Axie Infinity — a non-fungible token-based online video game that’s generated over US$4 billion in secondary NFT sales — is credited with kicking off the so-called “play-to-earn” (P2E) craze, allowing gamers to earn money while playing. While the Axie hype has somewhat died down, it also spawned a series of copycat projects that pay users to perform everyday activities.

These projects have developed into an industry of their own; a sort of “X-activity-to-earn” (X2E) model, now including tie-ins with brands from Asics to European soccer clubs, paying users in cryptocurrency for running, eating or even sleeping.

Perhaps not surprisingly, questions are being raised about the economic principles many of these projects are founded on.

“The problem with some of these X2E models is that it seems like a really good innovation, but then it is just purely a Ponzi [scheme],” said Anndy Lian, author of the new book “NFT: From Zero to Hero,” in an interview with Forkast, though he did not mention any by name. “And it’s actually very disturbing, to be really honest.”

Without ongoing revenue to support what is being paid out, Lian said, the X2E model risks becoming an unsustainable compensation structure, relying on the hope that more people will come in to “pay” for the tokens that were previously dropped.

There were similar accusations leveled at Axie Infinity after a period of explosive growth failed to generate earlier returns for its users, as its native token SLP is now trading at US$0.004 at press time after reaching as high as US$0.41 in May 2021.

Running tokenomics

One of the more popular variations of this new industry model is the “Move-to-Earn” (M2E) project StepN, which pays users in cryptocurrency for walking, jogging or cycling by tracking their movements via GPS on their phone.

To participate in the project, users buy NFT sneakers and hold them in their wallets on their phones when they go for a walk and are then compensated for the exercise in the project’s native currency, Green Satoshi Tokens (GST).

Users then cash out GST for profit or invest it back into the project to mint additional NFTs for other users to buy.

Brian Lu, founding partner of investment fund Infinity Ventures Crypto, is more optimistic about the outlook for these projects than Lian, however, telling Forkast in an interview there are ways such projects can be successful.

“There’s always going to [need to] be people to support the token or the token has to have some type of utility [for the project to work],” he said.

StepN does this by allowing users to cash out their GST for profit or by investing it back into the ecosystem to mint more sneaker NFTs. This was the tokenomics model initially adopted by Axie Infinity, which allowed users to cash out their SLP or to re-invest it back to create more “Axies” — Pokémon-like creatures that players bred and battled to earn more SLP.

After launching in December, GST reached a high of US$9.03 in late April before the crash along with the rest of the crypto market in May. Despite tie-ins with sports-brand Asics and Spanish soccer club Atlético de Madrid, GST had fallen to under US$1 by early June, and has been trading under US$0.10 since early July.

Sleeping on the job

Positioning itself in direct response to the Move-to-Earn projects, Gang Azit Social Club (GASC) has taken a different approach, and wants to remind users that it’s important for one’s mental health to take a break and relax from time to time, and incentivizes this practice by paying them to do just that.

Calling itself a “Relax-to-Earn” project, GASC detects when users are within a predetermined zone using GPS and pays them in the project’s HIPS token if they press a “relax” button on their phone while in the space.

If anyone needs an incentive to eat, Esca — an online marketplace for food consumers and vendors — promises to pay customers, restaurants and at-home chefs in both Bitcoin and USDC. According to its website, Esca thinks the commissions charged by most food delivery platforms are too high and is using cryptocurrency to balance the equation.

So many projects have popped up promising to pay users to sleep that there is even its own category of finance for the industry — SleepFi.

The Sleepee app pays users based on their sleep quality score in its native currency, which can be converted to buy products or services in their store. Even the Move-to-Earn app MetaGym offers a SleepFi feature that pays users in its native token that can be spent in-app or cashed out for USDC.

The future of Web3 and gaming

Measuring the success of these projects over the past few months has been difficult amid the broader crypto downturn, which has seen even well-established crypto funds and businesses file for bankruptcy or needing a bailout

If the situation doesn’t improve soon, Lu says there are other options available to such projects.

“These X2E projects that are coming up [are] going to start learning to advertise their users and their user’s behavior [and] user data to marketing companies that are willing to pay for it,” said Lu, explaining this process will become more commonplace as brand tie-in continues to gain traction. 

Selling user data may seem against the ethos of Web3, which is often touted to offer a new incentive model to break away from the data mining method of business which has led to massive wealth concentration from a few giant tech companies.

But Lu says this is only using data that is publicly available on the blockchain anyway.

Back to the genre that started it all, Lu says the industry has learned its lesson from the short-lived success of Axie Infinity and is shifting from Play-to-Earn to Play-and-Earn, or Web 2.5. 

These projects are putting gameplay back at the center of the game, with the option to earn money — sometimes even in fiat — a bonus element rather than making a game whose main draw card is earning. 

Lian is hopeful these types of games can still survive in the meantime, but says it will be a long time before the mainstream gaming industry adopts Web3 in any meaningful way.

“I don’t think the super app is coming anytime soon,” said Lian, who explained the technology is there but the US$300 billion a year gaming industry has little incentive to change. “[Game studios] might not be agreeable to how it is actually going to help them since they are really making millions of dollars in revenue every year.”