There are five cases supporting the concept that blockchain games can be fun. Check out our guest post by Bored Elon sharing his thoughts and argument for blockchain games.
I’ve spent the last year studying, investing, advising and building in the blockchain gaming space and hear a common expression. Sometimes, I’m the one who says it…
“Can you show me a blockchain game that is actually fun?”
The question has a tinge of arrogance to it, as it implies many things including but not limited to:
All of the above implications come with subjectivity, but I believe that many of those who claim point number one especially, do not have the adequate experience, understanding, or vocabulary to do so. This post is meant to help those people so they are better equipped to articulate why a blockchain game, but really any game, is or is not fun. And perhaps more importantly, inspire budding game designers to remember what fun means, and to not be blinded by the attention and money flowing towards this nascent vertical.
A little bit about “me” and the reason I feel at least somewhat qualified to discuss this subject. I have designed and published two tabletop board games (terrible way to make money by the way), one browser-based game, and in my professional life supported the launch of hundreds of storied game titles during my 10+ years in the video games industry. I will not go beyond those details to avoid doxxing myself, but it’s very possible I’ve walked by you in the halls of E3 at some point…
With that in mind, what makes a (blockchain) game fun?
To determine if a blockchain game is fun, we first need to consider the definition of a fun game. Immediately, there’s a roadblock: it’s different for everyone because gamers are individuals with different needs and motivations. Game designer Nicole Lazzaro wrote in Four Keys to Fun that there are typically four overarching reasons we play video games:
We play video games to generate new thoughts and feelings. We clear our minds, trade boredom for joy (I like this one), and feel better about ourselves. Think back to playing your favorite solo game for 8 hours straight on a snow day, a summer full of multiplayer matches with your friends, or even playing a mindless mobile app while waiting in line. Much like a book, movie, or tv show, a video game has the ability to project your consciousness into another dimension, with games being far more interactive than the aforementioned mediums.
We also play video games to engage in meaningful challenges - to see if we can win or best our previous scores. Lazzaro calls this hard fun. Think of working your way through a 100+ hour RPG (role play gaming) or achieving a top 1000 ranking in a particular competitive game. Sometimes, games give individuals a greater sense of achievement than our brains will get from outside activities. A good game can often provide a sense of challenge that does not come with the same real or perceived risk that the real-world presents.
Slightly different from enjoying internal experiences is the idea of immersion, and specifically the element of surprise and mystery. Part of the reason so many people enjoy gambling as a pastime (most casino tend to be less interesting) is because of the moment of anticipation and surprise. The dopamine rush we get from each revelatory moment in a game plays a huge role in determining whether we find a game to be enjoyable.
So many of us also play primarily for the social experience. In other words, we play video games just to hang out with friends or family - not for the game itself, an activity that has become extremely common amongst kids and teens, and accelerated by the pandemic forcing many to stay home. This motivator for fun places the game in a secondary role, with the primary driver being the game’s ability to bring you closer to other people you like.
Want a simpler answer to what makes certain games “fun?” Most (not all) but most good games are a perfect combination of strategy and surprise. A game like Chess is pure strategy. Chutes and Ladders, and most kids games, lean more heavily on surprise (luck). Something like Poker is somewhere between because you have some control and some unexpected events (cards you are dealt). The human brain is wired to enjoy controlled surprise. From our days as babies playing “peek-a-boo”, to our senior years when we’re playing bingo. The games that perfectly balance player agency and unexpected delight tend to be the most fun.
Now that we have an (extremely high-level) overview of what makes a game fun, let’s explore how the layer of blockchain can enhance these traditional drivers of enjoyment. If you’d like to go down the rabbit hole of understanding the fundamentals of game design, I highly recommend reading the robust primer: The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell.
So how can blockchain technology make video games more fun? Let’s use “traditional” video games and then reverse engineer how they might be improved with the addition of on-chain technologies. If you’re not familiar with a particular game mentioned below, each one has a link to a video overview.
