of FLUX (acquired by winning, not just playing), bot activity is significantly slowed down as (A) bot accounts need to rotate decks instead of playing the same deck over and over (B) have to win these games (which bots can sometimes do, but it’s harder) and (C) utilize FLUX to mint NFTs, i.e. slows down production. All of these requirements are pretty easy to do as a player but puts obstacles in the way of pre-programmed algorithms.
Currency System (IV/IV) — Uncapped Soft Currency (STARS)
STARS is an in-game infinite supply currency but has significantly less impact on the economy than FLUX.
STARS can be acquired by:
- Winning games with corresponding payouts below
STARS has utility for:
- Buying cards in the STAR Store
STARS is essentially a new player freebie currency that helps the player acquire some cards every now and then. If you are familiar with League of Legends’s orange essence system, it’s similar to that. The STAR store is a rotating shop of four cards of varying price, mostly a kickback to reward players for showing up.
How to Play & Own & Earn (if you’re good)
GU is a bit different from some of the early generation crypto games that hit headlines. Its players are here for a different reason and have different expectations on what “earning means”. The perspective is more complementary rather than profit seeking. I play to have fun and hey, if I’m good, get lucky during a tournament here and there, or happen to have a card that becomes highly playable, I can make a few bucks. As best stated by Michael Rubinelli (head of WAX Studios):
“when you have players, all of them, show up to do the same thing, every day, for the same reason, with the same expected outcome, then all you’ve done is created this optimized race to the bottom”
GU’s player base is ~80/10/10 (players/earners/holders) and this is what allows the economy to be stable — not every person has the same goal. That being said, there are a ton of ways to earn in GU (below I’ve split them up by speculator and player cohorts).
The above options for earning are fairly intuitive. You win. You get stuff. The stuff that you got has value in itself or you use the stuff to make valuable stuff. You sell that stuff for a premium. You can liquidate that stuff on a CEX. Or you can hold onto your stuff.
What is Weekend Ranked?
By now, I’ve mentioned this “gameplay event” called Weekend Ranked several times. Weekend Ranked is the only way for a player to directly earn the $GODS token (for other ways to get it, see Currency System (II/IV) — Governance Token). The rules are as follows:
- Calendar Time: Event opens Friday from 4AM PST to Monday 4AM PST
- Description: Player performance measured across first 25 matches they play during this time slot
- Reward Pool: $GODS Reward Pool changes each week (see below)
- Payout: $GODS Reward for Weekend Ranked = (Your Points / Total Points of all participating players) * $GODS Reward Pool
- Payout 2: Card pack prizes that vary based on your rank heading into the weekend (for payouts, click here)
- Rewards Behavior Of: Highly skilled players in ranked play in competitive matchups
This is the primary way that users earn while playing but please be aware: it is not easy to make a buck. From personal experience, even climbing to Ethereal Diamond, it is laborious and time consuming. Matches take around 20–30 minutes so on the lowest bound you’re talking ~8 hours of gameplay over the 3 day period if you wanted to play all 25 games. To be on the lower bound of match time you’d likely have to be playing an Aggro Deck (Aggro War, Light, or Druid is popular at time of writing) which could be boring / repetitive. To be clear, it’s not that Weekend Ranked is not fun — by gosh, it’s exciting and super cool to participate in what I consider to be “non-professional esports” — but if you are in the pursuit of profits, you’d best try your luck elsewhere (and this heralds back to the core premise that our current market of crypto gamers are looking for speculative earning vehicles, not a gameplay experience).
How does the developer make revenue?
Finally, we come to what I’ve always found to be the existential question for developers in the blockchain space. Are they going to be profitable? Is picking the bottom side of the Mundell-Fleming triangle, i.e. floating exchange rates + monetary autonomy = financial integration (web3) vs. free capital mobility (i.e. closed financial markets and pegged exchange rates) + monetary autonomy = exchange rate stability (what web2 is, for example, VBUCKS and RP and ROBLOX all have their currencies pegged to USD) going to work out for the developer?
For GU, so far yes! The development team is profitable LTD. The majority of their revenue is driven by expansion sales, in line with the monetization patterns of web2 TCGs. The GU team recently released trading fees on marketplaces (to be discussed in Marketplaces) and thus will begin to take a cut of all trades occurring on IMX compatible marketplaces.
How does it all come together?
