Blockchain Gaming: Where to Launch Your Game
An Deep Dive into Execution Layers for Blockchain Games
A year ago blockchain gaming was at the stage of “could maybe get big in the future”. Today, according to Sky Mavis, every day a group of people as big as the Slovenian population logs into Axie Infinity. 2021 saw the inception of multiple $100+ million blockchain gaming funds, with many more looking to get a piece of the rapidly growing play-to-earn cake. We find ourselves in the middle of a new technology space blowing up, pretty much unlike anything ever seen before. Meanwhile, the technological infrastructure upon which it is based, namely general application blockchains, is arguably still in development mode.
The Ethereum Layer 1, the biggest and most famous such blockchain, has been rendered useless for most applications due to its high gas costs. This includes, of course, games. At the same time, the demand for blockchain applications has skyrocketed. The criticism of “blockchain is a solution to a problem which doesn’t exist” has been thoroughly and empirically disproven, resulting in a Cambrian explosion of Ethereum challengers, as well as scaling solutions building on top of it.
From talking to lots of games in different stages of their developments, the most common question we get is: “Where should we launch our game?” Not surprising, considering all the options out there, all of which are pushing their own carefully put together comparison tables which show beyond any shred of doubt that they are the best.
Polygon Network is an Ethereum sidechain, meaning that transactions on the chain get executed by validators on Polygon, leaving only finality to the Ethereum network. This significantly lowers the strain on Ethereum, to the point where a transaction costs just fractions of a cent during normal circumstances. Furthermore, Polygon has an extensive roadmap. In the coming years they will be launching zk-rollups and optimistic rollups, which will likely be superior to the current plasma/sidechain.
Apart from having several orders of magnitude lower transaction costs, this is their main differentiator from Binance Smart Chain (BSC): BSC is happy to simply remain an Ethereum fork with 20 validators. For games, which generally do not have the highest security demands, this is not an issue in and of itself. That said, for a chain which is not even currently competitive technologically, it is a problem. BSC currently has a massive ecosystem with the most games out of any chain, but it is associated with a project quality ranging from low-quality to outright scams. Serious projects should look elsewhere.
And this elsewhere may very well be the home of Axie Infinity. Axie is a behemoth in the space. It has more daily active users than every other blockchain game put together, and its extreme success is the main driver of the dark horse in the gaming battlegrounds: Ronin. From a technical perspective, Ronin is nothing special; it’s simply another Ethereum sidechain with high throughput and low transaction costs. However, Ronin has something no other chain has — hundreds of thousands of daily users who all use the chain exclusively for play-to-earn gaming. By launching on Ronin, a P2E is automatically exposed to several million people who are right in the middle of their target group. Ronin has the moat of Axie. Furthermore, as it is a Sky Mavis project, Ronin will receive continuous support from the top dogs in the game. 15% of the Ronin supply will go to an ecosystem fund, and we can safely assume that the community-building ethos of Axie will transfer to Ronin. That said, we do not yet know what Sky Mavis plan for the chain. It is Proof-of-Authority and it is currently not open to anyone wanting to build on it.
There’s no getting away from Solana. In December, Solana Ventures launched a $150 million fund for play-to-earn games on the chain. Solana has been hugely successful in growing its ecosystem. Despite not yet having launched, games such as Aurory, Solchicks, and Star Atlas have gained massive amounts of traction and hundreds of millions in implied valuations. The games on Solana tend to be polished AAA games, and thus very different from the chains we have so far discussed. It has drawn many non- originally-crypto tech people into crypto, and that is reflected in the kinds of games that are being built on the chain.
While Solana has justifiably been criticized for its hardware requirements effectively making the chain centralized, this trade-off for speed and low fees could be argued to be worth it for games. In contrast to the Ethereum L1, usability is prioritized over decentralization. The chain will continue to up the computational demands on individual validators if necessary, in order to guarantee users that it will continue to be as fast and cheap as it currently is, regardless of the growth of the network. Therefore, from the perspective of fees and speed alone, Solana could be argued to be future-proof, some insane mass-adoption event notwithstanding.
The tl;dr on Polygon vs Solana for games is:
- Both are very cheap and very fast, with an edge to Polygon
- There is currently significantly more money being invested in the Solana ecosystem, with more AAA games
- Polygon has a more sustainable roadmap, since it doesn’t rely on hardware improvements for its future scaling propositions
- Finally, Solana is more of an isolated island. Polygon is not just EVM-compatible, but has a safe bridge to the Ethereum main chain, and by extension of that easily and safely connects to other Ethereum L2s.
