Play to Earn

No … just don't do it!

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This is an extremely problematic model. In Heathens professional opinion and should be avoided at all costs. This extends beyond NFT and other hated buzz words and is more common than you might think.

We will do our level best to explore the model and its methods in as objective of a way as possible.


A "Play to Earn" (P2E) model is where the player invests some value into the game and by playing the game can earn or lose value.

You will notice right away that this is "betting" and a feature of gambling. This concept is defined as gambling in many regions. It is important to check with your local regulatory boards before going any further. "player invests some value" = player places a bet or "antes up" "playing the game can earn or lose" = win the pot or lose your wager

This model may also be defined as securities fraud depending on the laws and regulations in the user's region and your specific design, documentation and implementation.


Plant vs Undead


Gods Unchained


Axie Infinity


Age of Rust


Less Obvious examples

World of Warcraft

In WOW you can and many convert in-game gold to "WoW Tokens" for free play time or they buy "WoW Tokens" with cash to get in-game gold. Add to this plenty of grey markets and now you have an unregulated pachinko game.

EVE Online

As with World of Warcraft the "Pilot License" is a means for a player to spend real money to gain in-game value. And as common since should tell you if a thing has "real value" then users will find a way to exploit it and thus more gambling mechanics.

To spell that out more. Any time a "real" value can be established in a reliable way a human will find a way to exploit it. That is markets (authorized or not) will immerge to trade in that value. This devolves the game from a "just for fun" activity into a gambling or worse financial scheme.


Skins trading or really any in-game item that can be sold on the Steam Community Marketplace for real money directly. CS:GO is one of the early examples and experiments in adding "real value" to in-game items. It should be clear by the games history, legal implications and damage to peoples lives that its a bad thing to do.

If your unaware CS:GO while a fun game has been used for money laundering and similar problematic uses. This is just an extreme case of adding "real value" to an unregulated, digital environment. Far more common is the simple harm of turning your fun game into a job.


While all of the examples above are based on blockchain technology, blockchain/NFT is not required to implement such a system. For example Steam's community marketplace has in the past been used by CS:GO, Team Fortress and many other games to enable the player base to "cash out". The notable difference here is that the "wealth" of these older games was generated in-game. The publisher only profits from this model when player's buy and sale through the Steam Community Marketplace.

Learn more about NFTs in game in our Non-Fungible Tokens article

In the more modern version players are typically required to "buy in" by purchasing "tokens" or "NFTs" in addition they must also cover a "gas price" as is the nature of blockchain transactions. This adds a number of middlemen to the process and insures players monetize as soon as possible.

Play to Earn can be added on to other models. For example Eve On-line's "Pilot License" and World of Warcraft's "WoW Token" enable players a means to inject money into the system and consequently a limited means by which the player can extract wealth from the system.

When there is "wealth" that is "real value" in a system markets will appear to exploit it e.g. boosting, gold trading, skin market, etc.

In Heathen's opinion you should be working hard to keep the "real value" of your game, items in your game and concepts around your game as close to zero as possible to protect the integrity and your control over your game. Factors of Player Motivation also come into play on this topic.

Effect on the Player

This is based on Heathen's own research. Articles sourced will be sited and our own experiences highlighted where given.

The effect of Play to Earn on players is very damning. We will attempt to be objective here but its quite clear that this is a harmful practice. If this section appears scathing please understand we are trying to be objective here. See the Heathen Opinion section for our personal opinion on this model.

Here are a few choice quotes from an article on Coin Desk

The premise

"P2E can be a powerful force for good, offsetting inequality, introducing millions to crypto risk free, and potentially emerging as an aspect of universal basic income." ... "The reality of modern P2E is that earning has less to do with playing than investing. Players must first spend considerably, up to thousands of dollars, buying NFTs or paying a third-party guild to rent them." from Coin Desk

Obviously this is a pyramid scheme and outright illegal in many contexts. The impact on the player is identical to the impact on a victim of a pyramid scheme or similar financial scheme.

In short making a game P2E makes the game at best an investment opportunity with all the risks and potential rewards of that and impacting its users as a healthy well regulated market tends to impact its investors. The glaring note here is that P2E gaming is not regulated at all.

