#77: Castles made of sand

Digging into The Sandbox, the latest play-to-earn flavour of the month, so you don’t have to.

Hey, remember Axie Infinity? That play-to-earn/blockchain/web3/insert-this-week’s-VC-buzzword-here game that sort of blew up a month or two ago? Until people actually looked into it and saw that the whole thing was basically built on sand, and that a $1,500 buy-in for a game you could earn $20 a day from probably wasn’t going to change the world? Well, never mind all that, here’s another one. Launching today is The Sandbox, a game I gather has been keenly anticipated by investors, forum bores, those guys (always guys) on Twitter with laser-eyed avatars, and precisely no one else.

It’s owned by Animoca Brands, a blockchain gaming company that counts Ubisoft among its investors. It first launched as a mobile game, then Animoca bought the IP with designs on turning it into an NFT-infested take on Roblox. Clearly, to a certain subset of assholes, that sounds like a good idea: the devs raised $93 million earlier this month in a round led by SoftBank. There’s been buzz around it for a while, and that buzz is reaching a crescendo of sorts with the launch today of its public alpha.

I thought I’d dig into a bit, to save you the bother. Is The Sandbox the blockchain game that finally proves the concept? Is it a game that you or I would want to play, elevated to a new plane by its blockchainy features? Or is it just another morass of financial systems, designed to make a handful of wealthy people even richer, around which a sort of game has been built? Is it the new Minecraft? The new Roblox? Or a pyramid scheme built from voxels? Go on, have a guess. I bet my house keys you get all the answers right first try.

So, The Sandbox has a website. You can sign up for the alpha for free, but it quickly transpires that you don’t actually get full access to the alpha by simply signing up. Sure, you can hop in, explore the hub and play the three unique ‘experiences’ the developers have made for launch. You can hop into Create mode and build your own games, levels, ‘experiences’ or characters. You can monetise these creations, if you want, which you do, because otherwise you wouldn’t be here.

You can buy other people’s creations! They are NFTs, of course. In the shop at the moment there’s a Lovecrafty squid-thing that costs almost two grand, an old mine shaft for a couple of hundred bucks, a $40 table lamp and a character called The Ultimate Fighter (only three in existence! Only one remaining!) that will run you a weirdly specific $14,822.85. There are branding hookups with Atari, Care Bears, Smurfs and Snoop Dogg, to name a few. There are certainly a lot of things for you to spend a lot of money on.

But, as I say, you cannot play the full alpha — and cannot, it transpires, access the ‘earn’ side of the play-to-earn fantasy upon which The Sandbox loudly sells itself — without first securing an Alpha Pass. The name implies a Battle Pass: a $10 seasonal unlock that brings extra content and rewards, that sort of thing. Right? Wrong! This is web3, homes! This is different! This is much, much worse!

First up, there are only 5,000 Alpha Passes in existence, because scarcity is sort of the whole vibe here. How do you get one? Well. You could buy LAND, which as the name implies is a piece of in-game real estate. If you’re serious about building and monetising your own ‘experiences’, you will need LAND on which to build them. On the NFT trading marketplace OpenSea, LAND varies in cost, but the first search result costs 25 Ethereum — a shade over £80,000 ($107,300) at the current exchange rate. LANDowners can then enter a raffle — a fucking raffle! — to be in with a chance of winning an Alpha Pass. You can also enter ‘daily contests’ in the Alpha Hub zone for another chance at winning one. Finally, you can just buy one on OpenSea. As I write this, a couple of hours after launch, they seem to be going for around 0.25 ETH — about £800.

So, just to recap: The Sandbox is only a play-to-earn game if you spend money and get lucky, pay nothing and get even luckier, or pay £800 for an NFT. I have no idea how long it would take to recoup your £800 spend on an Alpha Pass, or for that matter your £80,000 investment in LAND, but I cannot imagine it will be quick. This, apparently, is the future. We’ve all spent the past decade thinking free-to-play games a bit grubby, but play-to-earn is simply something else.

Oh right, yes, the benefits. What’s actually in the Alpha Pass? For one thing, access to the full roster of 18 ‘experiences’ available at launch. It also unlocks a quest chain of sorts: complete them and you’ll get 1,000 SAND, the in-game cryptocurrency, and three ‘exclusive Alpha NFTs’.

There’s also, I assume, rather more for Alpha Pass owners to do than I found in the half hour or so that I just wasted in the free version. I mooched around the hub, did three very basic quests that involved walking around a bit and… well, that was that. Nothing else to do, it seems. I rolled my eyes at the NFT museum, at the constant references to the Metaverse, and at all the prompts and nudges to get me to buy an Alpha Pass. Then I hit Alt-F4 and that was that. Cheerio.

Note how little time I have spent talking about the game itself, and how much more I have spent talking about its various financial systems and points of purchase. Needless to say, that balance needs to be a lot more even if a game of this kind is ever to truly take off. Nothing in this space is going to break through until someone makes a game that evolves the player experience in a more meaningful way than ‘you can own things and make money’.

I am sure a number of people are going to make a pile of dough off The Sandbox. Some will make a little, and a lot will make next to no money at all, or lose some. Not a single one of those people will have been drawn to it for its appeal, or its qualities, as a videogame; they are here for its impossible promise of untold riches for all.

The wait for the mythical breakout blockchain game continues, then. Not to worry. There’ll be another one along in a minute, I’m sure.


  • Oh, right, forgot about Cyber Monday. Still nothing out there but deals. Might buy myself a new keyb- no, Nathan, be strong.
  • Rocketwerkz, developer of DayZ, releases its new game Icarus next weekend. There’s a whole Hit Points to be written about what I suppose we might as well call Difficult Second-Game Syndrome: about how the solo developers of breakout hits like DayZ, PUBG, Stardew Valley and so on cope with the pressures and expectations of doing it all over again, this time with the eyes of the world upon them. Not sure I’d have a point per se, but it’s an interesting question, I think. Anyway, I hope Icarus is good.
  • A couple of book announcements that have caught my eye. First, Rob Dwiar, a Gamesradar editor and former professional garden designer, has written Genius Loci, a book about where game and landscape design intersect. Secondly, Hit Points pal (and my former Edge boss) Alex Wiltshire has written the words for Making Videogames, a tome that is largely a showcase for Duncan ‘Deadendthrills’ Harris’ sublime screenshot work. Bonus points for correctly writing ‘videogames’ as one word. We’ll convince the world eventually.
  • Valve certainly had a very happy Thanksgiving: Steam hit a new record for concurrent users, with over 27m people logged in at once for the first time.
  • More problems for 343 Industries and Halo Infinite: console players are complaining about their inability to deactivate cross-platform multiplayer, given the inherent advantage of mouse-and-keyboard controls in an FPS and, more pertinently, an apparent surge in the use of aimbots and so forth on PC. Lovely as the rise of crossplay around the industry has been to see, it’s not without its tradeoffs. I suppose the lesson here is that it should always be opt-in. At the very least, players must be given the option to turn it off.

There’s your lot! Last week’s run of Hit Points was my favourite to date, with some work I was really proud of that seems to have gone over really well. (If you missed any of it, I rounded it all up in this Twitter thread.) A warm welcome to the influx of new readers, and a hearty thanks to those of you that took up the discount on paid subscriptions at the weekend. Have a lovely couple of days, and I’ll see you all on Wednesday.