Axie Infinity and the concept of play-to-earn

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

How people earn money while playing a video game. Photo courtesy of AXIE INFINITY

“Do you play Axie?” My friend asked me in between topics of conversations. “It’s pretty lucrative,” he said.

Around the same time, another friend had posted multicolored creatures on her Instagram story. They were shaped like cotton balls, donning goofy expressions and strange appendages. “What’s this? They’re so cute!” I replied. “Girl, Axie. You might like it. It’s like Pokémon but crypto,” she answered.

Axie Infinity is a game created by Sky Mavis, a Vietnamese startup, and hosted on the Ethereum blockchain. Like Pokémon, each player uses a team of three Axies, where they can either go through an adventure mode or battle other Axie teams in an PvP (player versus player) arena. The more a person plays, the more Smooth Love Potions (or SLP) they can earn. It is this SLP that can be converted into Ethereum and then sold for profit.

According to a documentary by Play-to-Earn, a local Axie Infinity community in Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija has blossomed into the hundreds. Thanks to the game’s play to earn aspect, many have been able to pay for their food, their medicines, their bills — even their debts — despite the pandemic putting them out of work.

One such early adopter is user AxU Spraky, who lives outside Cabanatuan City, but also in Nueva Ecija. “That time, mga daily active users 5,000-7,000 lang,” he said. He started playing the game a year ago, after seeing a post about it on Facebook. “Yung picture-picture ng mga axies, yung nagbabattle. Nacurious ako, ano ba ‘tong mga bilug-bilog na ‘to. Kasi, since I was a kid, mahilig ako sa computer games, tapos at the same time, pandemic, naghahanap din ako ng extra side hustle para makatulong lang sa sarili at sa family.”

At the time when the Cabanutuan community got into the game, a team of axies cost only around $5 or ₱250. When Spraky started a few months later, he had bought his team for ₱14,000. Now, the price has skyrocketed. The cheapest a single axie sells for is a minimum of ₱10,000. For a team, you need around ₱50,000 to get a solid start.

As the popularity of Axie Infinity’s pay-to-win concept continued to grow, so did “scholarship” programs, where “scholars,” who cannot afford to buy a team on their own, can rent one, which helped the community cope with increasing prices. According to Spraky, the terms “scholarships” and “scholars” were coined by the player AK, but players had already been lending their axie teams to others, with the goal of helping them earn amidst the pandemic. This inspired him and his two other friends, Ken and Pot, to set up an Axie University. “Nagstart kami 65% for scholars then 35% kami, pero after a month lang, ginawa namin 70% sa kanila,” he explained. “Alam mo, honestly, sasabihin ko sayo, secondary nalang talaga yung earnings eh. Ang talagang nakakatuwa dun — mga scholars’ stories na natulungan during the pandemic.”

As the popularity of Axie Infinity’s pay-to-win concept continued to grow, so did “scholarship” programs, where “scholars,” who cannot afford to buy a team on their own, can rent one, which helped the community cope with increasing prices.

To be chosen for a scholarship, an applicant must first become an active member of the local Axie Community Discord. “Papasalihin ka sa Discord namin, then you need to be active sa Discord — magkwentuhan, para lang makilala mo yung community. More on community kasi talaga, hindi dun sa profit, kaya inuubliga namin to engage sa community,” explained Spraky. If chosen, they’ll be asked to fill up a form to confirm their personal information, after which they’ll be interviewed by the Discord [server] moderators. “Medyo strict talaga sa pagiinterview. Yung iba kasi nagmumultiple account — bawal kasi yun sa Axie Infinity. Kailangan isang account lang kasi, isipin mo, ikaw dalawa yung axie mo, eh pwede mo ibigay ‘yung isa sa ibang tao na matutulungan ‘yung pamilya nila. Sa iba parang maliit lang na bagay, pero dito kasi sa province namin, malaking bagay yung halaga na yun.”

