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Among the game veterans I encountered at the Game Developers Conference was Sean Ryan, the former vice president of business platform partnerships at Facebook (Meta) and now the CEO of Aqua.
At GDC 2023, Ryan unveiled the Aqua Marketplace and a collaboration with Polygon Labs. He also unveiled a casual games studio to showcase what an embedded marketplace can do.
Ryan and his team of gaming veterans started Aqua to solve the major pain points in crypto gaming. They made an external marketplace. They’ve built a range of partnerships, services, and even their own studio to expand their footprint beyond their core Web3 gaming marketplace. And they’ve also created a version of the marketplace that developers can embed in their games.
“Developers kept asking us, ‘Can you give us a marketplace in the game?'” Ryan said in our interview. “They don’t want the player to get a wallet and go to a third party site. The embedded marketplace is really the product that is catching on with developers.”
Cahill added: “The technical side is aimed at game developers who want to get into Web3 without investing a lot of their own resources. Instead of having a studio team where you have to have a few people on marketplace, you can just make a deal with us. From a player’s perspective, this makes Web3 look like Web 2.5. It’s an easy driveway. It’s very low friction compared to what’s out there.
Ryan left Facebook/Meta about 18 months ago and he re-tamed with John Cahill, who agreed to become the CTO at Aqua. They worked together decades ago at SegaSoft and collaborated on an early virtual world called Meez. About a year ago, they got back together to focus on a blockchain gaming startup.
They originally started a business-to-consumer marketplace. But they saw an opportunity to get closer to developers by building infrastructure that would allow them to play their games and make money. And that was building a marketplace into a game so gamers don’t have to go out to buy something.
“This is another generational shift, like from Facebook to social to mobile,” Cahill said. “We have all seen the film before. The phase shift you get in games is usually led by an innovative platform that encourages creativity. And the infrastructure is leading to a new wave of better games and sometimes even brand new player segments that weren’t previously involved.”
The company helps games make better money through both a direct-to-consumer marketplace and a publisher-facing platform. The company raised $10 million. It hopes to generate revenue by making cuts.
Other leaders include Alay Joglekar, head of marketing and formerly head of social media and influencers and PR at Riot Games. And the team includes Guy Cross, head of partnerships and former leader of global gaming video strategy at Meta.
Much of the company’s development is outsourced to studios in Argentina, China and Romania.
There are plenty of other blockchain gaming marketplaces such as OpenSea and Fractal. But Aqua’s built-in marketplace can be embedded in a developer’s game, allowing players to purchase in-game assets without leaving the game. In that sense, it’s very similar to a Web2 gaming experience.
The idea is to get rid of the currently fragmented player experiences of jumping from different sites to browse and purchase in-game items, into a single-screen journey that keeps players inside the game’s client.
The marketplace is in development for games like Gods Unchained (IMX) and Undead Blocks (Wagyu Games).
Aqua records a spike in player retention and increased revenue after implementation with its early partners. And through the partnership with Polygon Labs, game studios building on that platform have near-instant access to the embedded marketplace.
The partners hope to have 15 game titles on board by the end of the year with current commitments from Dark Throne, Million on Mars and Mojo Melee. Aqua also has its own external marketplace.
Ryan showed me some simple games that the Aqua Studios division. The idea is to create some low-key Web3 titles with simple non-fungible token (NFT) integration and onboarding to entice casual gamers to Web3.
“These are very easy to understand, well recognized games with very simple mechanics,” said Joglekar.
The studio’s first three titles – Aqua Solitaire, Aqua Pool, and Aqua Ludo will introduce players to Web3 gaming and the concept of asset ownership, without the cryptocurrency jargon and tedious processes current players have to navigate.
“Think of it as Web3’s Miniclip,” Ryan said. “Once you play one of these games, you sign up for an identity there. Coincidentally, it comes with a wallet. We don’t call it a wallet, but it just happens to have your identity, just like a Facebook login. It is no different than what you sign up for with your social media.”
Aqua Play account
The Aqua Play account is a player profile that offers the customization, simplicity and style gamers want, plus the utility of a built-in wallet. The idea is to drive long-term wallet identity and marketplace usage to tens of millions or hundreds of millions of people, Ryan said.
“We are starting with an experimental garden. We’re driving our marketplace to as many games as we can. So far, acceptance has been great. That’s basically how we bring the mass market to Web3,” Ryan said. “Because ultimately, we think that’s where this market is going.”
This eventually becomes the player’s portal to discover all the games Web3 has to offer, but with easy connectivity and no crypto-centric jargon. Aqua Studios games will be tested in closed beta in April. Players can sign up on the site and receive a free Aqua Boost when the invites go out.
The platform can also provide you with intelligent recommendations based on your gaming usage. Gamers will appreciate when that works well, Ryan said.
“There’s no longer a gamer profile in Web3 like you have an Xbox or a PlayStation account or something like that,” said Ryan. “People are obsessed with wallets. I’m so tired of talking about purses. When we talk about your Xbox account, you’re not talking about your wallet. It happens to be part of your Xbox or your PlayStation. It needs a credit card or your Steam account. You can build all your game assets, everything you play and everything you own. This will launch and will be super easy to use. You’ll be up and running in under a minute.”
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