Back in June 2022, Paul Bettner’s Playful Studios made a splash with a different kind of Web3 game. Instead of raising money first through a token sale and perhaps never delivering a game, Bettner’s team in the company’s Wildcard Alliance division unveiled a game they had been working on for years.
It started out as a traditional Web2 game, but the more they studied blockchain games, Bettner and his cofounder Katy Drake Bettner (they’re married) found that they could use elements of blockchain, such as player ownership, to reward players for their enthusiasm. It’s funny that Bettner came up with this plan, as he was a self-avowed crypto skeptic and suspicious of blockchain games.
McKinney, Texas-based Playful raised $46 million and it showed off a playable Wildcard Alliance game, where players duel with each other esports style and try to take the enemy’s goal in combat that resembles a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) title. The title is meant to be accessible to onboard “the next billion gamers” to Web3 with ease, accessibility, and fun at the forefront. And it is meant to be just as fun to watch as to play.
I talked with Bettner about this — and his belief that blockchain games can be combined with triple-A values — at the recent SXSW gaming event in Austin. Our session was entitled, “How a Crypto Skeptic Built Web3’s Most Anticipated Game.”
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Here’s an edited transcript of our fireside chat.
GamesBeat: Paul, could tell us more about your background?
Paul Bettner: I guess we’re both old guys. I’ve been making games for many years now. I started as a kid. As we talk about some of the stuff we’re working on with Wildcard today, probably the common thread is going to be an obsession with working on products and games that connect people together. Has anybody in the audience seen that show Halt and Catch Fire? It’s kind of like what my life was back then, when I was first getting started at 17 or 18. I started what was called a bulletin board service, a BBS. Pre-internet. It became one of south Florida’s most popular BBSes. I was developing software for it and running games on it. I guess I was 16 and 17.
I’ve been obsessed since then with the opportunity for games and entertainment to connect people together, which leads us to what we do today, from Age of Empires to Words With Friends–especially Words With Friends. That was quite a journey. It became one of the top mobile games, played by half a billion people.
GamesBeat: You sold that company to Zynga for more than $50 million in around 2010.
Bettner: It was a lot more than $50 million. We sold the company for $180 million to Zynga in 2010. It was only outed when they had to file the report that my brother and I were top shareholders in Zynga at the time. It’s been an incredible journey making games. Not just developing games generally, but as you can tell from the things that we’ve mentioned, specifically developing games at the intersection of trying to create beloved, joyful experiences, and then smashing that together with cutting-edge technology and seeing what happens.
Looking at Words With Friends as an example, we left what we were doing at the time, which was working on Age of Empires and Halo at Microsoft, to start a mobile game company. Nobody thought that was a good idea at the time. In hindsight it’s obvious, but all my friends and peers thought I was having a mid-life crisis or something. It was right when the iPhone came out. We were all playing flip phone games like Solitaire on our phones. I just thought that this was probably going to be the place where I could work on new types of entertainment that connect people in a way that we hadn’t been able to do on console and PC. I think web3 is the same thing now.
GamesBeat: I’m trying to remember how far into the iPhone era you guys came out.
Bettner: It was a year or two after the iPhone. Our first game was Chess With Friends. But we dove in very early. Since then–going back even before that, with Age of Empires and the games we worked on at Microsoft, we were still being drawn to these opportunities to create games for more people. This is something I’ve been inspired by, some of my favorite companies like Nintendo. They obsess over the customers they have, but they also obsess over the customers they don’t have. For me, after 20 years of my career, I’ve wanted to find out who are the people who don’t play our games yet, and why. How can we reach them?
When the iPhone came out, that’s what I saw. I saw a Game Boy that my wife would own. Which is not something she would have owned necessarily. I thought that this was going to be an incredible opportunity to make something that could reach a much larger audience and connect people in a new way. What I didn’t expect was the kinds of games I would end up making. If you asked me, I would have never said it was on my bucket list to make a word game, a Scrabble clone. I can call it that now. It’s been long enough.
When we started to work on that device and get that iPhone in our hands, the first ideas that came to us were the ones we worked on before, like Age of Empires. But as soon as we sat with it for a second we thought that this just wasn’t what the iPhone’s audience was going to be looking for on this type of device. I felt like we’d encounter a new type of audience, a new type of gamer. What might that person be looking for? That’s what led us to developing those With Friends games in the first place.
