For small independent game studios, attracting an audience is a major challenge. Nascent gaming franchise Unioverse thinks Web3 can provide an answer — and be fun for gamers.
The only way to get gamers in the door nowadays is to spend 50% to 80% of a game’s revenue on user acquisition, Tony Harman, Unioverse co-founder and chief executive of Random Games, told Blockworks.
“The horrible thing about those markets is you can’t be seen — because there’s 4,000 Steam games a month,” Harman said, referring to the video game digital distribution service and storefront launched by Valve in 2003.
Unless you’re a giant company like Square Enix or Activision, it’s hard to get noticed, much less turn a profit, considering the 30% in fees taken off the top by Steam, Google and Apple.
Harman, who started his career at Nintendo, is a gamer at heart.
“I’ve had No. 1 hits in 8-bit, 16-bit, 32-bit, mobile, free to play, all those — I love games, I love new things,” he said.
But realizing that he doesn’t own any of his past successful franchises, like Grand Theft Auto — and fascinated by the rise of blockchain-based assets and their gaming applications — Harman had an epiphany:
“What if we just gave away the project to everyone from the beginning?” Harman recounted telling his co-founder, Wyeth Ridgway.
Unioverse is in the world-building business.
The company hires experienced artists, writers and designers to craft stories, devise environments and develop characters — or “heroes” as they call them. Indie game developers can piggyback on it all: the code, models, animations and skins.
It’s what Harman describes as “tens of millions of dollars worth of assets” to build their games, all without paying Random Games a penny.
The business model is focused on the company’s initial ownership of the heroes, which are represented by NFTs the company sells to provide an access pass to any future games in the Unioverse franchise network.
“We want to be the Roblox for professional game developers,” Harman said, estimating that a small group of five to 10 Unity game-engine developers would be enough to build a game using the Unioverse toolkit.
Under the concept, the heroes are interoperable between all Unioverse games, and once you own one, all the games are free to play. Hero owners just have to download a game — which helps indie developers build a following — and log in with a Web3 wallet, to drop their character in and start playing.
“You get the Unioverse crowd, the community, coming over to your project,” Harman said.
The first (hero) of many
To kick off that community, the project distributed around 900,000 NFTs on the Polygon version of OpenSea, collectibles that could earn their holders points called “protens.” Those points, gathered from completing activities like collecting sets of NFTs, then made the holder eligible to mint the first hero, Reyu, which launched on Ethereum last week.
The hero came in five distinct collections, distinguished by traits of varying rarity, from “common” to “legendary.” But the visual distinction — like skins in other games — doesn’t necessarily make them more powerful or useful in the virtual worlds they will later inhabit. And Harman says it might just put a target on a player’s back.
But that’s not the point; it’s a status symbol, and one that may solve a perennial problem with in-game purchases.
Unlike games where accessories are worthless if you stop playing — what Harman calls “buyer’s remorse” — the fact that Unioverse heroes can be resold by the player on secondary markets gives them lasting value. Players can, of course, opt to take their character with them to a new game in the Unioverse.
They also have full intellectual property rights to characters for creative endeavors, including making videos or selling merchandise — activities that would get you a sternly worded cease and desist letter from Star Wars owner Disney’s legal team.
The Reyu genesis collection trades for floor prices between 0.0009 ETH (about $1.60) for a common and 0.25 ETH (around $390) for a legendary, as of 2:00 pm on Jan. 26.
Any hero from the 20,000 initially released will give players free access to games in the network, Harman said, though the first proof of concept, “Danger Room,” is slated for a second quarter 2023 release.
In the meantime, “you could go right now, you could take your Reyu model, 3D print him, and set up an Etsy store and start selling him, and you don’t owe us a penny,” Unioverse’s co-founder Wyeth Ridgway, who serves as Random Games chief technology officer, told Blockworks.
Other characters are set to follow suit. By the end of 2023 the team expects to have “at least a million NFTs just in this character set,” he said.
“Chain agnostic” design
The Unioverse use of blockchain is limited to asset rights management. Ridgway has a “chain agnostic notion of assets that can be moved across marketplaces,” Ridgway said.
The team began building on ImmutableX. The layer-2 Ethereum startup in early 2022, alongside OpenSea, promised support for the marketplace by the end of the quarter. “Honestly, I was very hopeful,” he said, but the deadline came and went with no explanation from Immutable for the delay, so the project pivoted to Polygon.
Immutable did not return a request for comment.
Ridgway criticized early efforts at on-chain games as “too error prone today,” leaving developers to deal with problems that distract from the development of a fun game.
Axie Infinity, he said, “was a kind of hellscape of the future of gaming,” adding that “we somehow managed to make gaming into a sweatshop industry.”
Axie Infinity developer Sky Mavis could not be reached for comment.
Ridgway finds the view of proponents of play-to-earn models, including venture firms like Griffin Gaming Partners and a16z, baffling.
“It’s just insanity. It defies basic common sense…that will certainly never be part of what we’re doing,” Ridgway said.
Advocate for creator royalties
The Unioverse business model relies on the 10% royalties for secondary sales of heroes, so the technical implementation of the ERC-721 token standard had to be augmented with bespoke smart contract code to limit its transfer function.
That means that NFTs can only be sold on whitelisted marketplaces — currently OpenSea and Rarible, but in principle, any other marketplace that will publicly agree to honor royalties.
Read More: How NFT Royalties Work – and Sometimes Don’t
Those that choose to make royalties optional, Ridgway expects, will hide Unioverse collections rather than allow their users to run into opaque blockchain errors when they attempt to transact. But that’s just fine with him; Ridgway and Harman are firmly of the view that royalties on NFT sales should be an industry standard, and thinks that NFT creators will increasingly launch their collections using a similar enforcement mechanism in 2023.
“We look forward to the day where there’s an ERC-level solution to this,” Ridgway said.
It’s not only the principle of protecting creators at stake, it’s also the company’s bottom line — the 10% royalty across thousands, or even millions of hero sales can be quite significant, Harman said.
But why stop there?
“I want to be a community owned franchise equivalent in size — actually even bigger — than Star Wars and Marvel Universe,” he said.
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