Games, like anything powerful, often have ties to money.
As we navigate these early days of blockchain gaming, the raw mix of money and games has triggered a lot of folks. There are many good-faith concerns about this new ‘play-to-earn’ genre: That many projects are bait-and-switch scams. That the tech they use is immoral from an environmental basis. That they aren’t even games.
I also started off skeptical. But then I played ‘em. And played more. And while I still have tons of criticisms I also can assure you there’s something very special going on. Overall, I’m ROI-positive in terms of money sunk – I have indeed played and earned. But that alone isn’t the appeal. More importantly, I feel ROI-positive in terms of my sunk time.
The insight for me is that when virtual goods have real-world value, a game can engage your emotions in ways only ownership can do. Unlike previous digital games, blockchain titles bring me back to the high-stakes feel of backyard marbles… where you don’t just play with glass spheres, you possess and collect and lose and covet them.
Furthermore, in the hands of the right designers, these games are already serving as vehicles to lift tens-of-thousands of people out of poverty by allowing them to ‘work’ at the game and earn on behalf of patrons who have more money than time and will gladly pay for advantage and prestige and speculation.
There’s huge potential for harm and misuse, yes. But the potential for positive impact in places far beyond the entertainment industry is truly unlimited.
At my game development agency Double Coconut, we’ve all gotten a bit obsessed lately with blockchain games. We’re enjoying the challenge of figuring out the right interweave of in-game and real-world economies. So I stand here before you as someone who has been ‘red-pilled.’
But this isn’t about me trying to convince you one way or the other.
Rather, I've noticed that many folks with strong emotional reactions to blockchain games haven't actually tried one. If games are important to you, I would submit that you at least owe it to yourself to play. To earn. To own. To get a solid idea of what’s going on before you decide to go all-in, become an anti-crypto crusader, or somewhere in-between.
But there’s a big problem. Once you find a crypto game that seems interesting to try, it’s really quite a pain to get started.
I’ve found precious few beginner’s guides in this space. Folks used to juggling dozens of Discords and arbitraging Dogecoin won’t have a problem... but for normies, the crypto game world can seem impenetrable. There are so many blockchains and options and every game has its own hazards – wasting not just your time, but potentially losing you money.
I myself have sunk numerous nights and weekends messing around, screwing up, spending (and earning) thousands of tokenized dollars, just figuring out how to squeeze my way into the rabbit hole. And while I’m a hacker at heart and find such spelunking fun, there’s got to be a simpler way.
But I looked hard and couldn’t find any good resources. So here is an attempt to streamline your journey…
First, some essential terminology. This will only take a minute – I pinkie-promise:
It all starts here. Blockchains are essentially public databases with data that everyone can see and trust (due to verification from many independent sources). The security of stuff written to the blockchain is verified by cryptography (crypto) – math equations that make it virtually certain we know who is writing what.
The largest chains in the world are called Layer One. Bitcoin is the largest of these, but does not support gaming because it only stores a record of coin transactions and can’t do more complex things.
Game-like activity started on the Ethereum blockchain – the first massive chain with smart contracts that allowed programming code to be executed right on the chain. The earliest big game on Ethereum came late in 2017 with Crypto Kitties by Dapper Labs – which was less a game and more a place to collect, trade, and breed funky-looking cats.
As of January 2022, Ethereum is basically dead for mass market gaming because transactions – meaning anything you write, compute, or transfer across the blockchain -- must be paid for by gas fees: a small amount of ETH to compensate for the work consumed by the blockchain. These days, due to the overwhelming usage and price of Ethereum, a simple transaction can cost $50 or more in gas fees and take hours to validate.
But there are many Layer One chains with viable gaming activity – namely Solana, Wax, Tezos, and the Binance Smart Chain. These competitors keep gas costs down and have much speedier transactions – mainly because of the less-distributed way they do their validation but also because they aren’t nearly as popular and congested (yet).
Sidechains: These are basically ‘copies’ of a small portion of a Layer One chain, specialized for a smaller audience so that costs can be lower and transactions can be quicker. You can move tokens from Ethereum to a sidechain, for example – manipulating the tokens on the sidechain cheaply – then moving them back to the main chain if desired.
Popular sidechains include Polygon and Ronin (custom-built by the makers of Axie Infinity; blockchain gaming’s first ‘killer app’).
Layer Two Chains or Rollups: You may have heard something about Layer Two blockchains such as Optimism, Aztec, or StarkWare. These chains ride atop Ethereum’s security and save time and cost by bundling tons of transactions together and sending the batch to Ethereum (or another Layer One chain) for final resolving. A few Layer Twos showing heavy investment in gaming are Enjin and ImmutableX, which were both built specifically for gaming apps.
