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Letter 4: The Problem with Blockchain Games
On gamers and their passionate rejection of the space
Let’s start by getting the obvious out of the way
GAMERS HATE, HATE, HATE NFTS AND BLOCKCHAIN GAMING.
How do I know this?
Is it from the countless articles by Vice, Forbes, CNET and IGN? Is it because Steam and Microsoft effectively banned them from their platforms, with the CEO of Xbox Game Studios even quoted as saying, “some of the creative that I see today feels more exploitive than about entertainment”? Is it on account of Sony, Activision Blizzard, EA, and Ubisoft all testing the waters and being firmly rebuked by everyone on the internet?
Nope—not that that’s a surprise, but I expected massive resistance long before that.
“Well okay Brad, then how did you know that gamers would need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the blockchain?”
To which I say…
Some of you may be nodding your head in agreement right now; the rest are likely waiting for an explanation. But before I get to that, you should know that every pointless cosmetic skin you’ve ever bought in League of Legends, Fortnite, Minecraft, Roblox, Fall Guys, Call of Duty, or [insert your favorite game here] owes an immense debt of gratitude to those digital horsies.
Let me also put a quick asterisk next to the title of this article, The Problem with Blockchain Games, before the comments start. We are actually incredibly bullish on blockchain games and their potential. We also have a number of friends and devs who have made blockchain games that we consider delightful and a lot of fun. But make no mistake, we consider them the exceptions. Also, sometimes you just need a polarizing nudge to wake everyone up and get them moving.
You should also know that this will be an especially meaty article, so now might be a good time to pour another cup of coffee.
An Equestrian History Lesson
Believe it or not, but the cosmetic skins and microtransactions market were not always ubiquitous to gaming. What gamers were familiar with at the time was expansion packs, but those were a different beast and did exactly as the name suggested: it expanded them, generally with a host of new maps, storylines, gameplay modes, or other forms of additional content which usually came out anywhere from half a year to a year or so after the main release, and often at a discounted price.
Enter Bethesda, a well established studio by this point, having already received much acclaim in 2002 for their previous entry in the Elder Scroll series, Morrowind, which is still frequently cited as one of the best games of all time.
It was March 20th, 2006 and Bethesda had just released their latest entry in the series, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. On April 3rd, just a couple weeks after their release, Bethesda made their first DLC (downloadable content) available for purchase. And with it, the floodgates were opened.
As much as I love Bethesda, they are pioneers of a financial trend and market strategy that continues to this day—well, to be fair, technically Total Annihilation had some paid DLC in their game less than a year prior, but it didn’t provoke the kind of conversation or backlash as what Bethesda did (and doubled down on).
"Horse Armor”, which cost the equivalent of $2.50, is a paltry sum by today’s microtransaction standards. However, it may have been the practical uselessness of the DLC that angered so many. How much armor did this purchase add to the horse? None. It was purely cosmetic. That’s right, the horse armor provided no actual armor for the horse. It still doesn’t make sense to me all these years later. Regardless, it sparked a tremendous amount of controversy in the gaming world and was overwhelmingly rejected and mocked.
For a game of lesser status, such an apparent blunder and moneygrab would have been the kiss of death. But this was the studio that made Morrowind. They weren’t going anywhere. When they saw that gamers were fine with the changes (in so much as they continued to buy and support the product), other game publishers quickly followed.
Quite simply, the game was too damn good to ignore. And more importantly, Bethesda had accurately determined something that gamers would embrace, even before gamers themselves realized it.
Flash forward: it’s now 2022, and I am a massive hypocrite. Over the course of my life I have almost certainly spent hundreds of dollars on functionally useless, purely cosmetic items for a small handful of games—the majority of which I don’t even play anymore.
One of the games I played obsessively at the start of the pandemic and have resumed lightly now, Final Fantasy XIV, has countless cosmetic skins and mounts (vehicles) for sale. Some are reasonably priced, but there are some ludicrous ones as well, like the Lunar Whale, a luxury 8 person mount that is sold for $42.
