Introducing Proof of Play & announcing our seed round led by a16z & Greenoaks
We announced our seed round for Proof of Play today, led by Chris Dixon at a16z and Neil Mehta at Greenoaks. I’ve known both Chris and Neil for over a decade and it’s a privilege to partner with them and have their support in our mission.
As part of this announcement I want to share my thoughts around why we founded Proof of Play, the future of game development, and the role of decentralized technology in that future.
Proof of Play is both a game studio and technology company. Our mission is to create fun, accessible onchain games and, in the process, develop novel technology that makes onchain game development easier for everyone.
Fun is all that matters
Players just want to play fun games. They do not care if their favorite game is on AWS or Ethereum. Unfortunately, many blockchain products are currently perceived as complicated or requiring expensive purchases to begin playing.
With this in mind, Proof of Play’s goal is to create fun, accessible, games where the underlying technology is invisible to players. By delivering a frictionless and free gaming experience, we believe players will initially play for enjoyment. Over time, they'll discover the benefits of onchain gaming as they delve deeper into the universes they play and create in.
We’re currently focused on building and enhancing our first game, Pirate Nation. Pirate Nation is a fully onchain role-playing game (RPG) where players assemble their pirate crews, battle fantastic creatures, and compete with other players to top the leaderboards. We recently made the game free-to-play so that more people can easily try out an onchain game. Pirate Nation is also our sandbox; it’s our research project for the hard problems that we need to solve to bring onchain games to everyone on every device.
Why onchain games?
An onchain game is a game that completely runs on and has all of its data on a decentralized blockchain. Fully onchain games do not use centralized servers. Instead, a network of decentralized nodes handles the game's logic, history, and ensures that players are making valid moves. Games that are onchain are, therefore, more secure, more resilient (they last as long as their blockchain is around), and are infinitely extensible by anyone.
It’s also worth drawing a distinction between onchain games and other types of blockchain games. Many other blockchain games are normal games that replace their optional downloadable content (DLC) or in-app purchases with NFTs. So instead of buying an item with a credit card that is then in a database, players are buying NFTs that are stored on a blockchain. In these games the game servers and continued operation of the game is still dependent on the game creator, a centralized entity. It’s like players paying for and owning the pieces of a chess set but still having to use the board and rulebook of the set manufacturer. This is not a judgment of these projects, many of which are great games built by talented teams, instead it highlights the technical complexity and nuance players have to navigate when deciding to invest their time in a game that uses blockchain technology.
Onchain games are permanent
In traditional server-based games players do not own their in-game items or the utility behind them; it doesn't matter if they earned them, paid for them, or were gifted them by other players. Once the company decides to shut down the game and stop paying their server costs, the virtual items, and the ability to use those items within gameplay, are gone.
As one of the creators of the game FarmVille, I saw this firsthand as 300 million players invested over a billion hours into their digital farms. In 2020, due to a shift from web to mobile gaming technology, FarmVille was shut down and those billion hours of player investment were forever lost. There had to be a better way.
My journey to onchain gaming started with the observation that any data that isn’t on a blockchain is inherently ephemeral. Data stored on the Ethereum blockchain, however, is copied across thousands of nodes all over the world and is the closest thing we have to a piece of data that could last thousands of years. For a fee, anyone can write data to Ethereum. In many ways, Ethereum is a modern time-capsule that contains the collective knowledge and digital art for anyone that chooses to put it there.
With an onchain game, players can continue to run a blockchain node or make a complete copy of the game and continue to operate and develop it on their own. Onchain games are truly forever games: when players level up their characters, create worlds, or gather loot, the results of their gameplay are forever stored on the blockchain and available to them without any risk of losing their progress.
Onchain games are extensible by anyone
Since the earliest PC games, players have been modifying games in various ways. Whether by adding new maps to Doom or creating entirely new games (Counter-Strike from Half-Life & DoTA from Warcraft 3), modding has been part of gaming and game development culture from the beginning. I personally got my start in game development by modding Quake.
Being able to build on top of, and remix, an existing game takes the daunting task of creating a new universe and simplifies it, making it accessible for anyone to be able to create gameplay. As games have moved from downloadable software to services, however, the ability for players to modify games has become gated by centralized, siloed, databases and a lack of data portability.
