This is the second 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 🧵.
FOMO on Friction
It’s February 2021 and I stand no chance at winning Dark Forest v0.5. My recent acquaintance (and now dear friend) Omar Bohsali offers me a whitelisted key to play mid-way through the round, explaining that he hasn’t the time. Curious to learn more about the game I peruse the blog.zkga.me and find myself only asking more questions. I boot up the in-browser client and connect my Metamask wallet to xDAI for the first time. The devs are kind enough to automate the funding of my newly created public/private key pair with just enough xDAI to play a couple moves. But when I run out, the barriers to entry are remarkable. For one, I have to use Uniswap to trade some $ETH for some $DAI, then I need to use the xDai bridge to bring it over to the side-chain. I persist because I have previously found that overcoming friction in crypto is extremely profitable (but I do mistakenly only bring 5$ over paying something like 40$ in gas).
Right away it is clear that I am playing a slower, uglier, friction-laden, MMO version of Galcon. You start with a planet, it creates ships. You can send the ships to take over nearby planets to increase your overall ship production. You expand exponentially until encountering resistance in the form of other players looking to take your planets. One significant difference in the gameplay however is that the player can capture artifacts on the various planets and that these are withdraw-able NFTs.
Now, if you recall the NFT market is booming, with CryptoPunks and the likes climbing in value. I myself have been middle-curving myself out of the entire bull-market and am desperate to ape into something I can understand. These Dark Forest artifacts appear to be my alpha, and so I decide I am going to commit to collecting them.
Annoyingly, there are some red flags, for the core team is saying that the artifacts have no value and will almost certainly not be reusable in future rounds. My take after reading the blogs however, is that these ultra-goody-two-shoes devs are going to want to decentralize their gaming protocol and they are going to have to do that based on on-chain records (they still haven’t to this day). The artifacts are the perfect target for reverse airdrops. Even better, I am hearing that they won’t accept capital from investors (they still haven’t to this day), claiming that their grants are sufficient to keep them afloat and that they really want to be “community first”. I just read that as “governance tokens incoming” and double down on my conviction.
The problems to overcome in getting said artefacts are as follows:
But as stated before, the more friction, the more conviction. To solve these problems, it is obvious to me that I need to recruit a team of both players and engineers.
Assembling the Avengers
Omar is an obvious first target, he is a brilliant 100x engineer who had recently left Coinbase and was the entrepreneur in residence at Paradigm. Although he is pretty busy, he is in “an exploratory mode“ and agrees to practice using Terraform to provision AWS servers as needed to hash out the map. He also helps here and there with modifying plugins to give me a small edge. But before we can really take off, round v0.5 ends and I have basically a bunch of low grade artifacts that must be worth garbage. Had we started sooner, we may have done half-decently, a fact which keeps me excited.
Meanwhile, the devs invent a newer, higher, rarer tier of artifact called Mythics and award the first of eight to Jordan Spence for having contributed enormously to the management of the community. The other seven go to those who open-sourced their top-tier plugins for the community. This is obviously super annoying because I am a shitty dev and will never make something worth a Mythic artifact. It is also incredibly brilliant and makes me even more bullish on Dark Forest, because now gigabrains are being paid in Monopoly money to build out what must be the biggest permissionless nerdsnipe-of-a-project in history. I chat with Omar and we agree to take the next round more seriously and start on time.
Over a month later, Round v0.6.1 starts. There are some new rules created by new smart contracts, which break most of the pre-existing plugins, and Mythic artifacts are now available for discovery in the universe. I have just left my forensics gig and am starting a brand new job at DeFi Alliance in a week, which means I have an inordinate amount of time to try to win. However, with the plugins broken, I am not able to automate play, meanwhile actual devs are making the minor changes needed to keep on trucking. Omar is too busy to help full-time, he is building another composable piece of open-source software, the canonical Uniswap V3 Staker. Me, desperate to take first place, look to the leaderboard to start recruiting.
Interestingly, because Dark Forest has some diplomacy requirements, people are incentivized to dox their public keys with their Twitter handles. When I decide to recruit, someone named @Manan19 is winning by a solid margin. I notice there is a Manan in the Discord server, so I reach out. I decide that my strategy to breaking the ice is to flatter and ask for strategic help.
Through our conversations, I learn that Manan is currently managing engineers at Coinbase, which bodes well for his domain expertise and ability to contribute (but also now I know where he works so, if he fucks me, I can seek retribution). It takes a little while to sway him, but he eventually agrees to partner up. I offer him Omar’s AWS servers and Manan provides the plugins.
The problem is that I need to take care of my kids once in a while and even sleep sometimes. But Dark Forest never sleeps during a round, so I need to find a solution. I start working my way down the leaderboard and find the best doxxed players I can. Using a similar strategy of flattery and tit-for-tat offering, I partially recruit Zha Yitong who is writing a blog about captaining an empire in Dark Forest. It turns out he is also at Coinbase, doing UX/UI (this will be helpful later). I also manage to coax in wunderkind, David Zhou, who is building learning materials. Luckily, he is still in college, meaning he can play 10 hours a day. He offers to co-pilot the empire.
