How Moonlit is bringing roguelike, rogue-lite games to blockchain with Rogue Nation

In the summer of 2022, Patrick McGrath co-founded Moonlit Games in Berlin to build blockchain games. A veteran of the games industry, his experience includes stints at Wooga, Ten Square Games, and others, where he made his name in the mobile free-to-play sector.

His team is working on its first title, Rogue Nation, a free-to-play action RPG. It’s described as a modern take on the roguelike and rogue-lite genres, combining fast gameplay with progression powered by the genuine ownership blockchain provides. The action occurs in a fantasy world rendered as isometric landscapes, where you’ll build your character and enter dungeons to hunt monsters and loot treasure. You develop your weapons, test them in the dungeons, and improve their power through a Deeds And Achievements system.

You can also adopt Elemints — digital pets who can join you on your quests — and the game will use AI to ensure each character, pet, and weapon is unique. The game plays on mobile using a virtual twin thumb-stick setup. It’ll also be on PC.

It’s a little over a year after Moonlit Games launched, so we leapt on a call with McGrath to quiz him on the game’s progress. “We’re actually in the middle of fundraising,” he explains from his office in Germany. Please tell us about Moonlit Games – what’s your backstory and philosophy?

Patrick McGrath: Moonlit Games was born out of a previous studio I was building here in Berlin – a web3 development studio for a larger company. There were budget cuts and vision differences, so I jumped off and brought in my co-founder Mikita [Fedarenka] and some other talented individuals to start making games.

Fundamentally the premise is that we love making games! A lot of people talk about work-life balance. For us: we make video games! It’s like work-life integration. Damn, I get to wake up and make video games!

We’ve built a studio which we see being a force in the industry, and we’re leveraging blockchain technologies in a way where users don’t even necessarily need to know they’re using it. Any time you bring technology to the forefront, it’s probably a bad experience. For us to onboard players and have them experience the cool things about blockchain, you need to put that into the background.

We’re spending a lot of time thinking about how blockchain translates to the systems inside of games and the experiences players can have in creating more emergence inside of games. We have a system called DNA, which stands for Deeds & Achievements. You know how you have your typical linear progression? Of course, we have that in Rogue Nation. But there is an additional progression layer that is more emergent, depending on your actions. Just like you and I could be born at the same time, same place, we could be identical twins, but after 20 or 30 years we’re very different.

This got us really excited. And we’ve been building it in an iterative process, both the studio and the game itself. We started actual shovels-in-the-ground development in February. We released our first playable on Google Play on May 5th, and it’s probably one of the first NFT-gated games on Google Play.

Please give us a flavour of what Rogue Nation is like.

We call it a roguelike RPG. There are some really interesting things happening in this subgenre of RPG. The RPG industry is massive. It’s gigantic, roughly 20% of mobile revenues. And it has 13 sub-subgenres, and roguelike is a really small portion of revenue!

On console, PC, and web, we’ve been seeing success in roguelikes like Hades. Many people don’t even think of it as a roguelike. But Returnal is also commercially and critically a success. There’s The Binding of Isaac too. We saw that there was an opportunity. And so, really, the core of our game is based on this roguelike structure.

But we wanted to expand what that means, especially from playing something like, Archero, or even Soul Knights – these are the larger roguelikes on mobile. For us, it didn’t offer a long-term solution to keep a player engaged for two to three years. How can it expand to five, 10, 15 years? And so we started to insert a lot of deep meta that we see in RPGs, especially ARPGs, and that kind of control scheme.

How does blockchain technology fit into Rogue Nation?

Most people will answer: asset ownership, owning your digital items. Absolutely this is important! But I think long term, people will look to the past and say, “Wow. This was around for a while, and we didn’t use it.”

Outside of that, the focus is gameplay. How does blockchain help there?