I like to think of that whale from time to time and chuckle at how pissed off I was at Bethesda for $2.50 back in 2006. How far we’ve come. Now, so long as it’s a cosmetic item I’m fine with it, with the caveat that I still prefer when developers retain the ability to earn the item in game. Additionally, as many games these days are released entirely for free and make all of their money from skins, cosmetic items and other upsells, I’m obviously fine with that as well.
My Gaming Resume & Identifying the Problem
A tiny bit of history so that you know why this subject is near and dear to my heart.
As a child I owned a Commodore 64, as well as a PC with shareware demos that I bought from the dollar store and would install via floppy disks in the DOS command prompt. I also had a Famicom/NES and pretty much every system thereafter. I even had a Dreamcast, and am still a proud Vita holder—popularity never meant anything to me! I also took up Japanese partially as an excuse to play the games of my youth in their original language.
As I write this article and think of some of the games which left a notable impact on my life, they include: The Last of Us (Part I & II), Hollow Knight, Diablo II, the Final Fantasy series (especially VI - X, Tactics, and XIV), Death Stranding, Shining Force (I & II), Bloodborne, Minecraft, Fallout: New Vegas, NieR: Automata, Baldur’s Gate II, Teraria, the Bioshock series, the Metal Gear Solid series, Life is Strange, and so much more.
Apart from annual sports titles and most first person shooters, there’s very little I haven’t played or wouldn’t try, including the most obscure of indies, text-based MUDs (if you know what that is, I now know how old you are), games still in their original Japanese, or games which some people insist aren’t games at all.
All this is just to say that gaming is an incredibly personal art form that differs from person to person and is capable of narrative storytelling as well any book or film. It also has the unique privilege of being an interactive experience, which, when done right, makes for a level of immersion unlike anything else.
I just wanted to put a little bit of enthusiasm out into the space before I went to great lengths to tell you why blockchain gaming isn’t anywhere near close to where it needs to be for any sort of mass adoption to occur.
The thing that leaves me scratching my head however, is that gamers have among the most to gain from this web3 transition, yet they are also among the most deadset against NFTs, a reaction I attribute to the community not wanting a sequel to Horse Armor, as well as miscommunication and poor understanding surrounding blockchain technology.
As I mentioned in our previous letter, I have a lot to say about blockchain gaming, and what sort of prerequisites and changes we need to see before it can achieve any level of mass adoption.
Let’s get to it!
My first point is actually more of an observation. Quite simply, sometimes things don’t ever pick up traction, even if they seemingly have everything needed to succeed. It may verge on dismissive to suggest, but game developers interested in pursuing blockchain games could simply be in the right place at the wrong time, showing up to a party that hasn’t started yet.
Consider the following:
There are more than 8.8 million MAU (monthly active users) on Coinbase.
OpenSea recently passed 2M people having made at least 1 transfer.
Blockchain.com has over 83M wallet users (I’m unaware of the MAU, but it would be substantially lower: a good MAU rate sits around 20%; extremely successful MAUs rates hover in the 50%+ region).
MetaMask has over 21M MAU.
Brave Browser recently announced 50M MAU.
Keep in mind that what qualifies as an “active user” can differ from place to place, and MAU can often be determined by as little as a single visit to the site in the span of a month.
Now consider the gaming industry. My apologies in advance, but these numbers are a bit harder to track, as Microsoft and Nintendo have not always been forthright with their numbers (particularly when they’re not the market leader):
Sony and Microsoft both have over 100M MAU as of 2022.
Activision Blizzard has a MAU of 94M in the second quarter of 2022.
Steam has over 130M MAU as of the end of 2021.
Nintendo’s MAU are unknown, but they recently announced over 100M annual users as of May, 2022.
The total revenue from video games this year is expected to pass 200B. While crypto’s revenue is many leagues higher, video games are by comparison a much more unified and limited group, which makes their activity all the more impressive.
This should hopefully illuminate a wide disconnect between the amount of active console gamers and the amount of active crypto holders. Those figures would appear even further skewed if we were to consider:
The entire market for mobile gaming.
What constitutes an active user on MetaMask, Coinbase, Blockchain.com, Brave, etc.