Non-fungible tokens have captured worldwide attention because they represent one of the best ways to prove ownership of digital assets. They also streamline and decentralize the ability to buy/sell/trade assets with other individuals in an ecosystem. Yes of course technology already exists that would facilitate this kind of trading, but tech isn’t the issue, it’s marketplace interoperability (not to be confused with asset interoperability).
Whether it’s done via the extremely small list of legitimate existing platforms, or a “gray-market” deal outside of a game, people can technically trade items for other assets or money albeit with quite a bit of friction and risk. Also, this generally only works within the same game ecosystem. This is problematic for two core reasons. First, your market of buyers/traders is limited to the closed ecosystem of that particular game, instead of an open-marketplace that brings all game assets together to be exchanged with each other. This reduces liquidity. Second, while trading an item for cash and then cash for an item in another game can solve the above problem, cash does not come with the same guarantee of authenticity and provenance as an on-chain asset. So the risk for fraud is higher.
Fortnite: Collecting in-game skins in Fortnite is fun for millions of people, and the core driver of revenue for Epic’s free-to-play game. These are largely aesthetic items that do not impact the actual game mechanics, and this helps overcome fears of “pay to win” which are valid and extremely important for developers to consider. You can learn about some of the challenges with that here.
Fortnite skins are a form of social expression. In the real world, we wear different clothes on different occasions to as extensions of identity. We can only wear one outfit at a time. Sometimes, we get rid of or trade in clothes that we don’t want to wear anymore. This analogy translates very simply to skins in a game like Fortnite. Fancy skins are a status flex.
Maybe my buddy has a rare skin that I really want, maybe I have one that he wants, maybe we both would love to trade with each other. The current systems do not allow for that trade to take place. But beyond blockchain making this easier to take place in the future, reducing friction between exchanging digital assets enhances the game as well. Remember that for many people, the fun of gaming comes from the social experience, and in a social setting your “image” is an important component of the fun you’re having.
Adding higher stakes to said image can further enhance the experience. Imagine a scenario where a 100 person Battle Royale match in Fortnite results in the top 10 survivors winning a rare skin. You and your friend both play in that match, and she is the one who ends up winning the skin you really wanted. She then gifts it to you later because she knows how much you wanted that item. That digital asset represents a small memory, a kind gesture, and a moment of fun two people had. Today, this scenario cannot take place, in the near future, it will!
One of the most overlooked opportunities in blockchain games is single player narrative games. Because crypto is so focused on transactions, most developers are working on MMORPGs (Massively multiplayer online role-playing games), FPS (First Person Shooters), and strategy games. This makes sense given these types of games both have a larger player-base and lend themselves well to economies being built amongst players. But that doesn’t mean that the next Skyrim or Horizon Zero Dawn shouldn’t be built on-chain.
A growing trend in the last year has been the use of POAP: Proof of Attendance Protocol. Put simply, it’s a verifiable asset that confirms someone (or someone in control of a wallet) participated in an event. A physical equivalent could be something like a conference badge, or a band poster from a concert.
This type of proof presents a natural crossover for gaming. If you search social platforms for content related to a specific game, you’ll come across countless screenshots and short clips of in-game content. The reason? People like showing off the things they’ve accomplished in a game. It might be overcoming a difficult boss battle, finding a clever way to accomplish a task, or just doing something funny in the game that turns the game environment into a meme generator.
The Legend of Zelda: Smaller games like Wordle make it very easy for people to share a quick and easy accomplishment, but single player story-driven games present hundreds or thousands of moments for players to showcase their triumphs and hilarious failures along the way. One of my personal favorites is Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a modernized edition of the classic adventure game that requires you to explore a world, defeat some ambiguous evil, and solve maddening puzzles. Today, players generally share these personal moments by posting screen captures from their Nintendo Switch to social media. The most surprising or impressive moments tend to get a spike of viral attention, and then flicker out to remain buried in the ever growing pile of digital content.
First of all, when someone shares such content, no one knows for sure if the post was yanked from somewhere else. In most cases it’s legit, but 100% verifiable legitimacy would help create a more powerful flex. If you think back to the old arcade games and the top score list, that wasn’t something you could fake. The guy named “AZZ” who scored 1,069,420 points in Galaga was indeed the best player in that particular arcade.