Despite my efforts, our collectively piloted empire is lagging in the top 30s. Given that we still aren’t enough, I decide to turn to my extended family. I start on my nephew Anthony, who has just graduated in CS and Poli-Sci and is looking for career advice. Easy, I tell him to quit all his internships and prospective jobs and work full-time on Dark Forest. Poor kid hasn’t even create a Metamask wallet (do they teach CS grads anything?) and here I am altering the course of his life for jpegs. I remember the conversation well, my kid is sleeping in the stroller and so I have 90 minutes to red-pill the heck out of him. It was thoroughly exhausting, but ultimately he concedes to at least help in the immediate. Spoiler alert, he ends up not only giving up all his normie web2 prospects, he becomes the only full-time dfdao member, effectively retraining himself as a Solidity dev and ZK nerd.
Finally, realizing that the Dark Forest team and my dao are going to need a media arm and some gender diversity, I recruit my sister-in-law, Lindsay. Earlier that year, I had forced her to read Cixin Liu’s trilogy, of which the second book, Dark Forest, is the inspiration for the game. She, like me, had become obsessed with the novel (which is reasonable given its the best piece of science fiction ever written). At the time, she was taking a break from a PhD in literature, and my hope was that she could manage our Discord communications and social media. My secret hope was that playing this game would red-pill her into crypto too and gainfully employer her in the long run. Spoiler alert, she’s was hired by Zapper only weeks later to help lead their own content strategy. Today she is the glue that keeps the operations and socials of dfdao running.
Together, the seven of us begin meeting regularly and start to feel like a team. David, Manan, Yitong and the collective empire I started, ended up placing in the top 63. We never find a Mythic artifact, but using The Graph, I find someone who did and pay him 500 xDAI for it. It’s name is Ek’thun and he stood as the dao’s pfp for a short while. At the time, artifacts were connected to a GPT3 AI that was fed a few pages of lore. Lindsay and I decided to stream an interrogation of it on Twitch.
It was at the end of round v0.6.1 that the core team introduces NFT rewards on Ethereum called Valhalla Planets. Everyone in top 63 gets a planet jpegs based on how well they did. Plugin creators are also reward. Interestingly, the core team thought our interview with Ek’thun was awesome enough to reward us with another mid-tier planet, validating yet another thesis that they would be wise enough to recognize not only victories and plugins, but communal memes as well.
Now that a new Schelling point for NFT collection emerges, I revise my thesis that Mythic artifacts hold value. It also makes double sense to reject them, given that new artifacts are capable of being “used up” a.k.a. destroyed for in-game effects. (You see, it is bad game design to make in-game objects you’d rather not use and keep instead for collecting.) I feel a little sad about my 500$ Mythic artifact purchase, but given that it enabled the interview, and the subsequent planet reward, it’s really fine.
Okay, now let’s take a step back. Because I wanted some collectibles to avoid being left out of the NFT boom, I reached out to four strangers and two family members to join me in creating what amounts to a gaming a web3 gaming guild. I had not even heard of NFT farming DAOs like Yield Guild, and just assumed I should call us a DAO and not what is obviously a web3 gaming guild. And, because no one else had created a guild or DAO to play Dark Forest, we hubristically called it dfdao (or @d_fdao because of a bug in Twitter handle naming). The lesson here is that a strong financial incentive created from an absurdly under-legitimized conviction can lead people to independently do amazing things with a web3 game where players can threaten to value-capture.
But more than just refocusing our DAO on a different collection of jpegs, I see an opening for a more ambitious goal. In wrapping up the round, I host a meeting pitching to everyone in the group why we should team up going forward. I share my entire thesis and explain that we are particularly well situated to capture Dark Forest’s value. From my perspective, the game is like the Ethereum protocol, which the core team will maintain through a a not-for-profit body or Foundation. Our DAO, on the other hand, is closer to Parity, a for-profit organization building sellable products on top of the apolitical underlying protocol layer. If the Dark Forest team doesn’t want to sell out, that is their prerogative, we can do it for them and share the wealth as a group.
Said differently, Dark Forest, isn’t a videogame, but the rules that underly it. In the same way that a given Chess set or Chess app is not Chess itself. The inventor of Chess does not capture Chess’s value. Rather, it is the ecosystem that has gathered around this rule-set that has. This is the way of composable games. And, done right, they can suck in players to perpetuate themselves forever. Chess is what I like to call a “ludo-god”, a protocol that continuously memes itself from mind to mind, thanks to those who worship at its altars. Dark Forest threatens to do the same.
We aren’t really a DAO or a guild then, but something closer to a Lovecraftian cult. Each of us is a cultist working to summon this new ludo-god into existence.