The amount of users on MetaMask who have more than one account.
The amount of wallet holders who have made multiple purchases on OpenSea vs the amount of gamers who have made multiple purchases on their respective platforms.
It should also be said that an active video game user is almost certainly gaming more than once a month. So even if MAU is calculated the same in gaming as with crypto companies, I’m not sure that we can calculate true investment and activity in gaming by those figures alone.
It’s also worth noting that 2,700 game developers were polled for the GDC State of the Game Industry (2022) recently, and the results were probably what you would have expected.
It’s safe to say that the industry professionals making games for a living are largely not interested in pursuing blockchain gaming.
Lack of Onboarding (aka, Game Devs Don’t Know Crypto)
Most people would admit that our space is chaotic—no surprise when we literally gather in a place called Discord.
The space is too technical and awash in obscure details: there are more security concerns than you can shake a stick at, an endless sea of acronyms to understand (by the way, feel free to share this glossary we created! It’s by no means complete yet, but it is more robust than most) as well as all the hassle of knowing which blockchain you’ll operate on, setting up a wallet, funding it, learning how to use exchanges, navigating OpenSea or other marketplaces, discerning real collections from rug pulls, understanding smart contracts, and more.
All of this takes a great deal of time to develop a sense of intuition for. Most people will not do that. Most people will just leave. If we want more people in the space, sooner or later these logistical and UI nightmares need to be abstracted away so that anyone can use the space with ease.
While video game devs are incredibly talented and hard working, they’re people like any others. And that means, statistically, that most of them barely have any knowledge of crypto, NFTs, or how blockchains operate, and even fewer are actually a part of this ecosystem, yet alone confident enough to try and build it up.
Whether it be a small indie dev team of only a few people, or a massive group like EA or Activision, this is a hurdle which needs to be overcome.
You cannot create a game by including elements of technology you don’t understand. Not only do game devs need to grok all of this on a fundamental level, but they also need to be proficient with it. Their knowledge and understanding of the space needs to be substantially higher than that of their customer base. And beyond that, they have to incorporate it in such a way that it feels natural and not forced, and is actually engaging and entertaining for the player base. Until that happens, you won’t see a flurry of blockchain games. At least, not a whole lot of good ones.
It’s not even enough to ensure you have a competent dev team who understand the blockchain—nearly everyone connected to a blockchain project needs to fundamentally understand the space.
Consider accounting: whoever handles the finances needs to be very aware of crypto and its volatility. Here’s just a few questions anyone handling the money needs to know:
Will they operate on the Ethereum blockchain? Why/why not? Will they have an initial coin offering? Will they token-gate aspects of their game or community? If so, where/why? What will they do with the revenue they earn? What is their contingency plan for if ETH crashes, or their wallet is compromised, or their smart contract is faulty and they can’t even access the funds? Will they be holding all their earnings entirely in ETH? Converting to USDC? A different stablecoin? What will they do if that stablecoin goes bust? Are they considering converting their earnings to USD and putting some of it in TradFi systems? If so how much, and at what interval?
The list goes on and on.
There are countless decisions which need to be made, and most of the projects in this space are plummeting to 0, even when headed by bright people and well informed teams. So for any team going into blockchain gaming that are unable to answer all of those questions (and more), they will without a doubt fail spectacularly.
Even with a plan, and being extremely adaptable, teams are still likely to encounter a whole host of novel problems they never experienced in their previous jobs.
When we speak of blockchain games which exist today, the vast majority are either browser based, or on mobile. Steam, the largest ecosystem for PC gamers and loaded with over 50,000 games (as of Feb 2022) currently has a ban in place for NFTs and blockchain gaming. One of Steam’s main competitors, another PC video game storefront by the name of Epic Games embraces NFTs, but they are a tiny fraction of Steam’s size, with just shy of 1000 games on their ecosystem around the end of 2021.
So yeah, mobile and browser.
And with those mobile and browser games, a problem I have already noticed is how limited certain genres appear, while others are seemingly already oversaturated.
