Gaming opportunities with cross-chain blockchain Moonbeam

In the latest episode of his Blockchain Gaming World podcast, editor-in-chief Jon Jordan talks to Sicco Naets, who is head of ecosystem at Moonbeam. Moonbeam is a Polkadot-based EVM-compatible L1 blockchain, which is focused on what it calls its “cross-chain connected smart contract platform”.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You can also listen to the podcast via the Fountain app and earn Bitcoin. Can you give us some background?

I’m Sicco Naets. I’m originally from Belgium, from Antwerp, but I moved to Canada 21 years ago. Most of my career has been in technology, so originally I started as a backend developer on Java enterprise systems, working for a very large multinational on their websites and content management system. I’ve also spent 13 years in engineering management. I used to be VP of engineering at an American startup, so I’ve managed a lot of distributed teams of engineers, microservices architecture, that kind of stuff. I transitioned to web3 at the end of 2021, so a little bit late compared to some people.

I was pretty interested in the space. My original interest was around decentralized governance. One of the things when you work at companies, the larger the company, the more bureaucracy and the more bloat and the more management, i.e. people like me, and you start to see inefficiencies. I was fascinated by, if you think about it, the way that companies are run essentially hasn’t changed in the last hundred years. I was interested in using web3 to try to deliver software without necessarily having sort of these complicated corporate structures. 

Would you call yourself a gamer?

Definitely a gamer. I started 40 years ago when I was eight years old on a Commodore 64 and I’ve been a PC gamer for 40 years. I used to have an Xbox. I think I have three PlayStation5s around the house. And I don’t know if you can see them but behind me there’s a stack of books, part of my role-playing game collection.

I’ve been playing pen and paper role-playing games since I was 13 years old. I was a very early stage Magic The Gathering player because I had a friend who had connections with Wizards of the Coast, so I was one of the first people to play that. Yeah, so I’m a nerd, basically.

Can you explain what Moonbeam is?

Moonbeam is a layer one blockchain. We’re similar to Ethereum or Polygon or Binance, and crucially, we are EVM compatible.This means if you have developed a web3 application or a series of smart contracts for Ethereum, you can basically port them over to Moonbeam and they’ll just work. Not only will they work, but we have support for all of the same developer tooling – so Hardhat and Truffle – all of the same kind of infrastructure pieces that developers expect to see. So we have Chainlink for oracles, and a branded version of Etherscan, called Moonscan. The reason we went for Ethereum compatibility is because it’s become the de facto standard for web3 development, so by doing that, you get access to the largest pool of web3 developers.

We deliver that capability as a Polkadot parachain, which means you also get the benefits of Polkadot, like forkless upgrades, onchain governance and intra-chain communications via the XCM secure communications channel. So you get the best of both worlds. 

And the specific angle we’ve added on top is what we call connected contracts. The basic idea is that if you believe the future is multi-chain, and that not one single chain will dominate, then interoperability becomes a pretty important aspect. 

The way I think about it is that you’re a developer, building a game or DeFi protocol or NFT marketplace. You start on one specific chain because you like the chain or the community or the technology. You start building there but at some point you’ve saturated the market. You’ve captured everybody that wants to play that game. Then the logical step is to start looking at other chains, which means forking your code base and porting it to the other chain. This creates a bunch of problems. Not all chains are the same. They may not support the same features. Some aspects of your game or your DeFi ecosystem may not not work on the new chain. You also increase complexity for the development team. You have to manage two distinct code bases. And from an end user experience, you can’t connect a single wallet because you have a game on chain A and a game on chain B and assets on both so you need a wallet for each.

A big part of our focus is what we call our connected contract strategy. It’s a different solution to this problem where the idea is you deploy most of the core logic for your game or application on one central chain – Moonbeam – and then via a variety of communication protocols, you interact with those other chains. They’re kind of proxies, very simple. They’re just doing atomic operations and the home chain or the core chain, the central hub essentially has visibility and knowledge of what happens on all these other chains. 

This means you don’t have all this complexity, which creates a seamless experience for your users. We think it’s just a much better way to work in a seamless way across multiple chains. 

We don’t hear much about Polkadot for gaming. Why do you think that’s the case?

Polkadot has been building out over the past five or six years but the first parachain only launched two years ago. Moonbeam was one of the first to launch but I think Polkadot was geared more towards DeFi and NFTs so I think the ecosystem is maybe a bit late to the table from a narrative perspective.

