Tonk is devoted to restoring the magic of open networks and we’re starting in fully onchain games for a whole bunch of reasons. As a team experienced in game tooling and distributed systems, we are particularly committed to building outstanding primitives for this new media.

However, we cannot limit our dreams to pure tooling.

Much like any team building in a nascent category, we face enormous ambiguity on what the game applications look like, and therefore what specific infrastructure is required. We think a lot about blockchain-native, non-skeuomorphic game design. Not only does this keep our tooling grounded in reality, it also helps the onchain gaming ecosystem move closer to the magical breakthroughs in game design we’re waiting for - our ecosystem’s very own Farmville Moment.

This article assumes familiarity with the basics of game design and fully onchain games (as opposed to games that just incorporate NFTs).

Two research quests for onchain games

To be a builder of fully onchain games is to feel as if one is boarding a spaceship. We are embarking on a voyage to an unknown world far from the familiar fields of Earth. Our destination promises to be more weird and more wonderful than we can conceive.

Today, however, we are able to guess what that future will look like; we can make preparations in anticipation of our terminus. The onchain game community has been busy at work generating clues that gesture to a new direction. There are two major unresolved questions facing onchain game developers today:

  • What does our “Farmville Moment” look like?
  • When it happens, what will the trustless gaming console look like?

Here we’ll talk purely about the former - the bounds of experimental game design.

Farmville Moments

A Farmville Moment is that moment when the game development community collectively discovers the specific game design that is uniquely suited to a particular medium. It’s really important, because until we reach our Farmville Moment, all other game design will be a skeuomorphic mismatch.

Over history, games are constantly switching medium - from tabletop to arcade, home console, early internet, PC, smartphone, Facebook games and so on. Different types of game are uniquely enabled by, and uniquely suited to, each medium, but there’s a lag in discovering what that killer game is.

You may find it helpful to think about game design cycles in three steps:

  1. Dominance. A given medium has well-known patterns for optimal game design and distribution. For example, yearly releases of $60 discs containing first person shooters were a great fit for the home console market in the early 2000s. Players enjoyed aiming with controllers and saving up to buy yearly releases from respected AAA studios such as Activision.
  2. Disorientation. A new medium is discovered - the iPhone - and developers skeuomorphically identify the opportunity to create an FPS that you can carry in your pocket. But nobody wants to pay more than $20 for a game that requires complex motor skill on a fudgy touchscreen and long, continuous periods of time to complete atmospheric missions.
  3. Discovery. Instead, lateral thinkers discover new game design - Angry Birds - that leans into the swipeable touchscreen affordances of the new medium and the opportunities for short, 2 minute bursts of asynchronous gameplay. Engagement soars, publishers discover the new optimal pricing models and the game development community learns to love the new medium.

Part of why fully onchain games are so exciting right now, is that we are firmly stuck in the Disorientation phase. In other words, we are on the verge of discovering radically new game design, unprecedented in the industry! To get there we need to iteratively test game design at speed, avoid skeuomorphism and open up our nascent community to the right combination of experienced game designers and lateral thinkers.

This is the same kind of lateral, creative thinking that transformed Zynga and Rovio from humble game studios into global cultural engines, for social gaming and mobile gaming respectively.

How not to design a fully onchain game

We see skeuomorphism and missed opportunities in onchain game development. The two biggest examples are where:

  1. The game runs on a blockchain backend, but could just as easily run on a centralised server. The game makes no use of the composability and openness unique to a trustless network.
  2. The game runs on a centralised backend, but player ownership over in-game assets are represented as NFTs. The game makes shallow use of the composability and openness unique to a trustless network.

To be clear, we are impressed by the progress made in NFT gaming. The next chapter for onchain games is to take as much game state as possible (rather than just asset ownership) and represent it trustlessly. In turn, onchain games can do more than act as containers for persistent, censorship-resistant assets where players can extract value after sinking 1000s of hours into gameplay. Instead, designers can make full use of the composability idiosyncratic to trustless networks.

We don’t yet know what that trustless composability feels like for players. We don’t know what the next Farmville Moment is. However, there are a few clues.

Let’s cover the major design constraints and opportunities facing onchain game designers today and articulate as much as we can about our final destination:

Horrific latency

Blockchains are already slow and it really doesn’t help when you try to squeeze the state of an entire 3D MMORPG into the mempool. Game state must be pared back, and so games themselves must be designed in such a way that state is minimised, and state transitions can be slow and asynchronous. Turn based strategy games, idle games, digitised board games, 4X games and alternative reality games have promise here.

