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A couple years back, Laguna Games faced a crossroads that will be familiar to many studios—embrace the relative safety of being acquired by a major company and working on a huge IP, or stay independent and take a risk on something totally new.
In this case, it was a choice between dragons or unicorns.
Laguna picked the latter and developed the NFT game Crypto Unicorns. But in an interview at the recent 3XP conference, leaders at the company told Decrypt that they shunned an opportunity to work on a “Game of Thrones” licensed game and join Warner Bros. Games in the process.
“Prior to building Crypto Unicorns, we were actually building the next ‘House of the Dragon’ mobile MMO with the ‘Game of Thrones’ IP,” Laguna Games co-founder and CEO Aron Beierschmitt told Decrypt. “We pivoted away from WB to start building Unicorns.”
Beierschmitt said that WB “tried to acqui-hire” Laguna Games—that is, acquire the studio with the intent to absorb the development team—but “gave us a really poor offer.”
Laguna would have had the opportunity to work on a major property, but lose its independence in the process. And the video game industry is littered with stories of studios that are acquired before being shut down in a matter of years.
Warner Bros. Games representatives did not respond to Decrypt’s request for comment on this story.
Calling it a difficult decision, Beierschmitt said that ultimately the team was more intrigued by the possibilities of building within the Web3 world and wanted to try something new.
“We didn't start this company, and go through all the pain and hassle that that entails, to just get jobs at WB,” he added, “as exciting of a project as that was.”
Laguna Games’ website lists a partnership with Warner Bros. Games to “produce two prototype titles, including Kingdoms Forever and an unannounced 4x game.” The latter is a type of strategy game akin to the popular Sid Meier’s Civilization franchise.
The “Game of Thrones” franchise has made its own play in the NFT world via a collectibles series titled “Build Your Realm,” in partnership with marketplace Nifty’s and startup Daz3D. However, the project received resoundingly negative reactions to its artwork. One influencer called it “the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
From Web2 to Web3
Crypto Unicorns is a browser-based game in which players collect digital unicorns as pets, engaging in activities such as jousting, racing, and farming to enhance their abilities. Laguna’s pivot to Web3 also came amid broader struggles to fit into the crowded video game market.
“As a startup in the space, it is incredibly hard to be successful with a Web2 mobile free-to-play game,” said Beierschmitt, citing the difficulties in building and shipping an entertaining game, coupled with the seismic financial budget required to compete with industry juggernauts.
“If you look at the top-grossing mobile gaming charts,” he added, “they haven't changed much in the last five years.”
Following conversations with Laguna’s senior team in 2021, it became evident to Beierschmitt that the Web2 space was heavily oversaturated with established gaming titles. Should they enter that space as a startup, they surmised, it would be very difficult to stay afloat.
By contrast, the nascent and emerging Web3 space offered what they saw as more opportunity, with the success of Axie Infinity serving as a validation for the future potential of the industry.
“I pitched it as an experiment,” said Beierschmitt of Crypto Unicorns. “I just thought: Let's lean into the absurdity of the IP. We're not being held back by any constraints fictionally; we can do anything that we want. It's why we have things like unicorn poop, unicorn milk, and all these crazy things.”
Andrew Campbell, who joined Laguna as its product and growth lead in February after a stint with Axie Infinity creator Sky Mavis, described Crypto Unicorns' DAO community—and infusing the community within the game design process—as “a risky experiment.” But he’s optimistic that the risk is worth a potentially sizable reward.
“If we can figure it out,” Campbell said, “we believe it'll pay dividends, be very valuable, and give us something that no one else has done.”
As Crypto Unicorns launches new types of games that rely on its existing NFTs, providing greater utility to holders, Beierschmitt said that Laguna’s focus on rapidly prototyping and testing features potentially gives it a leg up against longer-standing Web3 gaming incumbents.
“I think embracing that as part of our company culture has allowed us to iterate very quickly,” he said. “We haven't been in the market that long compared to some of the older games, and I think we're closing the gap very quickly.”