If you’re into blockchain gaming, and collecting/battling cards, oh boy, do I have some good news for you! The same can be said for simple first person shooters, tower defense, idle games, gatcha games, city/base builders, platformers, and monster collectors (think Pokémon clones).
Then there are genres which are not quite as abundant in blockchain gaming but still capturing interest such as: MMOs/MMORPGs, action-adventure, roguelikes/roguelites, RTS, MOBAs, sandboxes, etc. While MMOs and MOBAs can be extremely large and complex in scope, they also seem like genres already primed for blockchain gaming, with a lot of experience in loot boxes, skins, item customizations, and so forth.
Then you have a few genres which are considerably more difficult to implement the blockchain, either due to technical limitations, money invested, project scope, or resources on hand. These include open world games, role-playing games, and anything which may fall under the broad umbrella term of a AAA game (high profile and big budget, usually made by large teams with a lot of resources and clout behind them).
Another couple difficult genres worth mentioning would be the fighting game or dance communities, for exactly the same reason: their games often require extremely quick reflexes and perfectly-timed button mashing skills, neither of which are what we typically attribute to mobile games, and especially not to browser games.
As for me, I haven’t found myself interested in many blockchain game offerings, although I did find Sunflower Land (formerly named Sunflower Farmers), a game which, when it first hit the scene, famously broke Polygon for about a week, as roughly 4/5 of their network was being used by people farming digital sunflowers.
While I believe certain genres are more well suited to the world of blockchain gaming, I don’t believe there is any genre which could not implement some form of this tech. The ultimate determining factor of what will and won’t succeed will come down to its implementation, and their ability to make a good, fun game regardless of any P2E or NFT mechanics.
Two Giant Exceptions
It is important to add that there are at least two notable video game companies who have rather publicly shown an interest in the subject. They also happen to be two of the most outspoken about the potential of blockchain gaming, although both have understandably become much quieter after dealing with the public fallout.
Both Square Enix and Ubisoft are billion dollar video game companies with massive rosters of successful games.
Perhaps few are as bullish on the potential of blockchain games as Yosuke Matsuda, the current President and Representative Director of Square-Enix. In a letter released the start of the new year, Yosuke detailed some of his thoughts about blockchain gaming and how SE would move forward:
By contrast, blockchain games, which have emerged from their infancy and are at this very moment entering a growth phase, are built upon the premise of a token economy and therefore hold the potential to enable self-sustaining game growth. The driver that most enables such self-sustaining game growth is diversity, both in how people engage with interactive content like games, and in their motivations for doing so. Advances in token economies will likely add further momentum to this trend of diversification. I see the “play to earn” concept that has people so excited as a prime example of this.
I believe that this will lead to more people devoting themselves to such efforts and to greater possibilities of games growing in exciting ways. From having fun to earning to contributing, a wide variety of motivations will inspire people to engage with games and connect with one another. It is blockchain-based tokens that will enable this. By designing viable token economies into our games, we will enable self-sustaining game growth. It is precisely this sort of ecosystem that lies at the heart of what I refer to as “decentralized gaming,” and I hope that this becomes a major trend in gaming going forward.
Ubisoft is also a company taking a bold stance. Having already set up their own beta platform called Ubisoft Quartz which resides on the Tezos blockchain, they’ve put NFTs (which they call Digits) into just one AAA game so far: Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint.
The feedback from the community was not positive.
But much to the chagrin of those users, it appears as though Ubisoft has no intention of shutting down Ubisoft Quartz.
Chris Stead from Finder did an interesting interview with Nicolas Pouard, the VP at Ubisoft's Strategic Innovations Lab. You can read the full thing here, but I’ve shared a few relevant takeaways, below.
After Chris commented that the launch of Ubisoft Quartz and Digits had been perceived negatively, Nicolas agreed, but said that it was the reaction they expected, and that they plan to continue integrating Quartz and Digits (NFTs) in the future. He mentioned that over time players will begin to understand it and they’ll come around to the value they’re being offered.
I have to say, Ubisoft has not always been my favorite publisher. But it was refreshing to see a company face scrutiny and then still stick to the principles they believe in, rather than cowing to the mob of angry voices online.
