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Play-to-Earn Ethereum NFT Game Axie Infinity Nears Free-to-Play Shift

Axie Infinity will add free “starter monsters” to help onboard new players, while also launching an overhauled battle system.

4 min read
Axie Infinity's free starter monsters are arriving soon. Image: Axie Infinity

In brief

  • Axie Infinity will add free in-game “starter monsters” so that new users can play without buying NFTs.
  • The feature will launch alongside a new battle system in a gradual rollout beginning by the end of Q1 2022.

Axie Infinity is the biggest play-to-earn game on the market, with more than 2 million daily active users, but it requires an upfront investment into NFTs to play—and developer Sky Mavis wants to reach many, many more players. That’s why it will soon launch free “starter monsters” in the game to give new users a taste before they spend any cash.

Sky Mavis revealed the plans for free starter Axies last year, but today announced that they are potentially right around the corner: the free-to-play feature will debut as part of the game’s sizable Axie Infinity: Origin update, which will start rolling out by the end of Q1 2022.

Axie Infinity’s play-to-earn model is built around NFTs, or cryptographic tokens that prove ownership of a digital item. In Axie Infinity’s case, players must purchase three Axie monster NFTs to play the Pokémon-inspired game, but then can earn token rewards that can be exchanged for other cryptocurrencies.

At the peak of frenzy around the Ethereum-based game last summer and fall, buying three Axie NFTs would cost a minimum of about $600 worth of ETH total. Even now, amid economic issues with the game’s play-to-earn model, a trio of Axie NFTs still costs more than $100.

Axie Infinity’s starter monsters will let players get a taste of the game without the ability to earn SLP reward tokens—although some level of reward functionality could come later. The free monsters will not be NFTs that can be sold or transferred, and will simply be part of the Axie Infinity game client.

Sky Mavis co-founder Jeff Zirlin told Decrypt last fall that free starter Axies would create a smoother on-ramp to the game, “solving a missing bridge between awareness and hard activation.”

Alongside the starter Axies is the new “V3” battle system that is planned to be richer and more strategic than the current model, plus new battle cards, power-ups, and other tweaks. Sky Mavis will start rolling out the updates by the end of this quarter, although the new battle system will initially launch in an “alpha” state without token rewards.

Axie Infinity saw a surge in interest last summer after launching its Ethereum sidechain, Ronin, which significantly cut down on transaction fees and wait times. The game has now generated about $4 billion worth of trading volume to date, per data from CryptoSlam, making it the largest NFT project to date by that metric.

Although the NFT requirement is considered a barrier to entry for Axie Infinity, it has inspired a uniquely Web3 industry of gaming guilds that operate so-called “scholarship” programs. Such initiatives effectively see NFT owners rent their Axies to players—often from developing countries—who play the game and share the token profits.

Yield Guild Games is the largest and arguably best-known of the scholarship guilds, with funding from Andreessen Horowitz and support from crypto exchange FTX, although there are many other such programs—such as Ready Player DAO and Loot Squad.

As mentioned, Axie Infinity has recently experienced a declining play-to-earn economy, with the SLP reward token and AXS governance token both losing significant value. Additionally, NFT trading volume has fallen considerably over the last couple months, with the floor (or cheapest available) Axie NFTs crashing in price.

Last week, Sky Mavis announced plans to overhaul the token rewards model with the launch of the game’s 20th season, in an effort to halt SLP inflation. When the season went live earlier this week, both of the game’s tokens surged in value. Even with a pullback from this week’s peak, SLP’s price is up 158% over the last seven days, with AXS up 24% in the same span.

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