Blockchain – A Question of Design

Oscar Clark   •   December 26, 2018

So much focus on Blockchain Gaming to date seems to have been on the use of currencies or attempts to create platforms sharing gaming assets – rather than delivering satisfying games. I want to take a deeper look at the potential of the technologies in game design beyond currency trading and mining.

Making Digital Unique

For me the core interest comes with the idea of making Digital Assets unique – without needing a central trusted authority.

This might seem like an odd thing to describe as an advantage; after all the ability to instantly distribute digital assets from Music to TV and yes even games have relied on the ability to copy and distribute media anywhere.

Before blockchain the only way to secure an asset is to restrict access to an account, e.g. your iTunes or Steam account but using the Blockchain opens out other possibilities which don’t need an overarching company to manage your items on their databases.  Using a distributed system (Crypto requires a consensus between lots of different servers) so that means that its much less vulnerable to hackers in general.

The Cryptokitty, Realty Clash weapon or whatever tokenised asset we are talking about that you purchased can be unique to you (even when the original service which provided it stops operating).

Digital Economy

Perhaps the most obvious core asset in any game is the in-game currency (or other similar resources like ‘Wood’ or ‘Food’) which we collect and spend to progress the game or to unlock desirable items/upgrades/etc. Putting these assets on the blockchain can give real ownership of those earned assets to players allowing them to trade them between each other; and benefit the whole ecosystem in the process.

Too many Blockchain projects assume that the ability to trade items like this will be an immediate benefit in all cases. It may seem obvious that players will benefit from the ability to own assets; but will the developers? What if resale of assets undermines the IAP model for the game? What if it completely breaks the game’s internal economy. Why would the money end up in the hands of game developers who make the experience rather than speculators who couldn’t care less about playability?

It’s essential that the game designer plans how both the game and Blockchain economies will work.  This means thinking about the flow of resources into and out of the game; and how to support the market value from trading.

In principle this is no different than any game’s need to balance the ‘Sinks and Sources’ but can become very complex; not least as at this time we are still in an early experimentation stage. To help think about this take the case of a racing game where the materials to make cars can be mined as Blockchain assets; but those vehicles require fuel which can only be obtained in game.

Applying History

The ability to append data to the Blockchain means we can take the idea of a unique item even further. We can also append rules and history under pre-defined circumstances. This suddenly opens up some very interesting ideas for creating playful experiences.  This has only just started and we have an wide array of (so called) games that allow us to purchase an item (cat, robot, zombie) that has some unique attributes and allows us to fight/breed/train them to make new, unique items which pass on some of those attributes. Each time we make a change to the information we have to pay at least for the ‘Gas’ (on Ethereum) to make the transaction; and probably some commission on top. That means that for many of the current batch of games they feel like a series of tiny uninteresting paywalls intent taking your Cryptocurrency.

All sounds so meh! But remember this kind of experiment is just the start and we are slowing discovering how to build businesses as well as trying to find where the fun is.  But I think we can do better.

The idea that for every interaction we can record the results and have that affect the behaviour of that item.  This might be the history of weapon, in terms of how many on-target-shots occurred during play granting have a unique tangibility – and with an inherently personal value. What if the Sniper Rifle you carry was once owned by a top-eSport player? Or perhaps a You-tuber. How much more special would that item be knowing that history

Smart Rules

The way we can append data can be controlled in quite clever ways through smart contracts (on Blockchain platforms like Ethereum) and we can go further than just having a history. We can apply quite sophisticated rules on how the tokenised items changes based on interactions. For example, what if our Car becomes faster each time we beat the weekly fastest score?  What if we have a tokenised NPC with rules which affect their responses based on how the people they have met had interacted with then (even across different games). What kind of stories might emerge for those characters?

Games As Blockchain

Evolving rules and behaviours doesn’t have to be limited to the assets themselves, we can easily extend this to defined components of gameplay.  Just as the card game Flux allows players to introduce new rules to play by the placement of a card, why not create emergent properties to each component of play and allow those to evolve based on the interactions of the players.

Using a smart contract in this way has almost limitless potential, we can create methods based on assets, NPCs, backend settings, even modules of game code allowing them to be distributed and maintain a log of their use – allowing gameplay to adjust based on the rules defined at the start of the design. Deckbound is an online cardgame where each card is a token with a smart contract that can be traded and used in play.  Each use of a card can is captured and when specific criteria are met, new abilities are unlocked in a similar way to levelling up (although you can easily degrade some abilities too!)

This concept sets my imagination off and I am aware that I could very easily get carried away. Flux demonstrates the risks as whilst it is a great tool to explain some principles of game design it can quickly become frustrating. I know a lot of game designers who hate it.

Playing for Pay

Another central approach by Blockchain developers is to look at the tools as a opportunity to create incentives for player where they can be paid to play or even watch others play. For me this isn’t a new concept, in fact many people have tried to use Ads, offers or even monetary incentives to reward players but to date none of those services has really worked. Blockchain solutions certainly have the potential to resolve a lot of the problems with earlier systems including tracking and ‘untrusted’ verification however, I wonder if there is a deeper problem. A lot of Blockchain developers come from outside games, and can mistake the nature and motivation of play; which is (to paraphrase Johan Huizinga’s 1938 Homo Ludens) is “distinct from “ordinary” life with no material interest”. Games players are not the same as Gamblers. The idea of a payout takes us away from the escapist purpose of play and can in fact undermine the experience. There are parallels here with the difference between a social agreement and a work contract as explored in Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational. When we offer to help someone we do so voluntarily and often put significantly more effort than we might in return for direct payment.

There is real value is rewarding players and for those rewards to have value outside the game; including prize funds for competitive play. However, we cross the lines between ‘Play’ and ‘Work’ at our own risk.

Is There A Better Way?

We’ve explored some advantages and opportunities when using Blockchain but we have a bigger question to answer first. Is there a better way?  A lot of the freedom to trade is only relevant when there are other people to trade with, and interoperability requires other games that support the same assets.  As designers we have to remember that form follows function – not the other way round.  So we need to know if this technical solution actually adds to the experience we are creating or not:

  1. Is there a need for a common database (between multiple parties)?
  2. Are there uniform rules which can be applied?
  3. Do you need an immutable log?
  4. Will transactions be public?

Even if you can answer these questions the AppStores (Mobile, Steam and Console) remain reluctant to support Blockchain content – and understandably won’t look kindly at any game which attempt to bypass their payment system.  It’s vital to have a clear idea of how your game will work on the platforms, and to keep the platform holders happy with your approach. And if you are doing an ICO be careful on what you promise!

For me the biggest issue remains that the experience of purchasing and spending Blockchain currencies is complex, scary and highly unfriendly to people who aren’t already involved in the technology.  That’s means there isn’t the opportunity to scale right now. When you are used to microtransactions being instant and unambiguous the idea of waiting, paying Gas, etc is very off-putting.

But isn’t that exactly the kind of challenge that as game designer we relish!  Blockchain offers a brave new frontier for us to explore and it feels to me just as exciting as the mobile era which 15 years ago was derided by mainstream games developers; yet now mobile dominates the games market.

Oscar Clark   •   December 26, 2018