GamesBeat: These were always family affairs for you? The whole time?
Bettner: Sort of, yeah. In terms of the companies I’ve started, it’s always been with my family, looking back. My brother and I started the Words With Friends company, which is right when I got married. Now, at Wildcard, it’s my wife and I. We’re co-CEOs. She’s here in the audience. Katie is a filmmaker and a storyteller. Of course I started working with her as soon as we were dating, and then as we were married. She’s always been there as a partner in everything we’re doing, but now it’s in an official capacity.
We’ve seen this opportunity with games. Especially folks here in this audience–I think that some of the IP that’s the most popular and beloved in the world has come from, historically, film and TV and books. We just believe that some of the IP that’s most beloved in the next couple of decades can come from games. We started this company together, my wife and I, to see that happen.
GamesBeat: Let’s describe Wildcard more for people who don’t know. Playful was the company you had after Newtoy. It’s been around this whole time. It’s expanded and contracted and expanded again. Wildcard is part of that, right?
Bettner: Yes. Coming out of the Words With Friends experience, we didn’t want to re-engage in that same cycle where we start a company around an IP and then have to sell that company and start over again. We didn’t want to keep repeating that. It’s the traditional way that tech companies are built, but it isn’t the way the film business works, for instance. I was kind of jealous of seeing how the business worked for my wife and for the film and TV projects she worked on. She got to work with the same people over and over again. It was a much more dynamic and flexible model of scaling up when production happened and then scaling back down.
We started that parent company, Playful, about 12 years ago now with that idea. Could games be made in that same way? It was only a hypothesis until the last two years, because we were working on games. We were still working with publishers. It was more of a traditional model. But we had this game we self-funded called Wildcard, which we’ll talk about more today. We spent our own money with the dream that maybe someone would come along and want to invest in it. Then we could spin that out as its own subsidiary owned by the parent company.
That’s what we were eventually able to pull off. Last year we raised $46 million from Paradigm, a web3 investor, probably the top web3 investor. They saw Wildcard, saw the potential in it, and we were able to see that dream come true.
GamesBeat: That’s about 10 times more than I usually see for game funding that I wind up writing about every week.
Bettner: It was significant, yeah. That’s partly because we had invested so much of our own time and energy and money into it. By the time Paradigm came along, it was five years in development already. That was a lot of risk on our part, a lot of our own capital and capital we raised from friends and family. That’s what it took to see that model come to life. It’s that willingness to bootstrap it.
Just for context, typically in the game industry the IP that is developed by a developer like us is in a way mortgaged away to the publishers. The Electronic Arts and the Activisions of the world. It’s rare for an independent developer to be able to work on a game of this scale and still own the IP. But that’s the vision of what we’ve tried to do from the beginning. It gives us tremendous flexibility – and we have skin in the game – the way that we’re building it now.
GamesBeat: You described the model for what you’re doing with Wildcard, but it’s also completely different from how a lot of web3 companies have started. The question is, where does web3 get it wrong?
Bettner: That’s two questions there. The first one, a bit about our journey to web3. First of all, I guess we probably need to define web3 a bit more, because that’s a nebulous term. In this case I mean it to be the set of technologies – blockchain, crypto, and specifically the smart contracts on platforms like Ethereum – that have created this new opportunity for us and for games.
I say that specifically because it’s tied to the second question. What have games gotten wrong about this over the last couple of years? It starts with the over-financialization of this technology. The most obvious application of crypto and web3 is in finance and finance protocols. But for games it can mean a lot more. The financial aspects of it are part of it, because we’ve always had games with virtual currencies and virtual economies. We’ve been doing this in games for decades and it’s an obvious fit. But I also think there’s way more potential as it applies to web3’s ability to empower gamers to own things and to have a new–this word we keep using is “affiliation” with a game and with what we’re creating.
The other part of that, the other answer to that question–a lot of web3 projects I’ve encountered, and even still today, they kind of feel like solutions in search of a problem. “We’ve got this really cool crypto technology and investors like it if we pitch them a deck about crypto, so let’s do that and raise some money.” Then they have to go build a game. That can work, but our approach has been very different. We had been working on Wildcard for five or six years before I really knew what web3 was. I knew what Bitcoin was, but I wasn’t paying any attention to the space, for some of the same reasons that everybody is skeptical about it.
