Aron Beierschmitt on building casual games to funnel LTV to Crypto Unicorns

In an in-depth conversation, editor-in-chief Jon Jordan spoke to Laguna Games’ CEO Aron Beierschmitt about the first year of operating its resource-farming game Crypto Unicorns, and now launching additional games to expand its audience.

Notably these new games add utility to the game’s existing unicorn NFTs, as well as providing free-to-play experiences, across desktop and mobile.

It’s all about building on the existing core of 2,300 committed players who are sinking a hour-a-day into the game and spending on average $400 per wallet, with more accessible games in different genres that can onboard new players with events such as free NFTs giveaways. You’ve been running Crypto Unicorns live for a year. How would you describe that year?

Aron Beierschmitt: On 5th May 2023, we celebrated 365 days of live operations of a real economy and it’s been a wild ride. We started Laguna Games in January 2020, right before Covid was kicking off. We launched the game on 5th May 2022, which is literally the week the market started to fall apart. So building in the bear has certainly been rather fun, rather interesting.

My pitch to the team right as the market was collapsing was, for many of you this is your first bear market, this isn’t going to be fun. The name of the game is survival. Let’s just keep our heads down, stay focused, continue to ship and continue to deliver for our community.

I really believe that you can’t point to another project that’s delivered more across all these different fronts, not just core game updates, but updates to the website, updates to our staking system. It’s been a whole thing. 

I realized we’ve headed straight into the murky waters of the market, but we’ve not defined what Crypto Unicorns is. So you are making a game around these cute unicorns. But your history is making 4X mobile games… 

It’s funny because we pivoted from building the next Game of Thrones 4x game. House of the Dragon for Warner Bros. That’s what we were doing before we pivoted in August of 2021. I actually came up with the original idea for Crypto Unicorns in early 2018, after playing CryptoKitties

The original design was a very simple breeding game with a racing game and the idea would have looked very similar to Zed Run or Pegaxy. But at the time Crypto Kitties had completely clogged the Ethereum network. It was just insanity, and I put that idea on the shelf. Years later, as we’re struggling with WB, I started looking at what’s next, and it was very clear to me that mobile free-to-play was not the place for a small developer to be. 

Then seeing Axie explode, I thought there’s something very interesting happening here. I remember watching Twitch and YouTube videos of Axie over a weekend, just like 12 hours of videos. So I went to the team. I started with our design director, Jeff Witt, who co-founded Storm8 and Funzio. He is an OG free-to-play game designer. I just said, do you think you can do better?

Very clearly we could see that the economy was very brittle and wasn’t going to be sustainable. So it was easy from our lens to say, let’s pivot out of this really mature blood red ocean. Let’s go into the dark forest of blockchain game development. Just light a torch and run. 

The initial game loop was farming and now you’ve added jousting, all using these quirky unicorn characters.

One of the statements I kept making to the team was to lean into the absurdity. So that’s why we have people collecting unicorn poop. People play the game on average over an hour a day, normally across five plus sessions. Our stickiness is 67%. The majority of our players play daily. We have almost 20,000 unicorn poop collection events a day. I just encouraged people like, that’s a silly idea, ship it. They’re unicorns, they’re magical, they can do anything, don’t have any restrictions on what you think is possible and it’s served us well.

I play it, though not really with any strategy, whereas there are some people who have these massive Excel spreadsheets and they’re looking to see exactly what they should be farming.

With the recent jousting meta changes, it’s been phenomenally successful. The prices of the entry tickets into Joust have spiked enormously. And a lot of players were speculating on that happening and have been very successful in that play. 

And you had players who were crafting these tickets in their workshops and you called out something that’s really important, which is the Rainbow Token marketplace. It has been this phenomenally successful feature in that it made everything inside the game, the portion of the off-chain economy real, because the vast majority of the commodities or items in the game are paired against our governance token RBW. Again, it’s players trading amongst themselves, so the price movement is not controlled by us. 

A matter of fact, we don’t have a lever to control that other than volatility, because we can change the liquidity of the pools. And today, counting the price of RBW every single day, we’re nearing $10 million in trading volume, just in the Rainbow Token marketplace, with 2,300 or so monthly active wallets. 

That in and of itself has been a really cool thing that worked out. This will actually help us balance the game, because the market will decide on these things. And to see prices, you can look back historically, there’s been plays where players got out ahead of a certain commodity, had a bunch, and then sold it as the price went up around certain things. 

And it’s been a really interesting mix of players. We have the players, the spreadsheet warriors, I’ve never seen the level of depth and complexity and time that people have put into trying to figure out what’s going on in the experience. We have players that post daily price updates on the internal in-game commodities and stuff. There’s this wonderful woman who goes by Island Girl on our Discord, and we found out she lives in Florida, she’s in her sixties, and has a whole group of friends that play the game. I really like that. 

You’ve announced a whole bunch of new games, using the Crypto Unicorns characters in various ways and in different genres. At the moment, you also have some play tests going on with a match-three game and an RPG as well. 

