Web3 games aren't all that we hoped for yet. James Key argues that game developers have so far favoured monetisation over substance in the crypto space, leading to a proliferation of dull, one-dimensional assets which holds them back from competing with classic AAA titles.
A few days ago, a prominent NFT game consultant made the news by arguing that “poor people” can be used as NPCs (non-playable characters) in future web3 games, essentially background characters. This is a dark vision of the future, and even as headlines everywhere continue to highlight the disappointment felt by gamers when it comes to blockchain games, we should not resort to converting cheap labour into digital background actors.
That being said, web3 games must find new ways to improve – or risk falling behind. With so many players dismissing today’s play-to-earn games as blatant ‘money grabs’ or calling out their sub-par gameplay, there’s little sign of the unhampered enthusiasm that accounted for the initial success of Axie Infinity and other similar projects. Web3 advocates understand that the future of the internet is being built on blockchain, but none of today’s blockchain-based games come close to matching the immersiveness and fun of traditional top-level, AAA titles.
What’s missing? For starters, some early web3 game developers may indeed be more interested in creating new ways to cash out than pushing the limits of actual gameplay. There are varied explanations for why this is the case, and while there are many familiar and credible criticisms of play-to-earn and other blockchain games, there’s one crucial element that hasn’t been widely acknowledged: a lack of spontaneity.
In the best traditional games, like World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto, players can interact with various characters and elements within their in-game environment, in addition to one-another. In turn, these in-game environments and the NPCs that populate them are free to proactively initiate interactions with human players. The result is controlled chaos, as human players are subject to unexpected experiences, challenges, and outcomes. Depending on the situation an NPC may reach out to help you, distract you, or straight up kill you.
The quintessential unpredictability of traditional games provides an element of spontaneity that adds to the thrill of immersive gameplay. But blockchain game developers have failed to offer truly immersive and entertaining games up until now because they’ve lacked the tools required to create more playfully unpredictable experiences. The vast majority of game developers lack in-depth blockchain coding experience, and this has resulted in projects that are shallow and predictable versions of popular traditional games with a ‘digital asset ownership’ component tacked on. This is all changing with the advent of customisable on-chain automation.
The quintessential unpredictability of traditional games provides an element of spontaneity that adds to the thrill of immersive gameplay.
— James Key
Open-source automation tools make it possible for game developers to automate any on-chain action based on a wide range of pre-programmed conditions. This open-ended technology unlocks entirely new possibilities within the world of gaming. For instance, onchain automation enables the creation of autonomous NFTs that take the form of in-game NPCs. These automated NFT, or aNFT, NPCs can be programmed to behave in certain ways based on environmental parameters beyond a player’s control, and even proactively initiate interactions with human players. A new breed of automated NPCs, they can be made to auto-transfer in and out of players’ crypto wallets depending on in-game alliances, offer varying levels of support depending on how badly a player needs it, or even engage with other network protocols outside of the game in a gamified metaversal context.
Onchain automation is key to making web3 gaming mainstream.
— James Key
In short, these automated NPCs are nothing like the static NFTs we see today. Automation in web3 has, for the most part, been missing in action, resulting in static, predictable gaming experiences. But as more revolutionary projects begin to offer off-the-shelf infrastructure for automation, game developers will finally be able to get as creative as they want through the introduction of independent, self-executing NPCs and other dynamic on-chain elements. On top of that, next-gen platforms like Webaverse are augmenting their NPCs with artificial intelligence to produce AI-generated text responses.
The gaming industry are often early adopters of cutting-edge digital technologies, and it’s time to discard the one-dimensional assets that saturate web3 games today in favour of something more exciting. There is no getting around the fact that most Web3-based games today are overly focused on profitability and ownership and less focused on engagement and actual fun. It’s no wonder that play-to-earn continues to be hyped up by a sub-set of web3 enthusiasts who would stand to profit – but avoided like the plague by the broader gaming community. Onchain automation is key to making web3 gaming mainstream.
So if you’re a gaming fan, rest assured – static NFTs and shallow experiences won’t define web3 gaming for long, and developers can now leverage a growing suite of flexible automation tools to make future web3 games every bit as fun as traditional flagship titles. There’s no reason to convince someone in a developing country to spice up our lives in some dystopian online “game”. Instead, we should believe in a future where players get the web3 games they deserve without creating a generation of digital servants.
James is the CEO and co-founder of Autonomy Labs, an automation protocol designed for web3 developers. He dropped out of the University of British Columbia, Canada, where he studied quantum computing, to explore crypto at the risk analytics firm Blockchain Intelligence Group. He later helped develop Flow, the blockchain created by Dapper Labs, and was a developer at Chainflip, before founding Autonomy Labs.
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