Crypto & Games: Where to look

There’s a lot of discussion now about crypto gaming and where the next big hit will emerge. Axie Infinity has proven that novel token economics can be enough of a draw to grow a player base substantially and projects like Yield Guild Games can help ease the pain of buying into these tokenomics with creative “defi-like” mechanisms.

While this is one approach that seems to be working well (I expect a number of teams to follow/innovate on it) I do think there are other places we’ll see big hits emerge. Where? To answer that one might imagine what else is uniquely possible with crypto infrastructure (as opposed to traditional game infrastructure) in these games.

Many of the projects I’ve seen that purport to be building “the metaverse” focus on the assets that will be purchased in the game and not what will be done with them in game. While this focus makes sense for an NFT presale (which is a novel way to fund such a game) it does little to attract an audience of gamers who care about things like the actual gameplay loop out of the gate.

Historically in gaming the strongest and stickiest product loops have been built on gameplay. What are some examples of this and what can we learn about what these projects have in common?

Defense of the Ancients emerged as a Warcraft 3 mod back in 2003 (predated by Aeon of Strife, a similar Starcraft mod) - it exclusively used heroes and map assets from the game and was built in the game’s map editor. The early DotA team tapped into Warcraft 3’s existing mod community and matchmaking to grow the game into something of a cult hit. Fast forward a few years and several clones were spawned, including Heroes of Newerth, League of Legends, and DOTA2. To this day there is still only one map in DOTA2 and many of the assets look and feel similar to the way they were in the early days. The International (DOTA2’s annual top tournament) regularly draws enormous viewership and has a purse of over $40M.

There are other examples where mods of a particular game become the basis for a new genre or standalone game. The original Counterstrike was borne as a Half-life mod pitting terrorists against counter terrorists in a struggle to diffuse/set a bomb off. This mod serves as the basis for Riot’s Valorant and the modern incarnation of CS:GO.

DayZ: Battle Royale was one of the first “battle royale” games and was created as a mod for Arma 2 (a military simulation game with a large modding community). The mod was ported to Arma 3 and became the basis for PUBG, which in turn spawned Fortnite and the whole Battle Royale genre.

DOTA2’s Auto Chess mod led to a new genre of auto-battler game which has since morphed into massive hits like Teamfight Tactics and DOTA Underlords. The list of examples goes on and on.

It is no accident that each of these games are some of the most popular on the planet. They all share several things in common:

  1. Small initial development teams with limited resources
  2. Very little investment in assets, maps, engine, and networking components of the game stack. In most cases these mods piggyback on these existing pieces of distribution and infrastructure.
  3. All leveraged a robust modding community around a particular game (and with it a group of existing sticky users willing to try out new mods).
  4. Almost all development investment goes into in gameplay loop which is then refined by the early community.

This leads to games that have the following characteristics:

  1. Easy to learn (new players see a lot of the same things over and over - the same maps and objectives help them make sense of the new game) but very difficult to master (the subtleties of the gameplay loop are deep and complex).
  2. Highly replayable because players return not for “new content” in the game, but for the unpredictability and dynamic experience that comes with the multiplayer nature of the game. Constraints in environment design encourage creativity and play (think of chess and how many moves are possible given only one chess board layout!). Every single experience in a game like this is different and leaves you wanting more.

So what does all of this look like in the context of crypto and gaming?

To date, projects like Loot and Dark Forest seem to embody some of these mod-oriented game characteristics. Both hearken back to the aesthetic of early 1980s video games. Both embody the beginnings of something newly possible in blockchain gaming: composable games. These seem to be the early beginnings of a “modding community” and I would bet that we start to see new gameplay loops emerge within these ecosystems as they mature.

I’ll write more about some ideas about what these games might actually evolve into or look like under the hood. If you’re building in these ecosystems, send me a note for an invite into the Definitely Crypto Discord where you can join some other folks who are doing the same in jamming on these ideas.