First Light Games on taking NFT games mainstream
Discover First Light Games’ Blast Royale blockchain game for mobile in this interview with CEO Anil Das-Gupta.
Interview: Anil Das-Gupta talks about community, scammers and web3 adoption
Today we interview Anil Das-Gupta, the co-founder of First Light Games, who is on a mission to bring blockchain games to the world through innovative mobile gaming experiences.
The team has an impressive pedigree. First Light Games was co-founded by Das-Gupta (who has worked on games like Street Fighter 4 and Resident Evil 5) and Neil McFarland (the industry legend and former director at Monument Valley creators ustwo). Their mission? “We’re trying to bring web3 to the masses via games, and specifically, we’ve made a mobile game called Blast Royale.”
Das-Gupta was a panellist at our conference in January in London. You can watch that panel here to see experts discuss the transition from web2 to web3:
We enjoyed listening to Das-Gupta’s comments and analysis on blockchain gaming, so we invited him for a follow-up conversation. In this chat, he talks about the international opportunities of web3, the advantages of ownership, the challenges of getting people to adopt it, and the threats of scammers and cheats.
Please tell us a little about your company and game.
Anil Das-Gupta: A lot of us in the team were early in free-to-play gaming and saw what a paradigm shift that created. I still feel that the UK really missed the boat on that. We thought it’s high time that some people in the UK went for this possible new shift with web3 and crypto, and that’s what we’re trying to do, and to make sense of that.
Blast Royale is a battle royale with NFTs. Our game is a bit of a deck builder, a little like Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone, where you’re building a deck, and that’s where your NFTs are. When you come into the game, that build will appear, and you go looting. So there’s like a competitive metagame there.
We don’t want the game to be pay-to-win. That’s really important. But we want the NFTs to have some value, bragging rights and ownership.
We started as a free-to-play games company many years ago. Many of us were successful in that space at previous companies. It’s hard for lighting to strike twice. As the industry consolidates, it gets tougher and tougher. And so we felt that this is a much bigger blue ocean to go for. That’s what really interested us in going into this space.
Getting an NFT game onto the app stores felt like a bit of a struggle at first, but you’ve done it. Was that the biggest challenge when it came to launching the game?
I wouldn’t say it was the biggest challenge, but it is a challenge because you can’t do it in the way that you would like to. It’s extremely restrictive and, frankly, anti-competitive. But these are the rules that we have to play for. Our attitude is: it’s going to be a very fluid situation. Free-to-play evolved so much from day one to where it’s got to as of today. And we expect it to be even wilder than that with crypto.
So, to begin with, we really prioritised just getting the game to market as soon as possible. So, honestly, our biggest challenge was the fundraising. And then, from the fundraising, turning that into building a team. And then using that team to build a product. And to get all of that into the market amidst a sort of global recession and meltdown in crypto.
I think those were bigger challenges! We didn’t have any blockchain experience before, so we had to learn that on the way. Luckily, it wasn’t as bad as we thought, but it certainly was not an inconsiderable amount of talent and knowledge that had to be acquired by the team.
Another challenge blockchain games have is converting traditional “web2” gamers to pick up a web3 game. There’s a pushback from traditional gamers. Why do you think there’s such resistance from traditional gamers to experiment with games like this?
It’s the whole PR around crypto. [The industry] hasn’t done a good job.
I have to say: it’s the same for me! I dabbled in it a little bit in the past, but never got into it too seriously. Someone on the team suggested we make a crypto game. At first, I laughed at them and thought, “Why on earth would you want to do that?!”
It’s only when we saw the revenue potential of Axie Infinity that we thought, “OK, this is serious. If that can happen…!” I don’t think anyone has fully worked it out yet, but that shows that there’s definitely something that’s worth exploring, compared to the solved playbook that was regular mobile free-to-play.”
If you look at it in general in the industry, NFTs and crypto have a bad rep. And to be honest with you, I would say that’s right when you look at the sort of behaviour of a lot of people! That’s fair enough.
What are the issues that need addressing?
There are two big issues. Issue number one is just the whole “how do you even go and use it?” Setting up a MetaMask wallet and then filing transactions. It’s difficult. I wouldn’t say it’s as hard as it’s made out to be, but it’s certainly alien, and it can be scary. I think that’s a big barrier. But I do feel that that barrier can be crossed as long as you’ve got a strong product.