One unique thing is we’ve really built a platform that has allowed external game devs to tap into our backend, tap into our art pipeline so that they can get the unicorns almost nearly identical to how they’re rendered in the core game. And so there’s been a lot of work that the engineering team does not get enough credit for to open up our platform enough to allow other developers to come in and build. 

You mentioned the Team RPG playtest. That’s been going on for six weeks now. That was this opportunity to present two separate Team RPG loops, the match-three one and more of an autobattle one, let the community play both, and then ultimately via a governance vote, decide which one they want to be our Team RPG game loop. 

This is one of our many governance experiences. We have the most active game DAO on the planet, and no one else has allowed the players to make true meta and economic decisions. 

Just to give you a quick example, 45 days ago, an internal group of players came forward with a proposal to raise the breeding and EVO cost as well as the cost to get new land out of the land vending machine.

The player community debated amongst each other. Ultimately, the council, which is an elected group of player members. approved this to go to snapshot and then the RBW token holders, again without our involvement or voting on it, voted on this very aggressive version. That in and of itself is fascinating to me. The fact that we’ve got this group of players, this community across 136 countries globally. And we got them to all collectively vote against their short-term self-interest.

In my limited experience, part of the decision making to have a DAO is about allowing it to make mistakes, just not terrible mistakes. 

There are certain restrictions. We’re about to announce a transition to an unincorporated nonprofit as far as the DAO, the treasury itself, giving it a meat space entity. So the Crypto Unicorns IP will be going up into that nonprofit. Part of that charter is you cannot just distribute the treasury to the token holders. The token holders can vote on how the treasury is invested, but very specifically around furthering the Crypto Unicorns IP. The goal there is obviously to make this a generational IP, so there are some restrictions on what the token holders can do. 

How engagement, monetization, and retention are going to be much higher when players truly have ownership and control over the direction of the IP, that’s the kind of core of the experiment that we’re running on the governance side, and it’s something that so far is really proving out because you can play lip service to it, but eventually the community catches on. And I think our community really appreciates the direction that we’ve headed here. 

It is a little scary. At some point, we could get voted out as the core game developer. But part of me just wants to see how this experiment plays out. I really want to see it. I want to be in a position one day where it’s not necessary to further this IP. That will mean, in my eyes, what we’ve set out to achieve has occurred. 

You asked about the games, and we got off track on governance. But that was the Team RPG side of things. So that goes to Snapshot here in the next couple of weeks. It’ll be crazy exciting to see whether the community votes for the match-three, Puzzle & Dragons-style of game, or the auto-battler. 

I think match-three is a better overlap and less crowded competitive space and easier on-ramp. This is actually the first example where they may not make the choice that I would make, but it’s great. You go on our Discord right now and you’ve got people campaigning for each type. I love seeing that level of discussion and involvement.

Then we basically have three second party titles that are not being developed by the core team at Laguna. The first of which is Unicorn Party which launches in June. It is a series of casual core games. They are all skill based, real time PVP. So we took popular hyper casual .io loops like the bumper one, the mob one, and we’ve basically gone real-time PvP. There are no bots. So you’re playing against real players using Photon’s real-time matchmaking. You purchase tickets with our currencies and wager those tickets on the outcome of these matches. 

Unicorn Party kind of represents the first truly skill-based title, which we hope attracts a certain type of skill-based gamer who’s very excited to bet on their own skill and see that through. It’s going to be fascinating because the purchase of these tickets adds value to our economy. 

Also if you’re utilizing a unicorn in Unicorn Party, it can’t be used on the farm. So every single corn that goes off to play those loops, you need to replace it on the farm. And we’ve already shown that with a few thousand wallets there’s a need for over 140,000 unicorns. That’s just showing the scale of the economy that we have relative to a lot of games like Axie, Pegaxy, Zed Run. Only a very small subset of their NFTs are really useful at any given point in time. The one thing we’ve differentiated is that you actually need to use all of these assets daily.

It’s our first mobile title as well. So it’s cross-platform WebGL. We’re starting with Android first. Everything we build in Unity so we have the ability to go to iOS. I’m going to let a few other developers get through that black box review process, and then once the guidelines are a little more clear, we’ll try it.

Ending as we started with market conditions, do you even worry about them anymore?

I personally don’t worry about it very much because I’ve just seen this before and I believe in the overall direction of the space. What I have recognized is most of my team has not been, this is their first bear market. We’re actually doing okay relative to these projects that are just burning around us.

So, it’s been a wild ride. I wrote a state of the union early in the year and in that I said, it’s likely to get worse before it gets better, and I’m glad I said that. I think it will continue to be a very volatile, very challenging market. Again, it’s good to see that we’ve got some positive traction. In the current environment to actually be moving up and to the right, I think is really very exciting. I just want to see that trend continue and I think we’ll be really well positioned.

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Aron BeierschmittCrypto UnicornsInterviewLaguna GamesPodcast
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