As of May this year, they have given out more than 100 scholarships, with many of the [players] “graduating” after three months. “Diba sa totoo ngang buhay ang scholarship, parang, scholar ka, then gagraduate ka diba. Dun na rin na rin sa axie! Ang graduation naman, makakabili ka na ng sarili mong team,” explained Spraky. “Tapos ang masaya dun, ang iba naming scholars, meron na rin silang sariling scholarship programs.”

“I’d seen a short documentary on the Axie scholarship program and how it essentially started in Cabanatuan City,” explained Greggy*, who plays the game as the scholar of their partner’s cousin, who they refer to as their manager. “The structure’s helped many people, who’d lost their livelihood in the pandemic, make a living for themselves and provide for their families by doing something that they were already good at — gaming. That blew my mind.”

Greggy was an account manager for an ad agency. When the long hours had added up to an irreconcilable burnout, they quit, and turned to Axie Infinity as a way to earn money in between jobs. “I struggled a lot in the beginning — sometimes I still do,” they said. Before Axie Infinity, Greggy was not an avid gamer. In fact, they never played any games at all. “My manager said that I was one of the worst scholars in terms of performance since I didn't have initial gaming prowess. I barely slept for a week just to meet the bare minimum quota!” they said. “They call it the daily grind, and that’s what it is! I wouldn’t say I’m a pro now, but I’d like to think I’ve ‘grown.’”

A screenshot of the Axie marketplace. Photo from MAIA PUYAT

In contrast, Owen*, a real estate agent, has spent most of his life playing games. He heard of Axie Infinity from a friend in his gaming circle, who told him, “We spend all our time playing games anyway, might as well earn from it!”

As someone already familiar with earning money from cryptocurrency (he trades it on the side), he decided to invest in a team of axies after reading the game’s white paper — a map published by the developers so people know whether they want to buy into the game or not. “I liked the white paper. I liked how the gameplay would work. I liked their plans for it,” said Owen. “But, most importantly, I liked how the basic economy would work in Axie wherein there will always be high demand for the crypto but there will always be less supply.”

He started with an axie team, which he uses himself, that he bought for ₱10,000. Now, he has scholars working under him, too. “I have a lot of scholars also — I have around 20,” said Owen. He splits the profits with his scholars biweekly, and he’s set a 1700 MMR quota (matchmaking ranking determined by your win rate) for them so they earn around 18 SLP per win. The lowest amount you can get is 1 SLP.

SLP’s value, like any cryptocurrency or commodity, depends on market participants. That is, how many people are willing to buy or sell it. “In order to get more axies into the game, you have to breed it,” he said. You can breed one axie a maximum of seven times, each taking five days in real time, with more costs incurred every time. “If you want to have more players in the community, you have to breed more, you have to spend more,” he said.

A screenshot from Greggy's axies battling in the arena. Photo courtesy of respondent

There are nine classes of axies: Aquatic, Beast, Bird, Bug, Dawn, Dusk, Mech, Plant and Reptile. Like Pokémon types where grass is weak against fire but strong against water, certain axies do better or worse in specific matchups. Aquatic, Bird, and Dawn are strong against Beast, Bug, and Mech, who are strong against Reptile, Plant, and Dusk, who are then strong against Aquatic, Bird, and Dawn. “Per axie, there are actually four cards that you can get. And then axies also have these dominant, recessive one, recessive two genes, or the cards that you can draw into the game,” explained Owen. “Let’s say, I want to produce an aqua axie that has at least one support card from a beast axie so, when I’m faced with a plant axie, I’m still at an edge. That’s why people mix and match. They want to create the perfect axie that can cover its weaknesses.” These axies are referred to as “super axies.”