When we actually started developing this game, I personally got scammed and lost two ETH!
The other side of it at the moment is that given the bad rep, it’s sort of cool to hate on NFTs right now, and that’s why we’ve seen resistance. That has been seen so many times across so many games. When mobile games first came out, everybody was like, “No, mobile games are for losers. No one’s ever going to play them.” Now it’s the biggest sector in the world. “Free-to-play? No one’s going to play free-to-play.” Also, that business model was proven.
So it all comes down to the content. How did mobile start appealing? It was because people worked out that you have to make games in a different way. Monument Valley is a good example, and Candy Crush and Clash of Clans giving people bite-sized gaming sessions.
I worked on a Resident Evil game for mobile. It turns out that taking a console title and porting it directly to mobile isn’t a winning formula. You have to rethink the gameplay.
Free-to-play to might sound bad on paper, but actually, if you can play all these games for free and they’re high quality, then it turns out that once you’ve played this game for a little while, you’re going to be more likely to monetise, because you’ve realised the value it’s given to you.
I think all of these things can be solved. It’s early days. People say there’s a large pushback, but is there? I think the fact is, there’s hardly anything to get excited for. As soon as you start having a few really strong titles that are good and that you can play, and you just think they’re fun anyway – then the rest of it will start to unlock. I don’t think it will be immediate, but I do think it will happen at some point because there are a thousand blockchain games in development, if not more.
We got into the space because it’s a marathon and not a spring. And learning this is really important.
Look at Pokémon Go. There were always location games. It wasn’t even Niantic’s first game. But there was just something about Pokémon Go that caught people’s imagination. Are we similarly just waiting for a web3 game that lights that touchpaper, and suddenly everybody will say, “Now I’ve got to get into this!”?
I think it will come. I don’t know when it will come. I hope it’s our game! But that is what’s necessary.
Pokémon Go is a really good example because I will actually still say that the game’s not particularly good. But the fantasy of it…! I remember in London; it was mental. I went into St James’ Park and heard someone shout, “There’s a Charizard over there!” and saw 100 grown men and women running into the space. And I was like, “OK, well, if ever you wanted to see the power of games, that is it right there. I’ve never seen that before.”
It’s all about getting the right combination of things. It’s already been proven to some degree with Axie Infinity. Sure, it went cold after a while, but the fact it did a billion in revenue in just one quarter, shows that there was something very definitely there for what was a substandard game. So there’s something there that needs to be applied somewhere else, and it will work.
We are waiting for the touchpaper to be lit. How long that’s going to take? I don’t know. In the background of this, we have a global recession. That does make a difference. It’s why most AAA developers aren’t going to be pumping out the innovative hits right now. You’ve even seen earnings calls where we’re seeing [big companies] go back to familiar franchises, and they don’t want to take a risk, given that pocket money is far less at the moment.
But all these things are temporary, and it’ll eventually come out in the wash, and sort itself out.
With blockchain adoption, is geography a factor? It seems already more popular in Asia.
There are massive variations. People in Asia don’t really worry about it. They’ll play the game. They’re starting to get more familiar with it. Their primary motivation does tend to be on the potential earning aspect, which is why they will play. But because so many did play, it means they’ve already gotten through that phase of learning how it even works. So they’re quite a lot more educated.
In web3 games, in general, what people have to get their head around is that, basically, you’re building your own stock exchange into a game. That’s really the way to think about it. The Stock Exchange itself is a pretty popular “game”: the idea of this game is to make more money than you start with, and millions of people play it every day.
What we’re seeing is that you get different types of people who interact with the game in totally different ways. There are people who we call speculators who won’t don’t really play the game, but they may buy the assets. They may spend 10x more revenue than a real player would do, but they’re not going to play the game. Players will play the game, and they will spend a little amount of money to get the kind of items they want to max it. But they don’t have the sort of deep pockets required to really go hard on the other end.
