Speaker: Will Robinson, video link
This article is the full text of Will Robinson’s speech at ETHCC by AllianceDao, organized by FunBlocks.
Hello everyone, thank you very much for coming to listen to my speech. Today I will talk to you about web3 native games. After introducing myself, I will give three examples of web3 native games and try to give them a definition. But more importantly, I will give you some references to help you distinguish them.
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For most of this speech, I will show you the problems I see in this field that hinder the progress of web3 native games conquering the world. I will try to solve one of these problems on the spot, and then at the end, I will point out those who are solving the rest of the problems.
So, this is me. I have studied game design and game history for eight years and have a doctoral degree. I focus on mechanism design and how game creators tell stories in games by setting rules.
But in 2017, I was attracted by the red pill of the crypto world. I read “Mastering Bitcoin” and learned about crypto economics, so I changed directions. I started studying blockchain, understanding their security issues, and eventually worked for a crypto auditing company for three and a half years.
I fell in love with DeFi and worked hard to build my career in DeFi, joining the DeFi Alliance (now Alliance). Until Axie became successful, suddenly games started appearing in the crypto industry, and I had to do things related to both, which is completely different from doing one of them alone.
So today, I’m here to share with you what I have learned and tell you about the current development of the industry.
01. How to distinguish Web2, Web2.5, and Web3
(1) Web2, Web2.5, and Web3 in games
So, here is a quick thinking model to help you understand how I see Web2, Web2.5, and Web3.
Minecraft is a very successful Web2 game, and our hope is that one day we can have games in cryptocurrencies like Minecraft, where we can have crypto assets and trade them. This is a promise that even if the game disappears, you can still keep your assets and continue playing forever. Even if the game goes bankrupt, you can rebuild the server and somehow reconnect to your assets and make them valuable again.
But the problem is, as a player, I’m not very interested in this value proposition because what I really want is not to play the same game forever. I like to play new and different games, so the idea of keeping my assets forever is not very exciting. And as someone who has played Diablo III and then immediately transferred after buying the first in-game item, I realized that selling my in-game items is not interesting to me either.
So I started thinking about this relationship, what a web3 game should look like, and whether we can get some added value from a fully on-chain game. The game I found is called Dark Forest.
Dark Forest emerged in 2020 and became popular among players in 2021. It is a game about shooting from one planet to another in space. It was inspired by a classic web2 game called Galcon, where you have some planets in space and can send energy to attack other planets. Once you have a new planet, you can attack more planets. Your opponents can do the same. Eventually, everyone will grow exponentially until the boundaries between players start to overlap, leading to war.
This game is very interesting, but it doesn’t actually look like the image above, but like the one below.
But if I showed you this image from the beginning, you might be confused. Because if you haven’t played this game, it’s hard to imagine why it’s special and why someone would want to play a game that looks so “disgusting”.
(2) Web2, Web2.5, and Web3 in Currency
Next, I want to use some examples to show why I care about web3 games. These comparative examples are selected from regular cryptocurrencies and regular web2 applications.
One classic web2 concept is the US dollar. The US dollar is very successful and can circulate in many front-ends, very versatile, and can serve many purposes, but it also has some problems. It can be censored, inflated, not permissionless, and not even composable, because it doesn’t have something like an API that allows developers to build applications on top of it. Everyone is pretending they have their own API.
Then Bitcoin appeared, which is a fully web3 product. It has all the characteristics mentioned above, such as censorship resistance, composability (to some extent), permissionlessness, and so on.
Then we invented this very exciting web2.5 intermediate product, which is USDC. It doesn’t retain all the features of being permissionless and censorship-resistant, but we retain composability, which means the ability to build things on top of it and use USDC in smart contracts. As long as you accept some compromises, it is actually a very powerful tool. So there is not much difference between doing web2.5, web3, or web2, it just depends on different preferences and needs.
(3) Web2, Web2.5, and Web3 in Trading Platforms
If you think about this idea more deeply, in the field of applications built on smart contracts, you have Nasdaq, which is a place where you can trade assets.
Then in Web2.5, you have a great product called Coinbase, where you can trade Web3 assets in the market. But again, it is not censorship-resistant, not permissionless, and you need to go through KYC and so on. So we built this cool new thing called Uniswap.
Uniswap is a censorship-resistant, composable, pure Web3 exchange. So we got some new features that we were never sure if we could achieve, like flash loans. In Uniswap, when you trade something, you first get that something, then you can do something with it, and after you’re done with everything, you return the money you initially used. That’s how flash loans work. It’s a magical feature that turns a product like Coinbase into something that’s fully on-chain.
Of course, there are many problems. It’s hard to scale, you can’t put a centralized order book on the chain, you have to accept using AMM, and it’s a pretty bad user experience. You need to know how wallets work, you need to know how to protect your security. So compared to Coinbase, it’s very difficult to onboard new users on Uniswap.