Ronin is more difficult to compare, since there is currently only one dApp running on the chain. There are currently 0 gas fees for everything not involving depositing or withdrawing funds. Although this will change with the imminent launch of the RON token, the fees will likely remain very low, probably competitive with Polygon. If they succeed, as Sky Mavis has a tendency to do, Ronin will become the play-to-earn chain. Games who have already built with an EVM-chain in mind should seriously consider Ronin, since being one of the first games there will inevitably lead to lots and lots of players at least trying it out.
Finally, Immutable X is in many ways an improved best-of-both-worlds combination of Polygon and Solana. Immutable is built as a StarkEx instance, meaning that it’s its own zk-rollup (more on what this means shortly). It has zero gas-fees, massive scalability, and rapid finality. Furthermore, Immutable, like Solana, has been able to attract several AAA games, such as Illuvium, Ember Sword, and Guild of Guardians. All of these are still in development, and of the games already out on the chain, the most well-known is the much simpler card game Gods Unchained. Nevertheless, the chain is up and running, and there’s no reason to believe that it will not handle the increased load as gradually more games deploy on the chain.
Worth mentioning here is that Immutable X, unlike the other chains in this article, is not currently Turing-complete, meaning that the games deploying on the chain will not “exist” on-chain, in a certain sense. Specifically, any game on Immutable will rely on an off-chain server to the point where, if that server were to go down, it would not be possible to play the game beyond trading the in-game assets. That said, this is how the vast majority of current blockchain games work: assets on-chain, actual game off-chain. Whether or not this is the future of blockchain gaming remains to be seen, and although we won't discuss it directly any further, it's worth to keep in mind for the next section.
For Games Launching in 2023 and Later
The rise of monstrous gaming computers is testament to the hardware demands of traditional high-quality games, and blockchain games depend on some analogous factors such as latency (time to finality) and bandwidth (often measured in tps). It is painfully clear that a lot of blockchain infrastructure cannot remain the same over the duration of the coming years.
We’ve already mentioned Polygon’s plans to expand into the rollup space, and this is probably the direction in which the space is headed. Simply put, nodes on current blockchains have several tasks, meaning that the chains are not optimized for any one specific task. By modularizing and creating more specialized blockchain layers, scalability can be improved significantly, analogously to the conveyor belt in a factory setting.
The layer on top of which many games of the future will live, are called rollups. There are two types of rollups, but optimistic rollups are irrelevant for games, and we’ll focus on zk-rollups.
Whereas optimistic rollups assume validity until proven otherwise, zk-rollups — or validity rollups, as Starkware founder Eli Ben-Sasson prefers to call them, use zero knowledge proofs to mathematically prove the validity of each transaction. We will not go into the tech aspects here, but there's lots of cool maths. With just a single proof you can prove the validity of more transactions than you’d ever wish to.
Therefore, at this point, the scalability bottleneck is the need to post calldata on the Ethereum chain. This is not strictly necessary; by instead delegating the job of keeping data available to some off-chain entity, you can add another 5-10x in terms of tps. Such a rollup is called a validium.
Validium rollups do sacrifice some security for the added scalability, since the data availability committee could technically collude or become compromised and therefore hold back the data and make it impossible to do anything on the rollup. Nevertheless, this trade-off is worth it for games. There is already one validium-based game, namely the StarkEx-powered Sorare. While Sorare is currently its own rollup, it will migrate to StarkNet once possible, due to the advantages of interoperability with other dapps.
Starknet uses what they call volition, where the individual user themselves can choose whether or not they want to pay for their transaction data going on-chain — zkSync will offer a similar solution. Needless to say, validia are going to offer immense scale, combined with significantly higher security guarantees than sidechains.
Additionally, StarkNet games will benefit from an added layer of interoperability via Topology. To explain what Topology is doing and at the same time underline its importance, let’s consider interoperability in the current blockchain gaming space: Since players own in-game characters and assets as NFTs, the same character could potentially be used in different games, in clear contrast to the closed gaming ecosystems of today. However, for the time being this possibility is severely limited by gameplay differences: Sure, you can take your Pikachu out of Pokémon Sun and Moon and into Super Smash Bros, however it will not be the same Pikachu; it will move differently, sound differently, and its attacks will look different.
