It’s strange that CryptoKitties has established itself as the first successful blockchain-based game, because it isn’t really a game at all. In a sense, it’s actually just an accessible demonstration of how cryptocurrency broadly functions. Players collect CryptoKitties, or cartoon cats with their own distinctive features, which are stored on the blockchain and can be bought, traded or sold just like any other asset.
These assets can be bred to create unique offspring, all of which are logged securely on the blockchain so users can be confident that their ownership of each individual asset is tracked. Only 50,000 will ever be created, according to its website, and new ‘genetic traits’ have been added as more and more CryptoKitties are created. In a sense, the only gamified element present is the blockchain itself – collecting and trading tokens in the shape of cats is seemingly all there is to it.
CryptoKitties can stake a claim as the first popular blockchain game because it actually utilises decentralization and tokenization as part of its core mechanism. There are a number of other games available on the Google Play Store, for example, that use cryptocurrencies is one way or another, but none of them are truly blockchain-based. Despite their growing numbers, very few actually utilise the mechanics of Ethereum or Bitcoin to create anything resembling a decentralised gaming experience.
Blockchain-Based Games: A Necessary Gimmick?
The five most popular crypto-related games on the Play Store, according to Cointelegraph, could all perfectly function as traditional games if the crypto element was stripped away. There are two ways of looking at this. Either it’s an example of developers jumping on the blockchain bandwagon and attempting to diversify their product by virtue of the crypto tag, or they are good examples of how seamlessly these elements can be added on to recognizably traditional products.
Binary District Journal spoke to CryptoKitties co-founder Bryce Bladon, and discussed whether these blockchain-based games are novelties or an important first step in learning about the world of crypto.
“They are gimmicks in some cases and an important first step in almost all cases,” Bryce said. “The concept of play is an excellent teacher and a great way to experience or understand something with relatively low stakes.
“Sometimes, this experience is nothing more than a gimmick, but that shouldn't disqualify it as important. In a game, even one that's based on a gimmick, developers get a sandbox to experiment and innovate in, players get a working fluency in the underlying technology, and both parties benefit from the experience.”
We also spoke with Markéta Korteová, Marketing Manager and Project Lead at BitCrystals, a gaming ecosystem in which players have full ownership of their digital property on the blockchain. “Blockchain is a buzzword, and blockchain-based games and crypto-projects in general are currently very trendy,” she said.
“The concept of play is an excellent teacher and a great way to experience or understand something with relatively low stakes”
“There are lot of projects and new ones are popping up every day. A lot of them won’t survive, simply because they’re not good, or because they don’t necessarily need blockchain. This is actually one of the current problems: everyone wants to use blockchain, without first asking whether it will bring an added value for the user. On the other hand, there are many good and interesting projects that will survive the current blockchain ‘fever’ and develop further.”
There are also a wildly diverse number games in which players can earn equally wildly diverse cryptocurrencies for playing. The most literal is Huntercoin, a game released in 2014 in which players mine the game’s own cryptocurrency (HUC) by locating coins in the game world and bringing them to virtual ‘banks’. The money is then deposited into the player’s crypto-wallet. It’s unclear at this point whether or not HUC will have any intrinsic value in of itself – 42 million will be mined over the course of the game – or whether, as the game’s website states, it’s little more than an experimentational project.
Is Blockchain the Future of Gaming?
We asked Bladon how far he thinks blockchain could go in influencing gaming in the future. “There are huge possible effects, but how this potential is realized is still to be seen,” he said. “The most significant effect we might potentially see is a reshaping of the creator and player relationship in games.
“Today, players invest both time and money into collecting and achieving digital assets that only exist within a singular platform or product. And video games are a perfect example of digital assets accruing real-world value. In 2017, 78% of the total gaming revenue of around US$80 billion was spent on in-game items and downloadable content. This figure does not include time investments, in-game achievements, or earned items that are sold in or outside the native market.
“With blockchain, players can truly own their digital assets and experiences. They’re given respect from the creator, freedom to use their item as they see fit, and security that the rules dictating its use are immutable”
“With blockchain, players can truly own their digital assets and experiences. They’re given respect from the creator, freedom to use their item as they see fit, and security that the rules dictating its use are immutable – for players and creators alike. Players are elevated into joint stakeholders in their blockchain gaming experience. A game’s usage – that is, time – and its value – that is, money transactions – and its overall ecosystem of experiences – that is, mods or DLC – is ultimately shaped by the people using or building on it.
“Blockchain makes experiences extensible and motivates the development of the core experience. The technology’s open nature means players have unprecedented agency to shape their own experience. Anyone is free to build on top of their favourite game as either an independent or complementary experience. And once the core experience is launched, the original creator is motivated to continually improve their product, lest the community outpace and overcome them.
“Here's what this can all add up to: when people get respect from their cat game, they’ll demand respect elsewhere. Once consumers grow accustomed to transparency and fairness – a provably fair election in a game, an immutable algorithm applied evenly to everyone – those become basic expectations, even beyond the industry. In the future, a ‘secured by blockchain’ seal may be as common as an ESRB sticker or a ‘Nintendo Seal of Quality’.”