Here’s an important point though:
For gamers, the blockchain you are on doesn’t really matter.
While blockchain purists may care about having their tokens on a Layer One for exchange on the largest marketplaces, the truth is that the vast majority of blockchain games are not interoperable, and never will be. The NFTs you earn or buy in one game usually only have value to other players of the same game.
These are the units of value that live on the blockchain, often just called coins. A specific number of tokens can be allocated to each individual who uses the blockchain. Tokens can be counters to track something (shares, voting power, a loyalty point system)… failed projects (“shitcoins”) that were meant to raise a lot of cash for some purpose but that nobody thinks are worth anything anymore... or they can be assigned heavy monetary value. Native cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin (BTC), Ethereum Ether (ETH), Solana Coin (SOL), Binance Coin (BNB), WAX Coin (WAX), Hive Coin (HIVE), or Tezos Tez (XTZ) have meaty and generally-rising real world (fiat currency) value because their usage is the beating heart of what compensates for the computing power that keeps their respective blockchains alive. I call these value tokens – and while their price fluctuates a lot, they are as good as gold (or better, according to crypto purists, since they aren’t controlled by any government or other central entity).
When you play a crypto game, you’ll exchange some fiat currency for the value token of the blockchain your game lives on. You’ll then go on a third-party exchange site to exchange some of the value token for the game-specific token or game coin. Most games use their own token as a way to buy in and cash out anything you’ve earned. The community playing the game assigns an exchange rate to the in-game token based on the current market dynamics.
You also usually need to keep about $5 of the value token around to pay for gas fees which might be necessary when you create something new or transfer something important.
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) live on the blockchain just like value tokens, game-specific tokens, or shitcoins… but they are special in that each one is unique (non-fungible) and can have its own specific image, video, or other meta-data. Any high-level virtual good in a crypto game is generally represented as an NFT. It is owned by you and can be sold to another player in a marketplace. Many crypto games require the purchase of one or more NFTs to begin playing or accessing key parts of the game.
NFTs can be minted – newly created on the blockchain by a smart contract.
They can be burned – destroyed forever by being sent to a wallet that everyone knows has no exit.
Or, of course, transferred to another player, for an exchange of tokens.
Hosted Wallets / Exchanges
These are sites where you can buy or trade crypto currencies. Coinbase, Kraken, and Binance are probably the largest names out there. These function a lot like online banks or PayPal – you deposit cash via your bank or credit card and then can buy or exchange a crypto coin. These sites hold your coin for you in their own wallet – you just get in using a normal email / password combo. And you are trusting them entirely with your stuff.
Hosted Wallets are optional in blockchain gaming but most gamers use these for the convenience of buying their initial value token for dollars (or local currency) and ultimately cashing out the game-specific token back to value token and back to their bank accounts.
Your “Self-Custody” Crypto Wallet
This is more than the place you keep your valuable (or worthless) tokens and NFTs for day-to-day play. This is your identity and the way you ‘log in’ to most games and other dApps.
Most commonly, the wallet is a Chrome plug-in that you can activate on any crypto game or other blockchain site. The most popular wallet is MetaMask, which supports Ethereum out of the gate. Phantom is the most popular wallet for Solana.
When you install a wallet it usually gives you a set of 12 random keywords. Keep these someplace hella safe. These words are your private recovery phrase – if you lose these keywords and somehow uninstall your wallet plug-in, you’ll never be able to get in again. Also, anyone who has these phrases can get into your wallet and take over. Welcome to the high-stakes world of crypto!
Once you’ve set up your wallet you can use a typical password to get back in and keep the Chrome extension somewhat secure from prying eyes. But this password is not your private key. If you forget the password, you can recover your wallet with the recovery phrase – but not vice versa.
Some wallets are cloud wallets and may just be tied to your email w/ a password, Twitter, Facebook, Discord, etc. These are much easier to use than a plug-in wallet... There’s no recovery phrase to worry about or extension to install. But the convenience comes with a security trade-off: Anyone with your Twitter or Gmail password can get in.
Every wallet has a public key, which you are free to give out. This 64-character address is used to send stuff to your wallet, or to act as your identifier if you want to run a program on the blockchain. This key can usually be found at the top of your wallet once everything is set up. For example, for MetaMask, just tap it to copy it your clipboard:
One thing a lot of crypto game critics may miss is the feel of community these games foster. Joining a game’s Discord channel is a huge part of the experience. An active game channel feels a bit like an Indiana-Jones-style bazaar with guides, mercenaries, and shills at every turn. But if you poke around enough you’ll find a ton of friendly folks who can help you get started, help you learn gameplay strategies, and, yes, maximize your earning potential.