In another question, Nicolas went further to talk about gamers, saying:
I think gamers don't get what a digital secondary market can bring to them. For now, because of the current situation and context of NFTs, gamers really believe it's first destroying the planet, and second just a tool for speculation. But what we [at Ubisoft] are seeing first is the end game.
And probably the most candid statement I’ve seen a gaming exec speak about the blockchain so far:
Also, this is part of a paradigm shift in gaming. Moving from one economic system to another is not easy to handle. There are a lot of habits you need to go against and a lot of your ingrained mindset you have to shift. It takes time. We know that.
Spot on, Nicolas!
P2E > Fun
Moving on, I think we’ve come to the crux of why so many blockchain games fail to capture the attention and imagination of its players: the games aren’t being made to be fun, they’re being made to make money.
Those are two very different goals.
I owe a small apology to Phil Spencer for being a bit sensationalist with his comment at the top of this article. His answer was actually more nuanced than you might have originally expected, and his views seem pretty grounded. In an interview with Stephen Totilo from Axios, Phil Spencer had the following to say about whether we could expect Microsoft to explore NFT games anytime soon.
I think there's a lot of speculation and experimentation that's happening, and that some of the creative that I see today feels more exploitative than about entertainment.
I don't think it necessitates that every NFT game is exploitative. I just think we're kind of in that journey of people figuring it out.
And I can understand that early on you see a lot of things that probably are not things you want to have in your store. I think anything that we looked at in our storefront that we said is exploitative would be something that we would, you know, take action on. We don't want that kind of content.
I feel that this is an entirely fair comment to make and position to have, especially if you need to consider the mechanics of how you would allow NFTs within the context of a larger storefront.
I believe there are three primary reasons why blockchain games up until this point have been more concerned about P2E (play to earn) than fun:
These games are being made by blockchain devs who are understandably infatuated with NFTs, DeFi, and other aspects of web3, and are either consciously or unconsciously prioritizing this new tech at the expense of everything else.
[I feel that this is most blockchain devs in the space right now.]
Some less than admirable devs are only here for the money and are incentivized by how much they can fleece the players for.
[I suspect only a small amount of individuals/projects are like this.]
As stated earlier in the article, a dev on the blockchain and a video game dev are quite different. It could simply be that the wrong people are taking a shot.
[This definitely plays a part: blockchain devs and video game devs either need to learn their counterpart’s domain as well, or partner with somebody who does.]
Right Tech, Wrong Time
(Too Early? Pt. II: The VR Comparison).
Continuing our previous discussion about whether people in the space right now are simply too early to thrive, I turn to another piece of technology with a lot of promise which has failed to connect with the general public: virtual reality.
VR has been the perennial dream of gamers for at least three decades, with the tech periodically resurfacing every few years, generating buzz with the launch of new hardware, and then failing to capture the attention and mindset of consumers. Consistently this tech has not quite been ready for prime time, and has, without fail, always slinked back into obscurity until the next eager party wishes to start the process all over again.
Much like blockchain gaming, VR gaming comes with its own prerequisites before you can indulge in it. It is is a noticeable departure from how things are normally done, and asks for consumers to change their habits and perceptions about gaming rather drastically.
Let’s look back at a couple entries into VR and see how it might apply today.
Virtual Boy: A fifth generation console, released July 21st, 1995 in Japan and August 14th for North America, the Virtual Boy was, according to Nintendo, the first console capable of producing stereoscopic “3D” graphics (I use sarcastic air quotes as the results were anything but 3D). . Virtual Boy wears the crown for Nintendo’s worst selling piece of hardware in their history, having sold approximately 770,000 units before being discontinued the following year. It was incredibly limited in what it was capable of doing, had only 22 different games made for the system (19 in Japan, 14 in the US), and could only display images in shades of red at a 384×224 resolution.
