From farmers to kings: David Johansson’s vision for Blocklords

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In the latest episode of his Blockchain Gaming World podcast, editor-in-chief Jon Jordan talks to David Johansson, the CEO and co-founder of MetaKing Studios, who has been working on blockchain-based strategy game Blocklords off-and-on since 2017.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. So tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into blockchain gaming.

David Johansson: I’m from Sweden and that’s where I’m based these days. But I didn’t start my career in gaming. I started my career in film. So I worked, studied in the US, went to film school. I worked in Hollywood a few years, worked with a number of production companies on higher end indie films. It was a great start to my career. 

Then I randomly ended up in China and that’s where I started working in games. This is in 2013, 2014, when free-to-play gaming is taking off, especially in the West. It’d been a thing in Asia for a few years by then. I have always been a gamer so once I got into the gaming industry, I never left. It was a perfect use of my creative and producing talents.

I traveled all over China, worked on a number of projects. Some did really well, some were canceled early, as the game industry goes. And as we were building, we were really building free-to-play economies. I was spending a lot of time creating digital worlds and ecosystems where people were spending a lot of hours, a lot of time and a lot of money. 

And I would also see the negative side. We’re creating these worlds. People are spending all their time in it but the user really has no say or no equity or no ownership of the ecosystem that they’re spending so much time and effort in. And that’s when I discovered Bitcoin. A friend said, ‘Hey, look at this’, and I just kind of went down the rabbit hole. Right away I knew, gaming and crypto is the future. 

So I convinced my co-founder to look at blockchain as a way to make the kind of games we wanted to make. And right away we saw that the tech wasn’t there. This is before NFTs were even invented. So we were like, ‘How are we gonna make it work? Is it just gonna be a payment system? Are the games themselves going to become blockchains?’ Then CryptoKitties came out, NFTs were invented and that was the perfect use case to get started.

How has Blocklords changed since then?

It’s gone through a lot of iterations and looks very different now but at the core it is a very similar idea. Back in 2017, we had the original idea – you create a hero. This hero will have items. All those items will be created onchain. You conquer strongholds, which give you resources that you can use to craft those items. You trade within cities and you can conquer cities. And if you own a city, you will earn taxes from trades made in that city. It was a very simple concept at first.

What was interesting back then was that everything was onchain, so every action was a transaction, whether it was creating the hero, whether it was doing a battle, whether it was crafting an item, everything was onchain. And we quickly realized that was not a very user-friendly way of doing things. So we launched the first version in 2019 and saw there were a lot of problems with making blockchain games – infrastructure, user onboarding, getting funding. We weren’t able to make the game as good as we wanted because we were spending so much time on infrastructure. That was why in 2020 we decided to put Blocklords on pause and build scalable infrastructure that we could use to onboard millions of users, not just a few hundreds or a few thousand. 

That was when we started Seascape Networks. We also got our first funding. We launched a lot of different projects, a lot of proof-of-concept games where we were taking this concept of mass minted NFTs at scale. It was a great learning journey. We minted almost one million NFTs. We worked cross-chain, many different chains, and then 2021 happened. Everyone went crazy, play-to-earn became a thing, and everyone was asking me ‘What happened to Blocklords?’. That’s when we were able to set up MetaKings Studio, hire a new team from the ground up and go back to the game we always wanted to make.

Why do you think this is such a good genre for web3?

Even in web2 gaming, I think there’s a gap in the market for these types of strategy games. Total War has dominated the strategy/RTS field for a long time. Here in Stockholm, we have Paradox who make Crusader Kings. These are the types of games I’ve always wanted to make. We’ve been waiting for the next new Total War for 20 years, and it’s not really coming because Creative Assembly is not incentivized to change its formula. It’s too expensive to make a new engine. Same with Crusader Kings and Paradox. They have a great game on their hands and it doesn’t make sense to add battles to it.

On the mobile side, you have games like Game of War that was extremely successful. But it lacks depth. There’s no real battles. It’s all about clicking and building things. For me, the game I wanted to see even before web3 was an MMO game that has a strategy element, has those real epic battles, but where you start off as a farmer and you can work your way up to become a warrior or a ruler or eventually a king.

That’s essentially the opportunity I see in the market. The graphics and the world and the environment feels top quality and driven with web3 incentives so that you can create a sustainable economy. To me that’s the dream. 

What’s the thinking about NFTs? It’s currently pretty light touch.

