Dev Journal: Why I joined the NFT game company Sky Mavis (by Philip La)
Thoughts on why I jumped into the NFT gaming space and joined Sky Mavis specifically, and the opportunities I see with the company.
When I got the offer to work on Pokémon GO at Niantic in 2018 I was ecstatic. It was a dream job. As a lifelong hardcore Pokémon fan I never thought I’d get to work on the franchise I loved so much. Little did I know, I would feel similarly four years later when I joined Sky Mavis to work on Axie Infinity! I had offers from multiple other NFT gaming companies with promising progress as well, but ultimately Sky Mavis made the most sense for a variety of reasons. In this post, I’ll be delving into my considerations and why I ultimately chose to make the jump into NFT gaming at Sky Mavis.
Why NFT gaming?
I had started learning a bit about NFT gaming at the end of 2020 but only decided to take the plunge after reading some more articles about it in mid-2021 as Axie Infinity started picking up steam. Of course, the first game I tried was Axie Infinity and it onboarded me into the entire blockchain space. Once I acquired my first Axies and started playing the game, it all just clicked to me how powerful and paradigm-changing blockchain would be for gaming as I felt the value of having a unique kind of ownership over my assets. As I dove deeper, these were some of the main reasons that motivated me to get into the space:
This is a fundamental value blockchain unlocks for digital assets in games. It essentially imbues in them the attributes of physical assets. A great analogy is with trading card games like Magic The Gathering and Pokémon cards where you use the cards to play the game, but you also have ownership of the card in a way where no matter what happens with the game itself (e.g. change in meta, set rotations), you still own the card. With this type of ownership, you can also do whatever you want with it at any time including trading or selling it. There are nuances to this and I believe it’s still far from perfect, but note that we are very early in this technology.
For games, this is going to be a major fundamental shift where players who spend thousands of hours in games will gain this type of unique ownership over the assets they purchase and earn. This is in contrast to traditional games where players do not have immutable ownership or ability to do what they want with their assets without breaking various Terms of Service. I talk more about this in a previous post as well.
A deeper level to this is that certain NFT games like Axie Infinity actually don’t even take profits directly themselves which is in huge contrast to traditional game developers who take 100% of profits. Instead, profits are shared back with players and provide them further ownership in the ecosystem. In Axie Infinity for example, revenue either goes directly to players who are transacting with each other in the player-owned economy, or to a Treasury that is Community owned. Sky Mavis benefits just as community members would as we own a portion of the Treasury governance tokens.
Uniquely Aligned Incentives
Player ownership unlocks another unique phenomenon as players who own assets in the game also then feel ownership around the game as a whole, and are incentivized to do what’s best for the long-term health of the ecosystem.
For example, in a traditional game a reduction in any rewards by the developer to balance the game economy would generally be universally hated by the players. However, in NFT games, because players have ownership of the game too, they care about the long-term sustainability and may be actually supportive of a reduction in certain rewards to balance the economy. This is a massive difference!
It unlocks a constructive collaboration between all stakeholders who ultimately want the game to succeed and sustain for the long-term. This leads me to the last point.
There is a belief in many companies that “we know what’s best for the product, community, and ecosystem” and may push through changes regardless of community feedback. I disagree with this philosophy. Although I do believe a company may be more informed and knowledgeable in certain areas and needs to push through changes many times that not everyone may agree with, the community is also an extremely key part of that process and can be a powerful partner to inform how to evolve products, as well as actually helping to build a lot of it!
With NFT gaming, this powerful dynamic naturally occurs due to incentive alignment and creates an ecosystem where the community and developer are able to create more value together than ever before. Just a couple examples include allowing the community to contribute in balancing the meta or build more experiences on top of the IP.
Why Sky Mavis?
There are many great NFT gaming companies emerging in the space, as well as traditional gaming companies that are starting to dabble. Here are some factors that contributed to me choosing Sky Mavis!
There is no question Axie Infinity has been at the forefront of NFT gaming and the face of the industry. For example, just in this recent article it was highlighted how Axie Infinity accounted for two-thirds of NFT gaming transactions in 2021. I simply wanted to join one of the best, and Sky Mavis has literally been the most successful game in the space. They had grinded through the bear market for years and shipped a real game that millions of people enjoy playing while having ownership of their assets (not to mention an entire suite of blockchain infrastructure). I knew I would be able to learn a ton from all of their experiences of actually executing and shipping, while contributing to taking them to the next level.
Prior to joining Sky Mavis I was part of the community and experienced how passionate people were about the game. Many of the top community members have been around for years even before Axie Infinity got big and are planning on sticking around for the long-haul. Everyone I interacted with was very positive and helpful around how to navigate the game; many even took it further and helped educate me a lot more about blockchain, NFTs, and DeFi in general! Meaningful connections were built constantly across players, and from these interactions I knew there was something very special about the community.
Openness to Evolving
Unsurprisingly, not everything is perfect at Sky Mavis, and it would be unrealistic to expect that given it is an early start-up building in completely uncharted territories. The economy needs to be improved, narratives need to be adjusted, more features need to ship, new processes need to be created internally… the list goes on. The biggest factor I looked at relative to this is the team’s humility, ability to learn, and willingness to evolve over time. From that perspective, everyone I met exceeded my expectations. For example, the shifting of the narrative from Play-to-Earn to Play-&-Earn (as I expand more about here) is a tough one given how much has been put into the former branding, however the team was willing to evolve to what might be more beneficial long-term. This might change again in the future too depending on how the market interprets our messaging and what we may be trying to emphasize at any given time; I personally have previously advocated for “Play-&-Own” here. The point ultimately is that we have to be open to and willing to learn, change, adapt, evolve, and grow.