02. Web3 Games Worth Trying
So the idea I want to recommend to you today is to try inventing a chain game version of Uniswap and see how it inherits the features demonstrated by Uniswap and Bitcoin, instead of developing a Web2.5 game. They are great, like Axie, which is also dominant, making it difficult for people to see what these true Web3 native games are doing. There are some playable examples below.
Dark Forest Arena is the single-player version of the game I introduced earlier, and you can experience it. It currently doesn’t support mobile, only desktop versions, but it’s still a very interesting game. It just got re-released today, so you can experience the cutting-edge Web3 game by going to arena.dfdo.xyz.
You can also try Primodium, which recently completed a round of financing and VCs are very excited about it. This game is still in its early stages and it ported a very geeky Web2 game called Factorio to Web3, making many sacrifices just like making a Web3 version of Coinbase, Uniswap.
Or you can wait for something that will be launched in the future, like Playmint’s game Downstream. Downstream will have higher graphics quality, and it has a more powerful team working on it, with a lot of game experience. These are the teams that made games like “Fall Guys” and earned about $500 million in revenue. So they are more of the native Web2 game practitioners trying to enter the Web3 game field.
If you are unhappy that I did not include your project in the recommended list, then the reason I chose these games is as follows: first, my nephew developed Dark Forest Arena, so I had to include him; second, I invested in Primodium, so this is also a disclaimer; third, Playmint bought me a beer two days ago, so if you want to appear on this slide next year, you also have to do one of these things. 😜
03. Four Problems Constraining the Development of Full-Chain Games
Now that we have proven the possibility of building a fully web3 game, solving four major problems is still necessary to achieve this goal.
The first problem is user experience and user interface (UX/UI Problems). Just like Uniswap, it is almost impossible to introduce web2 users into an application where you have to know the private key and sign every transaction. Imagine playing chess and having to take out your Trezor to sign a transaction for every move. We clearly need a better product than that.
Then you have to solve the scaling problem (Uncertain How to Scale). Even in the best case scenario, Dark Forest can only have 800 players. If the TPS of a chain is 40 and each player submits a transaction every 30 seconds, then at most it can accommodate 2,000 players. On Steam, a successful game may have 500,000 concurrent players. We are far from that scale, so we need to invent new cryptographic infrastructure or new game designs.
In addition, we have no standard design patterns (No Standard Design LianGuaitterns). Currently, no one has made a successful fully on-chain game. This means there is no script to follow, only a new field waiting to be discovered, and no framework to build upon.
Finally, the biggest problem is that we do not know what value this can create (Uncertain Value-Add). It is uncertain what additional value can be created by fully putting a game on the chain. So, at least for this presentation, I will try to answer this question.
04. How Can Web3 Games Create Value?
Firstly, we hope that web3 games can combine the characteristics of blockchain with fun game mechanics, creating a truly web3 game mode at the intersection of the two.
Many people believe that Dark Forest has achieved this standard, for example, we can use zero knowledge to hide information, creating a real fog of war, and it is permissionless. But after a lot of exploration, if you trust the game developer, there are indeed no new game mechanics supported by blockchain that can be established. You won’t get a new and interesting game mechanic from this process (although it is interesting, it is not new). So this is not the reason I recommend developing fully on-chain games.
Some people, like the Axie we mentioned before, talk about the benefits of player’s quality of life (asset ownership). You can keep your assets, sell them yourself, and if the game goes bankrupt, you can use them elsewhere. Another game may recognize your assets and let you join. But we can do these things with web2.5, and it is not clear whether players really benefit from these issues. So, I still don’t think there is a crossroads here that creates new value.
Here I want to introduce a way that I think can really help web3 games create new value, which is new cooperation among developers (composability).
We all know DeFi, which has thousands of independent web3 developers working on the same computer, sharing the same open-source code, and using each other’s code to compose their smart contracts. Without coordination, they can collaborate and build a new financial system.
And if people start to put games completely on the chain to run independently, they can build a new game world together without knowing each other.
Of course, you can achieve this in web2 as well. We have had open-source game development for a long time. But the development of open-source games is actually difficult to deliver truly important products for a long time. Because in web2, it is too difficult to coordinate the operation of servers and share IP. So by putting the game completely on the chain, tracking on the chain, and tokenizing on the chain, a new type of labor cooperation (composability) will emerge. We see it in DeFi, and we hope to replicate it in games. Here is an example.
In this circle, it represents all possible game design spaces. Obviously, we haven’t invented all possible games yet. But game carriers like arcades have allowed us to design some. Once we have pong or LianGuaic-Man appearing in bars, we have a powerful machine that people can share the cost of by inserting coins. This business model and technological product help us create a whole set of games that we have never made before.
Then we have home game consoles, and the Atari 2600 appeared. It is much worse than these arcade cabinets, it is a very bad computing system, and it doesn’t even have video RAM. The way it projects on the screen is like the code must be output with the laser and tracked by it. To play chess on the Atari 2600, they had to make the screen black on both sides just to give the computer enough time to think before the electron beam reaches the other side. This technology is really rubbish.