I still am very skeptical of what’s happening in web3 on a general basis. There are a lot of problems with it. But a year and a half ago–we had been working on this game Wildcard, which I’ll tell you more about, but fundamentally it started five-six years ago with this vision Katie and I had to build a game that was as much fun to watch as it was to play. It could bring together competitors and their audiences in a new way that hadn’t been done before. This is inspired by things you’re all familiar with: what’s been happening on Twitch and YouTube and streaming platforms. We started to see this happen with gamers and our audience six years ago. In some cases we had people who were watching people play our games more than they played themselves. This was something new.
A lot of game projects or folks in games have looked at that as something adjacent to our industry. “Oh, it’s cool that there’s this thing called Twitch and people do their thing on Twitch that drives audience to our game.” But eventually the goal is still just to get them to install your game. For us we looked at it differently. What if we didn’t care whether they installed the game or not? What if we imagine that the entire audience is already a customer, already a player, even if they never install the game? They enjoy it just as much when they tune in to watch on Twitch as someone who’s playing.
Then the other question we started to ask – and again, this is five years ago – a lot of the games that are popular on streaming platforms, like League of Legends or even Fortnite, they were built conceptually before that even started happening. League of Legends is a great game for streaming platforms, but it wasn’t made for that. It was actually invented before that even started happening. The question we wanted to ask ourselves back then was, “What would it look like to develop a game from scratch where we knew that was going to happen?” Or we hoped. We could imagine somebody playing the game and another 10,000 people watching that game. What would that do?
In the case of Fortnite it’s invisible. If you have one person playing and they’re not streaming at all, and then you have someone else, Dr DisRespect, whoever it is, and he’s got 100,000 people watching him, the game is identical. The game doesn’t even know that’s happening. It’s invisible to the game. We thought there was an opportunity to create a new type of connection for this. Because that’s what’s happening. People like my kids tune in to watch their favorite streamers, and they feel such a genuine and authentic connection to those creators. I feel like the game is the thing that sits between the two. We could use the game to create that new type of connection.
Anyway, leading to the question you asked, we were working on that for five years. We were starting to get quite frustrated, honestly, by the conversations we were having with the Amazons of the world. Of course we were reaching out to Twitch and YouTube and saying, “We think there’s an opportunity for you to do more here. You can build your platform toward this future where there’s a much deeper connection between the people watching and the people playing.” They’d say, “Yeah, it’s cool, we hear you, but we have this business that’s already running.” It’s been hard to get them to meet us where we think that vision can go.
Wildcard went on the back burner a couple of years ago for that reason. When this web3 opportunity came along to finally tie the pieces together, we had this problem we were trying to solve. Web3 was the answer, the solution to that problem.
GamesBeat: Are you saying a lot about that yet? What is that answer?
Bettner: When you look at the relationship that exists between somebody who’s streaming a game and their audience – the content creator, the player, the competitor, and my son who tunes into watch – there’s so much value being created. I don’t know if you guys have kids, or if you yourselves are viewers, but they tune into that entertainment more than Netflix, more than HBO, more than Disney. That’s where the eyeballs are going. There’s tremendous value created there.
If you talk to those content creators, though – the players, the competitors – they’re frustrated. This isn’t working for them. Esports doesn’t have the upside we were hoping for. Streaming is a brutal business. It takes 12 hours a day every day just to turn out enough content, because they get pennies on the dollar from the relationship with their audience. Normally we would have this stack of web2 companies sitting between the streamer, who loves our game, and the audience watching that. They’re all extracting their value from that. Web3 lets us do an end around that whole problem.
We haven’t actually talked about the game yet, but Wildcard is like the ultimate spectator sport. It’s like Pokemon come to life. The players are down on the field. They’re playing champions. They’re summoning creatures. Those creatures are doing battle. It’s less like the Pokemon game, which is not very exciting, and more like the Pokemon movies, a bombastic exciting experience. It all happens in an arena where the people who tune in to watch are actually part of the game. They show up in the arena of the game.
