Why is NFT game Axie Infinity so popular?

Chatter about NFTs usually brings about a fair bit of apprehension, even revulsion. But to the dismay of many, they’re unlikely to go away anytime soon. Ubisoft CEO, Yves Guillemot, is still planning to go ahead with NFTs in the studio’s games, and has indicated that Ghost Recon’s NFTs are “just the beginning,” despite the apparent lack of interest, all while comparing the backlash to Ubisoft Quartz to that of microtransactions and DLCs in an internal Q&A.

Guillemot himself may have been inspired by the success of NFT games, which are built upon the foundation of NFTs and cryptocurrency. One such title has even made its founder a billionaire. That game is Axie Infinity, which can be best described as a Pokemon clone. Rather than generating digital collectibles to hoard like the Bored Ape Yacht Club and Cryptokitties, Axie Infinity is also a full-fledged video game, meshing the battle mechanics of Pokemon with the deck-building aspects of games like Hearthstone. It’s a wildly popular game too; its studio, Sky Mavis, has reported more than 1.8 million daily users in August, and with a daily sales volume that has reached as high as $33 million.

More than that, however, is that the game’s ‘play-to-earn’ model has even enabled players from the Philippines—which is where the bulk of its players come from—to use Axie Infinity as their main source of their income during the pandemic, when they can’t leave their homes. That said, demand for the game’s little collectible creatures have skyrocketed, which means that the costs for playing the game in the first place has skyrocketed. Just in time to meet the demands of these new players are companies—or guilds, as the Axie Infinity community prefers to refer to these organisations—that are built around loaning the critters out to new players. This isn’t done purely out of a charitable spirit; the guilds will take a cut of the profits these players will earn from playing the game.

But how has a simple Pokemon clone led to such an elaborate system of fantasy labour? The reality is that Axie Infinity’s virtual economy is much more complex than the game itself. Signing up for the game is a onerous series of steps, which includes setting up several accounts and cryptocurrency wallets, including an Ethereum wallet, a Ronin Wallet, an Axie Infinity account—and then wrangling them all together. Then you’ll need to buy at least three Axies—what the game calls their rotound critters—with Ethereum which, due to explosive demand versus a limited supply of Axies, may now set you back at least $1,065 today. And if you can’t afford this upfront cost? Here’s when the capitalistic aspect of the game comes in: Axie Infinity has implemented a programme called a scholarship, which allows more established players to rent out Axies to newbies.

Understanding the expansive universe of Axie Infinity—why it has attracted so many players, as well as capturing the profit-generating imaginations of triple-A studios—requires a basic understanding of how the game and its economy function, so stay with me here. If you’re a new player embarking on this scholarship programme, you’ll need to pay back your landlords- I mean, managers, with a percentage of your income. This amount is earned when you put your Axie in battles against others, much like Pokemon’s trainer battles. These battles are conducted either against other players’ Axie—PvP battles—or against computer-controlled creatures in PvE combat. In short, you can level up your Axie and make them more battle-ready in these battles, since winning them will net you experience points, much like a traditional RPG. What’s more at stake, however, is the cryptocurrency you’ll earn known as Smooth Love Potion (SLP), which can be converted into real cash. The point is to win as many battles as possible, so you can earn more SLPs. More than just SLPs, however, there’s also a secondary, but more valuable cryptocurrency to earn, which is known as AXS. If you’ve played games with multiple in-game currencies, it functions similarly; some currencies are rarer than others, and will net you more valuable loot or rewards. In this case, however, AXS lets players shape the universe and future of Axie Infinity, while being essentially for breeding Axies.

And yes, beyond these battles is another aspect of the game that continues to keep its players invested: Axie breeding. Axies themselves come in a variety of types and breeds. Think Pokemon types—Water, Fire, Grass, and more—and you can imagine the variety of Axies that the game offers. Types are weak against different types and effective against others, which adds a much more competitive slant to these battles. You can even customise the body parts of the Axies—from their beaks to their horns—which will determine the amount and type of damage being dealt, along with some unique attributes, like dealing critical damage or restoring hit points after some time. This amount of customisability and depth is the crux of Axie breeding; more than just cute pictures of Axies (your mileage may vary when it comes to determining how cute these animated fur orbs are), players are also looking for powerful combinations of Axies that can help them win battles. Past a certain point, established players won’t even be playing Axie Infinity for the game anymore—they will be setting up scholarships to earn passive income, using the earnings to breed more Axies, and then loaning them out to new players without the capital to pay a couple of thousand dollars to play the game.

In the FAQ section on Axie Infinity’s official website, the developers shared their vision of a future where work and play meets. “We believe in a future where work and play becomes one,” wrote the team. “We believe in empowering our players and giving them economic opportunities.” Proponents of NFT games, too, paint a pretty, utopian picture of the future that, combined with lofty ambitions and buzz about the so-called infinite possibilities of the metaverse, means that we no longer have to engage in backbreaking labour for a living. Instead, we can play our favourite games, hang out with friends, and earn money through a brand new ecosystem of digital economy, powered by crypto. In this future, earning money through playing games is no longer just the purview of top Twitch players and streamers anymore. “It will make [professional gaming] more accessible, since nowadays only the top–tier players make good money playing mainstream games like Counterstrike, Dota and so on,” said Stefan Ateljevic, the founder of CryptoBlokes, a crypto-gambling site, in a Forbes interview. In fact, a 22 year old Filipino, John Aaron Ramos, had also announced that he had bought two homes from playing Axie Infinity, inspiring many others to give the game a shot.

But what this only achieves is to erode the joys and meaning of play, as it eventually chews up and spits out players, particularly from more impoverished backgrounds, in the name of a utopian future that equates leisure to labour. What it does is make these ripe for exploitation, turning NFT games into yet another avenue for production and work, possibly becoming digital sweatshops when the NFT bubble reaches its apex—when the payouts inevitably become slimmer as more players get involved with NFT games.

For some of these players, gaming may not even be a hobby to begin with; it’s just another means of making a living. When Filipino Axie Infinity players who are faced with the prospects of paying taxes—something they didn’t have to do before, because they weren’t even earning enough to meet the taxation threshold—were asked by Vittoria Elliott, a journalist from Rest of World, if they would still play the game without the financial reward, the answer was a resounding no. Many of us have worked jobs we didn’t enjoy before—and despite the initial idealism, NFT games like Axie Infinity seem to ensure that this sense of ennui will only persist in the era of the metaverse. And this is exactly the future companies like Ubisoft, Konami, and EA are gunning for—the very studios that continue to thrive from the same cycles of labour and exploitation that are still commonplace in the games industry today.

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