I often use an analogy. (Anyone really into King Arthur lore will have my head!) But imagine Excalibur, the sword. When it came from the blacksmith, it was not Excalibur. It was a very nice sword. And you can imagine, there are 10 others like it. Sharp, gold hilt, great materials. But this specific sword is taken by King Arthur into battle after battle. King Arthur is winning. Knights of the Round Table borrow this sword sometimes – some very powerful individuals. There’s the sword in the stone episode, the Lady of the Lake, all of its history is what creates Excalibur.

Imagine being able to pull that into a game. Imagine having very transparent and open portions of your game. There are high rewards. Excalibur wasn’t powering itself up off wolves; it was out there doing very difficult missions. But if you break that sword, it’s broken. How we see this fitting into live ops and event calendars is very interesting.

Your game is on Polygon. What factors went into that decision?

Last year, we were talking with nearly everyone. At the end of the day, the tech is extremely similar. People were trying to sell us on TPS [transactions per second]. And if you’ve looked into it, you’ll see that Visa, the credit card company, has something like 24,000 TPS. And every one of these chains says, “We have 70,000 or 80,000.” And at a certain point, we’re not even there to take that to the max!

So really, it was about how the ecosystem looks. To break this down, there are EVM-based chains, layer twos like Polygon. And then ones like Solana, which is trying to be a layer one. When you compare these two separate ecosystems, you see a mass of builders on EVM, and we want to be where the builders are.

At the same time, Polygon has a very forward-looking vision. Not, “What does 2024 look like?” but “What are we building towards in five or 10 years?” They’re looking to have a gigantic ecosystem that’s highly scalable, where every consumer is there – not just within games, but where they’re getting Starbucks and Adidas and Reddit.

And having this singular ecosystem everyone is on, including these larger companies, makes it easy to move through. This started to bubble up throughout our conversation. It’s about how we can make a product in a studio that in five years is top-notch, where we have an ecosystem of our own games, and they’re interacting with other partners. We saw the scalability there.

How does emergent gameplay happen? And how do things like your Book of Rogues work?

The Book of Rogues is on the narrative side of this. We’re already tracking the events, just as I told you about. Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake! We can tag that and create this area of the game where you understand your place in this world. When you look across many games with any type of social layer, whether through PVP rankings or clans, people want to know where they are within the larger community. And people want to highlight and understand, “How do you get to this point where King Arthur is at?” Well, you can actually see the steps that King Arthur took to get to where he’s at!

We’re leveraging blockchain in a way where users don’t need to know they’re using it. Any time you bring technology to the forefront, it’s probably a bad experience

Patrick McGrath, Moonlit Games

Having a very transparent guide, a user can just look and see how this character, or this weapon, essentially became this mythical level. And you can start to understand how to create these types of things inside the game.

It gets back to us making it easier for the players. Giving them the transparency and the ability for this emergence. We’re trying to tie everything back to the actual gameplay. This is why we are not leading with some token round and talking about the economics and tokenomics of this. We need to lead and show the example of what it can do inside the game.

These are tip-of-the-iceberg features and systems that we’re leveraging. And as the technology deepens on the blockchain side, I think there are just a lot of exciting and cool things that can be done.

Please tell us about the world-building. What’s the lore and story of Rogue Nation? Without spoilers!

There was a centralised group [and] the world was working in harmony. Over time: corruption – behind the scenes politicking, factions broke out into different nations and started trying to vie for power. A large object, a symbol of the world working together [the monolith], is destroyed.

Lo and behold, this object was a defence mechanism against other worlds, and suddenly there are rifts and portals. And you start to get the emergence of sentience inside new items; your refrigerator is running around, and new beings are showing up inside the world. So it’s kind of wacky fun. It’s a very wide-ranging world that we’re creating.

How do Rogue Nation’s procedurally generated dungeons play into the experience?

One of the factors to even consider yourself a roguelike is to have procedurally generated dungeons. It was a no-brainer.

With much of what we’re building, we call it a no-waste framework. We’re creating systems, features and tools that can be applied to our next games, so the time to market is much faster. And any type of iteration that we need to take can be done quickly. So it’s highly scalable. Procedural generation is part of this. “Hey, we got the LEGOs; let the machine put these LEGOs together to create a new set!”

