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What to expect from the free-to-play version of 'Axie Infinity'

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As crypto gaming remains as volatile as ever, Sky Mavis aims to take on the cutthroat free-to-play market with the release of ‘Axie Infinity: Origin.’ Photo courtesy of GLOBE

I came from the school of thought that video games needed to be separate from one’s capacity to earn. This all changed with the arrival of “Axie Infinity.”

Friends I knew who have never played a video game in their lives were excitedly picking up the game and grinding consistently. They invested upwards of ₱45,000 on a starter team, amazed that they would get their return-on-investment (and then some) after a few short months. Checking crypto stats on Binance and Axie Discord groups became a daily part of their routines. To my surprise, despite them having no previous game sense, this seeming disadvantage didn’t deter them in the slightest. They did earn back what they invested in and more, inevitably becoming play-to-earn gamers.

With "Axie Infinity’s" rapid growth in the Philippines, generating a whopping $1.3 billion in revenue last year, it quickly became one of the top NFT games for crypto investors and gamers alike. With this milestone conquered, Sky Mavis, the blockchain launchpad responsible for "Axie Infinity," is setting their sights on climbing up the free-to-play gaming ladder with “Axie Infinity: Origin.”

READ: Axie Infinity and the concept of play-to-earn

The game's play-to-earn model remains volatile at best. Although it is entirely possible to earn back your investment in a few months, earnings will be exclusively hinged on how Ethereum performs in the market. The strategy is simple: invest in Axies, win games, earn Smooth Love Potions or SLPs, convert these to Ethereum, and sell for profit on the blockchain. Every transaction is a risk on something as decentralized as cryptocurrency, so you may be gaining immeasurably one second and plummeting the next.

Games that focus on entertainment over profit tend to be built around a free-to-play model. Publishers gain profit via in-game purchases players may or may not invest in, while keeping their player base happy with gameplay that can stand on its own even with zero investment. The challenge for Sky Mavis lies in the fact that they already built their own niche in crypto gaming, whereas they’d have to compete with free-to-play heavyweights like “Clash of Clans” and “Call of Duty: Mobile” to keep their audience hooked.

Key free-to-play features

For the new free-to-play version, Nix Eniego, the Philippine Lead for “Axie Infinity,” describes a game that’s meant to gently guide you into its world without requiring economic investment. “You’ll start with three starter Axies and then unlock more as you progress through story mode,” he explained. The system is reminiscent of the current long-running model for Pokémon, designed to get users starting immediately, eliminating the need to study crypto as a jumping off point.

The starter axies in "Axie Infinity: Origin." Photo courtesy of GLOBE

The existence of power-ups called runes and charms will be crucial to players’ gameplay as well. “This can allow your Axies to incur unique abilities depending on the class and kind of Axie you have,” Eniego said. “Like Pokémon, Axies can evolve and get stronger with these power-ups.”

Eniego added that they’ll be tapping into the collectors by offering rarer kinds of Axies.

“Seasonal Axies will be released, including Christmas Axies and rarer kinds of Axies,” he said. There’s also the popularity of corporate cosmetics in gaming like skins, and Eniego mentioned that a rollout might come to “Axie Infinity: Origin” soon.

Entering the world of Axie Infinity via its free-to-play version has its benefits, namely the fact that your barrier of entry will not be as steep as you think should you plan to get into crypto-powered Axie Infinity. “We’ve got a leaderboard mechanism where the top thousand players do get rewards, too,” Eniego said. “They can also earn this other token called a moon shard. You need these to be able to craft your runes and charms.”

Attracting hardcore gamers

With companies like Riot Games (known for behind the most popular free-to-play games in the world such as “League of Legends” and “Valorant”) growing their player base in the Philippines, Sky Mavis knew that to sustain Axie Infinity’s presence in the Philippines, a free-to-play debut was an inevitability.

Most Filipinos stay online on mobile phones, always on the lookout for deals that help them stay online longer without shelling out more cash. Whether they will willingly invest more in a game that’s easier than ever to play on data packs is still unknown. Marketing the game will need to shift to highlighting its playability and entertainment value versus what you can possibly earn from it.

“The Philippines is not known to be a country that spends so much on games. While you do get whales or people who spend a lot on specific games, generally, the market doesn’t behave that way,” said Ralph Aligada, head of esports and gaming at Globe. The telcom has previously released support programs for "League of Legends: Wild Rift" and future programs will include "Genshin Impact" and "Pokémon: Unite" support.

Aligada classifies the current target market of play-to-earn Axie Infinity as non-gamers. “They decided to play as an alternative to actually working for a living,” he said. “At the peak of the pandemic, when we were still in lockdown, there were a lot of tricycle drivers and laundry ladies who turned to 'Axie Infinity' to support their livelihoods. That’s generally the biggest difference. Those who play free-to-play games are the usual gamers. They’re very young students who are usually single, between the thirteen to thirty-year-old age range.”

The looming possibility of regulation was also cited by Aligada as a potential hindrance to the expansion of “Axie Infinity” in the Philippines due to limitations we may not be aware of yet.

Aligada’s fears are not necessarily unfounded. Because of the decentralized nature of cryptocurrency, scammers have found their own ways to prey on unwitting investors. Anonymous users would pose as customer service representatives, siphoning tokens through Discord private messages once they have access to someone’s wallet. “Axie Infinity’s” contemporaries even resort to being scam publishers, posting updates for a new game for a while and disappearing with their players’ investments.

Because of this, Globe and "Axie Infinity" knew they had to adapt, and fast.

“Crypto gaming is currently here to stay,” said Aligada. “But we’re not sure of its actual numbers. It’s still in its infancy stage.”

"Origin" players can come out swinging

With "Axie Infinity: Origin" already looking at a Google Play and iOS store release soon, "Origin" players could incur strategic advantages before they even decide to invest in its predecessor. With the barrier to entry lifted, players can grind and get better as much as they want so they’ll be more equipped to earn big with Smooth Love Potions should they wish to do so.

I’m reminded of my first encounter playing Valorant, knowing that I’ll be up against first-person shooter veterans from "CS:GO," "Apex [Legends]," and the like. Although I still enjoyed the game, I can’t help but think of the friends I mentioned whose entry into crypto gaming is the only kind of gaming experience they have.

With more seasoned players arriving from "Origin" coupled with the volatility of cryptocurrency, these factors can either keep more users away from the game or challenge Filipinos aching to earn more from something so new. Will "Axie Infinity" crack under the pressure or emerge as another free-to-play contender? Just like observing a new token on the rise, we’ll just have to wait and see.