More important though than verification, putting proof of accomplishment on-chain for single player games helps turn a solo experience into a more competitive one. Overcoming a challenge in a game is a wonderful internal accomplishment, sharing that with a screen shot expands that to a social accomplishment, and the next layer that will be further enabled with verifiable proof is competitive accomplishment.
If you have the goal of beating Breath of the Wild faster than any human on earth (speedrunning), a game that tracks, verifies, and shows this data in public gives you an indisputable way of proving you hold that title. This is not something that impacts any other players, nor does it rely on economic incentives. It is purely an optional and additional layer of fun that blockchain can bring to a game. That said, it certainly could be exciting to see publishers kicking back some of its profits to top players achieving said feats in games.
The largest area of development, investment, and analysis when it comes to blockchain gaming is in-game economies. With Diablo II and Runescape in the early 2000’s, fully-fledged digital economies have existed for multiple decades. In-game economies make games more immersive (easy fun), challenging (hard fun), and add to the social experience. Blockchain gaming can revolutionize in-game economies, but it’s worth noting, this is also the most difficult system to weave on-chain dynamics into. It’s already incredibly difficult to build an in-game economy that doesn’t correlate to “real-world” value, let alone adding a layer of immutability and hard currency to a fictional one.
Challenges aside (technological, regulatory, and competitive), this genre of blockchain gaming creates a powerful opportunity for games to create a more seamless exchange between the currencies of time, attention, and money. The biggest challenge with analyzing the fun factor of MMORPGs is that people play these games for so many different reasons. One could argue all four of Lazarro’s motivations are clearly present in such games, with “making money” emerging as a stronger motivator given the growing demand for digital assets. As Neil Young from Forte shared with me, creating value in games is like “owning a house versus renting. When I own a house, I feel good about the time, money and skill investment that I put into building a deck, or painting a bedroom. I spend more time, more money and put my best into it because I own the house and the house is both an expression of me, a place that I “love” and a store of value.”
As such, the delicate balance that needs to be struck with in-game economies on-chain is the following (channeling Isaac Asimov here):
Saying it again because it cannot be understated…this is very hard to build.
World of Warcraft: Core game players get extremely emotional (this is putting it gently) when certain game elements get nerfed (weakened) or buffed (strengthened). Such feelings are dramatically stronger when it comes to entire game economies. A simple search on YouTube for “World of Warcraft Economy” is one of many examples. Putting aside the specific mechanics of how in-game economies work, the larger source of displeasure is not a reaction to how economies work, but rather who gets to make that decision. In the case of World of Warcraft, we have witnessed decades of anger directed against Blizzard by players because game economy decisions have consistently been centralized. (Most real world economies are centralized).
Let me preface with an important point, a game should not be designed by a committee. The idea of the game “auteur” is an important one to preserve, and in my opinion, a major reason why so many sandbox-style games with too few parameters fail to scale to the masses. A game studio should absolutely develop characters, stories, and most important mechanics. The latter of course may heavily rely on a game economy, and even then I still think the central powers of a game should reign supreme. The role of blockchain however should step in after the initial creation of said economy, and that is where the fun can be enhanced.
Much like Bitcoin no longer relies on its original founder Satoshi Nakamoti, a well-designed game economy in an MMORPG like World of Warcraft should also rely very little on the original creators of it. Much like the real world is slowly but surely shifting away from the idea of central banking, game economies that are trustless and controlled by players are inevitably what will draw the largest player bases and maximize fun.
As mentioned earlier, this genre of game incentivizes players in many ways, and players invest value into the game to obtain that return. Today that is generally time and attention, tomorrow’s best blockchain games will provide the opportunity for that investment to be time, attention, and money, while carefully balancing all three to ensure that one does not overwhelm the others. Not only will such games be fun, but the act of having the community play a significant role in maintaining that balance will be a new form of fun that has rarely existed before. Does all this have to happen using blockchain technology? Not necessarily, but the game studios who opt to use this approach will have a competitive edge over those who simply ask players to “trust us.”