We’re now getting to that next phase, where the platforms and ecosystem are ready to start growing. There’s an understanding that the experience has to be at least as good as it used to be

Patrick McGrath, Moonlit Games

And an interesting aspect of this is that we can capture the seeds. And then create systems on blockchain where if you find a valid reason to replay this specific dungeon, whether for points in an event, or some special objects that you found with a higher probability within this dungeon, you can mint that for replays.

You can imagine we’re in a clan versus clan event. And you stumble onto a dungeon that gives higher point rewards (or there are just more elite enemies inside of there that give 2x points). “Wow, we’re in the event – adding up all of our scores would be pretty cool if you could just mint one gameplay per each member inside the clan.” And that helps you and gives you an edge. Of course, it’s not like you mint it, and all of a sudden, you won – you still have to go play this! Again, it’s just one of these ways where we can leverage that and tie it back into the gameplay itself.

We’re starting to see new blockchain games that are actually fun. It felt like everything was about the tech and the economy in the past. What do you think are the challenges we’ve still got to overcome in the pursuit of great blockchain games?

I’ll address the history. Within my career in games, I’ve gotten to see a number of times [like this]. When people went to browser, there were some pretty bad games, right? A lot of the very large mobile companies nowadays got their start and became billion-dollar companies from browser games.

Then there was the transition to mobile. Oh, my goodness, not to throw shade at anybody, but do you remember Rage Of Bahamut? It was number one on the App Store for maybe two years, and it was HTML-based.

Look at these platform shifts, like the early days of free-to-play. In the first use cases, there was a lot of copy-paste of what you already know, not trying to think about leveraging the technology.

We’ve gone through that. We’re now getting to that next phase, where the platforms and ecosystem are ready to start growing. You have more veteran game makers jumping into the space. There is more emphasis on the players, the end users. And an understanding that the experience has to be at least as good as it used to be. That emphasis is starting to really, really take hold.

I was just at ECC [Ethereum Community Conference]. The ecosystem is so massive. I’m coming at it from a game standpoint. Games is a use case that’s pushing for things like account abstraction. When I sign into any type of blockchain application, or wallet, the last thing I want to do right now is write down 24 words I can never show anyone, and I cannot lose this piece of paper. I just want to play this game! And so there’s been a massive emphasis in the past year or two on user experience. How do we make this as easy as possible? How do we ensure that if you lose this piece of paper, you can get your stuff back? Of course, it’s not easy! But maybe we don’t need government-level security for someone creating a game account?! Maybe we just lower that a bit. And it’s still extremely secure, but you don’t have to go through all these steps.

The biggest hurdle right now is ensuring the onboarding is as smooth as possible. And when you have to get to the KYC [Know Your Customer guidelines and regulations], when you’re trying to extract value out of your wallet, you want that real-world value, that’s the time to do it. But until then, let’s get people into these experiences. Put all the technical aspects in the background.

Coming from free-to-play games, you understand that literally any click outside the experience [means] you will have drop-off. Just having someone see a pop-up asking, “Do you want to set this up now or later?” This is crazy – just let them do it later! Do everything in the background, let them experience it, and sell them on it later.

You’re on Google Play. Games that use blockchain have had a troubled journey to some of the platforms. Is the game going to be available on Apple at any point?

Yes, short answer. We’re shooting for Apple, Google Play, and PC. I’m excited for the PC: honestly, even with my background in mobile free-to-play, I love playing with a controller. And I love testing this game on PC. It’s so fun.

The journey with Apple is still kind of a cloudy one. I think Google, over time, has started to see where the puck is going. Apple is still treading lightly. I think Google players were excited about what we’re seeing there, especially with any secondary payment options, like their India ruling from earlier this year, which was a big domino to fall. It will allow a lot more flexibility for game companies, especially those trying to use blockchain in any way.

Are you building a community already? What’s the feedback been like from people who are playing?

Normally, you would never show anyone your first playable. It’s an internal build; maybe you pay a larger company to do playtests. We’re a small bootstrap startup and can’t go spending $30,000 for people to test the game.