Onchain games reverse this trend and supercharge user-generated content (UGC). An onchain game is open source and open data by default, meaning anyone can add new features or components to the game. They can take the data from the game and create their own websites or even create their own game clients. This is similar to how the web was originally created: a set of open, publicly accessible protocols and content that anyone could publish, link to, or create a new browser for. Onchain games are a return to the open, decentralized, and collaborative nature of the game development.
Evolving game development
Modern games are often compositions of a few common game mechanics mixed together and balanced in a unique way. Game developers recreate the same mechanics again and again with every new game they work on. Most of this code and logic is the same, just slightly tweaked for the specific game.
By putting both source code and data onchain, we’re creating a foundation for future games and communities to be built. In the blockchain ecosystem, this is known as composability and it’s a powerful concept that allows applications to leverage each other to build faster. In games, this supercharges creativity and creates a positive-sum environment for creators to quickly remix or enhance each other’s games. At scale, you have an exponential growth of creativity. This is a new paradigm for game development.
To make a bold prediction: I believe it will be eventually faster and more efficient to make games onchain rather than offchain. The time and capital cost of not having to run your own servers or worry about security while benefiting from collective, open-sourced packages and modules will let developers ship faster than ever before.
Beyond games towards autonomous worlds
Sufficiently complex games don’t look like games anymore, they begin to resemble societies, complete with economies, sophisticated governance, and politics. MMOs have these dynamics today: virtual item marketplaces and the crafters that power them resemble real-world markets and traders. MMO guilds have complex control structures to govern their raid operations and determine fair loot distribution.
The physical world is zero-sum with scarce energy and resources. Conversely, a digital universe has no constraints. There’s no digital scarcity unless it’s introduced by a creator or game designer. One of our goals as we build tools is to enable and encourage everyone to be a creator and for the community of creators to govern the rules of their worlds. If we design technology that does not limit the creator, and makes it trivial to build on the creations of others, we believe that there will be an unbounded explosion of user-driven content. The best example of this is a game like Minecraft, where the simple “place a block” and “delete a block” operation has led to people building entire universes, creating pre-made set pieces for others to utilize, and even creating computers within the game itself.
Drawing an analogy: in computer science, a Turing-Complete computer is a machine that can perform any possible computation. Similarly, it’s possible to create a Turing-Complete creation tool that empowers creators to create any type of world. When unbounded creative ability is combined with the permanent, composable (non-zero-sum) nature of onchain applications, we enable the creation of rich digital universes that are self-sufficient.
These new types of fully decentralized digital universes are being called autonomous worlds by the broader blockchain ecosystem. We believe that onchain games are the gateway to this new, positive-sum, digital realm and we’re excited to contribute to the creation of this future.
Working with us
We are on the cutting-edge of decentralized technology and are utilizing this tech in ways to create products that were not possible before. Everyday our team is forced to be creative and invent novel technical and design solutions that work within this new server-less and trust-less paradigm. This is not a copy-and-paste existing answers type of company. There are no best-practices yet in this space, so we’re forced to invent our own from first principles.
Tasks that are trivial to do with centralized servers, such as gameplay validation, random number generation, and game economy balance are much more difficult on a public blockchain. To solve these problems we’ve had to develop new solutions like signless-gasless gameplay, cross-chain asset mirroring, onchain databases, and trade-locking. The problems are challenging and interesting.
We're also incorporating the latest developments from the broader Ethereum ecosystem, including account abstraction and zero-knowledge proofs (ZK). Whenever possible, we contribute back to the onchain ecosystem through open-source, talks, and community engagement.
All these technologies converge in an onchain game engine we're developing for our games. Unlike Unity and Unreal, which emphasize graphical representation, onchain game engines are primarily focused on data. We gauge the quality of our engine, and it’s accompanying tool-chain, by how quickly and easily we can ship new game features. We’re excited to open-source this technology in the future, once we’ve proven it’s merits through our own products.
Our intentionally lean team is composed of entirely senior-level, self-motivated individuals with a desire to push boundaries and have a big impact not just at Proof of Play but within this new sector. Several of us were formerly founders and technology-leads in previous jobs and thrive in the uncertainty of creating something new.
If this type of challenge and culture resonates, check out our jobs page and reach out. We have an open application and opportunistically hire exceptional people with a focus towards engineering.
Thanks for reading and joining us in this journey. We hope to see you onchain!
CEO & Cofounder, Proof of Play