When it comes to gaming, when GameFi took off with Axie Infinity, everyone was building these fully onchain games and I think a lot of studios are now walking back, realizing that it’s very complicated to do. Smart contract developers are fairly expensive so it’s cheaper to use game developers and then sort of sprinkle web3 features rather than build a fully web3 game. People used to talk a lot about block times but while sub-second block times are fast in web3 land, it’s horribly slow in gaming land.  

My gaming monitor has a five millisecond delay, right? So I think people have realized the better way to do this is to use blockchain for what it’s good for, which is ownership and transfer of assets and use traditional gaming technology for much of the direct gaming interaction. I think once people understood that, it turns out a lot more of it is about interoperability, it’s about compatibility, it’s about software support. I think there’s been some significant momentum. 

We’ve been pushing the game narrative for about a year and we’re starting to get some serious traction. We announced a partnership with Animo [Stars Arena], which is a game that’s going to launch on PlayStation and Nintendo and Steam and Epic. We have some homegrown games too. We’re working on some other partnerships. And we’re having more teams approach and I think that’s true across the Polkadot ecosystem as a whole.

What other advantages do developers get from Moonbeam?

The other part is about support. Initially I think there was a lot of momentum with games going to chains where there were a lot of other games. The underlying logic was to get some cross-pollination but we’re getting inbound from teams coming from those larger chains and they’re saying, it turns out these chains have attracted so many games, they can’t support them. We’ve tried to make a four pillar approach. Yes, we do offer financial support via grants. We put a lot of stress on co-marketing. We give the developer relations support so when they run into technical issues, there’s people on our side that can help. And then a lot of it is cross-pollination. We’re going out and saying, hey, we’re introducing gaming studios to one another or introducing to other infrastructure teams. 

And being natively cross-chain seems like a very sensible decision for a developer to make.

The pitch is why make this very difficult and agonizing decision? I’ve been in technology for 25 years. There’s always this thing where you’re deciding is it MySQL or is it Postgres? Is it going to be AWS or Azure? You always end up with these somewhat agonizing choices and nobody has a crystal ball. If you get it wrong, you have a re-architecture project or a migration project and that can cost a lot of money, but also it’s an opportunity cost. The argument with Moonbeam is, Why make that bet? Why not deploy to a chain where you have maximum interoperability from a tooling and infrastructure point of view. In addition, we’ve put a lot of effort into providing messaging protocols and bridging and so forth. 

Does this approach create any security issues as we’ve seen with bridges?

Certainly bridges have been the Achilles Heel of web3. A lot of the big hacks over the last two to three years have been at these bridging levels. The thing we’re pushing is sort of like what we call GMP (general message passing), where rather than pushing tokens around what you’re sending is smart contract messages. 

In traditional technology, this would be similar to a messaging bus or a messaging queue where you have a chain on one side, sending instructions to another chain. They have some way of validating those instructions and then executing them. Outside of Polkadot, we’re using Layer Zero, Wormhole and Axelar for this type of thing and within Polkadot you have XCM, which is essentially a message passing protocol, in which the messages themselves are getting validated by the Polkadot Relay Chain, which adds an extra layer of security. 

Does this completely remove all risk? No, there’s no such thing as no risk, right? Every piece of code can have a bug and so forth, but it’s extra layers of security, which obviously make it harder to exploit.

Can you talk a bit more about Animo Stars Arena?

We’re pretty excited about Animo. We’ve been working on this partnership since the fall last year. It’s something we’ve wanted to talk about for a long time but they wanted to finish their development cycle and get closer to launch. I’m pretty excited about it. I think a lot of teams that are building in web3 have great ideas but they’re somewhat early or immature from a development practice and a business point of view. 

With Animo, it’s a game first. It’s not DeFi with a thin gaming veneer, where the game is not that fun and people are playing just to make money. Animo is a game first. You play because it’s fun. It has high production value. It’s accessible via these main delivery mechanisms that gamers are used to like Steam, Epic Store, PlayStation, Nintendo. You can start playing the game without buying NFTs or digital collectibles and as you get more comfortable with it, you can take ownership of these assets and start trading. 

I think that’s a way easier path for mainstream people to get into web3 rather than smacking people in the face with it, so we’re pretty excited about the partnership. It also helps when people say, ‘You say you’re a gaming blockchain but what games do you have?’

Find out more about Moonbeam via its website.

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