Ever since the surprising early success of Cryptokitties, video games, especially, massive multiplayer online ones, have long been considered a low-hanging fruit for blockchain adoption. However, so far, despite the development of the ERC-721 token standard suitable for in-game assets, no blockchain-powered game has yet achieved significant following.
The gaming issues blockchain could address
Many people in the blockchain space have long considered gaming as one of the most natural fits for blockchain technology to achieve significant adoption.
Perhaps, the biggest challenge traditional multiplayer games face concerns the ownership of the in-game assets and the transactions involving them. Some popular multiplayer games have attempted to create thriving in-game economies but these efforts have been held back by at least three challenges. First, in almost all cases, the in-game assets were tradable for virtual currencies that were not usable outside the games in question, thus limiting the appeal of trying to earn more of it. Secondly, those assets and virtual currencies were ultimately controlled by game developers and not users themselves. Finally, they could not be ported from one game to another.
From the technical standpoint, public smart-contract platforms like Ethereum seem to address all those three issues. They allow to tie each in-game asset to a token and create currencies that are not limited to a single game and that are fully controlled by their holders, as long as they keep their private keys.
There may also be a significant demand within the user community for a significant say in how games that they become attached to evolve. Blockchain technology may be of use here via tokenization and, potentially, decentralized governance mechanisms.
The last potential big advantage of bringing blockchain to gaming may lie in allowing for more trustworthy crowdfunding for game development. One way this could be done is through locking some of the funds raised in smart contracts to create better incentives for development teams and reassure investors.
Despite the seeming promise, however, developers have not found it easy to capitalize on it thus far.
Possible approaches to bringing blockchain tech into traditional games
There are basically three major ways in which blockchain technology can be brought into traditional-style gaming. One is to make everything happening in a game be reflected on a blockchain. While the currently available smart-contract platforms are obviously not scalable enough for this task, perhaps the future iterations or second-layer solutions like Loom Network’s sidechains could do the trick?
The ultimate problem with this approach that even if a smart-contract platform is highly scalable and allows very fast block confirmation, this is still not enough to preserve the kind of modern game experience users are accustomed to. And there are limits to how fast blocks can be confirmed that arise from the ultimate speed of data propagation among nodes and blockchain security considerations.
The other solution can be called the non-fungible-token (NFT)-centric approach. Here, the gameplay sophistication is made secondary to the collectibles aspect. Such games can even be wholly put on-chain without sacrificing performance. Pioneered by Cryptokitties and adopted by lots of teams (especially within the EOS and Tron ecosystems), this has been the only relatively successful path so far.
Finally, developers can keep the the traditional game architecture essentially as it is while adding the possibility for users to own, transfer and acquire in-game assets via NFTs like those enabled by Ethereum’s ERC721 standard using a blockchain-powered currency.
Beyond the Void is perhaps a project that best exemplifies the difficulties that this path creates. It was one of the first DApps whose development was announced on Ethereum and it had a relatively successful ICO back in 2016. It is a space MOBA game available on the popular Steam distribution platform.
It is notable that the blockchain component is apparently not integral to the game. It is free to play on meaning that users do not have to use Ethereum in any way if they do not wish to. According to a December 2018 article, the way the game is using Ethereum is by allowing to “buy, sell, and trade “cosmetic in-game items” for the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena and Real-Time Strategy mashup using B2Expand’s native Nexium (NXC) token.”
However, at the time of writing publicly available channels suggest that the project has been put on hold or abandoned, perhaps highlighting the difficulties the model of traditional games coupled with in-game object tokenization faces.
Should blockchain-powered games be unique?
The lack of success for blockchain game projects has led some commentators to suggest that merely trying to marry blockchain tech to traditional games misses the point. For instance, Tony Sheng from Decentraland argued that the problem with tokenizing in-game assets is that it may well change the balance of the successful games. Most users may not be willing to constantly consider the financial implications of their performance, for instance.
Dan Biton from Blockchain Game Alliance echoed Sheng’s sentiment in his belief that blockchain-powered games needed to go beyond the traditional video game model. His idea is that the blockchain could allow the user community to own not just some in-game assets but the game as a whole, and determine its evolution and logic.
While people like Sheng and Biton who argue for a revolutionary approach to gaming using blockchains are well-worth considering, however, it may be too early to declare them right. The case of Counter Strike: Global Offensive whose users have placed billions of dollars in bets using decorative virtual objects not explicitly authorized by the game’s developers suggests that there may well be a significant demand what advocates of connecting traditional games to blockchains have been trying to achieve. Perhaps, unlocking it may be a matter of if and not when.
If we turn to the latest developments in the blockchain gaming space, they seem to show that promising efforts are being undertaken in all the directions discussed above.
Believers in tokenizing traditional-style games may rejoice at the recently announced collaboration between Andeerssen Horowitz-backed Forte and Ripple in which $100 million will be used to incentivize game developers to use a mix of Ethereum and Ripple for their online marketplaces. In a separate development, Enjin has launched in beta the first blockchain-powered Minecraft server. And So-Couch Studios is close to releasing another sandbox game called Ember Sword that will be playable in browser and features Ethereum-powered tokenization of its assets.
As far as the unique games for the blockchain approach is concerned, Ubisoft may be one of the major companies paving the way for it. Its Hashcraft is a Minecraft-inspired sandbox prototype game whose distinguishing feature is that users can create their own game worlds and save them to the blockchain. It is so far built on a Multichain private blockchain. This is something allegedly without precedent in the gaming industry and may be the way blockchain technology may have a lasting influence on it.
According to Ubisoft, the game is a stepping stone for the future utilization of this model and it has already been highly positively received by the gamers. Nonetheless, the game itself may not be publicly released, despite the potential demand.
Ubisoft’s approach certainly looks promising but it is still in its early days, and questions may be asked whether, for instance, it will turn out to be portable from the private blockchain context to the public blockchain one. Or from Minecraft-style games to other game types.
At the same time, the creators of the NFT-centric model, Dapper Labs, are still pursuing their vision. They have recently released a new Cryptokitties-style game called “Cheese Wizards.” Unlike the former, this is a fighting-based game, and it has already seen 973 players purchase 4470 tokenized fighters for around $275,000.
To sum up the current state of blockchain gaming, despite the apparent massive promise, the integration of blockchain technology into gaming has not proceeded smoothly thus far. The only qualified successes have been relatively primitive collectible-focused games like Cryptokitties. Projects like Beyond the Void that have attempted to add tokenization to the traditional-style games have not been able to gain significant traction so far. However, perhaps, a really solid full-blown game that will be appealing to users on its own will be able to popularize game-object tokenization and a blockchain-powered in-game currency, too. Finally, the genuine path for bringing blockchain tech to gaming may lie in the approaches aimed at creating wholly new gaming features based on blockchain technology like the one prototyped by Ubisoft.