At Tonk we do think that the potential ceiling for latency is actually quite fast. It may be possible to incorporate twitchy, synchronous gameplay with subsecond state transitions in the future, especially with application-specific ZKVMs and hardware acceleration.

This is likely to look like two separate layers of gameplay: a slow ‘world map’, with smaller, twitchy ‘battle sessions’ taking place within that world map. There’s a lot of network design and cryptographic research to be done here. Could we achieve trustless Street Fighter?

Brutal transparency

Blockchains struggle to handle shared private state; in traditional gaming we’ve always taken hidden information for granted, such as the ability to hide treasure in a world somewhere. NPCs’ internal biology, psychology and intents are easily visible to players and consequently, players don’t get to enjoy the feeling of gradually uncovering a game’s secrets and building proficiency over time.

Games that survive the cull of hidden information are those that do not contain shared private state, such as chess. In chess, there is private state hidden locally by the player (strategies in their brain) but it’s not shared, and therefore compatible with a vanilla blockchain.

At Tonk we are excited about the possibility of privacy enhancing technologies such as ZK, FHE and MPC to overcome these boundaries. Dark Forest was able to encrypt world state; Geometry and MatchboxDAO have pioneered research into mental poker and we ourselves have encoded NPCs with hidden stats and move logic. The folk at Aztec are building a trustless network that includes private state; we’re excited to push these boundaries further.

Bot vulnerability

Blockchain games, like any dapp, have increased vulnerability to bots and sybil attacks. When game physics are transparent onchain, bots can be designed to execute game-theoretically optimal strategies, effectively breaking the game for human players. Following decentralised finance, players themselves are likely to be resistant to traditional anti-Sybil mechanisms such as ID verification or CAPTCHAs.

In the face of bots, games that succeed are likely to be those that are especially resistant to game-theoretically optimal strategies, such as game designs with permanently shifting nash equilibria, reflexive against gameplay itself - just like Rock Paper Scissors. Paradigm’s 0xMonaco pioneered a relatively complex game design that is especially resistant to the “perfect” strategy. Social deduction games like Among Us have similar design affordances. Mithraeum has also been designed with this in mind.

Positive design directions

So much for dealing with the difficulties of designing onchain games - what about the unique strengths of building on a trustless network? At Tonk, we get excited about composability of game state and how this improves modding ecosystems. Composability also unlocks new forms of gameplay that couldn’t exist anywhere other than a trustless environment.

Composability exists in many forms:

Social composability

Escrow accounts and contractual agreements between competing, cooperating players allows for fractal layers of complex social interaction, tantamount to novel gameplay all by itself. Dark Forest spawned emergent information markets. OPCraft was the basis for an emergent in-game military-financial complex. EVE Online is one of the most successful games of all time, but depends on trust-based guilds that suffer significant failures as coordination struggles to scale beyond Dunbar’s number.

Decentralised alternatives - such as the pioneering Conquest - lean into the possibility of complex emergent social interactions, unbounded by any one developer or game studio. Traditional society has only scaled to the enormous complexity of the modern economy thanks to a robust, quasi-decentralized system of legal contracts, and so it shall be with gaming: trustless social interactions with decentralised primitives are the foundation for unbounded complexity.

We are particularly interested in games where trustless social coordination overlaps with social gameplay mechanics, such as those in deduction games (Mafia, Among Us). There are existing fully onchain social deduction games following this line of thought, such as Museum Heist from Tetration Labs.

Entity composability

Just as elements in EVE combine to create ever more complex and powerful items, onchain games are especially well suited to the composability of in-game entities. Modding has always been important to the industry - think of library extensions in The Sims and Elder Scrolls expansion packs. Minecraft and Roblox elevated modding from a mere pastime to one where the generation and consumption of UGC is part of the core game loop.

When entity composability is permissionless, we demolish the enormous platform risk facing traditional game modders today. In the onchain gaming world, there are studios experimenting today with entity composability, from Topology’s Shoshin to the recent explorations at Playmint.

When a game’s entire state is composable, all of the time, we give unprecedented fuel to developers, maximising their creative liberty, and powering emergent, unpredictable innovations. There is much work here to discover the game physics design patterns that allow for complex, engaging emergence while retaining game quality - we look forward to seeing what studios come up with.

