Blockchain gaming has come a long way since Huntercoin debuted in 2014. Since then, developers - primarily blockchain developers, not game developers - have been experimenting with how to mix gameplay with tokenomics.
From a technical perspective, the innovation that is blockchain seems poised to enable the next version of the web. However, its application to games has been mixed at best. Primitive gameplay, low production values, and shallow narratives have been the norm for most blockchain games to date.
It wasn’t until CryptoKitties launched in 2017 that a blockchain game had any success in finding an audience.
But when it did, the impact was jaw-dropping.
The game caused massive congestion on the layer 1 Ethereum network, leaving many developers skeptical of blockchain’s capacity to facilitate the kind of quality, technologically seamless experience that players are accustomed to and expect.
Despite the challenges, the industry has seen improvements in recent years as layer 2 networks and better interoperability are facilitating a greater depth of gameplay.
While early game structures depended predominantly on randomized chance for players to earn rewards, designs have advanced such that rewards now come predominantly from gameplay, providing much more engaging experiences.
Fuelled by ongoing innovation and the explosion in popularity of play-to-earn games like Axie Infinity, the blockchain gaming industry grew by a staggering 765% in 2021 versus the previous year.
Metaverse spaces like Decentraland, The Sandbox, and Somnium Space are also making waves as they redefine the creative and economic boundaries of how players can engage with virtual worlds.
Irrespective of the growing market, there’s no hiding from the fact that traditional players are extremely resistant to blockchain in gaming. Major publishers that have recently announced their intentions to integrate NFTs into new and existing games have faced vociferous pushback from gamers who do not see any tangible benefits of the technology.
Instead, they argue that NFTs are simply a scheme to charge more for in-game purchases. The introduction of free-to-play microtransactions - purchases that unlock specific features or give players unique abilities, characters, or content - has left many gamers feeling taken advantage of. It’s little wonder players are suspicious of blockchain’s utility.
It’s more interesting to think of blockchain as a collection of composable microservices that provide novel player experiences, rather than a provenance technology that gets crammed into a game without first considering how it can be used to enhance what’s already great about that game.
Gamers don’t fire up a session to explore a new financial infrastructure; we want an adventure where we transcend the real world and perhaps embody a totally new persona. In order to build player trust, studios need to focus on amplifying what players already enjoy.
When implemented effectively, blockchain offers a system of services that can enhance gameplay and utility. The common thread that interlinks these services is player empowerment. Whether that's the ability to trade or sell their in-game purchases or having a vote on a game’s governance and feature roadmap.
By minting items, XP, and avatars, players ensure transparent verification and traceability of their assets, increasing trust in the process of exchange and providing a way for players and creators to be rewarded for user generated content.
On the governance side, DAOs and other voting mechanisms can be integrated into game infrastructures to increase player involvement in the design of the games they invest so much time in.
Where players have previously felt excluded from the direction and development of a franchise, blockchain democratizes the process, making it possible for players to design, develop, and remold games based on their experiences. It’s a little scary, empowering players to this degree, but it’s really just an extension of the feedback loop developers already employ in games-as-a-service.
Where a few studio execs have previously driven innovation, updating gaming infrastructure in this way can enable the real time integration of players into the creative process. After all, we’re not designing our game; we’re designing their game.
Blockchain has obvious potential, but we have to address player objections before it can evolve much further. The low production values and shallow gameplay of the few blockchain games in the market has made traditional gamers suspicious of the technology’s capabilities to produce the kind of games they know and love.
We have yet to see a AAA game that prioritizes gameplay, rich graphics, and compelling narratives, while backending its infrastructure with blockchain technology to empower players and create new experiences. It’s a tall ask, but we’ve been here before. It’s easy to forget that the shift from premium to free-to-play was just as contentious.