But this is still a good thing because, ultimately, free-to-play is all about this: how much does it cost to bring in players, and how much do you monetise from it? If that net means that you have more revenue coming into your ecosystem, and if the net means that it’s cheaper to get players because people come in to drive up the value of their asset – then when you boil it down, on paper it should mean that it’s possible to make such games successful. You’re going to have more levers that you can pull compared to a regular title and less competition to do it.
That’s what we have observed so far. I think it will work, but will it work at scale? We need to prove that ourselves. We’ve made the game. You need to have the fundamentals: how good is the retention on your game? How many features does it have? How sticky is it? No one has yet made a game as deep as some of these mobile titles that have been around for three or four years. It takes quite a bit of time to build up all of that sophistication. But it will come.
There are some bad actors in this space that have not helped the PR for web3. You said that you were scammed early on. How did that happen?
Well, those are two separate things, but they are somewhat related. There was a scam project called Burst Royale. They copied everything from our title, including staff pictures and so forth. They have a Twitter account where they’ve done everything that we’ve done, but they’ve just changed the logo!
That’s not to do with blockchain so much as actual passing-off, isn’t it?
Here’s where it gets really devious. You can go to [the Burst Royale website], and you can actually download a game to play on your PC, which is impossible because we don’t have a PC version of Blast Royale. If you were to download their piece of malware, what it will actually do is it will actually steal the contents of your wallet and move it to another web address. That’s what they were trying to do with people, and they’re using our good name.
The way I got personally scammed was somewhat similar to that. Unfortunately, there are some mint sites that, once you sign the details, they’ll quite often say, “Go here, and you’ll be able to mint something for free.” And it’ll be a high-value item, and you’ll think, “Oh, wow, I really want to do that.” But what it will do instead, when you sign the smart contract, is it’ll actually move things out of your wallet. I lost two ETH and some NFTs and stuff that I’d bought, not knowing this, while trying to claim this offer.
We’ve since educated our team that it’s something you’ve got to be careful of. But it’s going to be a big issue. Because we’ve seen it already with some people in our community who have been hacked or they’ve lost their items. You need to explain to them that, unlike a regular game, it’s not a case where they can just say, “Please email me my forgotten password so I can reset it.” Once an item’s gone, it’s gone forever. And it’s not ours, either. That is the whole point of web3. There are pros and cons to that. It’s powerful, but it’s so powerful because there’s such little security around it at the moment.
One thing web3 brings to gaming that you couldn’t do before is that idea of ownership. With something like a collectable card deck, you’re building something in which players feel they have some kind of ownership, right?
Yes and no. I think that is the thing that most people in the industry use, but I don’t think that’s a powerful enough motivator to really make people want to play the game. Because if that were the case, then why are people playing the digital version of Magic rather than the physical one – right? One you own, and one you don’t.
What I feel, though, that the real merit of web3 is, is actually the aspect of community building and being rewarded for being in something early.
Magic: The Gathering in real life is a good example of this. I don’t know if you know the history of that game, but that game debuted at Gen Con in America, which is a huge nerd convention. At that convention, they sold the first set that came out of beta. Those cards completely sold out. It was the talk of the town: “There’s this amazing new game you should play.” And those items, then, from that convention, are the ones that are worth the most amount in terms of money… even though you cannot actually use those cards in a real, competitive tournament now.
But what’s interesting is that cool story if you backed it early. I remember I was introduced to it by a boy at school who was like, “Oh, wow, have you played this game? It’s really cool.” And two weeks later, every single kid had a starter pack, and they were all playing together. You weren’t cool unless you were playing this game.
Now games are starting to really consolidate. Look at the Activision and Microsoft deal. When deals like that are being done, it means things are starting to get sewn up. It’s a bit like the movie industry, where it’s gone down to five major studios.
If you’re an executive who works at one of the top companies like EA, and you’ve got to sign off on a $40 million development budget, are you going to sign off something innovative, or are you going to sign off the next Battlefield or whatever? I know what I would do because it would be my job, and the job would be to ensure the company makes money.
Now, what I’m saying is: if you’re doing an earlier approach, you can test the product market a bit earlier. And if you start seeing that your game gets traction because people are interested in the idea, it can give you more validation that there’s something that’s worth pursuing there. It’s almost like a Kickstarter-plus-plus. And there are some other benefits. I have a feeling that that will be the way new companies make big dividends in the next couple of years.