Much like real life, you can’t change the axie cards you’re dealt with. “They’re stuck na with what they were born with, which is sad because [if] I could change one of Sasuke’s cards — the heal to an energy steal — feel ko mas mataas winrate ko right now,” said Karina*, a recent Axie Infinity player. She named her team after characters from the anime Naruto. “I have a plant (Sasuke), a beast (Naruto), and an aqua (Sakura). Sasuke is my front line and he has to have a super high HP (health points) rin so he can tank all the damage. Si Naruto naman is a beast axie with one strong attack, a heal, a shield, and an energy regenerating move set so even if Sasuke dies, may chance pa ako to either kill one or survive long enough for my backline (Sakura) to kill them all!”

Axie is the first type of cryptocurrency that undergraduate student Karina has invested in. Photo courtesy of respondent

Karina is an undergraduate student currently on a leave of absence. She plays a variety of other games daily, like Valorant and Genshin Impact, and it is this neatly packaged video game format that first got her interested in Axie Infinity. Unlike Owen, however, this is the first type of cryptocurrency Karina has invested in. “Axie is my first but I only took the risk because I knew that I could hustle it and still get what we invested in it back with time lang,” she explained. “And we already had the disposable income naman that was just sitting in our bank accounts so we thought it would be better to invest in good axies instead of just relying on my cousin.”

READ: Genshin Impact, and the reality of gaming funds

She invested in a team with her siblings, spending ₱60,000. “I think Sakura was the most expensive one? Between ₱25-30k. Then Naruto was mga ₱20-25k rin. Then we bought sasuke last with the remaining money — mga ₱10,000 — but we got him for super cheap na considering how good his stats were!”

The amount of hours a player spends depends on their axies, their skill, and their luck that day. Greggy, who is unfamiliar with gaming, spends longer hours playing compared to Owen, who said he plays for an hour or two before work “to get it out of the way.”

“As I got the hang of things, it was easier to decide when I could integrate playing for 2-3 hours into my daily routine,” said Greggy. “Since I’m usually busy in the mornings until lunch time, I try to start my grind in the mid afternoon or early evening. It’s become somewhat ritualistic — meditative almost.”

“We start at like 8 a.m., which is the energy reset, because we don’t want to waste our entire day playing it and we usually end mga before lunch — so around three to four hours,” said Karina. “Sometimes we go over depending on how bad our games are.”

The most inviting thing about Axie Infinity is that you are guaranteed to earn. There is a reason why the Philippines takes up the largest percentage of the overall player base. “You earn money by completing tasks, which can earn you a minimum amount of SLP, which you can convert into cash. You earn more SLP if you win in the arena,” explained Owen. “You don’t lose SLP if you lose in the game. You just lose the capacity to earn more. If you win more games, it means that you’re better than most people, so you will have the capacity to earn more SLP because being better at the game rewards you with giving you more SLP per win.”

The game itself has been accessible from the start. You can play it on a PC or your phone, which is the platform majority of the Cabanatuan players play on. The scholarship programs have pushed the game’s availability even further because it gives access even to those who cannot afford it, like Greggy, who now earns a minimum of ₱3.7k a month.

“Right now, the average player can grind like 100 SLP siguro per day — or 150, depende kasi kung gaano ka kagaling dun sa game,” said Spraky. “Price ngayon 3.5 SLP to ₱3.5.”

While the amount they earn depends on the value of SLP, many have made a livelihood from playing the game. In the few months since she started, Karina has earned enough to get her return on investment and now turn a profit.

“[One scholar], she lost her father [to] COVID, tapos napaalis sila sa bahay nila. Nagapply ng scholarship… 18 years old lang siya,” said Spraky. “Siya na yung breadwinner! Yun yung naging work niya.”

A few weeks later, my friend — who I learned earns a minimum of ₱1,000 a day — brought up the game again. He asked me if I wanted to try my hand at playing. Unsure about whether I could fit three hours of playing into my mornings, I told him I’d think about it, but was interested in becoming a scholar.

“Just buy a team,” he said. “I think you can start with ₱60,000.”

Erratum: A previous version of this article stated that there are only four classes of axies. We have since corrected this error.