But we still created new games on it that we had never seen before because of the new business model. You can create 60 adventure games from the start instead of focusing on attracting players to insert coins. The new business model leads to new game designs, just like the supply and demand relationship in a market economy, games evolve with new carriers. Home game consoles have obviously improved with the development of technology and have surpassed the space provided by arcade machines.
The same thing happened again on mobile phones. They are much worse than desktop computers and PlayStation, but we can create new game mechanisms and new monetization methods to build new games. It doesn’t mean that those games can’t return to home game consoles, and games like Flappy Birds can definitely be played on Xbox. It’s not that the carrier of the game is more novel, but the financial system around it is innovative. So mobile games have also grown.
Now we have this little dot, blockchain games. Hopefully, this new technology stack will enable developers to collaborate when creating products that we have never seen before in some way. But we still don’t know what it is, just like when mobile phones appeared, game developers hadn’t imagined Angry Birds, Angry Birds had to emerge from this new mode of production.
So I think this may help create enough new value for the whole-chain games.
05. Performance Scaling of Whole-Chain Games: Game Engine
Therefore, it is still possible for us to discover new game modes, but these new games may only be able to run by returning to web2 to obtain performance expansion. However, we have built some scaling solutions that may help them survive in web3.
When it comes to scalability, there are some game companies that need to be mentioned. These are some people who are trying to make whole-chain games run faster and they offer new frameworks to help make games.
MUD is the pioneer in this direction and has a large player community.
Curio’s keystone is also building a game design engine that focuses on increasing the ticks of the blockchain. Just as we take ticks for granted in game design. Your NPC will do something even if you don’t. But if you don’t tell the blockchain to continue calculating, it won’t. So you have to design a complete blockchain that allows the world to evolve over time.
Argus is building a lot of things, expanding solutions, but there are also different frameworks for designing games.
And there is Dojo, who is very active in France and has given many speeches here. His idea is to build a game that is not completely on-chain, but a game where all logic can be proven to have been executed off-chain.
Imagine a ZK-rollup that is specifically designed for one player. I would run all the actions on my computer and then compress them into a huge proof (which actually wouldn’t be that big because you use Starks and snarks) and push that proof back to the chain. Then the smart contract can see that you didn’t cheat while playing the game. I can agree on the result of this proof without trust, and it is an effective final state.
Although this may sound strange, it’s basically how World of Warcraft works. World of Warcraft is a game where everyone can play on a huge world map, but in reality, no one is actually playing on that huge map. They are actually playing in dungeons, isolated from the outside. They go in with their equipment and come out with more equipment.
So you can imagine taking your game off the main chain, putting it into a proof system, and then bringing it back. That’s how Diablo 4 (released a month ago) works. So I don’t think it’s crazy to put some on-chain computation off-chain.
This is the current state of scalability tools, and I believe they will also help us find more standard design patterns in the future.
06. User Experience and User Interface
Then, the remaining major issues revolve around user experience and user interface (UX/UI).
Bringing players to web3 is really difficult. But if you use web2.5, users can immediately log in with Facebook, all information is on the server, and users can always bring their assets back to the chain. So before you solve this problem, web3 games will face a huge adoption problem.
Many people are trying to solve this problem, and here are three of them. Alembic is made by the Cometh team, who actually organized this conference. Through account abstraction, he can help players enter the game immediately. If you haven’t heard of account abstraction, it’s basically something that will save our entire industry.
This is Cartridge, on the Starkware ecosystem, he not only improves the user experience but also helps implement a web3 steam concept. He also provides a unified framework for games, making it easier for players to experience them.
You may have an inherent impression that there is an EVM-compatible layer, plus Alembic, MUD, and Dark Forest. In fact, there is another completely different branch of Starkware, which is another major stronghold of full-chain games.
So when you consider joining a chain or a community, I think you should join both at the same time. In fact, the real beginning of the whole on-chain gaming community was not Ethereum, but Gnosis chain or xDai at that time. Actually, this is a tradition that I need to let you know.
Lastly, Ethos is not within these two ecosystems, it is on Sui. Ethos is building a wallet, but it is more like an application dashboard itself. They recently achieved tremendous success with an on-chain version of the game 2048. By porting the 2048 game onto the chain, they blew up the entire chain. There will still be some people building such things on the edge ecosystem, outside of the EVM and Starkware ecosystems.
I hope that user experience and user interface issues will be resolved through account abstraction, and people will once again log in with their Facebook accounts, conducting all these fancy multiparty computations in the background.
07. Building Web3 Native Games Together
Finally, let’s talk about web3 games. Web3 games are native cryptographic projects on the blockchain, and few people are building them. Based on the number of people in my Telegram group, there are currently probably less than 500 serious builders. But I think there are many opportunities and venture capital opportunities if you don’t know about them. People do want to see more in this field, and I hope we can create opportunities and games that define the category in this field.
So, if you are developing products in this field, I would like to chat with you. If you want to try developing products in this field but are unsure how to start, I am also happy to chat with you. This is my Twitter account: @DangerWillRobin. Contact me out there or in private messages. Thank you very much.