Narrative composability

Many of the best games - The Last Of Us, Bioshock and Gone Home - incorporate narrative elements, and often that narrative is just as important as the underlying mechanics. Characters, storylines and drama inject abstract rules with a sense of “the stakes”.

On the whole, the majority of the world’s narrative assets (“IP”) have lived under centralised control. Our media is therefore subject to the same “God mode” affordances from traditional culture industries, most notably manifest in the Hollywood conglomerates. It’s this closed pattern of cultural production that frustrates fans of the original Star Wars canon, where organic lore generated over decades can be overturned by a single executive decision at Disney.

There are spaces where communities are able to exert more influence over the cultural worlds they help to create - fanfic and internet memes are two key examples. However, this bottom-up cultural production is either (i) limited to trust-based coordination, and so struggles to scale beyond Dunbar’s number or (ii) incapable of the sophisticated, predictable behaviours we see in smart contract -based protocol design.

Where did Wojak grow up? What does Wojak do for work? Who does Wojak love? In a sense these questions have an answer - but in another sense, those answers can never be definitive, because we do not yet have a way to decide what counts as culturally canonical, without resorting to Disney-style God mode.

Trustless networks can be the basis for composable IP and collaborative lore, where communities collectively exert control on the narrative worlds they create. When trustless networks are the medium for lore and lorecraft, the diegetic boundary is fundamentally permissionless. This, in theory, allows for sophisticated dramas to unfold in real time - in a way that is scalable far beyond traditional fanfic communities. This pattern for lore creation could present the 21st century with a genuinely novel form of media, which is why it often goes by the new moniker “Autonomous Worlds".

This is an extremely unexplored area of game design. The best examples we can point to are outside gaming, such as the extended psychodrama around the Curve Wars, or Uniswap’s bridge design debacle. Within gaming, there is some progress. For example, the bottom-up IP of the Lootverse is being developed into immersive gameplay by BibliotecaDAO, across their new games Realms and Survivor. We’re excited to see where this goes as we continue to develop new models for collaborative worlding.

[more on this stuff from a friend]

Community governance

Finally we’d like to point to a very novel form of game mechanic only explored very lightly - community governance over the rules of the game themselves. We saw this first in the Twitch Plays Pokémon experiment, a concept further developed by Moving Castles.

In this construction, gameplay consists of a shared world where the rules for that game and world are collaboratively designed by players. The offchain equivalent would be Mao, where new rules are introduced over time as a part of usual gameplay, and part of the fun is figuring out how the new rules work. This represents a truly novel exploration in game design and may be the basis for those games that could only ever exist on a trustless network, where nobody and everybody involved has the same fundamental privileged access to the rules.

The history of DAOs is also a history of conflict, factionalism and complex, emergent coordination. Could these same patterns form the basis of the core game loop in a fully onchain game? At Tonk we are actively prototyping for this possibility, as a bold new step in non-skeuomorphic game design, further propelling our ecosystem closer to that magical Farmville Moment.

So wen Farmville Moment?

Non-skeuomorphic game design is demanding. We must avoid the seductive trap of building incrementally or just copying things that ‘work’ elsewhere. This ecosystem is too early; we must take bold strides, not skeuomorphic steps.

We must discover the games that couldn’t have been built anywhere other than a blockchain.

The dream outcome is that, in publishing games, we discover the killer game design that in turns acts as a memetic engine for the whole ecosystem. However, just as in scientific research, publishing cutting-edge design gets us closer to that breakthrough, regardless of whether any particular game succeeds. This progress is good for everyone.

Our Farmville Moment will arrive when we have a game that does at least some of the following:

  • Is natively slow and asynchronous (unless we make technical breakthroughs in latency),
  • Does not depend on shared private state (until cryptographic engineering makes permissionless shared private state possible),
  • Resists bots or is otherwise impervious to them,
  • Incorporates the kind of complex social coordination that’s only possible over a trustless network,
  • Rewards modders with permissionless access to construct in-game entities,
  • And perhaps even forms the basis of scalable composable IP, and where the community has an intricate power relationship with the rules of the game itself.

We need to do more than represent in-game assets as NFTs. We need to push at the boundaries of a new, open internet, and in so doing, rewrite the rules for collaborative cultural production.

Spring 2023

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