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Have you ever tried to play an arcade game, only to have the machine eat your quarter? That's how I felt when I tried to play the popular Web3 game Axie Infinity—except instead of losing 25 cents, I lost over $100.
It went down like this. In November, I decided I had to try Axie, a metaverse game that is valued at billions of dollars and hailed as a pioneer in what's known as "play to earn." Though my gaming days are behind me (weed-fogged nights of "Halo" stopped being a thing after college), I figured it couldn't be too hard to dive into Axie.
I was wrong.
In order to play the game, you need to download software of the game's parent company Sky Mavis and then a standalone application for Axie Infinity. Then it gets complicated. You can't play the game without buying Axie characters, which cost money in the form of Ethereum. So I fired up my MetaMask wallet and went to transfer 0.05 of ETH–only to discover that Axie won't interact with MetaMask; you have to create and fund another wallet called Ronin.
Okay, fine. I transferred the funds using Ronin Bridge, which cost me $76(!) in fees, and finally I was poised to go shopping at yet another site called Axie Masterpiece. Oops, not so fast: it turns out you need to buy not one but three Axie critters to play the game, and the cheapest were selling for around $90, so three of them was more than I could afford with the 200 bucks or so I had left after transaction fees.
After waiting a few weeks to see if the price of the critters would go down (they didn't), I decided to give up and cut my losses. It was time to send my ETH out of the Ronin wallet and back to MetaMask. This time the fees came to "only" $36 but MetaMask told me the transaction had failed, even though the Ronin wallet proclaimed "success." So I tried again and this time MetaMask said "confirmed" but showed a transaction value of 0 ETH, displaying only the gas fees.
At this point, I don't know what's become of my funds—Axie assures me it returned the ETH and the issue is with MetaMask—but I'm not sure I care. The experience has made me reluctant to try one of these NFT games again. High cost of entry, high learning curve. Needless to say, I wouldn't recommend this game to my friends. Heck, I wouldn't recommend it my enemies. And from all accounts, Axie's in-game experience isn't even all that fun.
Axie co-founder Jeff Zirlin, to his credit, acknowledges it's "very difficult" to get started. In a Twitter DM, he told me it will be possible to play the game for free later this year, and noted, "We have 2.5m [daily users] despite the current difficulty, and are excited to see our traction increase as UX and tech breakthroughs unlock the next generation of Web 3 explorers.”
My miserable experience wasn't all Axie's fault. Zirlin isn't to blame for Ethereum gas fees, and Web3 technology overall is still quite new. The game also offers discounted Axies ("scholarships") to those who can't afford them, including legions of teenagers in the Philippines who earn a living from playing the game. But that doesn't make the experience feel like less of a scam. This is a problem, especially as Axie is one of the flagship names in Web3, the set of crypto-powered tools that haters call a gimmick and evangelists hail as more democratic than the current Internet.
Web3 is real, but the UX needs to dramatically improve—fast. Moxie Marlingspike, the coding genius who started the privacy app Signal, made the same point in an insightful essay last week. As Marlingspike notes, people don't want to jump through hoops in service of highfalutin ideas, they just want the damn tech to work. (SBF and Vitalik offered thoughtful replies).
I have faith that Web3 will improve—there are simply too many talented people working on it for it to be otherwise. The question is when. Right now, many of the best minds in Web3 are building ever more exotic financial apps that 99.9% of the population will never use instead of helping the rest of us discover the tech's potential.
If Web3 is to catch on, it needs applications that people crave. It needs easy-to-use video, music, social media services—and, yes, video games. Looking at you, Axie Infinity.
This is Roberts on Crypto, a weekend column from Decrypt Editor-in-Chief Daniel Roberts and Decrypt Executive Editor Jeff John Roberts. Sign up for the Decrypt email newsletter to receive it in your inbox. And read last weekend's column: After 13 Years, They Still Hate Bitcoin.