Notes on Game Design and Web3 Potential

My notes from a podcast with Will Robinson on game design and the potential of Web3 for games.

December 31, 2021


I recently listened to a podcast with Will Robinson where he discussed game design and the potential of Web3 for games.

Will Robinson has a PhD (thesis) in game design and currently works at the DeFi Alliance, an incubator/investment fund focused on web3 gaming ecosystems. His area of study focused on how game designers incentivize players to behave in certain ways. For example, how game designers convert players into laborers (i.e create content for them).

Below are some notes I took while listening.

Why Are Games Different

According to Robinson, one of the main things that makes games different from other mediums (e.g. books, movies) for story telling is the concept of procedural rhetoric. Games have rules, which are used to tell stories and present players with a possibility space. A game provides structure for the player’s experience, but allows players to grow a journey out from the author’s point of view. The game proposes a goal to players and presents them with a bunch of obstacles.

What Makes a Game Great

One of the things Robinson looks for in a game is whether something is newly communicated by the game designer in a way that has never been communicated before by leveraging the unique capabilities of the medium. The kinds of stories that are best suited for video games are different from the kinds of stories that are best suited to books and movies. One game Robinson mentioned was Passage by Jason Rohrer. It was one of the first games put in the Museum of Modern Art.

In-Game Items

Non-Cosmetic Items

Allowing players to purchase items that directly impact gameplay can break gameplay as they can directly purchase the exact item they need rather than playing the game. The game becomes pay to win. It becomes hard to nerf items to balance gameplay when people are paying for them.

Vitalik Buterin:

I was born in 1994 in Russia and moved to Canada in 2000, where I went to school. I happily played World of Warcraft during 2007-2010, but one day Blizzard removed the damage component from my beloved warlock’s Siphon Life spell. I cried myself to sleep, and on that day I realized what horrors centralized services can bring. I soon decided to quit.

Cosmetic Items

Purely cosmetic items gain real-world value as self expression and signaling becomes more important in virtual worlds the more time you spend in them. Users create an economy around trading cosmetic items.

Play to Earn

Play-to-earn games form a two sided market. The game guarantees scarce object that can be created through gameplay. A second-hand market forms for purchasing these scarce objects. This leads to the same problem as free-to-play games where it can lead to a few wales (players willing to dump obscene amounts of money into the game) providing the main source of income. This, in turn, leads to most players playing simply to unlock scarce objects to sell to whales, rather than for enjoyment.

Axie Infinity Economy

The Axie Infinity economy works by providing solid gameplay and requiring scarce objects (axies) to play the game. The scarce objects can be produced with a less scarce resource. Players need to play the game in order to get the less scarce resource used to produce axies. Top players and wales are willing to pay a lot for the rarest axies.

Play to Own

In a play-to-own economy, NFTs can potentially represent ownership of the game IP (governance tokens). This can help align the incentives of the game developers and players.

NFTs in Games

Some difficulties with NFTs are that they don’t guarantee what the player will do with the game once receiving an NFT. They also don’t guarantee how an NFT will be relevant in or out of the game. Additionally, they have the same difficulties that currently come with using other web3 projects (e.g. gas fees, needing a wallet, potential regulatory issues).

The main benefit of incorporating NFTs in game design, as Robinson sees it, is that they help build communities out of a bunch of strangers and enable coordination through alignment.

Web3 Games

Robinson mentioned a couple web3 games that he has his eye one.

Dark Forest

  • Announcement Post
  • The world’s first decentralized real-time strategy game
  • Built on Ethereum with zkSNARKs
  • Community first
  • All the rules are on-chain
  • The NFTs are more like trophies
    • Cosmetic
    • Might one day be related to governance
      • provide decision making power that governs how the game will evolve
      • the more successful the game gets, the more valuable the governance tokens become
  • The builder/dev community gets rewarded with NFTs in addition to successful players

AI Arena

  • Welcome to AI Arena
  • An Ethereum-native game where players can purchase, train and battle NFT characters powered by deep learning models
    • The model controls the moves of the fighter in a battle
  • The goal is to improve your fighter’s deep learning model over time through training
  • New models can train using Imitation learning where the human player demonstrates actions that the model can learn to copy
  • More developed models can further train through self-play
  • Each fighter comes with a set of battle attributes affecting its fighting ability that cannot be changed
  • Long-term vision: NFT’s will be productive AI assets that are encrypted
    • The only way to get utility out of the asset is to pay the owner

Further Reading