Definitely we have a light touch in the way NFTs are integrated right now. This is for the user onboarding. We want it to be very easy for users to download the game and start the playing the game. They actually get a free hero now. But adding utility and power to the heroes (NFTs) is something that we’re looking at seriously. The original idea was to release as many of them as possible but as you say they don’t impact the gameplay much. We’re looking at giving them more significant boost but it’s tricky because if we make them too powerful, it becomes pay-to-win, which we don’t want. 

The squad progression system will work with heroes as you’re going to be able to go down different paths with your heroes. Then we’re adding stronghold battles. This is where you create armies with your squads and heroes and attack different types of fortresses, and this is where certain traits in your heroes will unlock certain skills which can be used during the battles. 

And then the real piece will be when the dynasty system comes out. In this you will be able to start a house, a family house. It will have its own symbol, stat boosts, and you can start marrying heroes, having kids, and build out your own dynasty. So for the heroes over time we’re going to add a lot more utility. Our philosophy is let’s get all the systems built out and then add power rather than overpower it right now and then we can’t really go back from it.

The game has a lot of resources so will you be putting them onchain?

There’s definitely an advantage to putting everything onchain but we’re more taking a step-by-step approach. If we were to put everything onchain too soon, it would create an irreversible economy.Our plan with Blocklords is to create this giant MMO-like economy, something like EVE Online, World of Warcraft, Runescape. We can’t rush it. We’re very cautious. 

The dream is to have a completely free market where every resource can be acquired for whatever the market decides. But it comes to balancing, how are those resources given out? How do the systems make sense? We see a future where all of the resources are onchain, but it’s going to take a long time to decide exactly how that looks and what it feels like.

What’s the plan for the 1-of-1 Lord and Lady NFTs you’ve been selling?

Essentially, the way we want to build it is that when a Lord claims a region, they’re incentivized to get as many farmers as possible farming in their lands. We’ve already seen it happening. There’s one Lord in particular, Arthur the ‘Ard who has 700 players in his land. That’s the first step once you become a ruler: you are incentivized to get as many people as possible into your region.

You can do that by building different types of buildings. We have the library building, which was very costly in terms of resources to build and took several weeks. We have the city hall, which can be upgraded and will allow you to change your taxes and to enact buffs that affect your region. The idea is that once a ruler takes over, they start collecting taxes. The taxes go to the city coffer. The Lord can claim some rewards from the city coffers every day, but that lowers your order and prosperity.

Over time, we want the Lords and the Ladies to upgrade and improve their regions, enact as many policies that give buffs as possible, and essentially compete for players. Eventually there’s going to be wars, when you attack and steal and that’s when the real fun begins. 

That’s a trend I’m seeing in other games. You have to put in time and resources to gain high status.

There will be  a number of players who just want to extract whatever they can. Those are the farmers. That’s why when you play the farming gameplay, it’s a lot of clicking. It’s very intentional. We don’t want to automate it. You have to be actively managing it. 

Farming is the core of the economy and if you’re smart, you can earn. Then we’re adding the fighting element because fighting is the fun. It’s the high risk high reward stuff. You can do a crazy raid but if you lose your army, well, you got to go back to grinding.

And at the top, we have the rulers, the lords, and eventually the kings. But for them, it’s not just about the earnings. Some of them will only be in it for earning, and that’s fine, but they’re going to have to play very smart, and it’s not guaranteed at all. They can earn but mostly it’s about status. That is what people pay for. It is status, to be powerful, to be a guild leader, to have the coolest skins. That is what they’re paying for at the end of the day.

What should we expect over the next six months?

Right now, we’re working on the squad progression system and the economy. At the moment, there’s a lot of demand for stone and wood but not for food, so the squad progression system will allow you to upgrade your squads to form battle squads but that will require a lot of food. 

Stronghold battles are coming towards the end of the year or maybe early next year. There also are farm PVE battles, which you access by unlocking sector three. That should be out in the coming month. In that you will get attacked by bears, you will get attacked by raiders and you’ll have to defend yourself. There will be rewards attached but mostly it’s about breaking the monotony of farming. 

Other than that, the dynasty system is a huge one. We’re going to be launching it step-by-step. You’ll be able to form your house. You’ll be able to get married, have kids. That’s very important for the web3 element. It’s probably coming out early 2024. And we’re looking at a couple of chain integrations. 

We’re not announcing it officially yet, so this is some alpha, but there is going be a token drop eventually for the Lords token, which is the Blocklord’s token.That’s a good way to say thank you to the players who are spending a lot of time and a lot of effort in helping us make a better game. That’s basically it for the next six months. That’s already a lot of work. 

Find out more about Blocklords via its website or download it from Epic Games Store.

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