Proof of Play’s vision for 100% onchain gaming

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In the latest episode of his Blockchain Gaming World podcast, editor-in-chief Jon Jordan talks to Proof of Play CEO Amitt Mahajan about the US studio’s vision for fully onchain games, in which all assets and game logic run on the blockchain.

Proof of Play currently has its debut game Pirate Nation running on the Arbitrum Nova blockchain, with Mahajan’s expectation being that as well as the studio launching new games using the same assets, other developers will also take the opportunity to build their own experiences due to its permissionless rules.

This transcription has been edited for length and clarity. Can you give us some background on your career?

Amitt Mahajan: I started programming when I was nine and literally the first piece of software I made was a game. I always wanted to be a game developer. I was building 3D engines in high school. John Carmack was my inspiration. And then after college, I went to Epic Games where I worked on Unreal Engine, Gears of War, Unreal Tournament before leaving and starting my first company, which made a game called MyMiniLife

We tried that for a bit. It didn’t quite work, so we started to build games using the technology that we’d developed. Our first game was a farming simulator that was bought by Zynga, got rebranded as FarmVille, and was a huge hit on Facebook. 

Then I started another company focused on growth for mobile games, which was bought by Google in 2014. I had a brief stint where I helped get this product called Fig off the ground, which was crowdfunding for games. A bunch of really good games came through that like Rock Band 4 and Psychonauts 2.

My passion’s always been between tech and art and virtual worlds, the nexus of these ideas so I also started to invest in companies in the VR/AR space. I was pretty early to that before the metaverse got completely co-opted. And in the process, I got deeper and deeper into crypto. CryptoKitties came out, which was one of the first NFT games, and I was like ‘We should build games based on NFTs”.

Dug a bit more into it and thought ‘There’s gonna be a lot of people doing this. Maybe I should build the way that all of these games exchange value with each other?’. So with some friends I started a company called Rarebits, which was one of the first NFT marketplaces. That worked for a while but it was kind of middling and eventually the team burned out so we shut the company down in 2020. Six months later, the NFT market really took off. Timing’s everything, right? 

So what’s so exciting about onchain games?

I took some time off, saw this entire craziness happen and in 2021, I thought we were at the state we could actually make onchain games. It’s still early. We are 100% early.

But the concept for me was this idea of permanence and this idea of composability. I’m obsessed with this idea that if I’m working on something, I want it to outlast me. Even if I go away, if the company goes away, I want this thing to continue to live on because then it’s been part of the zeitgeist. It’s part of the flow of technological innovation. With FarmVille, 300 million players, a billion hours put into it, but then the database was wiped in 2020. All the investment and creativity and the stories, all the items people purchased, all that stuff was gone.

The story of blockchain is you own the assets but even if you have the assets, if I shut the game down, it doesn’t matter. Ultimately the real value is not just in the pieces. It’s in the utility behind those things as well. The differentiation between a traditional blockchain game as they’ve existed so far and onchain games is this idea of just giving you the NFTs versus putting the logic and the gameplay on chain as well.

Then there’s composability. I’ve been building games for a long time And I keep building the same things again and again. I have to go and build a levelling system, and I build a crafting thing. Then I have to figure out some sort of player attack mechanism, usually based off of Dungeons & Dragons. I’ll pull these things together, and now I’ve got the skeleton of the game. I’ll tweak them, and now I have something new. 

Something really interesting is when I build a game onchain, all of the modules, all the pieces of the game are there. Someone can take the game and completely fork it. They can add to it. They can remix it. So what we’ve done is every game that’s added and created now becomes a building block for the next game. And that becomes the building up for the game after that. 

Someone could take Pirate Nation, they can fork it and create Ninja Nation or Space Nation. I hope someone does. We’re already seeing this in terms of what people are doing with our clients. We built our Unity client, but someone else built a command line client. They have a terminal that they use to play the game. It’s really cool. It’s a return to the open and decentralized nature of the internet. The game becomes a protocol. And so that was the idea behind Proof of Play.

We’re not saying ‘Let’s build blockchain games because web3 is hot’. No. I think there’s a new way of building stuff. There’s new opportunities to create new types of gameplay and new ways to enable developers to create, innovate further and move faster. That’s the idea we’re exploring with this company.

Why do you think so many people in the game sector are anti-blockchain?

I’ve been through many cycles of tech at this point and there’s always going to be a vocal minority in games. There always has been. And I say it’s a vocal minority. We went from box software to online software to downloading new content, in-app purchases, social games, mobile games, now blockchain games, VR games. And for every one of these, someone said ‘It’s bad for gaming because’ … for whatever reason. But ultimately this technology is ethically neutral.

