With the hype around projects like Gods Unchained, 0xUniverse, Etheremon, and the ever-relevant CryptoKitties, gaming has emerged as a use case to follow within the cryptospace. Whether gamers are collecting and breeding cute animals or duking it out in competitive trading card matches, there are various video games and gaming experiences that could be served by blockchain technology.
Although crypto games appear to be "the next big thing" (especially with all the coverage of CryptoKitties), a quick look at DappRadar shows only a few hundred users active on these gaming networks within a 24-hour period. To be fair, most other Dapps – not just games – feature similar user bases, but these traffic numbers demonstrate that appreciable adoption of blockchain-based games is far off. Potential does exist for the crypto gaming market, but that potential is coupled with a host of development barriers.
One of the biggest limitations is scalability. Like with any blockchain project, scaling the underlying network is paramount to encourage widespread adoption of the technology. Crypto games are no different – except when it comes to their complexity.
Video games involve a host of operations at any given moment. For example, graphics must render while the gaming system also processes every action the player makes. A conventional role-playing or shooter game running on a blockchain network would require a small miracle because of the astronomical number of state changes that would need to be verified. Blockchain technology, then, is pretty much unusable in real-time video games like StarCraft or Age of Empires.
This complex structure is why most crypto games are simple in terms of their architecture. In fact, many blockchain-based games are like mobile freemiums in their gameplay style and appearance. If we look at one of the most popular games on the Ethereum network to date, CryptoKitties, the game essentially functions as a repository and marketplace for players' digital cats.
Ben Jorgensen, chief operating officer of blockchain startup Constellation Labs, told ETHNews that he believes video game architecture is the largest roadblock to crypto gaming development:
"Centralized game development solutions, like Unity, and existing cloud storage/computing infrastructure needed for the high graphic rendering are still the most successful and reliable solutions. If blockchain is going to be used by game developers, a scalable architecture and a reliable network that can manage high image rendering and massive user adoption is necessary."
He went on to note that blockchain gaming architecture as it stands "is cumbersome and cannot support consumer-grade applications that have large user bases," nor does it "easily integrate into existing gaming platforms." He recalled the CryptoKitties traffic spike from December 2017; although the game is fairly simple, it still "took down the [Ethereum] network for a moment."
Further, Jorgensen said that blockchain gaming infrastructure (specifically on Ethereum) "is not deployable to common programming languages, like Java." He recognizes this setup may be beneficial for mobile development, but it creates another barrier to platform integration. "No game developer wants to have to learn a new programming language, like Solidity with Ethereum," he elaborated.
Besides video game architecture, there is also the issue of cost. Any industry dabbling in blockchain would want to know the potential cost savings of pursuing the technology; gaming is no different. Jorgensen explained: "The cost structure to use decentralized and distributed networks needs to show significant cost savings for the industry to shift its attention and tech stack onto blockchain-like solutions."
Considering these limitations, the market for blockchain-based gaming is concentrated on a certain type of video game: those based on collecting and trading items. CryptoKitties, for instance, includes breeding digital cats, but much of the "gameplay" itself (if one could truly call it that) revolves around buying and selling pixel-based kitties.
Looking to another example, Zombie Battleground from the Loom Network, the game runs separate from the mainchain and is therefore not beholden to the speed of the network. Because Zombie Battleground is connected to it, though, players can use cryptocurrencies within the game, and those transactions – although occurring off-chain – would be communicated in succinct summary form to the mainchain's ledger. (This is essentially a form of the Plasma solution being developed for Ethereum.)
In this way, video games can exist apart from blockchain technology but still interact with it. This setup may be the most feasible option for blockchain-based gaming – and is probably why most games in the crypto gaming space center around, or at least include, a marketplace for cryptocurrency transactions.
Jorgensen believes that digital asset trading is significant to the future of the blockchain gaming industry. He sees trading as especially relevant to the eSports landscape:
"Whether it be real-world items that have been created to have a unique digital clone, or something like digital baseball cards, [digital assets have] an opportunity to transcend eSports gaming crowds and usher in a new social gaming experience that is an evolution from the social gaming boom we saw in 2010."
This trend of growth, coupled with more competitive costs to render online games and graphics, could lead to "a new wave of connected gaming," he continued.
Ultimately, video games are complex creations featuring various moving parts. Integrating blockchain technology into gaming systems in a convenient and accessible way will require some work, whether that relates to scaling their internal architecture or mitigating the costs associated with rendering graphics.
These limitations considered, however, the crypto gaming market is clearly evolving, and we will likely continue to see investment into blockchain-based video game development initiatives.