Play-to-earn games: What are they?

Play-to-earn games are taking over the cryptoverse. We explain what they are, how they work

With blockchains and cryptocurrency two of the hottest subjects in the digital world, it was inevitable that they would get linked to online games, another massive arena. Play-to-earn games allow people to make cryptocurrency while immersed in games, and play-and-earn is a rapidly growing online sphere. 

Play-to-earn explained

Play-to-earn projects are at least in part a reaction to the fact that traditional video games are centralised, just as cryptocurrencies themselves are a reaction to the fact that traditional finance is massively centralised. The centralisation of online games means that the items and points won in one game usually cannot be transferred over to another game. There are some exceptions, but these are usually games in the same franchise. For instance, if you have played the space-based RPG Mass Effect, the decisions that you made in that game can have an impact on what happens in the sequels.

In cases where that does happen, the games will have been played on the same system, rather than being completely different games on completely different platforms.  The presence of the blockchain now means that the possibility of decentralised gaming is becoming a reality. This means, in turn, that people can use different items and points in different games over different platforms. This then opens up the door for games to involve cryptocurrencies, which are often paid out as a reward for doing certain things within the game itself. This could be levelling up, or completing a certain quest, for which there is a crypto payment. In turn, the crypto which is usually a native token to the game itself, can be spent on items within the game or it can be withdrawn to a crypto wallet and then traded for other cryptocurrency or sold for fiat cash.

The popularity and widespread availability of play-to-earn as a gaming method has also been boosted by the growth in non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. Since these items are unique and, by extension, collectible, that means that they are an ideal thing to include in a game world, because they give something for players to look out for and collect. Most play-to-earn games these days are based on NFTs, even if they were not originally designed to be.

What this means is that play-to-earn crypto projects are very often play-to-earn NFT projects. Put simply, the answer to the question “what is play-to-earn?” is that it is a game which allows people to get real life rewards through playing. If you want to know “how do play-to-earn games work?”, they work by allowing people to use crypto tokens in one way or another within the game which, in turn, allows people to trade and use them outside the program.

Looking at individual mplay-to-earn games, perhaps the best place to start is with one of the top play-to-earn projects out there, Axie Infinity. 

Axie Infinity

Axie infinity screenshot
Axie Infinity is sometimes described as 'Pokemon on the blockchain'. Credit: Axie Infinity

The elevator pitch for Axie Infinity is perhaps best stated as “Pokemon on the blockchain”. Players of this game, which was set up by the Vietnamese technology company Sky Mavis, compete to collect individual cards representing cartoon monsters. These cartoon monsters, or Axies, battle each other, with the winner getting rewards in the forms of one of two tokens, SLP and AXS. SLP, short for Small Love Potion, is much more common, but AXS is more valuable and has more uses. This means that AXS is tied in with the game as a whole and is traded on a lot of exchanges.

Because every Axie is an NFT, which means that each one is unique, there is a roaring trade in them within the game, giving players the chance to make cryptocurrency and, by extension, real-world money. The game has a very large player base, with more than 1.8 million unique daily users. Axie Infinity has become very popular in the Philippines, with a recent documentary series following people who were able to supplement their income through playing the game. Play-to-earn can offer big opportunities for people in poorer countries, where wages are low and the money they can make from a game like Axie can make a real difference to how much income they have. Axie Infinity is thus a big deal, and AXS is the largest coin related to the world of NFTs out there, making it a notable example of play-to-earn games, as well as a key player in the NFT space.


Someone playing Decentraland - Photo: Shutterstock

Another big name in the world of play-to-earn is Decentraland. Decentraland is a great example of a play-to-earn games being set up with no intention of working with NFTs, but where players used NFTs and brought them into the system. The game, which features more than 90,000 parcels of land that people can work with and decorate, was set up in 2015. It was relatively popular, but then as more and more users started bringing their own non-fungible tokens into the system, the game’s marketplace started being used as somewhere to buy and sell NFTs. How does this link in to play-to-earn? Well, the game uses its own cryptocurrency, called MANA. This token is used to carry out trades within the game. Since it is a crypto, it can be withdrawn and exchanged for fiat currency, meaning that players' creations can generate them cash.