Sega VR: An unreleased fourth generation console featuring LCD screens and stereo headphones that was ultimately cancelled and not released to the public. It was initially designed as a peripheral hardware piece for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. Only a small handful of games were ever in development. Sega apparently claimed to have terminated the project because—and I kid you not—the VR was too realistic and people could hurt themselves by moving around while wearing the headset (presumably lost in the amazingly immersive VR experience). Yes, this cancelled piece of VR hardware never saw the light of day because it was just too good at being VR. I’m sure the reports from testers complaining of persistent motion sickness and frequent headaches are merely coincidental. With a 30 Hz refresh rate, Sega was painfully unequipped to provide a satisfying experience for gamers.
VR Today: These days, Meta Quest 2 (previously known as Oculus Quest 2) is currently the dominant leader with nearly 15 million units. Sony’s PS VR trails behind at 5 million, with a newly updated PS VR2 promised for the future. Even still, these numbers are niche levels when compared against the general population of gamers, showing no sign of being ready for mainstream adoption quite yet. However, to their credit, we’re closer to VR than ever before, and I think the general feeling in the market is that it’s just around the corner, and sooner or later gaming will undergo yet another substantial transformation.
So why the trip down VR memory road?
Well, I believe there is a high probability that blockchain gaming also goes through a sort of iterative and cyclical process similar to that of VR, wherein the general buzz is built up in the public, a few contenders come up to the stage with their products and the early results fall short. That in turn dampens the buzz and has publishers and devs pull back from supporting it, which also creates hesitancy in other companies and investors, and puts off the next major attempt by a few years before a fresh face tries again.
One fundamental difference I believe, however, is the timescale. Blockchain gaming will not take several decades to reach 5-15 million people or build a similar level of traction. Conservatively, I could say as long as 5-10 years, but even then, I would not be surprised if it surpasses those records much earlier. At its peak, Axie Infinity was averaging around 2.7M users; today it has under 1 million daily active users. That is still incredibly impressive given how few people know of the space.
The blockchain is not seriously hampered by limitations of its technology and is fully capable of delivering on many of its promises. To borrow a phrase from the Baptist town I was raised in, it simply needs more butts in the pews.
With numerous applications outside of gaming, the blockchain will also grow at a more expansive rate, backed by a level of legitimacy that already exists within DeFi, propped up by the functionality and versatility of smart contracts which will help onboard more people to the space, who may then consider the prospects of web3 gaming.
Uninteresting Player Economies
I hear a lot of talk about what sets web3 apart from the past is the concept of ownership. You don’t just have a character in a game; you own that character in that game.
An ownership economy that supports the playerbase is an amazing concept which I truly believe gamers will rally behind, once enough of them actually learn what an NFT is, how it works, and discover the fact that not every blockchain is as horrible for the environment as Bitcoin.
But here’s the harsh truth: the prospect of ownership doesn’t matter unless somebody wants to own it. For someone to want to own something you either need to:
a) make something appealing that the user wants to own.
b) make something the user feels confident they can profit from.
c) ideally, both.
“Owning it” doesn’t matter if it’s something nobody wants to own. And unless there’s substantial money to be made, I believe the best items, even in P2E games, are ones which are not only cool, but are useful for the player in-game as well.
But here’s where so many blockchain games are missing the mark: they are overlooking the trading/market aspects of their assets and treating it as transactions, instead of making the market part of the game itself.
Let me rant about Final Fantasy XIV for a bit.
Rather than doing purely P2P (peer-to-peer) transactions, FFXIV has this intermediary market board where people can buy/sell things throughout the server. You can sell everything from the raw resources needed to make materials, to dyes, armors, weapons, outfits, mounts, minions, music, food, furniture for your house, etc. This market is kept alive by the players themselves, and it’s the players who establish the base economy.
For the thrifty, you can even hop from server to server in order to bargain shop for better deals on other market boards. You can literally become a millionaire in the game just by looking at the market, timing it, finding what players are in need of, and then capitalizing on those gaps in the server.
A not trivial amount of people will even begin to treat the market economy as its own game. That’s what I did & do with FFXIV. There’s a certain thrill in identifying pockets of need in the market, and scrambling to best find the ways to meet those needs before your competitors do the same.
For an example as to how this works, I became obsessed with making gil (their form of currency). In the lower levels I managed that through botany and mining, studying the market to see what sort of weapon and armor crafts adventurers would likely need on their journey.
