The “DNA” of a Blockchain Game Studio

April, 2022

Whenever I look at a game studio (or any business for that matter), one of the first things I ask is “Who are the founders?” Where did they come from? What are these people’s greatest strengths? What do they care about most?

The reason I ask who the founders are is because it helps me classify the DNA of the studio. The DNA of a studio represents the core strengths, beliefs, and passions of the company. This begins at the top and spreads down into all aspects of company and product culture.

Maybe the founders of a studio are all developers. Perhaps it’s primarily biz folks. Or marketing and finance. Knowing this instantly paints a picture for me of where the company will be strong, where there might be talent gaps, and what the business might look like from a macro level.

Contrasting Examples

Let’s take a hypothetical example of a video game studio that started entirely from a group of brilliant developers and one business person. This company is likely to have amazing technology and good biz-dev. But it may need to hire top shelf User Experience designers, artists, and Game designers if they want to build a compelling game.

Contrast this with a studio whose founders came from a balance of art and dev. We’ll use Moon Studios as an example here, creators of the game Ori and the Blind Forest.

Ori and the Blind Forest Trailer - YouTube

When you have an artist on your executive leadership team, you can count on look, feel, and emotion being first class citizens in any game they create.

As another example, look at the DNA of Apple. You had Steve Jobs at the top, who in addition to being a businessman, was a visionary and creative genius. From that, you’ll get products that are strong in both form and function.

Conflict Resolution

One of the most important ways a studio’s DNA manifests is in conflict resolution. When there’s a fundamental disagreement that goes all the way to the top of the company, it rests on the shoulders of the founders to reach a resolution.

If the designers are pushing for a stronger user experience before launch but the founders are all finance people, they’ll be more likely to launch the product to get the revenue rolling and attempt to improve the UX down the road. One argument here might be that maximizing revenue now is the most important thing and the product can always be improved down the road.

Contrast this with the founding team being mostly designers. They’ll be more likely to improve the UX before launching the product worldwide. One argument here might be that you only get one first impression and launching too early would hurt growth opportunity whereas taking a small delay to improve the product will lead to better long-term revenue.

Applying this to Blockchain Games

Using this lens, it’s easy to understand why it’s difficult to find amazing blockchain games today. Because the DNA of so many NFT and blockchain teams creating games is primarily developers and business/finance folks. Missing are rock-star game designers, UX designers, and artists.

I’m definitely not saying these teams have no super talented designers or artists. But they need to be part of the founding or executive leadership team in order to maximize their impact.

Quick point of reference: I’m a game designer with a specialty in creating game systems and user experiences. This means I happen to be naturally wired to identify gaps in UX and areas for improvement. This is not a bias, however. If you look at who is building a majority of the existing NFT & blockchain games, you’ll see founding teams heavily weighted toward dev, business, and finance people.

So what can we do?

There’s no lack of amazing innovative developers in blockchain. We’ve had that covered since 2017. And it’s led to blockchain games and products that have strong tech, but are weaker on the user experience side relative to non-blockchain game offerings.

What we desperately need now is to see top-shelf designers, UX folks, and artists at the founder or executive leadership level at blockchain game studios (and all blockchain product companies, TBH).

Then, and only then will we begin to see incredible game experiences that truly harness and push the boundaries of what blockchain has to offer.

It’s at this point we’ll finally be able to point to an example and say, “See, now THAT’S what an ultra high-quality blockchain game experience looks like.”

About the Author

Kevin Lambert is the Creative Director for the Microsoft Casual Games studio. Having been a professional game designer for over 25 years, Kevin designed the new Microsoft Solitaire, Dungeon Siege 2, Gruntz, and Tron 2.0, among other titles. In addition to game design, Kevin has a burning passion for blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies.

Follow him on Twitter at @kevinlambert

Blockchain & Gaming

August, 2021

I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection between blockchain and gaming recently – a space I’ve been super-passionate about since 2017.

Today’s topic is Monetization. Shall we dive in?

Monetization in Games

Let’s consider the most popular monetization types currently in games:

  • Up-front purchase
  • Micropayments
  • Subscription
  • Advertising

These aren’t mutually exclusive. You often see combinations of one or more.

Now let’s talk about how blockchain might enhance each of these – and – possibly even create new business models that weren’t possible before!

Up-front Purchase (with Blockchain)

This one’s easy. With blockchain, buying a game results in a “license” which could be an NFT. Players could transfer/sell a game license to someone else, the recipient would now have access to the game, and the original player wouldn’t any longer.

The easiest way to visualize this is if you imagine digitally downloaded games on the Steam, Xbox, or Playstation store could be sold/gifted to someone else on a marketplace or exchange.

Micropayments (with Blockchain)

This one is also easy and has been the focus of most blockchain games currently out there. It’s the concept that “you truly own your stuff.”

When you buy an item in a game today, you simply pay the developer and/or publisher and you normally cannot sell that item to another player. The money you spent has effectively been drained from the real-world economy.

