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Playful Studios, the maker of Words With Friends and Lucky’s Tale, unveiled a Web3 game and raised $46 million for its The Wildcard Alliance division.

The Wildcard Alliance wants to onboard “the next billion gamers” to Web3 with ease, accessibility, and fun at the forefront, said Paul Bettner, cofounder of Playful Studios, in an interview with GamesBeat.

“This is a really big moment for us and for the team, to finally be announcing this game and finally begin to allow the community to connect with us and to grow around the game with us,” Bettner said. “I’m really excited the whole team is to finally on the next phase of that journey.”

This company differs from all the other blockchain game companies I’ve seen because it has made a playable game before talking about its blockchain technology. And the team has been working on and off on this game for five years.

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While the company was searching for the fun, there were some painful times. Rather than go full tilt with multiple projects, the company made a decision in 2019 to scale down the large team and focus on one main project. Then the pandemic hit and it turned out that was the right thing to do for the company’s survival. The company has since brought many of those employees back.

It isn’t ready yet as it is in the pre-alpha stage, but I’ve seen Bettner play it.

“Five years ago, we had this vision from the beginning of creating a connected, empowered community that didn’t just include the competitors, but also included the fans, the spectators, and the whole audience,” Bettner said. “The way that we used to talk about this, and we still do with Wildcard is, in a lot of cases, games will make this distinction between the people who install and compete in the game, and we call those players and then everybody else who’s like tuning in to watch. But as game developers, we don’t tend to look at those people as our customers yet until they install the game and become a competitor. And the question we’re asking them from the beginning with Wildcard was, ‘Well, what if we treat all those people as part of our audience, whether they’re coming in, in a web browser, whether they’re coming in via Discord as part of the community, whatever way it is that they’re engaging with the IP, we should be treating those people’s players from the moment they show up.”

And the title looks like a high-quality game, with battles taking place in an arena where spectators can watch. This is the kind of effort I expect from Bettner, who I’ve interviewed over the years during the heyday of virtual reality (with Lucky’s Tale at Playful) and mobile games as part of Zynga.

“It’s super rough around the edges. It’s in a very, very early development state,” Bettner said. “Even though we’ve been working on it for five years, it has not been a full-time thing. And we’ve had other franchises have been taking the front seat at different times, like our Lucky’s Tale franchise.”

But Bettner wanted to show it because Web3 games have generated so much skepticism because there haven’t been real high-end games to play. Many startups are raising money through sales of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) first, and it’s not clear when they will deliver a game.

“There are so few games that we can actually get our hands on and play,” he said. “What I want to do with the community is just show the game being played live, rather than just talking about it.”

A big vision

Wildcard takes place in a battle arena.

To move into the blockchain gaming space, the McKinney, Texas-based company created The Wildcard Alliance, a division that is making a battle game called Wildcard. It has elements of a game like Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering, where you manage card decks. But it also has the action gameplay of a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game or an arena game like Rocket League, Bettner said.

“Our vision from the beginning of this game has been to try to bring those two genres together successfully. And it’s been challenging, like going back all the way to our work on Age of Empires,” he said. “Finding the formula for fun in this game has been a journey. And it’s been part of why it’s taken us several years to get to the point where we feel confident about the game.”

The game will use blockchain technology as Better believes that Web3 technology will bring something special to gaming. And Wildcard has more than 100 people working on it. The team has worked on titles like Age of Empires, Halo Wars, New Super Lucky’s Tale, Orcs Must Die, and Words With Friends.

Big investors

The action gets frenetic in Wildcard.

Paradigm, which funds crypto and Web3 companies, led the round, with support from Griffin Gaming Partners and Sabrina Hahn. That’s a pretty high end group of investors.

Wildcard is a hybrid of MOBA, real-time strategy, and collectible card game where players compete surrounded by live, interactive fans and spectators. The game is the brainchild of Paul Bettner, veteran
video game developer renowned for developing games including Age of Empires, early VR hit Lucky’s Tale ,as well as co-creating the wildly popular, Words with Friends together with his brother David.

With a penchant for exploring and harnessing new technology, Bettner is now entering the world of Web3 gaming, intending to create an engaging game franchise with fun at its core.

“Web3 platforms present a tremendous opportunity to build entertainment that can include, empower, and onboard millions of new players,” said Bettner, cofounder and CEO of The Wildcard Alliance, in a statement. “Despite this opportunity, the current focus of Web3 game development tends to be on finance over fun, economy over engagement, currency over community. With Wildcard, we’re focused on fun first, building a next-generation ‘spectator sport’ to welcome the entire community of competitors,
collectors, sponsors, and fans to play together.”

The Wildcard Alliance was cofounded by a married couple, Paul and Katy Drake Bettner, joining forces professionally, combining their talents to create a unified ecosystem of intellectual property that spans interactive entertainment and linear media.

Together, they have assembled a world-class team of game industry veterans with decades of triple-A development experience, now working alongside highly sought-after storytellers and IP creators from massive media franchises such as Star Wars, DC Comics, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Paradigm’s investment in The Wildcard Alliance underscores a shared belief that interactive entertainment will be a primary driver of growth in Web3. Paradigm is known for backing the disruptive Web3 and crypto projects of tomorrow.

“What sets Wildcard apart is an emphasis on quality and fun,” said Dave White, research partner at Paradigm, in a statement. “Paul and the team have a proven track record building fun games at the frontier of what’s possible, and they are using Web3 tech in truly innovative ways to bring openness and accessibility to proven eSports mechanisms.”

Wildcard will be powered by Polygon, one of the leading chains for gaming and a platform for Ethereum scaling and infrastructure development. Polygon’s focus on improving crypto’s carbon footprint has been a key factor in the Wildcard Alliance’s decision to leverage the Polygon suite of technologies, Bettner said.

