In 2018, millions of people were unwittingly onboarded to Web3. This mass onboarding happened thanks to Axie Infinity, a pay-to-earn (P2E) video game that lets users earn real cash. Although an array of (very vocal) detractors continue to staunchly oppose blockchain gaming, the space has grown considerably in recent years.
In fact, from 2021 to 2022 alone, blockchain gaming usage increased by 2000 percent, attracting scores of experienced Web2 game developers and executives in the process.
But why? What exactly makes the promise of Web3 game development so alluring? We spoke to Web3 builders who made the jump from traditional gaming to find out.
When creating a game in Web3, one of the core tenets is to do so in a decentralized fashion. In other words, the community should play an active role in steering the development. For developers, this means two things 1) They must structure their work to ensure they always have something new to show their community in updates. 2) They need to be open to community suggestions when it comes to potential changes and what features to implement.
Don Norbury is the Head of Studio for Shrapnel, an upcoming triple-A Web3 game. Previously, he worked on genre-defining Web2 video games like Bioshock Infinite, Madden NFL, and Sunset Overdrive. In an interview, he spoke honestly about the pressures and the joys that come with Web3 game development.
Norbury acknowledged that the decentralized, community-driven nature of blockchain gaming creates additional pressures for creators. From a development perspective, he says that Web3 gaming requires his team to “be more candid, as well as faster with how we communicate and turn around things to the community,” something that he calls “harrowing” for people from traditional game development.
But although there’s more pressure to move fast and deliver, Norbury states that the cycle of community feedback also makes you more confident in your final product. He turned to his work with BioShock Infinite to help clarify the difference, noting that “you go away for four and a half years. [Think to yourself] it’s never good enough. Finally launch it, and you’re just like, ‘fingers crossed about how all the world feels about this.’”
Although Bioshock Infinite was exceptionally well-received upon release, Norbury and the rest of the team had no way of knowing what the response would be at the time. They were clueless.
In Web3, the entire process gets inverted. In the case of Shrapnel and most other Web3 games, white papers are published ahead of the release. These white papers aren’t promotional materials — or at least, they aren’t just that. They’re detailed reports that let users make a truly informed decision before they invest their time, money, and attention into the project. To this end, they contain critical information about the motivation behind a project’s creation, utility, methods of tokenization, mechanics, and so on.
Crucially, this enables developers to receive feedback on their ideas well ahead of time and, of course, implement any changes deemed necessary. This helps game developers know that they’re on the right track.
However, Norbury notes that Web3 game developers do more than just take community feedback and make changes to the game — they literally let the community change the game.
Returning to their roots
Norbury got his first taste of his future career thanks to an age-old tradition in the gaming community: modding. “A lot of us got our start in the industry […] building things like mods in the late 90s and early 2000s. For me, it was Neverwinter Nights,” he explained.
Modding is the practice of replacing content within a game with user-generated content. GPU manufacturer Nvidia notes that modding first got its start in the early 80s when players modded Castle Wolfenstein and replaced the in-game Nazi enemies with… Smurfs. A decade later, Nvidia fully embraced modding by creating a set of tools that allowed players to toy with their 1993 title Doom.
Initiatives like this encouraged budding game developers to try their hands at actually making something. Today, Web3 game developers are trying to deliver a similar experience to players. Shrapnel will provide players with a comprehensive set of tools to create anything — in-game cosmetics, maps, and even game modes.
It’s what gamers want
Web3 doesn’t just make sense for game developers — it also makes sense for executives who are in charge of steering projects in the right direction. Why? Because Web3 has shown massive potential in alleviating some of the biggest concerns plaguing the mainstream gaming industry. Namely, the subject of ownership.
For instance, in esports titles like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2, it’s not uncommon to see players spend thousands upon thousands of hours honing their skills and spending thousands of dollars on in-game cosmetics, battle passes, and other forms of content. Notably, these digital assets don’t offer players a way to get returns on their investments. In fact, players often don’t even own the digital items they buy. They are just licensing them from the game developer.
“As a consumer, it’s really frustrating to put a lot of money into a game — or a lot of time — and not get anything back,” Michael Rubinelli, Wax’s Head of Gaming, said in an interview with nft now.
“They want to buy and sell their assets from in-game or they want to buy and sell accounts,” Rubinelli explained. But most players can’t freely do so now. “If you sell [your in-game items], you’re violating the terms of service or end user license agreement…. It says, ‘you cannot take this and sell it to anybody else anywhere. If you do, we do not care how much you spent, we can blacklist you and ban you for life.’ And that’s just the reality.”
Rubinelli continued by noting that, with Web3 game development, he can “build an experience where the economy works for the players as a participation model, and the developer gets to clip the ticket on the things that are sold [from player to player.] That paradigm really is where the world wants to go.”
The player-to-player exchange Rubinelli mentioned here is key, as users want to be able to sell and trade their in-game items. Need proof? Grey markets have emerged for titles like Team Fortress 2, Diablo, DOTA 2, and more. These helped lay the groundwork for the current NFT market we see today.
What is truly unique about games that ship with built-in blockchain integration is they remove the need for those gray markets to exist in the first place. Players can just transact directly with one another, providing an analog to the days of our childhood spent trading physical games and collectibles with one another.
But although Web3 stands to tackle this arrangement firsthand, there’s just one problem: Nobody’s found the formula for widespread mainstream Web3 gaming adoption just yet.
A tale of two industries
In order for the mass of Web2 games to transition into Web3 games, Rubinelli says game developers need to get clearer about exactly what it is they’re doing and what they hope to achieve. “They’re coming, and they’re gonna come in droves at some point. What needs to happen first, though, is there needs to be a North Star,” he explained.
Right now, developers are still focused on figuring out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to Web3 gaming. But let’s say the hypothetical “North Star of Web3 gaming” arrives soon and onboards millions more. Will Web3 take over the gaming industry as a whole?
According to Norbury, there’s a good chance it won’t anytime soon, but not because Web3 gaming is inferior. Rather, it has to do with the kinds of personalities that are drawn to Web3.
“When you look at something like God of War Ragnarok or The Last of Us, that is a type of auteur who creates that content in a very specific space. And you need that. You kind of need somebody who’s obsessive-compulsive and crazy about their focus and quality level. I don’t think there’s a way you expose the community to that process,” Norbury explained. In other words, the community-driven nature of Web3 game development is diametrically opposed to the centralized way the biggest titles have historically been made.
Changing this will take time. But then again, dramatic social changes always take time.