One of the experiences we’re able to bring to life because of web3, which we actually did recently at an exhibition, is a live giveaway between the person who’s playing and the audience. We can have that moment that we’re familiar with from professional sports, where a baseball player might sign a ball and throw it into the stands, and then some fan catches it. We can bring that experience to life. The key thing relative to what I was just saying–that digital asset, that artifact that goes directly from the content creator to the fan, it’s skipping all those layers. It goes right from one person’s wallet to the other person’s wallet. Nothing is extracted.
GamesBeat: The typical web3 game entrepreneurs would say that you’ve gotten this all backward. You’re supposed to announce that you’re going to make a game, create a bunch of NFTs, sell them to the public, and then maybe deliver a game sometime down the road. That has its advantages, but it also has lots of drawbacks.
Bettner: When we were having this conversation with Paradigm, they initially had an offer. We said, “That’s great. We love that you’re so excited about the game. But what if we asked for twice that?” We had this big ambition to raise enough money to see a real triple-A game come to life in web3. But we weren’t willing to do the thing you’re mentioning.
I see that, and we’ve all seen that happen with web3 games over the last few years. The fundraising, the ability to do fundraising by selling off parts of the game early, gets intertwined with the actual funds that are used to develop the game. That model can work, but it’s just extremely challenging and risky. When we did the raise with Paradigm we said that we needed the time and the ability to figure out the right way to apply this incredible but very challenging new technology around crypto and blockchain and web3 to games. If we didn’t raise enough money and we were forced to jam those things together before we figured it out, we worry that the thing that’s happened in games many times, when the financial aspects come in direct contact with game design, could ruin what we’re trying to do.
The famous example we always talk about is the Diablo III auction house. It was a very popular game by a very popular developer with a beloved IP. They thought, “What if we try exposing our in-game economy directly to a real economy and let people trade items from the game?” It blew up. They had to pull it out of the game. That’s the kind of thing we were scared of. To your point, that’s the risk that other companies and studios are running into when they kind of do it backward.
GamesBeat: There are the pros and cons here of doing the token sale ahead of time. An advantage of selling tokens is that you don’t have to go to VCs to raise that money and give up equity in the process. You get your money in front. You also identify your whales up front, the people who are going to spend tons of money in a game.
Bettner: Do you guys know what that means, whales? This is an unfortunate term that came out of free-to-play gaming. That business model – Candy Crush and so on – they make all their money from one percent of the audience that’s pouring tens of thousands of dollars a month into swapping candy. I’m not kidding. Those people are referred to as whales in that industry.
GamesBeat: You had to reach 100 million people to find the million people who would pay you anything. That made it all work. But it came with things like user acquisition costs to find that 100 million people.
Bettner: I think it also harmed game design, honestly. The things we get annoyed by in those games that we might otherwise enjoy freely—the free-to-play mobile industry has words for that. They call it pinching the player. Trying to extract that money. I don’t think that has necessarily had a great impact on the fun of games. Part of my hope with web3, and one of the reasons why I was drawn to it early, it’s to save gaming in web3 from that same fate, in a way. There are so many ways in which this could go wrong, speaking candidly. But I think there is a genuine opportunity to create a new type of ownership and engagement and affiliation between our audience in the game that I believe can lead to better games, more fun games that are sustained in a healthier way. Not just with this one percent of the audience paying for everyone else.
GamesBeat: One of the pros of token sales, again, you found those people who would pay you up front, and you could operate a profitable game pretty early on. Million On Mars is a pretty good example. It’s a Mars colony simulation. They have 10,000 players, but all of those people are paying, and that’s enough that they can operate a 20-person studio and make money running the game. Who would have thought you could operate profitably with 10,000 players?
Bettner: The coolest thing I see about this is that level of engagement from the audience. It’s off the charts in terms of the people that show up. But it’s a different kind of audience. This is something I may have an obsession with, but every time we make a game for a new platform, like when we made a game for the iPhone, we tend to bring all the things we loved and applied to the games we worked on before. We want games that connect people, that make people happy. But there’s always something new that’s unique about that platform and that audience that I’ve never encountered before.
When we were making games for the phone, suddenly I had to make a game that someone could play on the toilet. Never had to do that before. Now you had to finish a move in two or three minutes, like in an elevator. That was this crazy new thing. Honestly, the difference between the games—I can say this candidly now. Scrabble came out before Words With Friends, but Scrabble wasn’t that kind of game. It was inconvenient. It took 60 seconds to load. It was hard to navigate. We were obsessing over how Words With Friends had to be as fast as email or text messaging. You had to get in, make your move, and get out. We were obsessed with that unique new thing, which was convenience.