NFTs aren’t inherently bad. They’re actually just wrappers, right? All they do is provide a wrapper for ownership. You can create monkey jpegs and pump those all you want. Or you could tokenize real estate and fractionalize it so you can get some equity out of your house without having to sell the entire thing. These things are just utilities, and I think the same thing is true of the database itself.

However, there are restrictions. For game developers, blockchain is very restrictive as a technology. For web2 game, I have a database and it’s super fast. I can do tons of writes and I build my game. That’s not the case for blockchain so there has to be another reason to adopt this technology and most people haven’t seen it yet. In that way, it’s a reasonable thing to be distrustful of, especially with all the nonsense that’s happening in the markets. But I do think people are missing the nuance of how these things can potentially be used. 

Anyone who’s building games right now using this tech and not doing NFT sales and the like is pushing the state forward, right? We’re pushing the industry forward. We think it’s possible to create a really fun game using this stuff. And, by the way, I don’t think anyone has done it yet. I think people have gotten close and there’s some really talented teams and really polished projects, but I don’t think anyone’s cracked it yet. But I think we’re pretty close. 

Our approach is build a fun game first, hide all the complexity of the tech. I don’t think people care about it. Later, they can figure out about the permanence and the tradeability and all this other stuff that’s later in the user journey. Just focus on getting them in and giving them a great fun experience.

So why is Pirate Nation your first game?

So we needed a theme for the game and pirates just seemed … I don’t know how we came up with it. Pirates. It’s like a pretty good theme. Like a lot of people know it. One Piece is huge in Japan. Pirates are huge worldwide so we just started to hack on it and the truth is we’re building in public.

The first version of the game was really simple. We didn’t even have a Unity client, we had a web-based version. We did a free mint in November and then launched the game in December 2022. Every week, we launch updates. For me, Pirate Nation isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. It’s the thing where we figure out how to build onchain games; we figure out how to make our technology work, right? 

Pirate Nation is our sandbox. How do we make user onboarding work really smoothly? How do we get this working on mobile? How do we do random numbers? How do we make it so that we can build much more complicated gameplay? We’re just figuring this all out in Pirate Nation

Then we’re going to take that technology stack and use it to build the next game and the next game and the next game. Because what’s cool about it is composability. Everything we put onchain is not just there for other people to make games, it’s also there for us to make future games. So we’re done writing a quest system. We have one. It’s built. It’s done. I’m never writing another one again in my life because I already have one. It’s onchain. I can just fork my existing code and just keep going with it. And so you can imagine what this does for your ability to launch new products.

My hope is that we get to the point where we’re constantly launching new products. But the one thing I will clarify is that when I first pitched this company, I didn’t say we’re a games studio. I said we’re a single game studio. So even if we have a completely different website and we call it Space Nation, Ninja Nation, whatever it may be, because the nature of these things is onchain, everything is connected. Everything is part of the same universe. 

One way to think about it is we’re creating the equivalent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Pirate Nation is our Iron Man, it’s the first thing, but we can easily go and create Ninja Nation. It’s just a different entry point into the same universe. The intention is that if you look at our characters and you look at what we’re doing with those avatars, my hope is that we end up taking that character art and those character entities and they end up going to every single world. 

So the story of your pirate, he became a level 20 pirate and that’s part of the account history and the NFT history but then he went to a portal and now he’s in Ninja Nation and he became a level one ninja and started levelling up and doing this other stuff. It’s possible to start creating these interweaved universes. I’m not going to use the word metaverse, but it seems similar, right?

But let’s be very clear. That’s not our goal. We’re just trying to make fun games and we’ll see where it goes.

Your vision is in contrast to much of the activity in blockchain games, which could be described as “web2.5”.

It’s hard to build onchain. It’s definitely harder but the thesis is that if we can actually build the tools, if we can actually figure out how to build the games, well, then we can accelerate development. It’s faster in some ways to build onchain than it is to build a centralized game. 

Obviously there are types of games we can’t build. We can’t build a FPS onchain. Doesn’t make sense. But there’s a type of game that works really well and we also get a whole bunch of other things for free. All the economic trading stuff, the trustless environment, security and auditability. People can see what other people are doing. They can see if anyone’s cheating. Everyone can see it. The community has become part of our playtesters.

This is the most interesting part. I’ve built games before. Why would I want to go and build another mobile gaming company and just replace the payment rails? It’s not appealing to me personally or intellectually but this stuff is because it’s new. And I think you’re going to start getting to a place where you can enable new types of gameplay – the ability for people to do UGC, to create their own generated content, to be able to do plugins for the game. You can’t replicate that with web 2.5 games. 

Find out more at the Proof of Play website.

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