But buying items in a blockchain-based micropayment world has more value than it does in today’s world because, similar to buying physical collectibles like Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon cards, you can earn money by selling them to another player.

Subscription (with Blockchain)

Subscriptions aren’t too terribly exciting but, like micropayment purchases, you now have the option for easily-transferrable subscriptions in a blockchain-based game.

Advertising (with Blockchain)

This is where things get a little more interesting. I have over 10 years of experience designing and developing free-to-play games using ad monetization and I’ve given talks to other game studios on the do’s, don’ts, and considerations for designing a game using advertising as a primary or secondary revenue stream.

Yeah, yeah. But what can blockchain do for ads?

Well, the first thing I tell people who ask about ads in games is that it’s a lot more complex than you might think. Sure, in the old days all you had to do was #include <admob.sdk> throw up an ad-view, and you were good to go.

And, although you *could* still do that, you’d be missing out on tons of potential revenue, and a much better user experience for your players.

There are a few places where blockchain could potentially plug into an ad-based game. For example, a blockchain might be used sort of like a big database (decentralized or not) for advertisers to share the types of targeting information they consider to be ideal.

In that case, rather than Tesla having to bid separately with multiple ad providers (for example), they could just specify what they’re willing to pay given certain targeting information, ad format, region, and platform.

Smart contracts could be used to guarantee things like viewability, time seen, click-throughs, etc… so nobody would have to trust anyone else’s data.

Finally, and probably one of the more interesting ideas to me as a designer, is that the ad-revenue could be tokenized and split between advertiser, publisher, developer, and even player. Enabling another way to “Play to Earn”.

Play to Earn?

Play to Earn (aka P2E) is the new hotness, and I’ve been singing songs foretelling its coming since 2017.  😉

P2E is a new business model for games enabled by blockchain. The idea behind it is that by playing the game, players are accumulating assets in the game in the form of digital items or currencies.

Accumulating stuff in games is not new. What *IS* new is that these digital items or currencies are owned entirely by players rather than developers or publishers.

This means these items or currencies can be bought, sold, traded, and gifted outside of the game (as well as inside if the game builds an interface for it).

So how does the developer/publisher make money in a Play to Earn business model? Typically, by creating and selling items to the players initially and by taking a cut of the sales of the items between players. They may also combine this with any of the more traditional monetization models listed above.

Two decades ago, many games cost around $50. One decade ago, many games were $1. Today, many games are free to play. Fast forward a decade from now, there will be plenty of games you can play and earn real cash value.

Think about it for a minute. Who would choose to play game A, when a very similar game B offers just as fun of an experience, but you can also make meaningful amounts of money while you play? The answer is very few people would choose to play game A in that environment.

EDIT April, 2022> I wanted to add a note here to say I’m significantly less bullish on the promise of “Play to Earn” and more bullish on the phrasing “Play and Own”. I’ll save the why for a separate article.

Who is Building these Blockchain Games?

Here are the 3 phases I see for blockchain game development:

[Phase 1] Blockchain Developer Games

[Phase 2] Indie Studio Games

[Phase 3] AAA Game Studio Games

Phase 1 took place between 2016 and 2019 and consisted almost entirely of developers making games who understood blockchain. Most of them had embarrassingly bad user experiences – because they didn’t have experienced game designers and artists on their teams. These were mostly super-smart devs who knew how to create blockchain programs, but not how to appeal to broad audiences.

Now we’re in Phase 2. There are startups making more traditional games like Axie Infinity, Guild of Guardians, Lost Relics, and Gods Unchained to name a few. These studios are making games with a side of blockchain rather than blockchain with a side of game. Much better, but still not games you absolutely HAVE to play — yet.

Where are the AAA Game Studios?

The reason AAA Game Studios aren’t rushing to make blockchain games is because of the regulatory grey area that Play to Earn currently resides in in different countries.

AAA studios have huge budgets, sizeable coffers, and thus big targets on their head for lawsuits. Most AAA studios I’ve spoken to are very hesitant to enter this space with so many unknowns around Anti Money Laundering (AML), necessary licenses, and regulations that differ from country to country and even subtly from state-to-state in the USA.

The heavy hitter game studios will definitely wait until the waters are warm, and indie studios have helped pave the way to regulatory certainty.

But make no mistake, Phase 3 will come. And the games that are born from it will be awesome. Inspiring. Genre-defining. I honestly can’t wait!

About the Author

Kevin Lambert is the Creative Director for the Microsoft Casual Games studio. Having been a professional game designer for over 25 years, Kevin designed the new Microsoft Solitaire, Dungeon Siege 2, Gruntz, and Tron 2.0, among other titles. In addition to game design, Kevin has a burning passion for blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies.

Follow him on Twitter at @kevinlambert

Randomness in Collectible Card Games

March, 2017

Here’s a video I made with some quick thoughts on randomness in CCG’s: