“Blockchain is a revolutionary technology of the enlightenment, like the guillotine, designed to remove the crowned heads of Europe, or the centralizers that effectively control the industry,” said Miko Matsumura, managing partner, gumi Cryptos Capital, kicking off a panel at the recent GamesBeat Next 2023.
The problem, he added, is that blockchain has produced its own centralizers, such as disgraced crypto company CEO and billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, who may have single-handedly propped up the blockchain space as a for-profit arena. What game developers should really be considering is what Web3 games blockchain will actually enable: will the technology live up to its primary ethos, and enable games that are both fun and fair?
Matsumura was joined by Sean Pinnock, founder and CEO of Avalon, Canaan Linder, CEO at Stardust and Matt Wolfe, VP of web3 gaming at Zynga, to break down what blockchain really means for the games industry, and the professionals who pour their time and attention into making good games.
Blockchain, the player contract and developer responsibility
“I can’t unilaterally say that fair gaming or less fair gaming is better, because that doesn’t encompass what players play games for,” Linder said. “The capability of blockchain, it gives us the power to define many of these rules better and more open than we have been in the past. But going forward, players and developers need to come to an agreement on the rule sets they create.”
They’re just technologies and tools, Wolfe added.
“Blockchain, digital collectibles, none of them have to do with fun or fairness,” he said. “That’s how you develop your experience, what your loops are, how you’re designing it, and how you want to operate your business and your product. Blockchain and fungibility and provenance and all that are just tools to make this possible in new ways, but have nothing to do with, I don’t think, fun or fairness. That’s all on us as developers, to put that in our loops and then enforce that responsibly and keep us and our users safe.”
However, blockchain is uniquely situated to help construct fairness, Pinnock added, and in the majority of games, fairness is fun for the players. The immutability of smart contracts can be built into the ecosystem of a game, which circumvents issues that games like League of Legends run into, when some players have the buying power to get themselves an overtuned champion that trounces less flush players.
“There’s no takebacks when you put something on chain,” Wolfe said. “You can edit smart contracts, but the holders don’t want that. They want purity. They want what went on chain to stay on chain, and not a lot of change happening, or no change happening to it. Why? It comes down, in the pieces we put on the chain, to digital collectibility and the uniqueness of those digital collectibles. Which I believe in. I think collectibility as a sector is a trillion-dollar business.”
Deciding what needs to go on chain and what doesn’t can be a tightrope, he added, with most off chain for a variety of reasons. The pieces that are on chain are the pieces that have to be on chain for provenance, collectibility, authentication and value. For Sugartown, released by Zynga, that means tickets to get into the digital theme park in order to ride the rides, play games and potentially win prizes and rewards — but they’re also collectible.
“We keep as much off chain as possible while still providing value and fun to our players, keeping everybody safe,” Wolfe said. “The pieces that we do put on chain are very prescriptive. They’re laser focused. They’re that way for a certain reason, and most of it has to do with fun, lack of friction, safety for our players and for us, and value for holders.”
Pioneering in the Web 3 space
Zynga, an industry powerhouse known for its traditional games, was genuinely pioneering when it released a Web3 game like Sugartown. Developers had to offer a compelling enough value proposition to get the studio to agree to produce the game, particularly because Zynga is a U.S.-traded public company, which owes its shareholders a promise to stay forward-thinking and to continue building new capabilities as technology evolves.
“No matter what’s popular at that point or not, depending on where we see things going and what we think would be beneficial to us in the medium and longer term — Web3 is one of those things for us,” Wolfe said. “But moving through all of these needles, threading them constantly, is challenging. It’s also fun and rewarding if you can make it through and get to market, which we did in less than two years.”
Linder gives Zynga a lot of credit for the innovative thinking behind the greenlight of Sugartown.
“There are a lot of public, very large companies we know about in the gaming space that have greenlit internal projects, but they’ve never seen the light of day,” Linder added. “For Zynga to come out with theirs, it’s a real bastion of success in the industry. They see this as an implicit threat, or maybe explicit threat to the old gaming that we’ve had on mobile for quite a while. They’re disrupting themselves.”
The future of Web 3 gaming
“I don’t know how many of you are skeptics or believers, but from my point of view, Web3 games, ownership in games, it’s probably not an ‘or.’ It’s probably an ‘and,’” Wolfe said. “We’ll always push the envelope. Most big game publishers, if they’re not doing this, probably should. The indie people and the folks putting pressure on from the edges are also very important. That keeps everybody moving quickly, or as quickly as we can, and then ultimately elevates the games sphere overall to provide more value and longevity to what we do in the sector.”
A roadblock remains: Web3 is still beset with malicious actors who are looking to use and abuse blockchain, which continues to tank public perception and trust. Many people have used the technology in the interest of short-term financial gain. But as always, the problem isn’t with the technology — it’s just a decentralized database. It’s the people who use it maliciously.
“What’s interesting about Web3 or blockchain is we can build the promises [we make] to you, the people, directly into the code we write,” he said. “That’s why we’re doing it. What we’re going to have to do is see people build those promises into their applications in a way that actually benefits users. When we get there, trust will be restored.”
And again, while not everything can be put on chain, a Web3-native MMO like Avalon blockchain enables developers to make the authentication layer the base on chain, which opens up a lot of opportunity, Pinnock said.
“If you decentralize the rest of your product, you have a decentralized game or platform,” he explained. “But in terms of immutability and smart contracts, there’s something interesting that we don’t talk about a lot. We can build democracy directly into the platform, into these smart contracts. If we need to make a change — because we’re going to have to — there’s going to have to be mutability. But what’s important is it’s not going to be me, a single actor, doing it. The community at large will do it together.”