It is not just independent, small-time players who are involved in the Decentraland marketplace, though. There have been some big transactions inside the game, with the company paying the equivalent of around $2.5m for space in the game to sell its fashion-based NFTs. This purchase shows just how potentially lucrative the play-to-earn space is. After all, the company would not have spent so much if it did not believe it could more than make its money back.


The GALA token - Photo: Shutterstock

Another opportunity to make money while you pay comes in the Gala games system. Rather than being just one game which gives people the chance to make money, it is a full online gaming platform, much like Steam. With Gala, there are five different games people can take part in to earn rewards. These are Mirandus, an RPG where people fight enemies and build on land to make crypto; Spider Tank, a multiplayer battle game; Fortified, a tower defence game; a city builder called Town Star; and a science fiction strategy game called Echoes of Empire. This means people have options if they want to play and earn. 

Rewards in the Gala system are paid out in GALA, the platform’s native token. GALA is based on the Binance Smart Chain. In the games, players are able to create and trade their own NFTs, as well as purchase them in the platform’s store. What is notable about this is that the shop takes a range of cryptocurrencies, meaning players do not just have the opportunity to make GALA, but other, better established coins, too. There are six classes of non-fungible token within the Gala store: Common, Uncommon, Rare, Epic, Legendary, and Ancient. People can also invest crypto worth around $13,000 for the right to operate nodes, which power the system. There are currently more than a million active Gala users, meaning that the platform is definitely one worth paying attention to. 


MyNeighborAlice - Credit: MyNeighborAlice

A smaller, but no less interesting, play-to-earn system comes in the form of MyNeighborAlice. This play-to-earn project aims to give participants the best of both worlds. While it is a building game, what makes it different from, for instance, Decentraland is that it is, at its core, narrative-driven. This means people who are not interested in claiming cryptocurrency still have something to play for. However, keen play-to-earn gamers also have the opportunity to make money. The game’s assets are NFTs, which can be collected and traded within the system.

The game’s native token is called ALICE, and it is not only used for buying and selling things inside MyNeighborAlice itself, but used to help govern the platform. People who hold the token can also lend it to other users for rewards and interest. There is also the possibility to use other tokens to buy the game’s NFTs. If someone does do that, then 10% of the amount paid is locked into a special account that is linked to the NFT and can be retrieved if the art token is burned. 

Fold AR

Fold AR
Fold AR: Credit: FoldApp

So far, we have looked at games which have their own cryptocurrency. There is one problem with those sorts of games though. What if you are not interested in the platforms’ native tokens? There are some alternatives, fortunately. One game that gives you the chance to make established crypto through playing it is the recently launched Fold AR. This has been developed by a company called Fold in conjunction with the gaming studio Niantic, which was partially responsible for the success in 2016 of Pokemon Go was a big deal. People used their mobile phones to collect Pokemon that appeared on the device’s camera screen in a form of what is known as Augmented Reality, or AR for short. Fold makes a debit card and mobile app that pay out bitcoin rewards. The game it has developed called Fold AR, was due to launch on 23 November. It allows people to use their mobile phone cameras to find blocks of code, which they put together in a Minecraft-style puzzle to win crypto rewards. 

Fold’s CEO, Will Reeves, said: “The Fold AR feature provides a fun, interactive way for consumers to earn rewards in bitcoin for their everyday spending. So many people are interested in participating in the growing bitcoin economy but aren’t sure how to get started. Fold makes it easy for anyone to get their first piece of bitcoin, whether it’s through Fold AR via the app or the Fold card.”


If you want to earn bitcoin by playing games, it is possible. You will need to find a play-to-earn game that involves BTC, though, which may not be as common as you think. Fold AR, which launched recently, uses bitcoin, although there are other games. You should do your own research to find one that works for you.

In the most part, they are. Of course, there may be certain legal restrictions in place, such as the age one can be to play, but that will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

As of 26 November 2021, there were 201 play-to-earn based cryptocurrencies traded on the open market, according to CoinMarketCap. 

Further reading

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