Then I got to work.
I would mine rock clusters for hours at a time and chop various trees, at which point I’d process the raw materials into more advanced forms, like from logs to lumber, and then take that lumber and craft it into a bow to sell.
I would also appeal to the crafters of the market, and sell to them stacks of raw materials I had gathered in bundles of 3, 5, 10, 25, 99, etc — I tried to be as broad as possible to appeal to a number of different gamers. When I saw what worked, I refined my strategy and became more limited.
When selling on the market, I would undercut others so that my shop’s wares would remain at the top of the lists for people searching. Sometimes I would even buy out the stock of my competitors if I felt that they were listing their items at too low of a cost (in retrospect, I was basically buying floor price materials so I could effectively set the market again at values that were advantageous to me).
Look, multiple games, even blockchain games, allow you to trade, buy, or sell items. That isn’t new or noteworthy. But what not enough games do, and what I think FFXIV nails, is that they take the market and they make it a thriving part of the ecosystem. It’s not just a place to get rid of your junk — it’s its own living, breathing entity, containing within it numerous meta game systems.
That would be the takeaway that I would like anyone making a blockchain game to come away with: don’t just drop loot of weapons, armor, and accessories to sell. Have a system wherein even basic components and resources (which themselves can be crafted into other forms) can go on the market. A large variety of items and item types helps keep the economy less saturated, and forces players to choose what sort of areas they’d like to specialize in.
In fact, I’d even go so far as to say don’t make a market if you lack a sufficiently solid crafting system as well. The two compliment each other, and if one is underdeveloped, it severely limits the other as well and provides less incentive to the players to use the systems you set in place.
But for everything that I love about the market in FFXIV, they deal in Gil, not USD or ETH. My money there is only useful so long as I remain interested in their world and ecosystem.
This is where blockchain gaming has the edge.
So game creators, please consider all possible means of making your transactions and market as rewarding and enjoyable as possible. It should not feel like a burden to use your marketplace. If it feels like I’m working for money, then it’s not a game I’m playing, it’s a part time job that I’ve signed up for.
Lacking the “It Factor”
Have you ever stopped to wonder why certain pieces of art or entertainment resonate with us more than others? What is that makes something enjoyable but forgettable, vs something else that stays with you for years to come?
Is it tangible? Is it quantifiable? Can it be replicated?
I’ve given it a lot of thought, and for me, what leaves a lasting impression is emotion.
Evoke an emotion from me. Better yet, evoke a number of different emotions out of me. I don’t even care what emotion. Just give me a strong feeling that I can remember you by. If you can’t do that I guarantee that I will forget you, whether you’re a video game or a person. Life is too short to wax nostalgic about the forgettable.
For those who succeed in both getting me to let my guard down, and then to surprise me in unexpected ways? That’s where the magic happens.
Take for instance The Last of Us, a game first released on the PS3 (and since rereleased on PS4, with a PS5 remaster coming in September).
This is a game which had a profound effect on my life, easily up there with some of the best books I’ve read, shows I’ve watched, or conversations I’ve had. The Last of Us had me reconsider my relationships, my outlook on life, and even the extent to which I’d go to maintain a connection. For a genre which has been over saturated for many years now (post-apocalyptic), it could have been a very average and forgettable experience were it not the passionate team at Naughty Dog. They took what is, on the surface, the story of a smuggler tasked with delivering a teenage girl across the country, and made it transcendent.
The Last of Us: Part II somehow managed to reexamine the fundamental themes of the first game, and even my emotional attachment to the characters, journeys, and story arcs, as I was put in the uncomfortable position of having to consider them from many different angles.
It was bold. It was brave. It pissed off a whole lot of bigots online. I will never forget it.
This series, along with a smattering of other games, have not only served as a great form of entertainment, but they also fundamentally and objectively helped shape me to become a more empathetic, thoughtful, and caring individual in my real life.
There is nothing on the blockchain which even remotely compares.
We are still at the stage of trying to make blockchain games that are fun. But if blockchain game devs want to be truly accepted by gamers, their work is an uphill climb from here.