By building standards on the level of physics and fundamental gameplay, Topology will enable games to reach a new level of interoperability — Pikachu will behave like Pikachu, regardless of the game, as long is it incorporates Topology’s standards. As they’re being built in parallel to the development of StarkNet, games can integrate these standards essentially from the very beginning. If everything goes to plan, StarkNet could find itself having a gaming ecosystem which is coherent on a whole other level than all the alternatives. For a tiny taste of what they're up to, look at their website, the entire content of which is derived from a contract on StarkNet alpha.
Barring Topology, there are a lot of smart minds building in the zk-rollup space, and we expect similar innovations in the zkSync and Polygon zk ecosystems.
Polygon is currently a great alternative for blockchain games: It’s fast, very cheap, and developer-friendly, with a massive ecosystem. Furthermore, they have spent more than half a billion dollars in acquisitions of zk protocols, with Zero, Hermez, and Miden all driving innovation in the space. Polygon will remain a gaming Mecca, relatively speaking, for the foreseeable future (which, granted, is not a very long time in the blockchain world), and will only get better as they move on from being purely an Ethereum sidechain.
Solana, on the other hand, will not compete with the other chains we’ve discussed here. For a recent example, after the January market crash the network was down for 48 hours. It’s not the first time. These may just be growing pains, as the devs claim, but the roadmap does not suggest improved scalability if not for hardware improvements. There may be many AAA games building on the chain, but for these, Immutable X is certainly a better option.
Indeed, although Immutable is more limited than both Polygon and Solana in the sense that you can only keep the assets on-chain, it compensates for this with its zero fees and lightning-quick time to finality. It’s specifically built for the purpose of NFTs and games, whereby the users will not have to worry about DeFi applications clogging up the chain.
An even less general-purpose chain, Ronin is currently in closed development, and it’s difficult to predict exactly what the chain will look like in 6 months time, however it is certainly in a very strong position when it comes to attracting play-to-earn gamers. If Sky Mavis are smart about it, and there is no reason to believe that they wouldn’t be, Ronin could become completely dominating in the play-to-earn space — even more so than Axie currently is.
In terms of scalability, the limitations of the current monolithic chains are already abundantly clear. Even Polygon was brought to its knees in early January, as the game Sunflower Farmers caused network congestion. Modular blockchains, specifically validia, are the future of gaming. StarkNet, zkSync, and the Polygon zk ecosystem will bring unseen levels of scalability to the space, and STARK/SNARK technology is set to improve drastically over the next few years.
It is of course unclear which of these zk-rollups will prove to be the top option, although currently there is a lot of interesting activity on StarkNet, which seems the furthest ahead in terms of people building on it. We are particularly extremely excited about Topology — if they are able to execute on their extremely ambitious plans, both the level and kind of gaming interoperability on StarkNet will be beyond anything we’ve currently seen, blockchain or not.
Furthermore, zk-Rollups will be developer-friendly. Indeed, so-called zkEVMs are currently being developed by both zkSync and Polygon Hermez, and Nethermind’s Warp transpiler will allow for developers to build with Solidity on StarkNet. As a short aside, Starkware’s own language Cairo, although currently a bit of a nuisance to work with, has several advantages relative to Solidity. In particular, being a lower-level language opens up opportunities for developers to build more specialized libraries and opens up for new applications and use cases (see Topology). It’s also optimized for STARKs, very much unlike the EVM.
Looking past the Cairo vs Solidity debate, although Polygon’s zk-rollups and validia are not as far along in terms of development, they will be extremely scalable once launched — especially the validia, which will incorporate Polygon’s own data availability layer Avail. Presumably building on the current Polygon network will make for a painless transition to any of their EVM-compatible rollups once the latter ones are out.
Expect the harshest competition to take place between Polygon and Starkware these coming years.
The Avalanche ecosystem has experienced an explosive growth over the course of the past six months. Although mainly used for DeFi, we are starting to see some games deploying on the network. It’s faster than Polygon, but the fees are higher by an order of magnitude. Avalanche should be an interesting option for games which are mainly aimed at the DeFi crowd, as emphasized by the decision of the massive farming game success Defi Kingdoms to deploy on the chain. Is it future proof? Avalanche’s technology of subnets can be seen as a horizontal way to scale, as contrasted with rollups. It’s innovative, however in terms of scalability it will not compete with validia.
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