How Ultra is building ‘blockchain Steam on steroids’ for gaming
As part of his Blockchain Gaming World podcast series, editor-at-large Jon Jordan spoke to Ultra Games’ co-CEO Nicolas Gilot about the PC games distribution platform.
The discussion covered everything from the history of the concept to comparisons with Steam, how Ultra will solve the so-called ‘cold start’ problem, and what additional functionality and games are expected in the next six months.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
BlockchainGamer.biz: Can you provide some of your history in games?
Nicolas Gilot: I’ve been in the game space for 15, 20 years. Initially, I was a hardcore gamer and together with my partner [Ultra co-CEO David Hanson] we co-founded teams for Counter-Strike, travelling around the world, doing competitions. Then we had a mobile game studio in China. We also had a PC game studio that was acquired by Kingsoft. We also had a monetization strategy company helping developers make money in the free-to-play era.
Before Ultra, we were building a game console with AMD for the Chinese market. And in terms of blockchain, I’ve been in space since late 2010, when we were mining Bitcoin. But it wasn’t until Ethereum and smart contracts that we thought this is a new technology that makes sense for us in terms of providing new solutions. And that’s when we decided to create Ultra, which would solve a lot of the problems we found in the games industry across many years: whether it’s the distribution; whether it’s the publisher; whether it’s the gamer. We use blockchain technology to address that.
We looked around, didn’t find any solutions and so decided to create our own blockchain. Lots of the problems that arise today in the industry are solved by Ultra because we own the whole vertical, so we can also adapt each piece to make it better for the mass market. So if we find a problem, say, in distribution of games, because we need IP protection in China etc, we can fix that problem at protocol level.
You announced the product in 2018 so have you been surprised it’s taken so long?
It’s a lot of innovation, and you can’t really forecast the time because you’re trying to find a new solution. And that is what’s complicated because it’s across multiple angles and at the same time, it has to work for everything, across different devices, across different languages, to be seamless, but provide real advantages of blockchain technology – the centralization, the non-custodial aspects.
All these kinds of things that are often tackled with simpler solutions, but then you don’t get in the essence of the blockchain. But now we are at a level where we have a lot of the foundational technology done. And the fun starts because Ultra Games was released in April.
Do you think ‘Steam on the blockchain’ is a good comparison point for Ultra?
The big difference with Steam is that Ultra has this ecosystem, which existing or new businesses can integrate with. Then, for users, they play games, they can watch the stream, they can play the tournament, they can receive an airdrop. We can create synergies very easily because the blockchain is the glue in between all those elements.
It’s hard to explain a concept that does not exist yet. To people, to grasp your idea around a new concept is very complicated, but attaching it to something people know, people know what Steam is in the game space, it’s much easier to grasp. But yeah, the reality is that we are much, much more than a Steam, a Steam++, right?
It’s really a new paradigm, the similar paradigm you would have on a mobile phone. Right now you know you pull out your phone, Apple made the phone or whoever, then you have the iOS on it. On top of that you have the SDK for the developers to build on. But they also created all the different apps which are like the core apps.
And then this becomes an interesting product because there are a lot of cool application services that you want to use on this device. But on PC this doesn’t exist. These apps don’t interact with each other. So you should see Ultra as much more of an infrastructure for the games, game space and entertainment in general, and also the ecosystem itself. So we build the whole pipe, the same way Apple does. But there’s also a blockchain that increases the potential synergies that you don’t have with the phone.
To get these synergies is going to take a long time so how do you kickstart early adoption now?
In terms of game developers, it’s a tough choice not to go on Steam, but blockchain developers can’t go on Steam now. It’s also very hard for a game developer to have their game noticed on Steam where there are 800 new games a month.
On Ultra, you can grow your community around your game. You can make them participate, have people promoting your game. And all of that helps you to grow your game from the get-go. You start it, you have your beta phase, you can airdrop, you can work with, let’s say, an influencer and say, hey, I’m going to give you some keys so people can try my game. Those people start to be early community, early adopters, they can talk about the game and promote it, and they earn from it as well. Then you can incentivize them with a tournament.
You can grow your game with your community in a way you can’t on Steam. On Steam you have early access and it stops there. There are many more interactions and better visibility on Ultra and that’s a much stronger value proposition for both the developers and the players.
Why are you also distributing web2 games?
If you think about the gamers today, they are not in the web3 space so if you limit yourself to web3 games, you are limited to a very small audience. Web2 gamers don’t want any hassle. They don’t want to have a complicated experience. And that’s a big hurdle today in the web3 space. It’s complicated to use. Oh, I have to create a wallet. Oh, I have to buy some cryptocurrency. I need to do KYC. Providing an ease of access for web2 gamers was very important, because the platform itself doesn’t only cater to web3 people, but to web2 people as well.
They can benefit from the ecosystem of a web2 game. For example we’ve had PUBG tournaments, Counter-Strike tournaments, Rocket League. And this brings players into web3 without them noticing it because what did they get as a reward? They got some crypto, an NFT. So this is a way, a hook for us to bring the people into the ecosystem.
For developers, the ability for gamers to resell games must be a bit scary?
We involve the game publisher as part of the experience. They decide how the market works. They say, okay, for my game, you can resell it, but only three months after the launch, at the minimum price of $20, and I take 30% of the game value. So they can really tweak the whole secondary market experience.
Let’s face it, a lot of games after a few months after launch, nobody buys because they’re waiting for a big discount. With this, there could always be small discounts and everybody makes some money in the process. Game developers get some money and the players receive some money back that they can spend back into new content. Everyone is happy.
I think it will take a long time for people to get their heads around this.
Exactly. But the tokenization of games doesn’t stop at the financial aspect. A lot of it is around the benefits for the users and for the brands and for the publishers. If your game is tokenized, the developer knows its hardcore players and it can provide access to new content or other advantages. You could receive an NFT voucher for buying another game or a discount. You can airdrop them a ticket for a tournament.
For players, if they were an early user, if they sell that older version, maybe it’s more valuable because it has much more benefits tied to it. There is really no limit in terms of possibilities. Obviously, we don’t know all the use case, but we’re going to see. We’re providing the tools to developers. We have our own ideas, obviously, but the reality is we’re going to have people creating crazy things and it’s going to blow our minds. It’s going to be like a quest system and a win-win quest system. You’re going to have somebody who’s going to help you and this guy is paid automatically from the rewards you get from the game because he’s supporting you.
You can do that with a blockchain and say, ‘Hey, okay, you get 20% of my earnings’. It’s very simple to do. because the blockchain will handle it. I don’t have to trust the guy, he doesn’t have to trust me. Just trust the service. I think we’re gonna see a lot of the expansion around all those creative minds that are gonna get with the tools and understand there’s a cool business for me, I can make here. That’s gonna be super appealing for the players. And that’s really how you grow an ecosystem.
What sort of reaction are you getting from developers?
We have some that are jumping in and say ‘I want this, it makes a lot of sense’. Some are ‘I want to see how it works in terms of metrics, is it making sense?’ So it depends, really depends.
One thing about the tech is developers don’t have to learn a new SDK or do something with the blockchain. We provide a fully-fledged solution for web2 with integrated web3. If you want achievements, multiplayer, messaging, we have this on Ultra. We provide the tooling to make your game faster, better, and easier while providing you the solution to build using blockchain as well.
On the blockchain side, if you want to create a boss that drops a rare NFT potion at a 5% rate, just tick the box and that’s it. The rest is done by the SDK and the blockchain. So this is really convenient because you don’t need to push a lot of new concepts to developers.
Have you had much feedback following the launch of Ultra Games?
We had no hiccups during the launch. The thing went well, nothing crashed and burned, so that’s great. Right now we have a lot of web3 gamers, a lot of people who understand the blockchain because we didn’t start really pushing on the web2 side. But once we start pushing on the web2 side, we’re going to grow much faster in that demographic. Simply, there is an audience which is much bigger.
This is important because when you have just one game which is successful, all of a sudden you have a glowing ecosystem with a lot of users. That is very attractive for a lot of developers to come in. It’s the network effect. Once you get that spark, it just explodes.
How are you going to drive that growth in the rest of 2023?
We have lots of releases coming up. Game tokenization is pretty much done, that’s going to be very helpful. More improvements are coming on the game store, marketplace and wallet. I think the DEX is going to be very interesting because it increases liquidity to the network. We have the opening of the NFT standard to everybody so everybody can create their NFTs directly on chain and all marketplaces get access automatically.
We have the launch of Ultra Arena, more social layers, exclusive games. We have a sports game and a FPS that are both out this year.
Find out more via the Ultra website.