Learnings from GDC 2023

Learnings from GDC 2023

As the project coordinator and resident video game expert, I attended GDC on behalf of Acme Innovation and one of our portfolio companies. I have a long history playing games and studying game mechanics and, as immersive experiences become more and more a part of our cultural identity, gamification has become a necessity of marketing and presenting products to the world. This emphasis can be seen most clearly in the shift from Web2 to Web3. 

The San Francisco-based Game Developer Conference had a huge turnout of companies showing off or trying their hand at utilizing new technologies. The biggest announcement of the show was Unreal Engine’s new MetaHuman feature, which allows developers to create ultra-realistic character models in minutes. VR and AI had a huge presence on the showroom floor, as did Web3. As Web3 is core to much of the work we do at Acme, my focus at the conference was mostly centered on Web3 gaming. More than anything else, a lot of the takeaways from the Web3 panels served as affirmations that we at Acme are thinking about Web3 experiences the right way. Below are my top takeaways from GDC. While many of the observations below speak to Web3 gaming specifically, they also, in my view, apply to Web3 experiences and projects generally. 

  • User acquisition and retention. If there’s any friction between somebody wanting to play a game and actually playing it, the game won’t be played. For Web3, creating an experience that a player can jump right into without making a wallet or KYC is difficult, but incredibly important. If you have a great game that’s really sticky, but it’s a pain to begin playing, users won’t play it. The real challenge here is finding a way to make it as easy as possible for a user to ‘get hooked’ by a game. When and if it becomes time to fill out a KYC or make a wallet, a user should already be hooked, so they don’t see it as a chore. 
  • “I realized that there were more people watching people play our game than there were people actually playing it.” An indie game developer was speaking about a game he worked on and how, at a certain point after launch, the studio discovered that the game was gaining significant traction on Twitch, while sales were still relatively low. People were engaging with the game in every way imaginable, except for actually playing it.  He and one of his fellow developers had the thought, “what would it look like to build a game that was meant to be watched as much as it was meant to be played.” This is representative of a huge shift in the gaming industry. YouTube and Twitch streamers have changed the landscape of gaming and there’s huge potential upside for game publishers that lean into that change. 
  • “Web3 will have been adopted and successful when a Web3 game has a panel at GDC that revolves around a non-Web3 aspect of their game.” There’s been a lot of talk over the last three years about how Web3 will be successful when people stop calling it Web3–including from some of us here at Acme. This is more true now than ever. I attended a panel with a marketing executive from Polygon and next door, one of the conference’s flagship presentations–Sound Design in The Last of Us–was taking place. The Polygon executive was drowned out by the crowd next door cheering and engaging with the speakers from Naughty Dog. At a certain point, I realized that all the Web3 events I had attended were either ‘Web3 this’ or ‘blockchain that.’ Web3 games were not being talked about for any other reason other than they were Web3 games. That same thought came up during the talk. The solution to this problem is not easy, but it’s simple: we have to make better games. 
  • The logline for Web3 games has to be different. Play-to-earn is dead and has been for a year or so. Players look at Web3 gaming and say, ‘hey, this is just another way to extract money from users/players.’ The industry has seen the dangers of heavily marketing the Web3 elements of a game: having a player base that consists of speculators. Low user retention, toxic communities, and, ultimately, a failed game waits at the end of the road. Marketing a game as having any kind of play-to-earn model will attract speculators and doom your game from the start. So the question becomes, ‘how do you market a Web3 game around something other than the potential to earn money, ownership, etc?’ People don’t play games to earn money. They play games to be entertained.
  • “God forbid you have a token for your game…” This was both something that was literally said and the general consensus amongst those that believe in the potential Web3 has for gaming. Unless you tokenize perfectly and build the economy around it with an unprecedented level of precision, you increase your chances of failure. 
  • There are roughly 3-4 million wallets being used to play Web3 games, and all of Web3 gaming is competing for them. It doesn’t have to be this way. By having games/experiences create hidden and seamless wallet integrations, it allows two things to happen: people that don’t want to engage with Web3 elements don’t have to and people who do can access their wallet and transfer their assets to a wallet of their choice. 
  • The traditional gaming playbook doesn’t need to be rewritten. It works. This new technology can add to it. This goes without saying, but a lot of Web3 companies are founded on the idea of re-writing playbooks or redefining rules. There’s nothing wrong with fixing something that’s broken. But it is difficult to do, specifically with gaming. Instead of talking negatively about the games that exist today (as they’re incredibly successful), teams should find a way to reframe it so that they’re highlighting the possibilities of this new experience. On the flip side, though, there’s a lot of turbulence in the gaming industry and a lot that’s broken. Web3 gives us the opportunity to fix some of this stuff. 

At Acme, we approach gaming and Web3 experiences in the same way: the experience itself has to be compelling and engaging. Building something that utilizes Web3 technology for the sole purpose of utilizing Web3 technology is a recipe for failure. This new technology greatly increases our toolbox in terms of how we interact with users, create compelling experiences, and ensure creators are paid fairly.

Our recipe for success is combining great products with new technology in innovative ways. 

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