Another notable mention of gaming making me actually feel something is Hollow Knight, a dark yet beautifully hand-animated 2D action-adventure game made by Team Cherry, an indie studio comprised of only three people at the time of its development. The game is unique in that it nails gameplay, atmosphere, music, and lore. In Hollow Knight, the environments themselves reveal much of the story, which can otherwise be rather limited in dialogue. It’s hard not to feel for this little knight, and the more closely you delve into the lore, the more endearing the story becomes.
What Hollow Knight succeeds in that blockchain games do not, is the ability to say more with less. The vast majority of blockchain games hit you with a bomb of exposition and clunky gameplay mechanics, and then handhold you through the process until they’re confident you’re in a position to earn them/yourself money.
Hollow Knight sets you outside a town and tells you virtually nothing. And yet, I remember it more than any blockchain game I’ve ever played. Why is that?
Until blockchain games can reach a similar level, they’ll never shed their P2E roots or be seen as legitimate in the eyes of gamers.
In Summary: “What About this Internet Thing?”
Everyone is still in the process of trying to figure out the space. Everything in web3 remains a work in progress. Those who are aware of the space and manage to have a knowledgeable team who support the direction of the devs as well as believe in the prospects of blockchain gaming still likely have years of iteration before seeing a breakout hit that wildly surpasses Axie Infinity’s early success.
Most blockchain game devs are simply not there yet.
Blockchain game devs, much like all other contenders in web3 right now, are trying to determine how to best establish product market fit, while also having to contend with trying to secure funds from their company, their VC, or elsewhere. All the while we’re still in a bear market and less money is being invested into the space.
If it isn’t being done already, I believe blockchain-competent and enthusiastic teams should launch a web3 equivalent of Kickstarter specifically for the funds necessary to work on such games. At this early point in time there may not be a whole lot of financial options, and teams should consider many different means of attaining the necessary capital they require to make their dream into a tangible product.
I know that it may seem unrealistic to expect blockchain games that will eventually be comparable to our modern day graphics (especially given that the vast majority of games in the space so far have not exactly pushed the boundaries), but to assume as much would be unwise.
When I was a child I played games that could fit on a 1.44MB floppy disk. Today, games are so detailed that they routinely push 80-100GB, and there are several which even exceed 200GB. I went from storing my data on physical storage devices, to now they somehow float above and all around me in the mystical ether of “the cloud”. Games today are often made with the help of professional actors, many of whom are being mo-capped so that their every action can be replicated perfectly in game.
I would not be able to process the above paragraph as a 10 year old child. Similarly, 35 year old me now would likely not be able to process whatever the future of gaming becomes 25 years from now.
That is amazing. This is innovation and creativity accelerated by technology which not only meets our demands, but can easily outpace it.
But it didn’t happen overnight.
It was the result of several generations of iterating and improving upon past models, adapting and implementing new technologies, and finding other ways to best optimize the technology that we do have at our disposal.
7500 Words? Are you crazy? I’m not reading that! (TL;DR Version)
Blockchain gaming is likely still too early to achieve any form of mass/global success. It becomes increasingly probable the more people are onboarded into the space, however.
Most video game devs do not support crypto or NFTs at this time.
Blockchain devs are not the same as video game devs, and most have functionally little to no understanding of what makes a good video game.
Neither the general public, nor game devs, really understand the space yet, further confounding the problem.
The first major game publishers to succeed at blockchain gaming will likely be among those who go ahead with their plans, despite initial public outcry.
Blockchain game devs need to learn to make their marketplace part of the game itself, rather than just a transactional tool or utility.
If you want people to remember your game or become invested in it, make them feel something.
Games should be FUN, not just a means of earning revenue.
One day we will all be able to point to articles and tweets online of prominent figures rejecting the blockchain and blockchain gaming, much like how this chat between Bill Gates and David Letterman about the internet in 1995 is now delightfully and hilariously cringeworthy.
At the end of the day, gaming is about fun, technology, and community. The blockchain, at its best, can be all of that as well.
Written by: Brad Jaeger
Director of Content @ Curious Addys (say hi on Twitter!)
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