Video Games and Blockchain: New Experience for Players or More Profit for Developers?

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Crypto-video games are finally here, except that they aren’t. Over the past few months, a steadily increasing stream of computer games have appeared that have used cryptocurrencies in one way or another, yet despite their growing frequency only a small number of these have actually used the mechanics of Ethereum or Bitcoin to provide a decentralized gaming experience.

In fact, the majority of them could be passed off for traditional games without anyone batting an eyelid, since the use of cryptocurrencies or blockchain generally comes more as an addition to existing gameplay dynamics and genres than as a fundamental reworking of them. Blockchain Game, Alien Run,  Miner Simulator, Itadaki Dungeon , and Spells Of Genesis  are the five most popular crypto-related games available right now on the Google Play Store in terms of user ratings, yet all five would work perfectly well without any kind of blockchain or crypto element.

TOP 5 CRYPTO-RELATED GAMES ON THE GOOGLE PLAY STORE

Still, this continuity shows that such elements can be added seamlessly to video games without spoiling what made them fun in the first place, with (three-way) puzzle games, strategy games, 2D racers, 2D platformers, and trading games proving the most popular genres so far for accommodating some kind of crypto layer.

As this variety suggests, there are few limits or distinctions as to the kind of game that can be ‘put on the blockchain.’ However, the use of crypto in video games can currently be divided into three distinct categories: as a reward for play, as a gimmicky promotional tool, or as a genuine gameplay modifier. As the following overview of the burgeoning crypto-game industry will show, it may be some time before the third category becomes dominant…

A quick history lesson

Crypto-based games already have a modest history, even if they only became popular at the end of last year with CryptoKitties, the cat-breeding game that uses the Ethereum blockchain to trade and prove ownership of the titular crypto-cats. The first title that could legitimately be called a ‘crypto-game’ was Dragon’s Tale, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that allowed players to stake actual Bitcoin on the outcome of a variety of minigames. Launched on July 12, 2013 as a beta but first conceived in 2010 by games developer Andrew Tepper,  Dragon’s Tale is set in a open 3D world where players could hunt for eggs, tip cows, catch fish, and race monkeys, among other mini-games. It may not have used Bitcoin in any more imaginative way than as a virtual gambling chip, but it at least showed that the worlds of cryptocurrencies and video games could be mixed, and it continues to be played to this day.

Dragon’s Tale

The fantastical open world of Dragon’s Tale. © eGenesis

An even more significant early game was Huntercoin, another MMORPG first emerging as a prototype in September 2013. Running on a fork of the Namecoin blockchain, it saw players mining the game’s own cryptocurrency (HUC) by finding its coins in the game world and then bringing them to one of several randomly generated ‘banks,’ which would actually transfer them to the players’ crypto-wallets. It has had something of a turbulent ride since it first appeared, with co-creator Mikhail Syndeev passing away in February 2014 and its code being transferred into the upstream Bitcoin core code in 2016, but the game is still popular, providing a testament to the enduring appeal of its decentralized game world and mechanics.

However, since it has been demonstrated that games could be left to run without being subject to direct control from a centralized server, the rest of the gaming world has been slow to catch up. Predictably enough, there were a slew of Bitcoin-based gambling websites in both 2013 and 2014, such as SatoshiDice, BitZino, Bitino, and Bit777 – although these weren’t really video games as such. There were also a number of tokens that were briefly provided as a reward for playing certain online games, such as the HYPER cryptocurrency that was offered in mid-2014 with the Counter Strike and Minecraft servers the currency’s team launched. But for a while, there were few games designed specifically with a cryptocurrency or blockchain in mind, although 2015 finally provided a modest increase in the number of games based around offering cryptocurrencies as a reward for play or as a means of payment. Such games included multiplayer racer TurboCharged, platformer FlapPig, and fellow platformer SaruTobi. Like the games that came before and after them, these titles were all ‘free-to-play’, although most offered in-app purchases. While they once again didn’t use cryptocurrency technology in particularly imaginative ways, their increasing numbers at least suggested that the idea of using cryptocurrencies in video games was a popular one.

