NEAR & Gaming: The Future of Gaming on Web3
Most people when asked why they play games will give a simple answer: because games are fun. And though “fun” might mean different things to different people, with Web3 gaming, at least in its present form, “fun” is only sometimes part of the equation.
“We tend to conflate games with fun, but the thing is, a game doesn’t necessarily have to be fun to be engaging,” says Chase Freo, CEO and Co-founder of OP Games. “There are a lot of different games out there that evoke different types of emotions.”
Though many gamers have a keen sense of what they enjoy and want to see more of, Web3 gaming’s direction will be determined not only by what is fun, but also by what developers and gamers realize is possible through experimentation.
Freo compares Web3 gaming to couture fashion season, when designers and runway models often show styles that stretch the limits of taste and the imagination. Think enormous hats, clothes made of garbage, and costumes that would seem extreme even at Burning Man. This couture fashion isn’t meant for the street—it’s made to see what’s possible.
In Web3 gaming, the goal isn’t necessarily to make or viral iconic games, but to plant the seeds for what games might one day be able to do. This starts with the technology itself.
Web2.5: The bridge to Web3
“A lot of times people sacrifice player experience to have a Web3 spin to it—that makes sense,” says Freo, who says gaming needs developers willing to experiment and try new things to evolve the ecosystem. “For example, bring[ing] game states on-chain [is] not optimal…but you kind of want to push it that way, so that you’ll see exactly where you can draw the line.”
Freo explains that there are generally two camps of developers: Web2 game designers who focus on gameplay, and devs who really push the envelope with blockchain but sacrifice playability in the process.
“Most games in Web3 are actually a combination of Web2 and Web3, so it’s like Web2.5,” says Freo. “[They combine] aspects of what works on the blockchain [and] everything else is centralized because it works better.”
Hugo Furneaux and Jon Hook at playEmber, a game-fi middleware company that brings Web3 to Web2 mobile games, echo Freo’s “Web2.5” view. Furneaux, playEmber’s CEO, describes the platform as “an amalgamation” of Web2 and Web3, where developers make extremely fun games while on-ramping Web2 users into Web3. They simply play games they already know and love with Web3 features that are low-key.
“There’s an added element now, which makes it more fun, where you can just put in your email [and] we do all the rest in the background,” he says. “And it sets up your NEAR wallet and you’re playing, effectively, a Web3 game but as a Web2 user.”
Getting gamers to board the Web3 train
At the forefront of Web3 gaming is NEAR’s Human Guild. Created in early 2021 by Sasha Hudzilin and Vlad Grichina, both early builders on NEAR, their approach is simple: easy onboarding and gamers earning by doing what they love.
“The mission is to help people earn in crypto and join the online economy,” says Hudzilin.
Human Guild also helps game designers develop their ideas, launch on mainnet, improve their products, and generally expand an already strong, supportive community of game developers. This makes Human Guild a vital resource within the NEAR ecosystem.
“[We] provide support starting with the concept of the game, designing economic upside for the community to get involved, DAO creation, bootstrap community engagement, consider foundries, share initial MVP with the community, and involve influencers,” says Hudzilin.
“We know Web3 can be difficult to navigate,” he adds. “So, we want to make sure people are not discouraged and can get the best out of this space.”
Indie versus AAA game studios in Web3
Currently the most popular Web3 games feature around 200,000 active wallets, says Hudzilin, and there are only a few of them. By comparison, Web2 mobile games can have over 100 million users, and in some cases one billion users. Truly, these early days demand that designers think differently about what games are and what they can be.
Perhaps because of Web3 games’ relatively low numbers, most of the creativity in game development comes from smaller indie studios. Not unlike the music, film, or book publishing industries, bigger budget games from AAA studios tend to be more formulaic (and less likely to take risks). This makes some sense, as AAA studios are often more pressed to turn a profit and follow previously successful models. However, Web3’s low market saturation does have its advantages.
“If you do launch, you’re almost bound to succeed,” says Hudzilin, who notes the bar for success is about 10k users giving the game a shot. “Especially in an ecosystem like NEAR where very few things have gone live so far.”
Human Guild is starting to focus more on smaller indie game developers, as they can deliver on smaller budgets with more creative spark. The idea is that this creativity will carry over into the future of Web3 gaming. Crypto games are labors of love and passion projects. Some developers even sacrifice career stability for their projects.
“Sometimes they live below the poverty line, which is kind of crazy because they’re very talented developers,” says Hudzilin. “And so we work with some of them.”
While most pure Web3 games don’t have mass market appeal, many companies are trying hard to make that happen. PlayEmber, for instance, is all about mass market appeal with their “hyper casual” gaming experiences that look very much like Web2 mobile games. With Ember Coin, playEmber offers a “play and earn” model where gamers don’t even need to think about earning cryptocurrency. Their goal is ambitious: to onboard a million new crypto wallets within a year once their games are live on EmberCoin.
Bridges to the physical world
There is also a real hunger to see games interfacing with the physical world. Endlesss, a live collaborative music creation platform inspired by game mechanics, recently showcased one possibility at NFT.NYC: a MIDI-enabled arcade game. Although arcades are niche, this experience opened a door to other Web3 physical integrations and in-person social interactions.
For playEmber’s Jon Hook, the Web3 bridge to the physical world could feature partnerships with big brands for retail experiences.
“Imagine partnering with Nike: you’re playing a game and hidden within the game are magic loot boxes,” he muses. “When you find one, it actually unlocks sneakers. It’s a little NFT so that when you go into the Nike store, you redeem it. It’s kind of like gamifying retail.”
This is, of course, in addition to designing and buying NFT avatars and using them across a gaming or Web3 ecosystem. Just like in the physical world, Furneaux envisions an experience where “you change moods, you change styles, you change clothes, so why shouldn’t you be able to change your NFT to reflect that too?”
NFTs are also useful for re-engagement. Jon Werthen Jr. at ARterraLabs envisions players earning in-game NFTs, then using them as an entry fee for gaming tournaments or a token to redeem real-world prizes.
A tapestry of visionaries
One thing that Web3 gaming has going for it is the abundance of visionaries. No doubt a crucial ingredient for crypto gaming’s future.
Human Guild’s Vlad Grichina, for instance, imagines a world where massive multiplayer games keep running forever on the blockchain—especially games from the 2000s and 2010s that disappeared because server costs were just too high for game studios. How? A separate group of validators would essentially run that part of the blockchain.
“As long as a community is interested in this kind of game, it should continue,” Hudzilin says.
Futuristic possibilities aside, currently Human Guild is gearing up for NEARCON where the NEARCON Gaming Lounge will have up to 20 playable versions of games. This is as much about research as it is entertainment, as the Human Guild will use NEARCON metrics to measure things like retention.
Despite the visionary nature of many Web3 game developers, there is little certainty about what it will look like in the future. Will personal computers still dominate Web3 games? Can mobile developers break past gatekeepers like Apple’s App Store? Will consoles jump aboard? What about virtual reality? It is likely to be some combination of all of these, but only time will tell.
It’s likely that Web3 game developers, on NEAR’s carbon neutral protocol or others like it, will redefine what is possible. This is something that current and future gamers alike can look forward to.
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