Blockchain Game Development – The Limitations in Practice
While blockchain gaming is still an ecosystem dominated by engineers and crypto-enthusiasts, it is gaining an increasing level of attraction from those otherwise outside of these two demographics.
With a significant hype being whipped up thanks to 0xUniverse, Etheremon and Gods Unchained late this year, gaming is fast becoming known as an innovator within the blockchain world, and mainstream developers are steadily coming to grips with it.
And it's no real surprise that the mainstream is starting to follow the flow; blockchain technology opens up the potential for elements like complete individual ownership of games and assets, with some real use cases for blockchains offering a great deal of interoperability, literally allowing players to pull items out of their games, and use them in another.
But while cryptocurrencies in, and blockchain-backed games do come off as ‘the next big thing', especially when you look at the trading volumes for games like Cryptokitties, it's a product of overly ambitious thinking at the moment. Taking a look at State of the Dapps or Dappradar demonstrates impressive trading volumes, but user bases ranging from a few hundred, to just a couple.
In their defense, most other Dapps, not just games, demonstrate a very similar scope of user levels, but if it is some appreciated consolation, for an area that's so young to already have major developers and businesses watching it, is nothing short of astounding. But what we need to be pragmatic of is this: widespread adoption is further off than optimists may care to think. In addition, blockchain already has a number of development issues that hold it back somewhat that need to be addressed before it can hope to obtain the numbers it's very capable of getting.
Just one of them is the matter of scalability, and when we refer to this, we take into consideration that with a larger user base, there's a far greater demand on the blockchain and its accompanying network. No scaling solve? No game, that's the case with mainstream games and blockchain games are certainly no exception.
Video games, like any major project, require a lot of operations going on in tandem, from concept, to development and beyond. The gaming system needs to have adequate enough processing power to render the graphics, meanwhile, the gaming system needs to able to seamlessly execute any actions the player wants to make. It's incredibly easy to fall short of this, exasperating and even resulting in players swearing off a game entirely, we see it in the mainstream gaming world all the time.
Hypothetically, if you were to drop blockchain in its current state into the mainstream world of an FPS or RTS right now, it would need nothing less than miracles to make sure it worked at the same capacity.
It's this complex structure that explains why most blockchain games are relatively simple in-game style from architecture to playing them. Many blockchain games operate with relative similarity to casual mobile games that we've seen in the past and present when it comes to their gameplay and appearance.
Same applies for the likes of ETH Town and CryptoKitties, the former functioning much like a mobile game with separate min-games attached, while the latter serves as a repository and marketplace for digital assets.
While blockchain technology represents a powerful force for the future of gaming, the COO of Constellation Labs, Ben Jorgensen, points out that its relative simplicity due to blockchain's complexity, represents a significant roadblock to its future implementation.
“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.”
Jorgensen continues on to highlight the fact that blockchain gaming, particularly its architecture, in its current form, “is cumbersome and cannot support consumer-grade applications that have large user bases,” nor does it “easily integrate into existing gaming platforms.” One example of this is the spike in activity from CryptoKitties, which happened from December 2017, and while only consisting of a few hundred players, it still “took down the [Ethereum] network for a moment.”
While seeming innocuous, it was enough for challenger blockchains like EOS or Zilliqa to pull away game developers from Ethereum due to the subsequent issues faced by this spike.
Jorgensen continued on say that blockchain's current gaming infrastructure, especially in the case of Ethereum “is not deployable to common programming languages, like Java.” And while this, he recognises, may be of benefit for mobile development, it presents an unnecessary barrier to integration for platforms.
“No game developer wants to have to learn a new programming language, like solidity with Ethereum,” he elaborated.
Alongside the issue of video game architecture, there's also a serious matter surrounding the costs. Statistically speaking, every company, whether they're interested in blockchain or not, always want to know about how it can save money. Blockchain gaming is just another example of this. 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.”
If we were to take into consideration, these same limitations, the current market for blockchain gaming is focused predominantly on one type of video game, and that's one based around buying and trading collectibles, CryptoKitties being the prominent example.
A further example would be Loom Network's Zombie Battleground, which is a trading card game based off the likes of Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone. The game itself operates using the Loom sidechain in conjunction with the mainchain, and is not subject to the same limitations that . blight the likes of Ethereum. Because Zombie Battleground is connected to both the Main and side chains, it means players can use cryptocurrencies and NFT's within the game, while also storing their unique assets off chain, preventing any issues with latency or scaling.
It's in this particular way that games can exist as part, and apart from blockchain technology; being able to interact with it, but not being potentially constrained by it. Out of all the probable applications of blockchain, this one appears to be the most feasible, at the very least because it has a real-use case which functions well.
This also could be an explanation for why most blockchain games center around, or include to some extent, a digital asset marketplace in order to facilitate cryptocurrency transactions.
Digital asset trading is something that is definitely not going anywhere when it comes to the future of blockchain gaming. He regards it as something that is highly applicable to the world of eSports that we see at the moment.
“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 upward trend of growth, in tandem with its competitive costs in order to render online games and graphics would also lead to a “new wave of connected gaming,” suggests Jorgensen.
Inevitably, video games are otherwise complex creations, which involve a large number of moving parts. And integrating blockchain technology into gaming systems in a convenient and seamless way will require a great deal of elbow grease in order to accomplish, now whether that relates somewhat to improving the scaling their internal architecture, or mitigating the costs associated with rendering graphics.
Even with these accepted limitations, the blockchain gaming market is one that is steadily evolving, and it's definitely going to continue to grow and see investment by venture capital and players.