Sky Mavis’ Jeff Zirlin – “Ronin is starting to blossom”
Kicking off by looking back, Sky Mavis co-founder Jeff Zirlin reminisced how he had been invited to a blockchain gaming event in San Francisco in 2018, when the Axie Infinity team won BlockchainGamer.biz’s first Indie Pitch award.
As Zirlin recalls, “That was really fun. It was kind of a pivotal moment, at least for me, where I felt like I went from being a community member to someone who was doing legitimate things.”
The team have been particularly busy lately, on-boarding third-party games outside of the Axie IP, as well as enabling RON-staking as another move on the road to decentralization. Going from just being the ‘Axie Infinity blockchain’, Ronin has entered a new, more mature, stage as it’s taken on the role of a broader blockchain gaming infrastructure.
As might be expected, we had a lot to talk to Zirlin about, and his enthusiasm was obvious.
“It’s been a really exciting time for everyone in the community and the ecosystem. Sky Mavis, Ronin, Axie, these are kind of synonymous with each other. Now we see Ronin starting to blossom.”
A feat of engineering
Going back to the start of Ronin, the blockchain was built because Sky Mavis realised it couldn’t run Axie Infinity on the Ethereum mainnet. Back then Ronin was a centralised proof-of-authority chain, something that’s now reached an end point, with both new validators and the staking of RON. To some it might seem like a small technical detail but this is actually what will secure the whole ecosystem.
“It was definitely a feat of engineering and product design. Many of the players, holders of RON tokens and stakers are gamers. It was a big moment for our community, because of the ownership. The ones securing this network are also the gamers using it. That’s quite a unique set of circumstances.”
We are indeed seeing an interesting time not only for Ronin, a blockchain who faced some major challenges following a hack of $625 million early 2022, but the web3 gaming space in large is maturing.
With a lot of games, and blockchains positioning themselves as being the one chain for games, there’s a strong competitive element. “Definitely. There’s a market that’s developing. If there’s competition, that will mean that there’s a market,” Zirlin adds.
Opening the ecosystem
Up-to-this-point Ronin has been closely tied to Sky Mavis. That’s likely to change now the blockchain is opening and on-boarding five very different games compared to Axie Infinity.
“I think we knew quite early on, let’s say 2019, that there was a massive opportunity in the market. And why? Because we were out there looking for solutions, and there wasn’t anything that really fit us,” Zirlin says.
“And there wasn’t anything that was really built by people who understood the need specifically for gamers. So we thought, if we’re going to make this for ourselves, we can use it to supercharge the entire ecosystem and make it available for the most thoughtfully-crafted web3 games out there.”
Then comes the process of choosing the games. How does a developer like Sky Mavis go about deciding what games to include in its ecosystem?
“In terms of platform and hardware we have a bias towards mobile. That includes games and mid-core RPGs, for example. But it’s also, what type of game benefits most from in-game assets? There are certain games that are more community-centric and have longer lifespans. Of course you would want to own an NFT in a game with a longer lifespan.”
Partly thanks to its Vietnamese roots, Axie Infinity has become a huge hit in Asia in general, and the Philippines in particular. As part of the new games announced on Ronin was an Indian cricket game from Bowled.io. With the web3 market seemingly only growing stronger in India it’s a logical move.
“We see India as a market that is right for web3 adoption. We also see that it’s a young country with 500 million gamers in it. If you can get a tiny percentage of that and onboard them into our ecosystem, then that’s something that could really move the needle,” Zirlin says.
Changing the perception of Ronin
Another game announced was Directive Games’ The Machines Arena, a PC game which with its top-down, team based features is aimed more at traditional gamers.
“When we saw it we felt like this is something the community can start to sink their teeth into quite soon. The matches are quite snappy, about four-five minutes. It’s eventually ported over to mobile. They have a built-in spectator mode too. We have seen people who, in the past, have maybe turned their nose up a little bit at the Ronin ecosystem, now start to take a look at this game and give our ecosystem another look,” he explains.
Despite this wave of new games joining Ronin, Zirlin says they have a somewhat “white glove approach” to the selection process. He insists “we’re working quite closely with the initial partners, and I think that’s something that they really appreciate.”
New games, new market strategies
Although Ronin might be blossoming, it’s well known that web3 game developers and publishers in general are tackling issues such as building sustainable economies, scaling and distribution. That’s particularly the case for mobile projects.
“What does a web3 publishing model look like? I don’t think it’s going to perfectly correspond to what’s worked in mobile free-to-play. With every new paradigm shift in gaming, you have new distribution models that arise, and web3 gaming will also require a kind of similar reappraisal of the go-to-market strategies.”
Zirlin sounds hopeful and confident in the unique opportunities of blockchain however, continuing “It is through the aligned incentives and the fact that players have a loyalty to the Ronin blockchain because of their experience of the assets they own. I think that’s really powerful, and that’s a feeling you can’t really find in traditional gaming. Whatever the web3 publishing model ends up being, it will leverage that kind of relationship between the platform, the protocol and the games and products on it.”