After making it through all of that, you now have all the pieces to make sense of this flowchart.
GU vs. Web2 TCGs
GU, although with solid design, is of no comparison in size to standard Web2 TCGs like YuGiOh Master Duel, Hearthstone, and Magic the Gathering Arena. GU’s DAU’s have trended between 10-12k over the past few months of 2022 according to DAPP radar. Although these are low numbers, a DAU/MAU of ~20% is relatively strong.
GU Engagement (2021-2022)
GU experienced major DAU growth in 2022 with the release of Weekend Ranked Feature (see, “What is Weekend Ranked”), up ~15k vs. 2021; however, the game underwent a -25% month over month engagement decline since January of 2022. Additionally, in October of 2021, the number of sellers has surpassed the number of buyers and in the past few months has diverged drastically (delta of ~9.7k in May of 2022 for example) ostensibly driven by sell off due to the recent crypto winter. The gap between sellers and buyers (I would argue) is a negative signal for the game as it means that there’s a trade imbalance which slows trading volume (see GU Financial Performance).
GU Trading Performance (2021-2022)
GU’s player base has minted ~24M NFT’s over the course of March 2021 to May 2022 and drives around ~$3.6M in trading volume a month with average trade amounts being ~$8. Active wallets are on average ~26k per month, higher than the DAU of the game. This is not surprising as trading does not occur in-client and people can trade but choose not to play. There’s been a steep decline in trading volume concomitant with the A) increase in sellers vs. buyers and B) reduction of active wallets. One can also see that NFT minting is cyclical in tandem with expansion drops (e.g. a card set drop like Mortal Judgment is released and people then subsequently mint NFTs with the majority of cards being minted in the 2 months following the card set release). Total trading volume spiked in January is likely due to weekend ranked (i.e. players trying to acquire strong meta decks).
GU runs on Immutable X, a layer 2 blockchain for Ethereum. There are a few marketplaces that support IMX besides the Immutable X official marketplace such as Token Trove and Mints Meet. I will be discussing only IMX and Token Trove.
The Immutable X Marketplace is a zero gas fees, carbon neutral, and instant trading platform for NFTs — this is where a player can manage (buy / sell) their card NFT inventory. Sellers list their NFTS for a base price (profit to the seller), then IMX takes a protocol or marketplace fee (to IMX), and then GU takes a royalty fee on trades based on card quality (to the developer) (see fees summary below).
- The transaction speed of the marketplace is incredibly fast
- The website appears trustworthy. It makes sense to buy NFTs on the blockchain that owns the very studio who makes the NFTs.
- There are limited features that assist GU buyers in making card purchases. Let me explain. Because tradable cards are owned by distinct individuals on the blockchain (i.e. I minted XYZ card for example), each purchase needs to be approved between an individual seller Jane and an individual buyer Jack. There’s no ability to “add stuff to your cart” and click and approve because you’re not paying one entity. In some gaming experiences, this is fine, but in a world of trading cards, this can get annoying. Reallyfast. From personal experience, building and buying a 30 card deck can take up to 20–30 minutes (!!) given every trade needs to be approved by whatever de-fi wallet the player happens to be using. IMX cannot solve the peer to peer buyer seller relationship (that’s the point of the blockchain), but it could create processes to batch approvals or integrate with GU Decks, a popular source of deck hashes.
- Transferring from L1 to L2 doesn’t work at times. After spending multiple days of back and forth with IMX support, I ended up bridging my ETH and $GODS onto IMX via Token Trove instead of the official marketplace (and this was at the direction of the IMX service team). It’s crypto so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
- No trading stats on cards (volumes, avg. trailing prices, etc.)
Token Trove Marketplace
Token Trove is a trading platform built for assets on the IMX blockchain that solves some of the frustrations GU users might experience on the official IMX marketplace. Token Trove and IMX use the same order book meaning that listing something for sale on IMX means it will also appear on Token Trove.