Much more typically this is simply a pyramid or Ponzi scheme. In a few articles will see it argued that they are not Ponzi schemes because there is outside investment, these people clearly don't understand what a Ponzi scheme is. Setting that aside the point is that these games are not capable of lasting, as the player base grows, the buy in grows and eventually it all collapses with the players still present at the end suffering all of the loss. Hence why this is illegal in many countries for any other context.

For a counter argument as to why P2E is not a Ponzi scheme read over this article

Effect on the Game

Assigning "real" value to aspects of or in your game has a number of negative effects. The first and most news worthy at the time of this writing is hacking. When a hacker attacks a large successful game such as World of Warcraft in the early 2010s they stood to make a reputation for them selves and perhaps grab some valuable information.

When a hacker hacks a game like Axie Infinity they make $600 million or more and tank entire markets. Thus the attraction to and reward for hacking a little game like Axie is far greater and more valuable for the hacker than to bother with a more "secure" and larger entity such as Blizzard.

Second is the effect on the games life, assuming your not picked off by a scammer or hacker that tanks your economy: Please read the above section to understand.

In short Play to Earn (P2E) creates a terminal loop. As the system scales it destabilizes, as people begin to leave as a result value begins to drop accelerating the exodus resulting in those that remain shouldering the burden of the lost wealth.

In short this model assures the game will die. One can predict the rate of decay based on factors of the game such as buy in rate, and monthly active users. Further the end of this game will be strongly negative. That is the end of this games life will be of its players left broke and out large sums of money. It is only a matter of time before this results in a law suit.

Heathen Opinion


In this model a player "buys in" in some manner rather that is the purchase of some content or out right a buy in via a NFT or in game currency. That "buy in" is risked through gameplay that may result in a reward or "earning". That is the player can "play to earn", another way to word it is … the player can "wager an ante in a game for a chance of winning a pot".

Is it not clear how this is 100% gambling. Its literally the definition of poker and every other betting game.

Why it sucks:

Obvious reason 1

Put very bluntly a "Play to Earn" accordingly to the definitions and regulations in many regions is clearly gambling. We here at Heathen are not pearl clutching "Gambling is bad M-kay" in fact a couple of us have worked in that industry creating gambling games. However, if you want to create a gambling product you must follow the regulations associated with gambling. Attempting to hide gambling within a video game is going to result in huge issues for you and more damage to the industry.

Obvious reason 2

Its at best a pyramid scheme like feature. If this isn't outright illegal in your region yet, it likely will be soon. Even then it is defiantly harmful to your players and over time will result in a very nasty collapse. Well maybe you came up with someway this isn't a closed echo-system pyramid scheme! Willing to bet you just came up with a layered pyramid scheme but lets assume you did. You still have the fundamental issue of associating "real" value with a game system. When "real" value becomes involved the legal risk and exposure you face goes up, and the effect of your game as an entertainment medium is changed. At best a "game" with real value is gambling, at worst its work, in both cases every major nation regulates that tightly.

Obvious reason 3

Lets assume you live in the wild wild west and legal and regulatory issues are not a problem. Lets also assume your player base are all well balanced people with no control issues at all. Both impossible fictions but still.

Assuming you are here to learn how to monetize a piece of creative entertainment work, allowing "real value" to creep into your game world is the fastest way to "kill the fun", learn a bit about Player Motivation to see why.

Now of course gambling games can be said to be fun, that is a since of thrill seeking based on wagering and actually doesn't have as much to do with winning as some think.

The type of fun we refer to in "pure" entertainment sources such as story telling, books, music, movies and video games is quite different. What was once a fun thing one *wanted* to do simply to do it (Intrinsic) ... is now a thing they must do to earn (Extrinsic). At best you made your game a job, for most you made your game a source of further depression and anxiety hence tight regulation around the similar Gambling industry.

The idea of turning a "game" into "work" happens not just with "Play to Earn" but is also seen with games that reward for every action. When a player is "working" for the next reward they are not "playing" the game they are simply exploiting it as they would an employer for the next payoff. Play to Eran simply dials this effect on up to 11 of out 10.

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