Does that work at scale, though? If you are an Electronic Arts, is that going to make you want to make a game that way? Maybe not. But then maybe they could see a game that’s already successful and put their brand on it. So maybe you will see Battlefield Blockchain, which might be like Blast Royale, but they’ve taken everything we’ve learned but put on their own thing.
We’ve noticed that the biggest thing is this sense of community and ownership that drives viral growth, and that can mean your acquisition costs can go to zero if you do it correctly. And that’s huge. That means there’s a new way. Performance marketing is the elephant in the room. It’s dead for mobile. So if there’s an entirely new way that you can do it, and make games successful out of it, then that’s the real win. And whoever figures that out is really going to hit the big time on it. And that is the more exciting part of it.
Last year, everything was about “the metaverse”. Now the hype cycle seems to have moved on and everyone’s talking about AI. What’s your perception of the landscape at the moment? Have a lot of the investors who were following web3 gone on to invest in AI products or something else now?
Firstly, I would say that gaming, in general, is extremely hard to raise financing for. So I don’t think it’s just applicable to one area. For example, even just the regular free-to-play games, you’re not going to get money. You’re not going to get money if you’re just a web3 metaverse project right now. It’s just extremely difficult. People do not want to deploy their capital. I’ve not seen caution like this for a long time.
I think the last time I can remember this being like this is that after Supercell was acquired, there was a bit of a gold rush when everyone was backing free-to-play studios. People got burned in the two years following. And then VCs were very reluctant to kind of start putting capital in.
We founded our company in 2018, and I’d say it was around 2017 to 2018 that people started looking into it again, saying, “Oh, yeah, it can work. You just have to do things a different way.” So I definitely have that sort of feeling with things now.
I have seen that VCs are backing AI projects. Not specifically gaming projects but just AI in general. I think that’s fair enough. ChatGPT is amazing, and so on and so forth. So I can see why they’d be excited. Because, to be honest with you, with a lot of these things, they just look at traction.
The reason why people jumped into web3 so much was because of Axie Infinity. If a game can do one billion in a quarter… There were people that returned their entire fund inside two weeks off that game. So, of course, they’re going to put a lot more bets on it!
With AI, you could argue the traction that’s already been generated has probably been bigger than blockchain in terms of mass usage. So I can see exactly why people would invest in it.
I have seen a few start-ups raise complete seed rounds – and those start-ups tend to have extremely competent teams. Some guy’s got ten years at a billion-dollar corporation, running multiple games – OK, those sort of teams will get their seed funding. Otherwise, I feel it’s not good right now, generally, and that’s just indicative of a global space that’s very uncertain. The fact that I paid £7.50 for a hot chocolate and croissant this morning on my way to work, and I thought, “What? Have I been mugged here?” It’s where we are.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of that has to resolve out, and there are going to be tough times just in gaming in general. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. Perhaps free-to-play will get a bit of a renaissance with people not as willing to spend so much. That is possible. But if so, I still think they’ll go back to familiar things and are not likely to try so much innovative stuff.
But you never know. Blockchain gaming basically came about because of COVID. COVID meant that people couldn’t work, and people in the Philippines started playing this digital game because they could make money because they couldn’t work, and then boom. The world works in mysterious ways. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.
Finally, what do we need to know about Blast Royale? Is it out and ready to play?
Anyone can play it right now. It is in soft launch, but people can play it, and a lot of people have been trying it out. That’s really the point of it: we want to go as early as possible because the sooner you have it out, the sooner you can learn and you can figure out how things do.
The interesting thing is that there’s also something called the Hub (hub.blastroyale.com). That is where you can buy NFTs, and they’ll work in the game. That’s the aspect that sets it apart from a regular game, and you can see how it all works and interacts with one another.
It’s early days. I think it will change a lot over the next year. But it’s there, and it’s something for people to do their research on right now.
You can find out more about First Light’s new mobile blockchain game at the official website. Our partner site PocketGamer.biz covers mobile games of all stripes day in and day out. There’ll be a chance to explore both the blockchain and the mobile games scenes, and AI, again live at PG Connects Seattle in May – tickets are now on sale at an early discounted price.