Luckily, one of the things that blockchain and web3 communities have shown is you can build a community before you have a product, and you can start validating through them very early.

We ran a mint which helped our community efforts. For our holders, we have a smaller community within the community where we share lots of information and updates. Anyone holding our NFT could go play the first playable we put on Google Play. And we did this purely for accessibility, to see, “Hey, is it fun?”

We can get a lot of qualitative feedback from Discord and talking with our members. But we also need to have that quantitative feedback. In hindsight, maybe we had the threshold too low because we released roughly 10 to 15 minutes of gameplay, and the average player played nearly two hours! As a demo, we’re like, “I think we’re onto something.”

[Our first mint] was very successful. We partnered with Magic Eden during their ‘Mint Madness’, a take on the US sports’ March Madness. It gave us a lot of validation on what we felt players wanted (not necessarily the speculators or investors, although, of course, you’re going to attract those). But I felt we were able to get quite a few actual game players to come in; we got a lot of other gaming communities involved. We sold out the mint instantly. We did a lot of whitelisting and filtered the partnerships and parties we wanted to work with. It helped us build a community for ourselves and within the web3 gaming space.

Our next update, which we’re calling our pre-alpha, should be mid-August – we’re shooting for right before Gamescom. This will be open to all users. We don’t want to gate on NFT ownership. We’re putting together a free-to-play mobile structure with NFT ownership. The plan is not to continue gating but start to open it up slowly. We’ll put more effort into growing the in-game community just as we’ve been growing the out-of-game community.

What’s your philosophy around live ops? Are you building a big team that to do that?

That’s my historical bread and butter! We’re a fairly small studio, and it’s a rough time to be fundraising. We’ve been bootstrapping up until now. Regardless, we want to build this game out to have rich live ops, with capacity and scalability.

Polygon has a very forward-looking vision. They’re looking to have a gigantic ecosystem that’s highly scalable, where every consumer is there

Patrick McGrath, Moonlit Games

I think this is where a lot of games get into trouble. They put something out; it’s successful, and then in hindsight, after the fact, they say, “Now let’s put in live ops!” The integration is a little shaky.

So for us, this was the starting point. “How could we run this game mode as an event? Is it fun that way?” We go through a lot of checklists to make sure what we’re doing is scalable. What does it look like 10 years from now? How is it integrated within these other features of the game? We’re nailing those aspects down. When we start generating revenue or funding happens, this is where we start to build out that team to execute when we’re scaling the user base.

What advice would you give developers – perhaps with a background like yours in mobile – who are considering creating a blockchain game?

Think about how you want players to experience blockchain. As I’ve said, it gets back to the user experience. Fundamentally: is there a barrier to using this? And then how does it relate to gameplay?

You’ll have to convince a lot of people who aren’t believers yet. A number of our team members were anti-crypto a year and a half ago. We went through the conversation of, “Why? What’s wrong with it?” We talked about the technology and how it can be used inside a game. I saw people absolutely turn: “Wait a second – you can do that? That’s not what I thought blockchain games were!”

Keep learning. Understand the technology. I think a lot of people read headlines, and they don’t dig in and do their homework. I’m always looking at the new ERC standards, which are very interesting – like DeFi, but perfect for gaming. Understand the ecosystem and the capabilities right now and who’s trying to build it.

You should really understand the builder landscape. This is so important if you’re coming from the games industry, where it’s mature, and you already have huge products. But there is no PlayFab here yet! There are companies trying to build platforms, and you will have to partner with them and tell them how a live ops game would use this, and what needs to be built. You’ll need your picks and shovels; you’ll have to partner with a lot of people that are tangential to games right now and help them build what you need.

Find out more about Rogue Nation at the official Moonlit Games site. On 12th and 13th September 2023, Pocket Gamer Connects returns to Helsinki. Promising 20 topic tracks with insight from more than 150 speakers, there will be something to inspire and inform everyone, with Moonlit Games’ Patrick McGrath joining the Building On Blockchain stage on 13th September.

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