My friend (let’s call him Zeke) used to travel across Pennsylvania to play in tournaments for a beloved fighting game. He’d sometimes drive 3-4 hours for the chance to win $50. It never made much sense to me until I stopped by one of the tournaments. It wasn’t about the money. It was about seeing his friends in the community. Video games have a wonderful ability to bring people together and coordinate their passion, both online and offline.
Super Smash Bros.: There’s one particular slice of the Smash Bros. community worth dissecting. Top players tend to have an affinity for specific characters in the game because each one is balanced extremely differently and comes with certain advantages and disadvantages. Most refer to these characters as their “Mains.” (Side note: Masahiro Sakurai is an insane talent for balancing a game with so many different characters) In Smash, aligning with a Main is almost like being part of a PFP community such as Cryptopunks or Doodles. Players love to tout how amazing their specific character is, and trash-talk others who choose what they deem to be inferior fighters.
Because Smash Bros. is a mashup of existing intellectual property that is owned and monetized by massive game publishers, the idea of player communities earning returns for their affinity for a Main is 100% impossible. For the sake of this thought experiment though, let’s pretend Mario, Sonic, Cloud, and Solid Snake are all characters co-owned by different DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organization) similar to the ApeCoin community created for the Bored Ape Yacht Club.
A game like Smash relies on extremely careful balancing so no characters are far more powerful than others. This should be managed by a central authority because every good game needs to start with a specific set of rules. Ultimately those rules are the game, not the story, characters, community, etc. But imagine how fun it would be if a large group of supporters and owners of Mains were able to manage and decide on others things like aeshetics, usage of the IP outside the game, bounties for recruiting and training new members for a specific character, and sharing earnings from tournaments, streaming, and other economic activity driven by their Main’s popularity in Smash? Again, this is a hypothetical situation where blockchain integration would have absolutely zero impact on the game itself, and only provide upside for players. The current Smash will never be able to do this, but the next Smash most certainly will.
Oh my lord he said the G word! Yes. I’m here to spell out something you already know, humans love gambling, and blockchain technology can make it a lot easier to facilitate gambling inside of video games. I’m going to spare you the rationalization and defense for why gambling in video games is ok. It’s not worth the argument because most western societies widely accept it across other activities. More importantly, let’s look at how blockchain (and traditional) video games can enhance fun and fairness with blockchain technology.
Rocket League: Rockets and cars? Two of my favorite things. Rocket League focuses primarily on quick competitive matches between two teams trying to score as many goals as possible (like soccer). Players are given the option of playing “casual” matches which simply allows one to enjoy the game or “ranked” which results in your overall player score being impacted by your win/loss ratio. For top players, there’s also a significant RL tournament scene that offers players cash prizes for winning tournaments.
While these relatively modest (compared to traditional sports) prizes for Rocket League players benefit the competitors and tournament organizers, the fans are generally left out of the equation. One of the major reasons that fantasy football has become so popular in the United States is because it makes observing a sport more fun by giving viewers skin in the game, whether that’s money or simply bragging rights.
Blockchain technology streamlines and enhances fan participation in countless ways, and these are elements of “fun” that are additive to the core game itself, which again is not really impacted by this type of integration. Oracles can help ensure that in-game activities are certified and viewable to all participants so that outcomes can be verified (who needs referees?), Layer 2 solutions can ensure fans are able to quickly make small bets without incurring disproportionate fees, and tournaments are able to disburse a variety of digital assets as prizes besides simple currency. Unlike fantasy sports platforms that offer players cash prizes for their successful outcomes, a blockchain-based distribution system could also award participants with rare NFTs that have utility in-game or provide access to online/offline events.
Implications and reminders for blockchain game developers
P.S. I fully expect and welcome criticism of this post, as well as the bias I have for writing as a founder of a blockchain gaming startup. My goal is to help educate those who are unaware of this space, and provide constructive arguments for those who have strong concerns over the impact of blockchain integration into video games. Feedback, both positive and negative (including Twitter dunking) will be considered while making updates to this article.