What To Play and Where?
Installing the game itself can be the first challenge.
The dappradar site does a great job listing public data about games, sorted by users, coin balance, or marketplace activity. Check here for games that seem interesting.
Then visit the playtoearn.net site. This directory does a good job sorting games by genre and platform on which you can play.
Most games start on the web – this is because the web safely and easily connects to crypto wallets. Even if the game itself is played elsewhere, your main account setup, token deposits, and marketplace to trade NFTs will often be on the game’s official website.
The game client itself, however, is usually an executable you can download directly on your PC. Installing apps from non-approved sites is clearly risky behavior – but you’re probably ok as long as you stick to a top-tier game and make sure to download only from the official game site.
Other games run primarily on Android phones, allowing you to download an APK which you can install and side-load. Again, be very careful the APK you’re installing is legit and direct from the game’s real site.
Apple and Google, for the most part, do not allow crypto games in their official app stores… and neither does Steam.
Affording The Ante
Your first objection may be: “They cost too much!” It’s true, just getting started at Axie Infinity, the top blockchain game, costs about a thousand dollars. There’s literally no way to try the game until you own the requisite in-game characters (called Axies).
If you work for a larger game studio you should convince your boss to invest in some relevant game items for you – you can even sell back your Axies as soon as you’re done playing with them, often at a profit.
Or check out some of the scholarship guilds, where you can borrow the game items or coins you need from others… as long as you promise a set amount of playtime in return.
But the majority of blockchain games are much cheaper -- and you can get going for $50 or less of initial purchase. In fact, most new games coming out allow some gameplay for free.
Getting Money In and Out
First ,let's look at an example of a top crypto game that makes cashing in/out friendly and fun... and then let's look at everything else.
Splinterlands is one of the most popular crypto games in the world for a reason – not only is it a genuinely fun and balanced experience, but it’s exceptionally easy to get going.
Splinterlands rides atop the Hive blockchain, but you wouldn’t even know it.
You create an account with a self-custody wallet like MetaMask if you want, or just use a normal email / password:
Splinterlands then charges a flat $10 fee to cover costs of setting up an initial account and getting you cards. This ‘entry fee’ is called the Summoner’s Spellbook and can be paid for via PayPal or any major crypto value coin. Once you pay, a Hive wallet is set up for you and tied to your username. The wallet mints a few cheap NFT cards for you to play with.
Once you get more into the game you’ll want to buy better cards. All items in the marketplace can be purchased for Dark Energy Crystals (DEC; Splinterland’s game-specific token). But if you don’t have any DEC won yet and don’t want to bother with exchanges you can begin accumulating cards for credits – a typical in-game hard currency which can be purchased via PayPal.
Finally, if you want to get your NFTs or tokens out of your game’s Hive wallet, they also provide a comprehensive Wallet Linker:
The Bad and the Ugly
But, as we’ll see, most games today make getting money in much, much more onerous than Splinterlands.
For the most part the experience differs based on the game’s primary blockchain. Some blockchains are particularly snarly to use, especially in the United States, since their value tokens are restricted and not commonly for sale.
Below you’ll find some tips and tricks based on the blockchain the game is using.
Binance Smart Chain (BSC)
BSC is the top blockchain currently used by games, with hundreds of active projects atop it such as CryptoBlades, Alien Worlds, _and Thetan Arena_. Games use Binance Coin (BNB) as the value token in which to buy their own game-specific tokens.
1. Wallet Setup: MetaMask is probably the easiest wallet to use. However, it is not set up to work with Binance Smart Chain by default. To do so, you’ll need to manually configure it a bit. Once you do so, you can select the Binance Main Net from your top dropdown:
2. Getting Coin In: Buying BNB is easiest done at Binance.com (and Binance.us for United States players).
Unfortunately Binance is having a lot of serious regulatory issues in countries like the United States (which is a whole dramatic tale in of itself). Depositing USD to Binance.us may take jumping through a few hoops. And in general access may be restricted by your state.
You can try just buying BNB directly for USD and it may work for you:
If not, you may need to buy a stable coin such as USDC or USDT (a coin pegged to the US Dollar) on a place like Coinbase. You can then transfer the USDT to your Binance.us account – and then trade it on the on-the-spot trading market for BNB, which works a lot like trading stocks and involves knowing how to place a market or limit order.
Wow, that’s a lot, right? If that seems too complex, you may need a friend outside of the US to buy BNB for you and transfer it to your wallet.