- Non-buggy transfer from Metamask (consistently works the many times I’ve tried)
- Directly integrated with GU Decks, allowing a player to buy cards that complete a deck faster
- Provides analytics on card pricing over time
- Calculates the value of your entire NFT collection for you and offers features that may help you sell your cards (e.g. you can view your collection by latest price change, a potential indicator of which cards will be popular)
- It’s called Token Trove which, to the non-degen, may seem sketchy
Overall though, besides a potentially suspicious name, this is the beauty of web3 vs. web2. In web2, a developer might be stuck with an unsatisfactory marketplace. From personal experience on Blizzard titles, there were integrations / features games on Battle.net wanted but couldn’t get due to resource constraints. It’s even worse if you are an indie studio in partnership with an outside platform like Steam. However, in web3, an offshoot of citizens (aka 2 guys in a garage) can start a service, immediately plug into what the community needs, and make a profitable business out of it. Pretty neat!
There are currently two types of fees on transactions that occur within the Immutable X marketplace: (1) Marketplace fees and (2) Royalty Fees.
(1) Marketplace / Protocol Fees
Description: Fees paid to Immutable X trading platform
Rate: Usually 1–2%
Why this fee: Standard business practice for marketplaces to take a rake on trades and transactions
(2) Royalty Fees
Description: Fees paid to GU Team and Starkware. A portion of the fees will be sent back to a reward pool of $GODS tokens and will be used to pay stakers (staking feature has not been released at time of writing).
Rate: 1–5%, varies based on NFT card quality (see below)
Why this fee: This was a recent change that received some backlash from the GU community; however, GU sees it as an alignment of incentives between developers and players. From the GU perspective, the reason is obvious: it allows the team to take a rake on trades and transactions, a standard protocol for artist royalties in the Web3 world. For the player however, because a portion of the fees are going to be sent back to the rewards pool of $GODS tokens, it is *technically* better for the community of GU, and ergo, also for a player as a secondary party removed. This may be a slight stretch as those who stake or play Weekend Ranked may not be the same group who trades. For more details on the developer’s perspective, you can read here.
If readers are interested, I have detailed some of the experiences I find to be relevant to the crypto gaming experience: crypto onboarding and my financial journey.
It’s no secret that for even the most technically savvy and “supremely online” the crypto flow is mired with challenges. It’s extremely common to approve a transaction, have it fail, and just try, try, try again until it works. Imagine hitting “transfer” on Zelle or a BillPay and getting a result that says error, or worse, getting no result at all. Definitely scary.
At a high level, a crypto on-ramp can work as follows:
- You purchase crypto on a CEX like Coinbase
- You transfer that crypto from CEX to a de-fi wallet like Metamask. In this process, depending on the kind of chain your crypto is native to, you might have to add different networks to your L1 Wallet. For example, to transfer ETH, you need to be connected to the Ethereum Mainnet.
- You then bridge that crypto onto a Layer 2 protocol via some sort of bridge (in the case of GU, you bridge to Immutable X)
This seems like it’s not so bad when you write it out, but I can testify that it is laborious (especially for first set up users which I wasn’t for GU). You have to be very careful with your wallet address. To verify your transactions, you often visit a site called Etherscan. If you have never seen histories of block transactions, it can be overwhelming. When it came to GU specifically, I had repeated errors trying to bridge onto IMX. When I transferred to Token Trove I didn’t see my crypto on IMX for a full five minutes and panicked. There’s no verification emails “that your transfer has been received”.
We are in the early days of the new frontier, but crypto onboarding is certainly one of the highest barriers to mass adoption and only the most persistent make it through. This one of the reasons why GU’s F2P access is critical — it mimics the onboarding of traditional web2 games and delays the crypto requirement until only after you’ve had a taste of the experience (allows players to decide if this experience is something worth investing their time into and avoids overwhelming the non-crypto native with wallet requirements).
Financial Investment / Flow
If you thought GU would make you ludicrously wealthy, think again. Don’t get me wrong, there are some players who definitely have made more than they put in, especially those that got the early $GODS drops. But as a vehicle for earning for the average player, GU is parsimonious. Below is my financial journey in GU and for clarity, yes I could be playing more Weekend Ranked and yes I could be “playing the marketplace game, undercutting sellers on my cards to try to move inventory” but that is a job I decided not to pursue. I played a lot of hours (but only when I felt like it), reached Ethereal Diamond, and had a great time. I consider myself a normal player.
I spent $240 in total ($70 of that went to pay fees for gas onto L2 and CEX). I spent around $130 on 3 decks (Aggro Deception, Regen Nature, and Aggro Light), sold 2 NFTs (Atlant Phalanx) I minted from plain cards I got through playing for $0.09 USD, and earned ~1.83 $GODS which depending on the exchange rate is ~$2 USD.
