The Dichotomy of Winning Crypto Games

Sam Peurifoy
8 min readMar 1, 2023

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The fundamental question of “why blockchain?” continues to haunt game developers considering the brave new world of crypto gaming, and, with good reason — lean in too deeply and risk crucifixion by your fair-weather web2 audience, but sample web3 too shallowly and risk missing out on one of the world’s strongest user acquisition and monetization flywheels. Two high-level models emerge as likely winners.

Source: Midjourney

Trap Cards and Pots of Greed

Game developers working in web3 have a plethora of opportunities to integrate various blockchain mechanics into their consumer offerings. You can do “play to earn,” “win to own,” “walk to gain,” or any other combination of three-word epithets that embody the newest thing investors seem willing to buy this quarter.

But, at the end of the day, your real on-chain functions are largely restricted to: minting/transferring/trading NFTs, distributing tokens or using them as your base currency, or building on top of other composable open-source components to create an emergent game product.

Choosing within this spectrum of integration can be overwhelming. Is a game that has no token still a “web3 game”? Is a game that sells skins as NFTs a ponzi scheme? Should my auction house “be DeFi”? And, most importantly of all, should my user even have a wallet?

Where’s the line between “good” web3 mechanics and “distracting” (or even malevolent) web3 mechanics?

This “web3 integration gradient” spans from the hard-line “all actions and assets must be on chain,” to the much more user-friendly “the chain is an open-source checking account we simply deposit/withdraw from,” like a conveniently public database.¹

Between these two extremes will be a graveyard of games which will fail due to a mismatch between feature complexity and intended audience.

While it may be tempting to add a sprinkling of web3 there and a “connect with wallet” button here, games may be heading down a slippery slope by dancing around the issue instead of confronting it directly. Described below are the “ideals” on each end of the blockchain integration spectrum that designers should consider, and explicit advice on how to avoid falling in between one or the other too much, at the cost of alienating users and reducing a game’s potential.

To Chain, or Not To Chain?

I don’t have to remind you that setting up a blockchain wallet is complex from a UX perspective, and carrying around your entire stash with you as you wander the historically-dangerous internet is akin to walking through Skid Row with an open suitcase full of cash.²

At the same time, if you’ve been around the gaming block, I also don’t need to describe to you the overwhelming eyerolls that gamers give to DLC packs, high-priced skins, “premium currencies,” and all other sorts of monetization. A good portion of that distaste comes from the sensation that gamers are “getting ripped off.”

Blockchain, categorically, goes some distance towards resolving this via digital ownership & self-sovereignty. I won’t belabor that point here, as I’ve gone through it in depth before here, here, and here. The point of this essay is to focus on the actual implementation and UX users will respond positively to.

All this is to say that there is value in having blockchain in your game. But what’s too much, and what’s too little?

1. Blockchain as a Checking Account: Traditional-Friendly Gaming

The easiest (and likely the most popular) option will be to have blockchain effectively serving as a “user checking account” in the background.

In this implementation, the blockchain is used to store some series of “hard” user assets (e.g. premium currencies as tokens or tradeable skins as NFTs), which may be either withdrawn/deposited or otherwise referenced in the game, but no blockchain transactions are ever performed as part of the core game mechanics. Concretely, that means that users will navigate to some screen (in-game or in-browser; probably labeled “Wallet” or similar), and perform asset migrations from that interface, but will not be required to do so to participate in the core game loop.

This is the path of blockchain optionality, where users can either go about their business as usual inside the game, or they can opt in to certain assets being stored and transferred on chain. But, crucially, all in-game mechanics do not rely on any blockchain transaction whatsoever. That means there’s no moment in live gameplay when a user’s flow should be interrupted with “Confirm this transaction” prompts of any kind. This implies traditional “web2 users” will be able to show up, play the game, have fun, and never once be forced to interact with blockchain or any kind of a wallet.

This may or may not be coupled with self-custodial social login style wallets like Venly, Gryfyn, or Immutable’s Passport, which would give mainstream users the impression that there “is no blockchain” at play. Minting fees or other token-denominated transactions in this model will likely be charged in USD via a credit transaction, and then swapped into the relevant token later (or not swapped at all, if the cash is going back to an equity entity).