Further pain comes when trying to get BNB into your MetaMask wallet. You’d think you could just type your MetaMask wallet key into Binance.us and withdraw / transfer it over.. But noooo… What you bought on Binance.com is BNB (BEP-2) which lives on the standard, original Binance blockchain.
To get on the smart chain you need to convert your BNB to a slightly different token called BEP-20. Up until late 2021 this involved multiple steps and hopscotching across additional wallets.
But today Binance.us supports BEP-20 withdrawals. Just make sure to pick BEP20 from the Network pull-down when you withdraw and be sure your wallet address starts with 0x:
A second issue is that Binance.us sometimes throws an unhelpful “Oops! Something went wrong!” error when doing the transfer. What I’ve found works to fix that is to connect your MetaMask wallet while on the Binance.us site. Choose “Connected Site” from the three-dot menu then pick “Manually Connect to the Current Site”.
3. Trade for In-Game Tokens: You can then finally trade your BNB for in-game tokens. This is usually done through Pancakeswap, the largest Binance Smart Chain token trading platform.
a. Visit Pancakeswap’s page for the coin you want to buy with BNB.
Caution: Be sure to link to Pancakeswap through the official site of the game you are playing as there are a lot of ‘imposter’ coins. For example, if you’re looking to buy the PVU coin for the Plants Vs. Undead game, a lot of unscrupulous people have a fake coin also named PVU which isn’t connected at all to the actual game. At the end of the day, a blockchain token isn’t defined by its friendly name but by its original smart contract origination. So tread slowly!
b. Connect your MetaMask wallet.
c. Make sure you’re on the Binance Smart Net in your wallet.
d. Do the swap:
e. Go back to the game’s official page and the proper token should now be in your MetaMask wallet under assets:
4. Trade for NFTs: Most games have their own in-game marketplace where you can trade. Since NFTs live on the blockchain, however, you can also find NFTs on many third party marketplaces as well such as OpenBiSea.
Polygon / Matic
The Polygon sidechain is probably the second-most popular network for current crypto games.
1. Wallet Setup: MetaMask works great but remember, it’s an Ethereum wallet by default. You need to manually add Polygon (also, confusingly, called Matic – its original name) to MetaMask. It’s a bit of a pain, but pretty straightforward. You can then connect to any Polygon game, being sure to pick Matic Mainnet as your active account:
2. Getting Coin In: Polygon’s value coin is called MATIC. The largest challenge with gaming on Polygon, or any sidechain, is getting the proper tokens on the chain. Buying MATIC itself is elementary. Just go to Coinbase, Binance, Kraken, etc. and buy some.
But where you may stumble is getting the MATIC from the main Ethereum blockchain where purchases usually happen over to the Polygon sidechain. If you’re like me, you’ll just copy your public key from MetaMask and paste it into your exchange as you withdraw:
You then may freak out when, many minutes and refreshes later, the MATIC you transferred does not show up in your MetaMask wallet.
The problem is, your Ethereum public key is the same on Polygon, since it’s a sidechain. The good news is that the transfer is safe and sound in your Ethereum wallet:
The bad news is that you can’t actually use this MATIC with any Polygon game until you move it over to the right chain. Doing that requires a bridge, which is easy to find.
Connecting your MetaMask and starting the bridge process is pretty easy too:
But then, OMG, the fees! Over $100 to bridge about $160 worth of MATIC. This is because you are starting the bridge transaction on the main Ethereum blockchain.
The bridge process can also take over an hour before it is validated and goes through. And worse, if you ever want to bring stuff back across the bridge to withdraw there are more heavy tolls plus a 7-day waiting period (for security reasons).
3. Trade for In-Game Tokens: Each game should link you to the site where you can swap MATIC for the chosen game-specific token.
A popular Polygon swap is is Quickswap which only supports coins from top, verified games:
4. Trade for NFTs: Most games have a custom NFT marketplace. However, since Polygon is an offshoot of Ethereum you can also trade NFTs on most popular marketplaces such as OpenSea. Just be careful that the NFT is on the Polygon chain or you’ll pay heavy fees buying it and / or needing to transfer it via the Bridge from Ethereum to Polygon:
Buy Matic Direct with Moonpay or Another On Ramp
You may be stuck with bridging. But before you resort to those fees, you can try an “On Ramp”. Many Polygon games link directly to MoonPay, which is a great product that links credit cards to crypto. Other On Ramps include Wyre, Simplex, Dharma, Transak, etc.
The flow is pretty clean and easy – just choose your amount and enter your wallet public key address.
There is a fee, but it’s pretty low – around $10 for $250.
