This is the first in a series of casual writings on web3 game design. In a former life, I was an academic in the field of game studies, today I help accelerate web3 companies. For shorter-form content, you can follow me on Twitter @DangerWillRobin 🧵*.*
Permissionless and Composable: A New Value Proposition
Web3 introduces novel value-capture opportunities through smart contracts and their tokens. One resulting side-effect is that builders are incentivized to open-source their code. This is because web3 code isn’t copy-paste-able, its authentic instantiation lives at some Schelling point on a distributed ledger. Duplicating the code does not duplicate the value that it is escrowing (see Bitcoin’s thousands of forks for examples). With the code open-sourced and behaving permissionlessly, allowing anyone to interact with it, future builders can build their projects atop it. And if the superimposed protocols are designed a certain way, both will capture the upside of any added value. The property of being able to build on top of other projects is called composability.
DeFi Summer was an exemplary period of permissionless composability. MakerDAO produced a smart contract that could take in price feeds to mint a USD stablecoin called DAI, securely backed by ETH. Uniswap created a smart contract that could swap that DAI for ETH and vice versa. Aave created a smart contract that could lend out ETH if it was over collateralized by DAI. From these primitives, users could suddenly take short or leveraged positions on ETH/USD. From nothing, these three protocols created the first killer blockchain app, a near-frictionless financial market.
Some people called these contracts DeFi Legos, detractors called them DeFi Jenga (given how many times the stack collapsed due to unforeseen bugs). Regardless, the power of composability in DeFi has been made clear by that glorious/terrible time. Today, we are witnessing GameFi summer, where in-game assets are able to plug-and-play with DeFi. Axie: Infinity for instance has players grind out $SLP, a token required to breed more Axies (cute fighting Axolotls). That $SLP can be borrowed, traded, staked, etc. However, the buck stops there. Axie: Infinity is a closed source game that is too centralized to build on. And because of Axie’s success, competitors have little impetus to make their own games composable.
In the following series of essays, I hope to chart my journey into a particularly notable exception. A truly composable web3 game called Dark Forest. Launched in September of 2020, Dark Forest created a persistent “4X” space game built on zero-knowledge proofs. Imagine a giant Chess board with hundreds of players playing on squares you cannot see. Each player submits a proof with each move that their piece was truly theirs and that it moved according to the protocol’s rules. Only once you visit the relevant squares can you come to make sense of the previous proofs provided and learn the local state of the game.
The entire game’s state is on-chain and the smart contracts controlling it are publicly known. This means that the game is front-end agnostic. You could re-skin the game to be about pollinating flowers, so long as the moves generated that by your UI were in accordance with the protocol. It also means it is player-agnostic, enabling AIs, bots other smart contracts to play it. To the point where it is literally impossible today to play the game yourself. I am reminded of The Simpsons episode “The Secret War of Lisa Simpson” where the commandant played by Willem Dafoe offers a commencement speech to the cadets:
“The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots.
When I first played Dark Forest, almost one year ago today, I knew deep in my bones that this was the most important game I had ever played. And let me tell you, this is a surprising feeling for someone like me. I have been gaming basically full-time since I was 5. I taught game history and design for seven years, and my obsession was such that I was even motivated to complete a doctorate on the study of protocol design in games. (I do not mean to brag, I just want to impress upon you that there is a tectonic shift at work here.)
At the time, I was working as an expert in blockchain risk management, essentially creating reports for financial auditors on the cryptocurrency holdings of various companies. and foundations It was an interesting challenge, but Dark Forest felt like such an opportunity that I decided I would try to join the core team. In my mind, it was obvious that they would hire me, 3 years of full-time experience in bear-market-crypto, certification in Solidity development, and of course my previously mentioned gaming background.
I was so wrong. Instead of getting a job, Alan told me to work on his project for free. At the time, my self-entitlement made me feel quite frustrated. Of course, this was before I understood DAO life and the web3 world of just building first and reaping rewards later. But from my perspective, this was the best project in the world and I would be damned if I was going to be sidelined. The joke was on me because since then, I’ve worked part-time on Dark Forest for free. Actually, worse than free, I’ve had to spend probably a few hundred dollars for the privilege.
Here are the forthcoming chapters in the story:
“Forming a DAO”: Given my determination, I decided to recruit an elite team of players in order to outcompete the players who were all going at it solo. These were a mix of 6 technologists, gamers, and writers (from Coinbase, Zapper and Rainbow) who would go on to build a vibrant community of 225 members.
“Creating Plug-ins and Altering the Client”: Because the rules are only enforced on chain, players are incentivized to automate their actions through custom code and re-writings of the game client. We did that to great effect, coming second place in the round.
“Designing a Smart-Contract Player”: Extending on the first idea of winning as a group, we created a protocol for a collective win that engaged 75 players to pool points permissionlessly. I believe this was the first time that a smart contract was deployed to coordinate players around sharing a victory.
“Governing Rule Changes”: As Dark Forest decentralized, it gave our DAO the blessing of deploying the smart contracts for the first round of 2022. Applying my training in game design, I proposed a series of rule changes and over 100 community members voted to approve them.