The next game we worked on after that was Lucky’s Tale, a VR game. I didn’t have to worry about people playing VR on the toilet, but I did have to worry about another new thing, which was comfort. Suddenly the games I was working on could literally make people sick. Now I had to worry about that. That was a brand new thing about that platform.
In web3 we had this moment a year ago when we first announced that we raised all this money from Paradigm and Wildcard was going to be a web3 game. A new audience showed up that I had never encountered before. This audience showed up in our Discord, showed up in the community, and they said, “This looks so cool! This is so exciting! I want to be a part of this!” Great, great. It was like people showing up at my door or something. Come on in! What are you having fun with? What excites you? And they said, “I want to acquire an asset in this game that can appreciate in value.” Well, okay. Never hard that before.
Then I had this moment. What do I do? Do I kick them out, because that’s not normally something I would design a game for? Or do I figure out how to make that work together with the other thing they want, which is a game that can scale to millions of people? The audience of millions of players that we’re always looking for with a game like Wildcard, I don’t think they’ll all be focused on that same thing. As I mentioned, for the iPhone it was convenience. For VR it was comfort. For web3 it’s opportunity. That’s the unique thing that this audience is looking for that I haven’t yet encountered.
In this case I think our opportunity is to find a way, to your point, to connect that audience—I don’t think they’re everyone. They’re the core. They show up first when you develop a web3 game. Our goal is to connect that to a larger audience of millions of people. What I see a lot of web3 games do, they try to mash those people together. “All of the millions of people we want to show up, they’ll all have this same objective. They’ll all be here for opportunity.” No, they won’t. Most of them will be here to play a game and have fun. I get that this is what you guys are obsessed with and I love that. We can work with that. But our challenge is to build a bridge between those two audiences rather than treat them the same way.
Our approach to that, to answer your question, is to think about how those two things can coexist, and how those two audiences collaborate. The things that come to mind for us, because Wildcard is a competitive game, are things like team ownership. Again, it’s around that word “affiliation.” How do we take this group of people who want to be owners—I can’t use the word “investor,” because we’re not allowed to use that word. They call themselves “degens,” as you all know. But how do I bring that opportunity together with the larger audience and allow them to feel like they’re working together and collaborating to build value? If I were to look out and say what will be the Angry Birds of web3 in the future, I feel like those games will have that feature to them.
GamesBeat: Even though you’re a game veteran, you have to have this fortitude to stay in web3. The downside of those token sales I was mentioning is that you can sell your tokens up front for your game to people, but that process is virtually indistinguishable from all the scams surrounding it. All the people who have the intention of selling you things with no intention of ever delivering a game. Web3 has gotten a lot of bad press around that.
Bettner: And the audience is very apprehensive for that reason. There have been so many scams and so much fraud.
GamesBeat: We have FTX. The whole notion of making money from the things that you buy, from those tokens—that argument has gone way downhill.
Bettner: It’s hard. All the stuff that I just talked about that makes this exciting is not the stuff that has been capitalized on over the last couple of years. When I have conversations with fellow game developers and peers and other entrepreneurs working on games and I ask them, how about web3? “What’s that opportunity like? It seems kinda sketchy.” If you spend the time and understand what the technology is capable of, what a distriuted ledger is and how it can be applied to a video game, it’s mind-blowing, the possibilities of what this brings to games. But it’s a complete uphill battle to fight against the negative uses of that, especially the over-financialization of that technology.
What we will have in the end, nobody is going to care if a game has a blockchain behind it or whether it’s a web3 game or anything like that. Except for people like us, maybe. Gamers won’t care. That’s like saying you should love a game because it uses SQL Server. Nobody cares about that. But they will care, if we use this technology the right way, about the way in which this changes games. The way in which this brings together new affiliation between different parts of the audience. Once that starts happening, gamers will never want to go back from those opportunities.
GamesBeat: Things like free mints have come up more recently to get around the problem of exploiting the audience first. Now you’re giving away free NFTs and free tokens. There’s that option. The industry finds itself in a situation where now it’s time to deliver a game, deliver triple-A experiences. Where are they? Do you think they’re coming, based on some of the company you keep?
Bettner: I think so, but I also think that the web3 audience is not used to waiting for things as long as it takes to build a game. We’re in a unique opportunity to have a game that we were working on for five years already. Web3 just happens to be an amazing technology that lets us have that baseball moment I mentioned earlier. A lot of other studios and friends of mine who are starting down this journey, they know – we all know – that building a great game can take five years. Crypto people aren’t used to waiting five years for anything. They want something in five minutes.
There’s definitely this wake-up call or realization that will settle in for folks. It ties into what we were talking about earlier. When I look at the types of games, everything from a mobile casual game to a high-end triple-A game like Wildcard, it’s not clear to me what will be the dominant genres in web3. What we’re doing, building a spectator-driven experience, I think that’s going to work. But I still don’t know what those other games will be. If you asked me that before Words With Friends, of course, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that word games would become the dominant casual games that people wanted to play. It’s hard to tell at this point.
There may be some mobile games that can get developed in a shorter time frame than something like Wildcard. They might emerge. But I still think, no matter what, web3 folks generally are not used to waiting for the amount of time it takes to create beloved entertainment. It’s just a longer process. There will be a bit of getting used to that.
GamesBeat: When do you think this Halo moment is coming? Microsoft lost $4 billion on the first Xbox, but they luckily identified the hit game that mattered most of all, which was Halo. That gave the Xbox the life it needed, and two decades later they’re making a lot of money. What do you think will be the Halo moment for web3 games?
Bettner: Well, I hope it’s Wildcard! Wildcard’s one of those moments. Even going back to the iPhone and Words With Friends, we’ve tried to be Nintendo where Nintendo isn’t. That was one of the questions we had. Imagine if Nintendo had invented this. Again, this is back before the Switch. What would they make for this? Nintendo is interesting, because they do bring Mario and Zelda and their major franchises to new platforms, but they’re also always very brave and innovative with the kinds of games they make.
Remember when they had the Nintendo DS, this weird dual-screen device? I remember seeing that and thinking, “What? A stylus?” Then I saw Nintendogs, if you guys remember that game, where you had these dogs scratching on the screen. Suddenly it made sense. Nintendo keeps doing that. What Nintendo realizes is that when new technology breakthroughs like this happen, or blockchain, or anything of that nature, there’s an opportunity to create new types of game experiences that help answer that question I mentioned earlier. How about the people who aren’t playing our games yet? Is there a way to reach them?
This whole thing I was talking about with games as a spectator sport, to me that’s the real big opportunity here, at least in the case of Wildcard. The magic of this was that you didn’t have to pick up a controller to play a game, or even get on your computer. You could just touch it and play. It was the most casual way to play a game that I’d experienced so far. When I started seeing people watch other people play our games, I thought, “There it is. There’s the new most casual way to enjoy a game. They didn’t even install the game! They’re just sitting back with my game in a window in the corner while they work.” That’s the next most casual mode. I think we’ll be able to reach the largest possible audience with that.
GamesBeat: That road to the mainstream that everyone seems to be struggling with right now. If there are only a million active wallets, how can you get to 100 million people playing?
Bettner: Let me tell one more Words With Friends story and maybe that will help draw an analogy here. I believe that new experiences can be created that find entirely new human behaviors that people weren’t doing before. That’s fine. But I tend to be drawn toward the way in which technology, and now these conversations about metaverses and everything—how it can recapture and rekindle experiences that we might have had in real life that we can now have in a brand new way, in an online digital way. The vision for Words With Friends was just the experience of playing board games together with my family. Can we have that come to life for me and my mom, who lives in another state? Could we still have that experience?
When I think about any new technology, that’s always what I’m drawn to. What is something that could happen in a new way? When I look at what’s happening with streaming, I think that feeling, that experience that we have enjoying our favorite professional sports—the World Cup just recently is a perfect example. A $2 billion event, the most watched thing in history. Have video games gotten to that point yet? No. Will they? Absolutely, 100%. I’m hoping that Wildcard can be a part of that.
There will be other web3 genres, but I think web3 is uniquely suited to making that specific thing come to life. We had this problem when we were talking to Twitch and Amazon. If the person didn’t install our game, we didn’t have a way to connect with them. We couldn’t bring them to life in the game we were building unless Twitch let us do that. With web3 we don’t have to ask Twitch for permission. We can create an experience where that person links a wallet and they are there in the game, without installing it. In the case of web3, that’s specifically how I think it’s going to bring that experience of being part of a community of fans that love your favorite team.
I explained this to our investors when we started working on this game six years ago. I promise you that in 10 years, you may not be sitting around watching the Super Bowl. You might be watching your kid playing a video game in this amazing tournament. That’s what we’ll all be paying attention to. I think that moment is going to happen, and that will be a Halo moment for this technology.
Question: What is the answer for onboarding people from web2 to web3? How do you deal with the challenge of getting people to set up a wallet? Mobile had this voracious adoption curve, or even worse, the web. How long is adoption going to take for web3? Is adoption too far away for you to build an audience?
Bettner: I hope I’m not making that mistake. That’s one of the most challenging things as a founder generally. It’s timing. Timing is everything. I will say, some early indications are that the appetite for this set of things that we’re able to deliver is enormous. The engagement with even the small audience we have is off the charts. They’re so interested and engaged with what we’re doing. It feels like I have this incredible force in my hands that I’ve never had as a game developer. I’ve never had this type of energy before.
GamesBeat: You have a real community already?
Bettner: Yes, and that would not have been possible before. That’s the challenge. It’s a double-edged sword with web3. It provides that, but then to your point, the technologies and the onboarding are not there yet. The way it feels to me, when we developed Words With Friends, to use that analogy again, there were no push notifications on the phone yet. The product that we were building required that. We had to have a way to tell people, “It’s your move.”
I was looking at what was being built. I was looking at the momentum and the investment going into that space, what Apple was doing and so on. I felt enough confidence and faith in where I was heading. The rest of the industry needed to head in the same direction and solve these problems. The right work had to be happening to do that. That’s what it feels like now. I’m not going to go build a wallet that fixes the problems of Metamask or whatever. But I have enough confidence and visibility into the folks who are working on that. I think we’re going to arrive in the same place at the same time.
Bettner: What I end up thinking about a lot is my own children. People ask, because I’m a game developer, does that mean I just let them play games all the time? When we were doing VR, people would ask me if I even let them wear the headset. Yes, I did, sometimes. But I think as game developers, what we work with generally has incredible power and potential, but it has those downsides and those risks.
I can only speak for ourselves. But if we’re paying attention and staying focused on the kinds of feelings that we want to create for our audience, which are joy and connection, then it leads us in the right directions. Like any technology, it can be used to create the wrong things. All I can do is try to be one of the ones doing the right thing, and we’ll see if that can lead us all to a better place.
Question: When it comes to needing to be able to find a way to monetize, how do you frame that? What is your mindset? Specifically within the web3 space.
Bettner: For me, it really is that word we were using earlier, which is opportunity. What I try to do is I try to identify what is the new and unique thing about this audience that wasn’t present in other audiences that I’ve worked with. That’s it. They come in the door wanting to know where they can find an opportunity in what we’re building. They’re not just here to play. They’re not just here to have fun, at least that early audience. They’re with us to go on that journey and be part of the opportunity we’re building. The more that you let that happen, the more that you let them be a part of that, the more you’re going to harness that power. Potentially, as Dean was saying, what exists here is the ability to create those more niche things with smaller budgets and smaller audiences and still have immense success before of what web3 allows us to build.
Question: Why blockchain? Why can’t you simply let people invest in a game at an earlier stage, or sell a subscription service that’s profitable at a certain number of users? Why is it necessary to use blockchain?
Bettner: I love this question because it comes up a lot, especially with skeptics, and I think it’s a totally legit question. The technologies did exist to do these things before web3, before blockchain. My answer, especially now that I’ve worked in this field for a year, is that it’s less about the technology and more about people waking up to this opportunity and being interested in this thing. Like I said, I never had someone in our audience say, “What if you did this? What if I could own a team? What if I could be a part of the value you’re building in this game?” It just never came up before.
What blockchain and web3 is does is it brings to life the awareness of that opportunity. It points us in a direction and says, “There’s a thing here that people might be interested in doing, even though they weren’t doing it before in games.” It’s more about that than the specific technology. The technologies are all what made that happen and woke people up to that opportunity, but to your point, it’s less now about that specific technology and more about this new opportunity that we haven’t been focused on before as game developers.
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