Between the seemingly never-ending news bulletins about young twenty-somethings earning thousands overnight and the self-proclaimed cryptocurrency “geniuses” peddling financial advice online, you’ll have no doubt heard of blockchain technology. What you might not appreciate about this latest buzzword, however, is its potential when implemented in video game design. But blockchain is, in fact, set to make a massive impact on the gaming industry. The big question is just to what extent.
First, let’s quickly remind ourselves of what blockchain is. Essentially, the blockchain is a decentralized ledger that can publicly and securely track transactions with the need for a single host organization. This is exactly why it’s such a boon for digital currency enthusiasts —it’s free from banks and governmental intervention. For games, the most immediate and obvious use is for the purposes of creating, purchasing, selling, and trading online collectibles —one’s that are owned entirely by the gamer and not able to be duplicated.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the first wave of indie-developed blockchain “games” were essentially just cryptocurrencies in disguise. It’s only capitalist logic, of course. By nature of the fact that the blockchain can actually certify unique items, it attracts collectors. And where there are collectors, there are people willing to spend money.
Crypto Kitties, released in 2017, is the most well-known example of early blockchain “gaming.” It’s a very primitive implementation of the technology that really breaks down to being a simple collectible digital cat game. You purchase your kitty from the Ethereum blockchain network, which is valued according to the rarity of their characteristics (randomly generated). You can then buy or breed these digital cats, selling them on a market for profit or attempting to create other totally unique offspring that may spawn their own unique characteristics and traits.
Crypto Kitties was actually a huge success, creating so much traffic on the Ethereum network that it caused complete havoc. A year later, dozens more crypto “games” are poised to make their way to the market. Take MegaCryptopolis, for example, an upcoming city-builder that uses the decentralized blockchain network to create a virtual land market in which players can purchase unique blocks of land using Ethereum, and raise their value by building structures atop. Each action costs a small tax, but if you work your way up to a district owner, you’ll take a small percentage of every other player actions in that district, all paid in Ether that can be withdrawn to buy real-world items (that accept the currency). It’s all very clever stuff, and likely to prove very popular for those willing to invest the time to fully understand it.
MegaCryptopolis and Crypto Kitties are played via web-browser, but mobile gaming seems likely to be the first platform to experience a widespread switch to the technology. For the overwhelming majority, of course, it’s in their best interest. Very few mobile games on the App Store are actually making any substantial money at all from the current free-to-play model, save for a select dominant few. Using the blockchain, though, games would essentially be interconnected, items could be traded and used across multiple games, and hopefully, the revenue more evenly spread across hundreds of developers rather than the monopolizing few.
This is the key aspect to blockchain that makes it so appealing: collectibles, crafted items, whatever, could be earned in one game and then traded in another, or if incompatible, the currency earned could be used to purchase and trade in an entire network of dozens, hundreds, even thousands of games. Again, all securely, and entirely property owned 100% by the players.
If the blockchain is to become universally adopted, this in could all in turn impact conventional gaming -both AAA and indie- too. Consider the longevity it would give to “live” games, creating economies within them that are completely run by the gamers, who would effectively become shareholders.
Ubisoft’s Yves Guillemot is particularly bullish about its potential, citing the ease of payment, the value of trust that blockchain commands, and that by helping players to create and sell content, they’d also become “stakeholders” and “participate in the creation of our games and also have fun.”
Ubisoft isn’t the only interested party; following E3, Microsoft announced that it had moved all of its royalty payments for the Xbox ecosystem to the blockchain. Now instant, the previous manual system had taken 45 days to process to accelerate royalty payments to developers that previously took 45 days. But the most notable takeaway was that Microsoft also revealed it had partnered with Ubisoft to use its Azure Cloud blockchain technology for the French company’s own in-house royalties distribution.
Managing in-house finances and creating secure digital marketplace is one thing, but the blockchain might be capable of much more exciting things for video game design. It could actually become a mechanic in itself, according to James Portnow of Extra Credits. He explains rather brilliantly that instead of a ledger for the purposes of tracking money, the blockchain could be a ledger for the history of items and weapons in games. He imagines player actions could imbue weapons with special powers; say, after slaying a difficult boss or beating a special event. These would be etched into the history of the sword forever, possibly changing its name, altering characteristics. And of course, these would be passed onto the next person that later purchases the sword via the blockchain network, and the next person after that.
These are the sorts of design possibilities that blockchain can facilitate. It’s really just a question of whether developers are willing to experiment and use the technology in these clever ways, rather than simply running digital marketplaces, or worse, merely consigned to back-end admin, or peddling cryptocurrency. Time will tell, but there’s no doubt that we should all acclimatize ourselves to the buzzword that is blockchain, because regardless of whether cryptocurrency itself is certain to continue earning shrewd investors huge wads of money, it’s absolutely set to make an impression on the video game industry.