You also may need to go through Know Your Customer (KYC), which means uploading your driver’s license and possibly a real time webcam headshot.
But the biggest problem with most On Ramps is that if you are in the United States or another highly-regulated country, crypto purchases may not work for many credit cards.
Try all your cards and you may get lucky!
A lot of upcoming big-budget games have announced they will use this fairly new blockchain which balances speed and security with some trade-offs in decentralization. Most games are still in the early phases of production but look promising: Star Atlas, Genopets, Aurory, Cryowar, and Metawana, to name a few.
1. Wallet Setup: Most games use Solana’s own Phantom wallet. As with MetaMask, you add it to Chrome as an extension and set up with a custom set of keywords.
2. Getting Coin In: As a Layer One, Solana offers the speed and access to native SOL value token. You can buy SOL on any major exchange.
Then just withdraw / transfer the SOL into your Phantom Wallet’s public address.
3. Trade for In-Game Tokens: You can use raydium.io to convert SOL into coin accepted by the game:
There are tons of interesting games on the Wax blockchain such as Alien Worlds, Farmer’s World, _and _HodlGod. Wax is among the easiest of blockchains to build and play on. Well… with some annoying caveats.
Wax has done a better job at making a ‘homepage’ for your Wax gaming experience. When you go to your Wax Cloud Wallet you have a built-in place to buy and sell the value token (WAX) and see which NFTs you own.
1. Wallet Setup: Most games opt to use the Wax Cloud Wallet. This wallet doesn’t involve any scary browser extensions or holy keyword phrases… you just connect using your favorite Facebook, Google, Twitter, or other account:
The only downside here is security. If someone gets ahold of your social network account password they also have access to your Wax Cloud Wallet.
2. Getting Coin In: You can buy WAX using a number of methods directly from your Wax Cloud Wallet. For example, Moon Pay tends to work well – even in the United States:
But some credit cards may be restricted.
3. Trade for In-Game Tokens: Wax game tokens can be traded for on different exchanges, with Alcor as one of the most popular. Always be sure to use the official link provided by the game’s official website to ensure you’re trading for the proper coin.
4. Trade for NFTs: Atomic Hub is the top Wax NFT market and the place that most games today do their sales.
Wax Resource Limits
Here’s where Wax gets weird. When you try to do something in a Wax game that requires the transfer of a token, you have to manually approve a popup with the Wax Cloud wallet ‘signing’. This is a bit annoying – but try to read each signing approval carefully the first few times you do an in-game action to ensure you understand what you are transferring – you don’t want to accidentally send all of your Wax or game-specific tokens somewhere they shouldn’t be.
Wax also has a need to stake resources to allow your blockchain transactions to go through. Technically, this is a clever feature of the blockchain to ensure that people who use it are paying fair gas fees for data sent and stored. But functionally it means that you’ll be playing a game all carefree and happy then see a weird error similar to:
You are out of CPU.
While some games do a decent job on a FAQ guiding their players on how to remedy -- it’s very confusing. The numbers change constantly and when the network is busy there are a lot of odd CPU or RAM failures.
The key here is to go to your Wax Cloud Wallet home page and hit the “Resources” button on the right panel. You can then stake some of your WAX, which means you are temporarily allocating tokens the Wax to the network to be used as a fee for processing, chipping in your fair share. You can eventually unstake and get some of your Wax back after several days – but overall it’s a pain.
I’ve found staking about 16 WAX for CPU and 2 WAX for NET is a good place to start, then bump it up if you are getting constant errors in your game.
A very friendly “up-and-comer” blockchain that balances speed and security is Tezos. There are several interesting games running here such as Play With Brio (betting on games of skill) and Tezotopia and the upcoming Emergents Trading Card Game. Recently, Ubisoft (controversially) announced it would be dipping its giant toe into blockchain games using the Tezos blockchain.
1. Wallet Setup: Many Tezos games make it easy to connect using your Google or Twitter account directly via the Kukai Wallet, which is a clean Cloud Wallet:
2. Getting Coin In: As a Layer One, Tezos uses the Tez (XTZ) value token. You can buy XTZ on any major exchange such as Coinbase or using many On Ramps such as Wert.
You can then withdraw / transfer the XTZ into your Kukai Wallet’s public address.
3. Trade for In-Game Tokens: Most games on Tezos seem to natively use XTZ rather than their own custom token.
That’s probably enough for now! Given the rate of innovation and focus on improved user experience, I expect a lot of the kinks to be ironed out as more and more players and designers put their energy into blockchain games.
But I hope this guide inspired you to at least give blockchain games a try so you can appreciate the variety of the landscape.
Let me know what you think… and try not to lose your marbles!