Long-term thinking is one of the toughest things to do for individuals and businesses. It means making short-term trade-offs and decisions that could be very painful right now, but will enable long-term sustainability and larger future benefits. There is a balance of course, as it is necessary to address a lot of issues short-term to keep things running as well. I have been in many companies in my past where short-term profits or growth are prioritized too strongly, and has caused the long-term sustainability of the product to be jeopardized.
At Sky Mavis, everyone is extremely long-term focused and generally makes decisions around what is most beneficial for the products and ecosystem for years to come, not for this month or this quarter. Although it can be painful a lot of times in the short-term, I believe this will allow for more true and unique value to be created in the long-term.
Focus on Fun
Everyone at Sky Mavis is aligned to Axie Infinity being a fun game first. This was a big factor for me while I evaluated different NFT games I could work on. I am not interested in a DeFi protocol with a game skin on top for example. The only way NFT games are sustainable is if they are a fun game and players want to spend on it for intrinsic emotional value like traditional games. I wanted to work on building out NFT games that offered all of the amazing value of traditional games, while layering on the unique value of blockchain on top, not the other way around. For the Sky Mavis team to be aligned to this was a very important factor for me.
There are many NFT games out there but Sky Mavis is one of the few with a successful game and its own battle-tested blockchain infrastructure platform, Ronin. This includes dApps like Wallet, Staking, and ETH Bridge. This offers a huge opportunity to expand the company’s portfolio of games, and allow 3rd Party Developers to build experiences that will instantly get distribution to millions of NFT gamers on a provenly powerful blockchain platform. The opportunity to also contribute in expanding this platform was massive for me.
This factor is more personal to me as an individual. Candidly, I do have risk aversion and am not the type to dive into an endeavor that has too much uncertainty. That’s why some of the smaller companies did not make sense for me at the moment. Sky Mavis, fortunately, has had major success already and recently raised a $152M round of funding. This provided me peace of mind knowing I would have personal stability and the company would be able to build for the long-term without concerns around staying afloat in the short-term. The founders and leaders also all care deeply about the well-being of employees and want to make sure everyone feels secure and comfortable in their roles.
Other Considerations I Had
There are varying opinions and arguments on both sides around the environmental impact of Proof of Work type consensus mechanisms in blockchains and I actually won’t dive into those. This is because over the past years there has already been a massive shift to use more environmentally friendly consensus mechanisms like Proof of Stake and Proof of History. For Axie Infinity in particular, the Ronin blockchain it runs on uses a Proof of Authority mechanism with options to evolve it to be more decentralized in the future (can read more here). Thus, the environmental impact on Ronin is minimal and the team is looking at more ways to further help the environment in the future.
NFT games currently have a negative image to many in the industry around their ability to maintain economically sustainable. Axie Infinity contributed to this as it went through a major hype cycle and does not have the economic levers in place yet for proper balancing.
Digging deeper, the criticisms should actually not be around the fact that they are NFT games, but more just around the game and economy design. Coming from traditional games and experience with managing game economies, the sustainability of Axie is simply a function of balancing an economy and providing fundamental value as a game. It actually doesn’t have that much to do with it being a NFT game or not.
For a given economy, there needs to be balanced sources and sinks to maintain its health. The sinks are driven by players’ desires to acquire various assets or achieve particular goals. NFT or non-NFT games need to provide sufficiently fun and meaningful gameplay for players to want to sink resources to reach those for intrinsically satisfying motivations. I believe this is very solvable with new features and economic changes over time.
How it’s been so far
Passion & Care
The first thing I noticed after joining the team was just how passionate everyone was around the product and how much they care about the community. Everyone is self-motivated to contribute all they can in driving the success of the ecosystem, there’s no need to push anyone and everyone is always eager to help anyone else on the team. Due to everyone genuinely caring deeply about the community, there are constant lengthy debates and discussions internally around how to manage various situations to balance needs of different community members in addition to product goals.
Open & Constructive
This is an important one that unfortunately doesn’t exist in a lot of organizations. The ability to be open and constructive about any issues, concerns, or opportunities to anyone is key to ultimately delivering the best results. The culture in Sky Mavis is such that everyone’s opinions are valued and explored without judgment, so there is psychological safety to express and dig into sensitive topics that, left unaddressed, would be detrimental to the product and organization.
Challenging & Ambiguous
This stuff is hard, and there is no playbook. Simple things in traditional games like getting approved to be listed on the iOS / Android stores are much more complex for NFT games for example. Being at Sky Mavis at this early stage means having to deal with all of that ambiguity and challenge, but on the other side of that is the potential to build game-changing experiences the world has never seen before.
I’m extremely grateful that the stars aligned and I was able to join Sky Mavis and help contribute in defining the next generation of games. If you’re interested, come join us too!
We are currently recruiting for:
Game Design (Land)
And many more here! (Note that some roles that indicate specific locations, may be open for international hires so please feel free to apply!)
Send me a message on LinkedIn if you feel you might be a fit for one of our roles!
I will be at GDC 3/20 - 3/26 so you can find me there to chat as well.
Drop by the Axie meet-up on 3/24 as well and meet more of the team by registering here!