Hands-on demo

Bolgar Grudge is a champion in Wildcard.

We started in a sci-fi like arena called Frostburn. As an arena, it had three lanes for combat.

There are a variety of creatures in the game, some loveable and cute and some quite menacing. You have a lead character, or champion, who is the main competitor in the arena, but that character can spawn other creatures, much like a Pokemon trainer can release creatures to fight in battles. You set them loose and they start seeking out the enemies. Both sides have a base and the goal is to destroy the other creatures and take out the enemy’s base, much like in a MOBA game. The special effects in the battles are magical, full of explosions and colorful effects.

“We wanted to feel that experience of watching a Pokemon battle in a Pokemon movie or TV show,” he said. “We build a deck and summon these creatures in battle.”

Some characters are simple, like Lava Top, who seeks out an enemy and explodes. Another character looks around the battlefield for characters to heal. These characters perform their actions automatically.

The champion known as Bolgar Grudge had a little bear on his shoulder that he could toss into combat whenever the moment was right. As a player, you have mana that builds up and you can spend it on the creatures and release them into the battle. You can also use it to invoke your champion’s super ability to go on the attack.

Spectators can also have an impact on the match, Bettner said, by throwing tributes down on the arena that can benefit some characters.

Designed to be a spectator sport, Wildcard could be the beginning of a new genre of online games where being a fan is as fundamental to the experience as being a competitor, Bettner said.

“Wildcard is designed to be watched as much as it is played,” Bettner said. “It’s designed to be this next generation spectator sport. When we’re doing play tests, we’re focusing on not just how the game plays as a competitor, but also how it is viewed from the perspective of the spectator.”

The game will likely have a voiceover from an announcer doing a play-by-play, Bettner said.

Why blockchain?

A Spord in Wildcard.

Wildcard uniquely leverages Web3 technologies to elevate these roles within the community, enabling competitors to connect, interact, and transact directly with their fans and supporters.

I asked Bettner how much he contemplated blockchain gaming, which has its foes among people who think it means conniving business models or scams. Bettner said he researched it and bounced off of it multiple times without finding a reason to do it.

“I bounced off of it several times and I was the biggest skeptic ever,” he said.

That was the case until about a year ago. A friend showed Bettner what a Web3 game could do, and he starting running with the ideas. When it came to figuring out how to connect the community of fans with the gamers and the creators, Bettner decided that was the role for Web3.

“I’m hoping that we can, we can not just begin to get gamers excited, but even other game developers, because if you put aside the ways that Web3 has been used in the short term, especially for the needs of finance and other things, and you really do look at it as a technology that can connect your players together in new ways, especially in your community, there are fundamental ways that Web3 will make gaming better,” Bettner said. “And I look at it as our personal mission because I went through the free-to-play gaming thing. And I loved the fact when we were talking about that way back in the day, and I think VentureBeat was one of the first sites that broke the story about Words With Friends and the stuff we were doing. The thing I loved the most was our ability to reach more audiences. That’s what I’m always trying to do. I’m trying to figure out the people that are not playing our game yet, for whatever reason and say, ‘Well, why aren’t they playing? What are the boundaries? What are the barriers for them to play?’ I want to figure out how to get past those barriers so we can invite even more people in. The iPhone was was a magic device that enabled that to happen.”

But Bettner acknowledges free-to-play games went astray with monetization. The company has no plans at the moment to do “play to earn” games where it turns gamers into a labor force.

“It didn’t necessarily lead to better game design,” he said. “I don’t think any of us gamers would say free to play made games so much better. It made them more accessible. And, and I love that and I definitely love the fact that it makes it easier for you to play with my friends. But it didn’t necessarily contribute to games themselves in terms of fun.”

“As an engineer, understanding what a blockchain was, what a smart contract was, it was like this nuclear bomb went off in my head,” Bettner said. “This is the thing we’ve been looking for. For Wildcard, this is the technology that we can use to build that connected community. Because in my mind, Web3 is not about coins and tokens and finance and these other things. For gaming, and I think for interactive entertainment like this, it is about the ability to build a protocol that connects various aspects of the community together into one experience.”

We’ve seen this with DAOs, or decentralized autonomous organizations where the project is run by the players and fans.

“With Wildcard and the vision that we’ve had for this game, it was kind of it just like fell into place like a Tetris piece, just perfectly falling into that formula and giving us that missing piece that we needed.”

Bettner said the team was aligned with Polygon, with its focus on scaling games on the Ethereum blockchain while offloading transactions and doing them efficiently, without waste.

I asked if the resistance to NFT games from some players had affected Wildcard’s strategy.

“You can imagine we talked about this all the time,” he said. “It’s not just an issue with regards to how gamers themselves are perceiving the space. But even with us hiring and growing the team. We see that when we have conversations with people, they come into it with preconceived notions of like, well, this space is just full of scams and Ponzi schemes and that kind of stuff.”

But Bettner said that fun is in the driver’s seat, and it always has been. And the company is committed to making the blockchain technology work without compromising that fun.

“I think the skepticism that gamers have, and even game developers, is fully legitimate,” he said. “The only way that we really want to try to convince players that this technology can be used for good and can be used to make games better, is by showing them. And again, that’s why I wanted to start with the play tests today and why that’s going to be the same thing with our community.”

Getting close

Wildcard is coming soon.

Bettner said the company is announcing the funding and showing the game off because it feels like it is getting closer.

Bettner isn’t saying when the game will be done yet. But it feels like the company is about three quarters of the way there.

“We are finally at the point where it’s fun and our developers actually want to play it in their spare time,” Bettner said. “We didn’t have to beg people to come to play tests, and they just wanted to come because the game was fun enough.”

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