Developments in Gaming Will Cause Ripples Elsewhere
The development of blockchain in gaming will not happen in a vacuum. If the technology can have a significant impact on one industry, then the value will become clearer in others. We discussed the potential ripple effect with Korteová, who believes gaming could be part of blockchain’s move away from appearing as simply a financial tool.
“Blockchain will evolve and be more and more present in different spheres of our lives, but the gaming industry is by its nature one of the best to explore the possibilities that blockchain technology offers,” she said. “Currently, dApps and crypto-collectibles are the most common ways of using blockchain in gaming and related areas, but we’re still in the beginning.
“Blockchain will evolve and be more and more present in different spheres of our lives, but the gaming industry is by its nature one of the best to explore the possibilities that blockchain technology offers”
“We’re slowly discovering all the possibilities and I don’t think this is the most important trend that will prevail in the long term. Other games have the core part of their design on the blockchain – for example, all their procedural content with user-generated customization, quests and sharing are stored completely server-side on the blockchain, like in the Ubisoft prototype HashCraft. Or they have their content creation and exchange, access token to play, and cryptocurrency generation for reward transactions for players in the blockchain, like Bitcorn Crops.
“On the other hand, gaming helps blockchain technology to spread in other spheres than the financial one. Its use in gaming is also changing the general opinion of blockchain, showing that it’s much more than an alternative mean of financial exchange. Our new multichain gaming wallet presents a feed with transactions and news.”
A Much-Needed Reform of Online Gambling?
In the online gambling industry – a market predicted to be worth some US$60 billion by 2020 – blockchain has a potentially huge role to play. At the recent ‘Master Workshop: Off the chain’ in Berlin earlier this summer, Jeremy Longley and Jez San, both from London crypto-gaming company Funfair, presented their distributed gaming network to our audience, and began by laying out the problems with the current system.
At present, they explain, online gambling requires an enormous amount of trust from the player. Casinos, if you’ll forgive the pun, are in a position to be able to hold their cards very close to their chests. Players are made to deposit funds into casino custody before they can play, remote gaming servers run all casino games with zero transparency or visibility, random number generators are server/oracle based, and there is no guarantee – transparently, at least – that the player isn’t being cheated.
“Gaming is absolutely the perfect use-case for state channels, because you’ve got two parties that are going to do a lot of transactions with each other in a short space of time”
“The technology we’ve built gives us some advantages,” San says. “It allows casino games to be operated in a safe, fair way that is protective of the player, and protective of the player’s funds.” For Funfair, state channels are an absolute necessity, given that speed is a major factor in user experience when gambling online.
“Gaming is absolutely the perfect use-case for state channels, because you’ve got two parties that are going to do a lot of transactions with each other in a short space of time. It’s completely different from a network model, where a random person is trying to send funds or something to another random person, and it has to calculate a route and have enough funds and liquidity on the way.
“That’s a difficult challenge, and is also relying on something of a network effect before that’s viable. In comparison, single-hop architecture is guaranteed to work in the future. That’s how we’re able to build a complete platform for gaming that will run tomorrow.”
Blockchain Needs Gaming, Too
For all that blockchain could potentially revolutionize gaming, it is perhaps blockchain that has the most to gain from the integration. As seen with VR, gaming and gamification can be powerful growth drivers for emerging technologies, and blockchain is no different. Bladon believes the accessibility of games could be vital.
“Games and gamification have proven themselves to be significant growth drivers in blockchain over the past year,” he says. “It makes sense: games consistently appear at the precipice of emerging technology. They offer a great gateway for consumers to enter new platforms – there was a time when about 50% of Facebook's signups were coming via Farmville.
“Games and gamification have proven themselves to be significant growth drivers in blockchain over the past year. It makes sense: games consistently appear at the precipice of emerging technology”
“As early adopters, gamers provide valuable data and insights and help shape growing technologies. Utility-driven products need to function perfectly for user buy-in, but games can balance imperfection with novelty; by building a game with emerging technology, players and developers alike gain a working fluency in the underlying technology – and developers can experiment and innovate in an environment that isn’t limited by practical necessity.
“Finally, games deliver an experience, and experiences inform how we see the world and shape what we believe in. CryptoKitties leveraged user excitement via accessible design, appealing aesthetics and the correct balance of fun and utility. Making someone feel something – be it delight, excitement, or hope – is how you make them understand something. And with understanding comes belief.”
Digital assets come in a variety of different forms, the values of which range from nominal to astronomical. Existing only as a few lines of code on a digital ledger, some of these assets have uses in gaming, while others seem to have no value further than what people are willing to pay for them.
Take the ‘Hyperion Mythic card’, a rare asset from blockchain-based digital card game Gods Unchained, which sold for around $54,000 worth of Ethereum, or a digital trading card of Elon Musk that has been on auction for a similar price. Asset ownership on blockchain is immutable, and people can own everything from memes to music files. The wildly valuable assets of today are little more than gimmicks, but provide an interesting glimpse into the future of ownership on blockchain.
Illustrations by Kseniya Forbender
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Margarita Khartanovich at [email protected]