Friday, 29 June 2018

Guest Blog: Can Games Benefit From Blockchain-Based Public Infrastructure?

In recent months I’ve seen a plethora of projects announced which combine blockchains and games. I’ve been talking about the potential for decentralised technology to disrupt the game industry for several years so it’s wonderful to see this becoming reality.

However, blockchains are complicated beasts that confuse and infuriate in equal measure. In this post I want to introduce the notion of sustainable public infrastructure as I believe it’s a key notion in understanding why developers could benefit from the technology. Without this understanding, the oft-asked question is “wouldn’t it be better as a centralised service?”

A little request before going further. New technology sometimes requires an open mind, especially one which is mired in the ​denial and anger​ phases of acceptance. There’s nothing wrong with experienced hands taking a doubtful view but sometimes that same experience can be a blocker to innovation, especially when implementations are highly immature. Learning about blockchains forces you to think about economics, game theory, and the very notion of centralised infrastructure. Whether you want to use it or not, it’s a fascinating and stimulating area to explore.

For the first time ever, blockchains allow self-sustaining public infrastructure for the digital world. Unlike private infrastructure, such as offered by Apple’s App Store, this new form of public infrastructure is paid for, provided and governed by its community without requiring a central authority. It’s able to do this by clever application of cryptography to economic theory for which the original ​Bitcoin whitepaper​ is a suitable primer.

What do I mean by self-sustaining public infrastructure?

Infrastructure - These are the basic structures of an enterprise, providing users with facilities and services. In the centralised world this may be a service such as Gamesparks and much of the same can be done in a decentralised world, although it’s certainly harder.

Public - Currently, most services that developers use are offered by private companies as a commercial proposition. The service is entirely under the control of its owner, with fees, terms and APIs liable to change without warning. The company may disable a service entirely or they could go out of business. A decentralised public service doesn’t have these problems since it’s run for the public good, in this case for the benefit of its community of users, including developers and gamers. API and software changes are handled by the community, perhaps over Github, social media, or governance platforms, ensuring changes are made for the overall benefit of the network participants. As long as there is demand for the service to exist then it will continue.

In addition, both the data and the software are open. In principle, anyone building on the service has access to the same data, the same APIs, and the same core software. This is likely to increase overall network value. Private services still have very significant value to add, especially whilst decentralised technology is immature, however they would be building in a way inherently compatible with everyone else.

Self-sustaining - In the real world we pay taxes to create, maintain and upgrade public infrastructure. In the decentralised world cryptoeconomic incentives are used instead. These can take different forms but the primary ingredient is typically a native cryptocurrency. Blockchain-based infrastructure may require its currency to be used in exchange for services and pre-sold to bootstrap development. More interestingly, the infrastructure can make rewards available for users who are maintaining, upgrading, promoting or providing content to the platform. It also helps solve a tricky on-boarding problem since early adopters are highly incentivised to promote usage in order to create demand for the currency. This doesn’t mean Joe Public has to be exposed to cryptocurrency though, which remains frictional and highly volatile.

In summary, the key benefit is that it’s possible to create services which are run entirely for the benefit of their users. This avoids developers and gamers being subject to the whims of central actors. This isn’t just with regard to terms, fees and APIs, but also to restrictions as evidenced by Sony’s interoperability lock on Fortnite, or encroachment on 3rd party applications as Apple and Facebook have done. A service based on public infrastructure is inherently neutral as it doesn’t compete with its community. As blockchain enthusiasts will also tell you, it’s trustless, although I would argue it’s more about choosing your trust points and distributing trust.

Now that’s disruptive, as Bitcoin has shown.

As interesting as this is, it only matters if game developers are offered services which genuinely benefit them. The feature that interests me most is allowing users to actually own their content by recording ownership on a public blockchain instead of private app stores. In itself this is not really of a benefit, even though it’s a much-used soundbite. However, services can be created based on the principle of true ownership which offer unique opportunities to developers, to gamers, to sellers, to publishers, to brands, to stores, to eSports teams, to artists, and so on. In my view, allowing users to own digital content just as they do physical content could facilitate major changes across digital media and especially games. It simply wasn’t possible until the advent of blockchains.

Some of the ideas being explored here at and at other blockchain companies include taking advantage of true digital scarcity through collections, cross-game items, innovative gameplay features, ad networks, early adopter rewards, decentralised publishing, fraud reduction, access to funding, trading markets, digital merchandise, shared content creation, automated royalty payments, and even creation and trading of decentralised land.

Almost all of these are facilitated by public infrastructure supporting ownership data and content management services because anyone is free to use the platform as they wish. It’s the framework from which many different projects can hang, each of them benefiting from others on the same or other open platforms.

In conclusion, no one knows which of the above ideas will successfully bring something new to a mainstream audience but that public infrastructure for games is now possible will allow us to find out. If you’d like to know more about blockchains and their potential uses within the game industry then join me for my talk at Develop or catch up with me during the conference. Alternatively, I’m @alex_amsel on twitter.

Alex Amsel is speaking at Develop:Brighton on Tuesday 10 July with his session entitled Blockchains in Gaming: Today and Tomorrow. Alex is developing a game community blockchain project Shard at