I am not bitter — I do not feel like it’s my prerogative to earn more. I got to play something fun, I did make more than zero (better than what any web2 game has given me), and at least I own my cards. My one qualm is the difficulty on selling cards — the assumption that you can always find a buyer for the stuff you are selling is misleading and this concept of “interoperability” or recycling your cash may be overstated. I have some value definitely locked up in cards I can’t move.
Core Problems & Proposed Solutions:
GU has made tremendous strides in the world of web3 gaming and is one of the most legitimate blockchain gaming experiences on the market to date; however, the game still has its challenges and below are some of the problems hindering growth / adoption:
It’s hard to sell your cards
- A player may own their assets but the worldwide truism “a man’s trash is another man’s treasure” isn’t coming through here; most cards being sold, especially at the meteorite (lowest card quality) level are in oversupply forcing a player to undercut card prices to move inventory (if at all)
- Furthermore, players rely on their deck / cards being necessary, strong, or fun and if you’re selling cards, it probably means your deck is bad or out of meta play for whatever rank you are
- Solution: Let player sell their cards back to the GU treasury (similar to turning in a used game at Gamestop) for some sort of kickback
- Solution: Let players “dust” (destroy) their cards for a cosmetic reward
Deck inventory system and Immutable X marketplace are cumbersome compared to AAA TCG’s
- There are some basic standards of deck management interface (drag and drop cards, auto populating deck copy codes as you gather cards you don’t have already) and purchasing speed (buy cards in bulk or speed up crafting) that GU doesn’t have
- Solution: Make a better collection viewing interface
- Solution: Given nature of blockchain transactions needing to occur one by one, work with Immutable Marketplace to batch these processes or introduce more formalized partnership with Token Trove
People don’t earn enough*
- It’s difficult, even for the best of players, to recoup the investment they have put into the game
- Solution: Introduce $GODS staking to appeal to the strictly investor / speculator cohort
- Solution: Introduce Daily Play to Earn (feature is in the works)
- Solution: Introduce other modes beyond standard ranked play that still reward skill (i.e. Hearthstone’s Arena)
*Whether this is a true problem or simply the harsh reality of having built a stable, non pyramid scheme economy is yet to be seen
NFT card quality doesn’t have enough utility beyond cosmetics
- Having a deck full of meteorite cards is no different (besides optics) of having a deck full of diamonds
- Solution: Create incentives to “shine up” decks such as increasing $GODS payout if you win with a Diamond Deck (for example, with daily P2E the shine of your deck will increase your point earn by win and thus your % of the daily $GODS pool).
It’s an exciting time to be in web3 gaming. The back half of 2021 into 2022 were quarters of bullish investment in blockchain games with deal value growing from $83M in Q1'21 to $1.6B in Q1'22 according to InvestGame’s activity report. There are fascinating problems to be solved. It’s hard to build fun games. It’s hard to build secure blockchain technology. There’s lots of noise, but I believe that products like GU will make it out on the other side. Game development is an art and science and as with any product, you must choose which of the infinite improvements or optimizations warrant the time and resources of a constrained development team. The GU team has built an economy that rewards skill, not effort and has overcome a remarkable number of challenges such as fighting legions of bots sent to exploit both the game and marketplace and finding environmentally friendly solutions to high volume trading on Layer 2s. GU has the highest number of utility NFTs in any video game to date and by partnering with Immutable X, has made their security as strong as Ethereum’s. Beyond the game and NFTs, the Gods Unchained Universe has tremendous substance with lore, music, and art. As we move into Gen3 of crypto games, it’s my hope that consumers lionize teams that build products like GU. It will be exciting to see where this team goes next.
A note from Alex:
Special thanks to Chris Clay for taking the time to discuss at length his vision for the game and his perspectives on where web3 gaming will go in the future. My deepest gratitude also for Sophia Weng, my classmate and co-researcher on the “Evolution of Video Game Economies” for enduring my often “non crypto believer” perspectives and being a thought partner on the piece. Follow her amazing work on the crypto space here. I’m looking forward to the amazing things she’ll do at Manticore.
Disclaimer: While the research was performed and deep dive was written independently, at the time of making the publication, Alex is providing investment services to BITKRAFT. BITKRAFT is an investor in Immutable, the game developer behind Gods Unchained.
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