This appeared to be the case, as 2016 witnessed another upsurge in the use of cryptocurrencies and blockchains in gaming. Aside from the increasing amount of games offering Bitcoin rewards, for example Grabbit and BitQuest, there was the release of the popular card-trading game Spells of Genesis in September of that year. Developed by the Swiss-based EverdreamSoft and using its own BitCrystals (BCY) currency, it provided a turning point because it actually used the Bitcoin blockchain to store – and to guarantee the authenticity of – the collectable cards it enabled players to win. This breakthrough was built upon in 2017, when the trading-card game Force of Will and real-time strategy game Beyond the Void were both launched. First released as an open beta in April 2017, the latter game used the Ethereum blockchain to run its own Nexium (NXC) cryptocurrency. Significantly, this use would be repeated by the now-famous CryptoKitties, which became the largest Dapp on Ethereum a mere week after its launch on November 28.

AllMine? Or all theirs?

Despite CryptoKitties providing a proof-of-concept in December 2017 that blockchain and cryptocurrencies could be exploited to deliver a novel gaming experience – for example the breeding/trading of unique digital pets, the most common use of cryptocurrencies in games today still revolves around rewarding players for their gaming efforts.

This is most evident in AllMine, a match-three puzzle game à la Candy Crush due for release on PC in Q3 2018. Developed by Californian startup MyDream Interactive, the game consists in three interrelated sub-games, with the first (mini-game based) sub-game earning players the right to play in the second, mining sub-game. As the name suggests, players who participate in the mining game essentially permit their computer to be used to mine Jewel, the cryptocurrency created especially for AllMine.

AllMine

Players have to line up matching icons in AllMine © MyDream Interactive

Part of the proceeds of this mining – which is much less resource-intensive than Bitcoin mining – will go to the players themselves, while the other part will go to the developers, who will reinvest their share back into the game in various ways – including developing updates and offering Jewelz as an incentive to certain players to keep mining/playing. Players will have the option of trading their Jewelz for other cryptocurrencies or for fiat money, but here’s where it gets interesting, because they will also be able to use their coins to fund purchases in the third sub-game.

This third sub-game involves building «Utopias» (farmstead-esque settlements) and populating them with «Adoraboos,» – cute mythical creatures that players collect during the mining sub-game and that can be fed and entertained. Not only can players level up their Utopias, but they can actually challenge – Pokémon style – other players to battles. The winner of these battles is rewarded with a level up for their Utopia, while the loser is rewarded with no level up and having their Utopia becoming inaccessible for three days.

Adoraboo

Catching an Adoraboo ©MyDream Interactive

So far, so generic, but the interesting – or arguably manipulative – part is that players who upgrade their Utopias more will have a greater chance of winning these battles and becoming the kind of ‘Pokémaster’ (or rather, Adoraboo-master) their friends will envy. Of course, the only way to upgrade your Utopia is to spend the Jewelz you earn, which essentially means that the most engaged AllMine players won’t be earning much profit from playing the game, since the proceeds of their mining exploits will mostly be pumped back into transforming their Utopias into formidable fighting machines.

Similar reward systems – which dangle a crypto-shaped carrot in front of gamers only to whip them with a purchase-shaped stick – can be increasingly found elsewhere. For example, the March-released Itadaki Dungeon is a top-down 2D adventure in which players can find and earn mBTC (milli-bitcoin), but which also offers in-app purchases of various items for those players who wish to increase their chances of progressing in the game. Likewise, Reality Clash – which is due for release in «late 2018» – is a first person shooter (FPS) in which «gamers can make real cash» via the weapons they sell for Reality Clash Gold Coins (RCC). However, they unfortunately have to purchase RCC in the first place in order to buy these weapons, something which suggests that the overall balance of purchases and sales will end up in the Reality Gaming Group’s favour.

The Bitcoin bandwagon

Currently, nameable games that offer crypto rewards and are either available now or soon-to-be-launched are in short supply – CryptoPop is another example – with some early examples having ceased paying out in cryptocurrencies altogether, such as the Swiss-made Bitcoin Bandit. That said, they’re likely to be abundant in the near future, given the number of companies offering platforms that will enable games developers to add crypto-reward systems to their products.

For example, Japanese internet services corporation GMO recently announced that its «Bitcoin-based application for in-game rewards» would be released in August, with one game – Whimsical War – already lined up to utilize this app once it’s launched. Similarly, Kik teamed up with Unity Technologies in March to develop a software development kit (SDK) for its Kin cryptocurrency, thereby enabling any games developer to use Kin as an in-game reward token.

This is also something that will be possible via the upcoming Tap Project and Nitro platforms, the latter of which aims to tokenize the entire gaming industry ecosystem, as well as provide specific in-game rewards for players via the NOX cryptocurrency. Through platforms like it, the video game industry would have its initial coin offering (ICO) moment, with developers being given access to a broader range of funding and financing – often from players – than they may have enjoyed in the past.

However, for every developer or company hoping to create a crypto-based ecosystem for games that rewards players and developers alike, there are those who simply seem to be cashing in on the prevailing crypto-hype. Much like Long Blockchain Corp., some have simply added a Bitcoin or crypto association as a way of garnering extra interest, even if this addition doesn’t make much sense gameplay-wise. In January, for instance, the action-RPG Imperatum introduced a fashionably named «Crypto Update» that equipped it with a «Bitcoin Mode,» whereby item drops become more frequent and enemies become more fiendish if the value of BTC increases. As ‘novel’ as this might seem at first glance, it would potentially destroy the game’s enjoyability if BTC’s price collapsed or if it rose to lunar highs.

Imperatum

Imperatum screenshot ©Pro Social Games LLC

In April, SuperFly Games Ltd did something comparable with their Crypto Rider, a 2D driving game in which players can race along the historical price charts of various cryptocurrencies and which gained its fair share of press attention. Its peaks and troughs prove fun for a while, but like Imperatum it incorporates nothing of the essential workings of blockchains and cryptocurrencies into its own inner workings, unless you think volatile price fluctuations are essential to Bitcoin et al.

Another game that jumped on the Bitcoin bandwagon for promotional purposes was puzzler Montecrypto: The Bitcoin Enigma, which upon its February launch promised exactly one Bitcoin (then worth $9,860) to the first player able to solve its 24 head-scratching puzzles. This may have been a very welcome reward for the team that eventually managed this feat on April 24 (when BTC was worth approx. $9,566),  but it’s clear that once again, this one-off payment had little or nothing to do with the game itself, which continues to be playable today without any crypto reward.

Human mining

Given that the above two sections outline how cryptocurrencies have been used by developers largely for rewards/incentives or for marketing – a use also common outside of video games, there may seem to be little hope for those who’d like to see the actual technology of cryptocurrencies worked meaningfully into a video game. Fortunately, there are some signs that this technology has been making a difference to the intrinsic gameplay and workings of some games, and may do this to a greater extent in the future.

To begin with, there’s the painfully familiar CryptoKitties, which wouldn’t be quite the same without the Ethereum blockchain, since it uses the latter to ensure that the digital cats players breed are entirely unique, «100 percent owned» by the player, and cannot be reproduced, erased, or seized. There’s also the very similar CryptoFighters, not to mention UnicornGo and Tencent’s Let’s Hunt Monsters, which is much the same except for the fact that players battle with their unique fighters, and have to purchase them from the official marketplace – making the game another example of a crypto-enabled cash cow.

As for games which use blockchains and cryptocurrencies in order to furnish something other than unique characters owned entirely by players, examples are currently still few and far between. However, one indie game offers hope that the developers of the future will occasionally have original ideas as to how cryptocurrencies can be merged with video games. This is the aforementioned Huntercoin, a hybrid cryptocurrency/decentralized MMORPG that was released to the public in February 2014 by hobbyist developers, and which continues to generate low-level cultish buzz due to its unique dynamics. What distinguishes it is that it provides the first ever example of ‘human mining,’ in that players mine its currency (HUC) by travelling across the massively multiplayer online (MMO) game world and finding it. It also provides the first example of a truly decentralized game server, with the developers unable to influence the game’s unfolding except by changing the underlying code.

Huntercoin

© huntercoin.org

Due to its hobbyist origins and decentralised existence as a fork of the Namecoin blockchain, Huntercoin was initially laggy and a touch buggy, yet it shows that it’s possible to insert blockchain and cryptocurrencies into the very core of a video game.

Whether the gaming industry makes good on its early promise is still an open question, however, but with the growing prevalence and popularity of such games as CryptoKitties, AllMine, Blockchain Game, and Huntercoin, cryptocurrencies could one day become an integral part of video gaming’s fabric.