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Time for blockchain gaming to meet the wider, wilder world

Last week I wrote about how good the Illuvium PvP beta is in terms of engagement for hardcore and existing fans. This week, we have a reminder that building scale audiences in gaming requires moving beyond community enthusiasm and that blockchain gaming (BG) is constrained by the same factors working in general gaming. Having a great game is a necessary but not sufficient condition for big gaming success – gamers need to know your game exists, and when they do they must be enticed to download and play it.

Illuvium is a card-based autobattler with an open world component. The project is being led by three Australian brothers (the Warwicks) and they have attracted more funding than almost any other BG. The total funding is not in the public domain, but the numbers we have are these: virtual land sales ($72m), explicit fund raising ($15m) and some other community fund raising (sales of NFTs). Those are big numbers for any game.

So how did Illuvium do in the wild? 

Here are the facts: the Illuvium PvP beta was downloaded 23k times in its first week on the Epic store, it registered something like 15k active players in a day at its peak and has settled down to having around 500 people playing at any one time (concurrents). It made Epic’s top 100 games during the week.

For a blockchain game, these are good numbers, but they landed like a bucket of cold water for the Illuvium community. Illuvium co-founder Kieran Warwick played a straight bat (cricket analogy – means he didn’t attempt to spin the numbers) and mentioned the competitions and tutorials coming to encourage people to download and play the game.

In commenting on the numbers, Warwick said:

“The reality is these are gamers not looking to play for incentives. Having said that, incentives will start shortly, likely boosting the numbers. The question is, though, will that be good long term? I think yes and no.”

In other words, those 23k downloads probably came from true believers and gamers, rather than people trying to make a buck. With the competitions for Illuvium’s ILV token now underway, the money makers may flood the system. The ILV token is around $100 right now, and the beta is free-to-play. A competition Illuvium launched this week has 95 ILV (around $10k) up for grabs, and this “money for nothing” will be attractive in emerging markets.

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To answer Warwick’s question of whether that influx of money makers will be good or bad: probably neither. These “paid” downloads and MAU (monthly active users) are “empty carbs” because it’s doubtful they will lead to true long-term engaged gamers, but it’s hard to see them really keeping a great game down.

In responding to Illuvium’s launch numbers on X, commentators made several good points. The first is that the game is largely incomprehensible to first-time players. This is a major barrier to enjoyment, and clear tutorials are needed asap. I have edited educational courses on Illuvium, and produced several Illuvium videos, but never played the game. When I finally played this week, I had no idea what I was doing. I was just placing pieces on a board, hitting play, and watching the pretty fights.

A game that only caters to experts will remain in a niche.

Another point, from X user Brucetoise, is that the beta has “no lore”: “Most new people are staring at 16 unfamiliar characters attacking simultaneously.” This is an important point, because all games are dreaming games and need to find a way inside the minds of their players. What worlds are conjured therein? What dreams are satisfied by Illuvium’s fantasy animals fighting on a board?

None of this is insoluble in the context of game development. Those who understand this beta love it. The problem is with the expectations.

Before the beta was released, Warwick tweeted this:

“Not sure if many realise, but we have 1.5m people who have registered over the past three years, and we’ve only ever given out access to 40k of those people. All that changes this month. Early access to everyone.”

It’s easy to see why 23k downloads would be deflating in the light of that statement.

Even more extreme are projections from others in the Illuvium community. Last year, Youtuber Scoriox tweeted this:

“Illuvium has 1.5m registered for the beta. If all of them spent 1k within a year to play the game and capture NFTs then you have 1.5 billion revenue.”

All the numbers in this equation are grossly inflated. Those 1.5m registrations turned out to be 65 times the first week’s downloads, and the revenue per user figure is even worse. For free-to-play PC games, revenue per user per year (ARPU) averages under $3 (Newzoo, 2022). Even when you get to the paying players, and this is necessarily a much smaller group, ARPPU is something like $27.

The first week on the Epic store indicates Illuvium is subject to the usual challenges within the game industry, including marketing, and relying on inflated numbers won’t cut it any more.

So what does real scale look like in a video game?

It looks like Grand Theft Auto VI (GTA 6).

We had a reminder of how the big franchises roll, and exactly how much production prowess and cultural heft they bring, with the release of the GTA 6 trailer this week.

The 90-second trailer set a record for the number of Youtube views on a non-music video in 24 hours: around 90m. Only two videos have ever done better, both by Korean band BTS.

The trailer was leaked on X several hours early by some clown who put a “buy bitcoin” graphic front and centre. I was convinced the leaked trailer was legitimate because of the way the song (by dead rocker Tom Petty) and the editing conjured the sense of a rich and evocative world: seedy, imperfect, and full of life. If the trailer is anything to go by – if it shows actual gameplay – then the Vice City of GTA 6 is an incredible achievement. 

But … aiming for the success of GTA6 is like saying you want to write War and Peace before you put pen to paper. Probably better to focus on making your game work for your gamers and going from there.

When it comes out in 2025, GTA 6 will have taken Rockstar 12 years to make. For the record, Google searches for Tom Petty spiked worldwide immediately on release of the trailer. See Google Trends graph of “Tom Petty” below. This is the new global mainstream.

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Hal Crawford

Hal Crawford is an experienced journalist and newsroom manager, and the head of content at Polemos.