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In the latest episode of his Blockchain Gaming World podcast, editor-in-chief Jon Jordan talks to David Amor, the CEO of fully onchain gaming studio Playmint, which is currently building its autonomous world Downstream.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You can also listen to the podcast via the Fountain app and earn Bitcoin.
Give us a bit of background to yourself and how you got into blockchain gaming?
David Amor: I’m a long time video game developer – Electronic Arts, then PlayStation companies, and then mobile companies. A couple of years ago I got interested in the idea of what happens if you combine blockchain and games and decided to build a company around that idea.
Quite quickly we decided that it would be interesting to build a game that exclusively ran on a blockchain. Now we’re a studio based in Brighton, there’s 12 of us, and we’re a couple of years into that journey.
Can you unpick how that change of emphasis happened?
When we were talking about starting up, Axie was the most obvious use case that made us wonder if we could financialize aspects of the game. And it’s quite easy to look at what you’ve been doing previously and think, how could you use some of these ideas with that. But I made a mistake once before when I tried to move from PlayStation 3 to mobile phone. I just tried to adapt things that worked for PlayStation 3 into an iPhone and just expected everybody to love it.
But of course, it’s quite hard to see things that don’t exist yet and imagine those things. It’s hard because nobody’s there and there’s not much infrastructure for it and there’s not much of a market for that. It’s a lot of figuring out new stuff, it’s slower and a few wrong turns, but it’s certainly intellectually more interesting.
It strikes me how hard it must be for game developers to not just keep doing what you’re brilliant at doing, but to try something new.
You have to unlearn some stuff. You don’t do it consciously, but you end up playing into your comfort zone. I know how to do this game, so I’ll make this kind of game. This is a blockchain conversation, but if you look at what mobile games ultimately became, they were nothing like a PlayStation game. But it was just quite hard to imagine that. All of your muscle memory is making PlayStation games.
So, this time we tried to be a bit more disciplined and quickly said, let’s try and build something that embraces these new ideas that we couldn’t have done before.
How is it to be part of the emerging fully onchain gaming community?
Oh my goodness, the people there are just the brightest minds with really sharp ideas. For better or worse, there’s not a lot of talk about tokens and financialization. It’s philosophical ideas and technical approaches and where does this take us? Really, really fascinating with people way smarter than me.
I think when we started, there was a question, is this even technically possible? Can you even run a game exclusively on a blockchain? Never mind, why would you? But let’s start with, could you?
And I think what I’ve noticed in the last 18 months is the answer to that is basically, yes. I think a combination of some technical tricks that we’ve learned as, you know, in making fully onchain games combined with improving infrastructure means some things that we were worried might not be possible, possible. So we’re spending more time talking about the game and more time talking about the ideas and where it takes us.
Can you tell us more about Downstream?
Downstream is a persistent world. It’s a top-down view looking in on a game world. The story of the game is an AI that has accidentally caused the singularity and exploded our human world and is now apologetically trying to rebuild it. And you’re assisting in that and trying to make things that work in this world.
From a gameplay point of view, it’s standard MMO patterns. You’re moving around the map, you’re there, other players are there and you’re trading with them, building things together, fighting things, and competing with each other. We have quests in the game that you can go on, although it’s still in pre-alpha, so we’re still figuring things out, but that gives you an overall flavour.
We do play tests and build in the open. In fact, everything is open source, so if you wanted to, you could compile it yourself.
A couple of things that we think are interesting by making it fully onchain is this idea of a godless game. The way I describe it is that ordinarily, if you build an MMO or any kind of game world, you have the game world and then you have the owner and operator. So World of Warcraft has an owner operator of Blizzard that is going to be creating content, and balance the economy, and ban players. But with a fully decentralized game, you can create something that lives forever on a blockchain that isn’t owned by anybody.
So imagine that we create this world, set the rules in place, and then sort of cut the umbilical cord. Now, that world of Hexwood, which is where Downstream is, is going to still be there after I’m dead, it’s going to be running on an Ethereum blockchain indefinitely.
Then I can’t control what gets built in that world. And I think we’ve built it in a way that encourages people to extend the game, its functionality, and put new things in that world.
So, sure, we’ll be creating things in this world that we hope people play and spend money on. But equally, there’s nothing stopping you or anybody else adding content to that world. And what the game ends up being is whatever players want to play and want to build. And that’s just very different from how we would approach game development ordinarily. I don’t truly know where that takes us.
I think it becomes interesting if it’s a godless game, but if the only people that are adding any content is us, then it’s godless in name only really. So I think it becomes interesting when people are building new things that upset people and elate them and surprise them, including us, right? I think that’s the goal.
We’ve had groups of people build interesting things, so we know that it’s technically possible. Now we just need to build more of the game.
I guess the launch process is very different to ordinary games?
Yeah, a few things to say about that. One is that, I think it’s a mistake to just say, okay, here’s where we’re going to get to this. This is the fully featured version of Downstream and we’re going to retreat into our cave and build that for the next three years and let you know when there’s something to play. That’s a precarious way to run a startup.
So I think what we’re trying to do, and we’ve done one of these already, is our first game The Crypt, which is just to try out ideas, find out a little bit about the market. In practice it means we’re going to be testing things out along the way that aren’t the full game. I think it is important to hold ourselves to this idea of a godless version.
In terms of launching, I don’t think it’s a 2024 thing, just to be candid about that.
Another thing is this tension, between, when was the last time you released a game and didn’t have to do a patch afterwards? So, we’re delivering a game and setting all the rules in stone, but the first thing someone’s going to do is find an exploit to that rule. And now what are we going to do? I think it would take 10 attempts probably for us to get that stuff right.
I think the right way of doing it is by not upgrading Hexwood, but say, we’re going to create a Hexwood 2. Hexwood 1 will still be there, but anybody that wants to avoid the problem that is being exploited, can move to Hexword 2. That’s how to solve that problem, but it’s theory rather than practice because we haven’t done it yet.
Nobody’s done it before. Nobody really knows what will happen. And I think that’s interesting to build, but also interesting to play. Like, if you’re playing one of those games, you have a slightly different relationship with the game, because you think, this is our game. It’s not Playmint’s game. Sure, they created the world, but it’s ours now. And we’ll decide how it’s run from the inside, not from the god on the outside striking us down with lightning.
How do you find the web3 games space in 2024?
We’re doing something that I can have an intellectually interesting conversation about and it feels a long way from ponzonomics, so I worry less about the credibility of that than I used to.
The thing I worry more about is nobody has product market fit really. The last game I was working on had 350 million downloads, and here I’m happy if a hundred people are playing something that we’re building. And blockchain, particularly onchain games is a bit of an echo chamber, and we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard.
But let’s be honest, I can talk about amazing things that seem interesting to me, but I haven’t built them yet. Also, people aren’t knocking down the door saying, please, when can I play it? It’s an interesting path to be in, but I think my biggest concern is we’re still not finding product market fit either in fully onchain games or to a lesser extent in hybrid games.
What role can blockchain play there?
I phrased it as saying this is the most boring I’ve ever seen the games industry. There’s usually something that comes along every five years that throws everything in the air. Oh, now you’ve got a mobile phone. Now you’ve got an internet connection. Now you’ve got 3D graphics… We haven’t had one since mobile and what else, maybe UGC, which feels like 12 years ago.
There’s some incredible games. I’m not suggesting there’s not great games, but we’re not seeing the same amount of innovation as we have historically. I’m hoping that blockchain can bring some new ideas and some new energy, some innovation to the games industry.
Find out more on the Downstream website.