This path is extremely convenient for both developers and players, as it “hides the blockchain” and just lets games and features speak for themselves, while still preserving user optionality (i.e. they can remove their assets from the ecosystem & freely trade them if they’re savvy enough to navigate the wallet setup).

However, I expect a number of developers to misinterpret this and over-implement blockchain, even though this “hide the blockchain” strategy was their original target.

It’s very easy to get carried away with “breed this” and “wager/repair that” calls which feel innocuous & low-lift at first, but, by the time you’ve finished your game, you’re unplayable by traditional gamers and uninteresting to hardcore web3 armchair economists. Not a great spot to be stuck.

Net, “hide the blockchain” is likely to be the predominant strategy (and a good one at that!), but certainly not the only viable implementation.

2. Going Full Blockchain: Open Sourcing User Acquisition

On the other far end of the spectrum is the “nuclear” approach. Here, game developers may choose to put all of their assets entirely on chain. And, I can’t stress this enough — I really do mean all. That means your frontend graphical interface, your backend game logic, and your economic ownership components, all out there in the goodness of decentralized chaos land.

These games will not be for the faint of heart, but that’s also part of their appeal and intention. Developers who create these experiences are likely to do so with an eye towards “open sourcing” their user acquisition (& ecosystem value, to some degree). While decentralized storage and compute are still relatively nascent fields, some early examples like Dark Forest and Sunflower Land are pioneering the way forward on what a fully decentralized gaming reality might look like.

And there’s fascinating upside for developers who do so. It’s enormously risky to spend time building up a project only to publicly open-source the entire thing and hope other folks choose to build on top of it instead of just stealing it. But granting this form of “open-ended user-generated game development” to the public potentially leads to a scenario where the original developers can step out entirely, or, if not, seriously reduce their level of requisite oversight of the project.

Ultimately, going “full blockchain” promises to give users (a) heightened control over gameplay mechanics and (b) potential economic upside in the ecosystems they engage with. That’s a wildly powerful flywheel for user acquisition that free-to-play in web2 would never be able to capture.

The trade-off here, though, is that you’re going to be reliant on a few thousand hyper-dedicated players who want to put up with the additional burden of participating in a purely on-chain gaming experience. Promisingly, early tests seem to suggest the average revenue per daily active user (ARPDAU) of web3 users may actually offset that lower user volume, potentially. Time will tell.

Go Hard or Stay Home

The best bet for game developers deciding how to add blockchain to their game may end up being a binary decision — you’re either all-in on blockchain, or you have blockchain as a passive observer in the background and entirely hide it from players.

In my personal opinion, games that fall between these two extremes risk alienating both of their target audiences (i.e. both web2 & web3 users) and ultimately may fail to capture the full scope of web3’s user acquisition flywheel.

In visual design, the concept of the “uncanny valley” describes a scenario where a humanoid shape which is close-to-human-but-not-quite-there evokes an intensely uneasy feeling in an observer. Yet, shapes that are either perfectly human or perfectly inhuman evoke no such feeling, and instead are accepted as ordinary by observers.

Players, similarly, compartmentalize game experiences into digestible bins that closely imitate realities they’re most familiar with. A web2 gamer greeted with a “Sign this transaction” modal and a web3 gamer uneasy with a developer’s private storage of their NFT textures are, in a way, the same. They both experience the revulsion of the uncanny valley, as the game in front of them fails to neatly fall into their expected bins.

Design games that feel familiar, and, only then, sneak in the extraordinary.

¹This is tongue-in-cheek, as I don’t know a lot of businesses that really want their proprietary databases open-sourced. But maybe they should! See my piece on interoperability (“omniportability”) for more on why.

²Most talented web3 aficionados know to keep a few burner wallets between their real stash and their gameplay exercises. But what happens when your in-game account itself is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the assets are soulbound to your wallet?

Sam is the CEO of Playground Labs, a web3 protocol dev organization, and Partner & Head of Interactive at Hivemind Capital, a crypto-focused multi-strategy fund. Follow him on Twitter.

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Sam Peurifoy

Investing in & building new worlds. Views mine, not advice. Gaming VC @HivemindCap, chief tinkerer @xPlaygroundLabs.