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In mythology, when you died, you needed a coin to pay the ferryman Charon to take you across the rivers that separated the living and the dead. You needed to pay quick, without haggling an exchange rate, and get in the boat without making a fuss. What would happen if Charon was gamified and players could use fiat, crypto, or non-crypto virtual currency to pay him? So when it came to re-working the in-game cryptocurrency design for Age of Rust, there was only one thing to do; figure out how players wanted to pay the riverboat man.

In the alpha test of Age of Rust, players could buy things in the game with cryptocurrency. Buying, selling, trading, depositing, and withdrawing were all there and while it was interesting to watch the in-game dynamics ebb and flow within the financial system of the game, players wanted something else. The use of cryptocurrency made players think about not only stores of value but also what they needed to do to spend it. This was the case even with a relatively free cryptocurrency such as testnet coins on the Bitcoin blockchain. The knee-jerk reaction is to assume that players don’t want to part with cryptocurrency in a game environment, but that’s not the case either. It turns out, it’s more complex than that.

As Age of Rust moves into a beta stage of development, the player community asked for a basic currency and a premium currency, but I wanted to know why. Players didn’t want to use cryptocurrency for items like health kits or other sundries in the game. Yet, to get ahead of other players or seek an opportunity to gain an advantage, players still wanted to use something more substantial, a cryptocurrency. Likewise, for rewards, players preferred a way to gain cryptocurrency over a standard virtual currency, even if both were free.

Bottlecaps, Creds, and Meseta

I talked with players, played the game, played other games and tried to understand what players needed and what players wanted with in-game currency. Players, including myself, weren’t distracted by the use of cryptocurrency either as in pulling them out of the game universe into the realities of dealing with real-world funds. At times cryptocurrency can be distracting for players; conversions, valuing, dealing with technical issues, and security issues. Still, even with all of those issues, players were still willing to deal with those things in many different games. Ultimately it came down to that age old balance of need versus want.

As it turns out, most players want two kinds of in-game currency to play with, one that is basic and one that is premium. The basic currency has to cover the needs in the game and the premium currency to deal with the wants. The model breaks in a few games, most notably gambling games as one could imagine. In any case, the experience of the game shapes how players think about using cryptocurrency even when that crypto might be free. It’s easy to fall into the narrative of the freemium debate, but it’s deeper than that, because it taps into the player’s world of value. While it doesn’t seem intuitive at first, free has a value when there’s a work effort behind it. The same mindset extends into cryptocurrency and that’s where the player starts to make choices either for entertainment or financial reasons.

There are those that enjoy the details of working with cryptocurrency in a game, the strategy of it, the mechanics of the inner workings of the transactions, the recording of the details and analysis of it. There’s also those that just want to play a game, get comfy, and disappear into a universe for a bit. Somewhere and at some point a choice is made, while the reasons are dynamic, one thing is clear, the game experience shapes the in-game currency experience. Value is determined by that experience and the wants and needs of the player. The mindset of the player will decide whether or not they want to use cryptocurrency as a game mechanic.

It’s not about the confirmation times

One of our alpha-version players was also playing another crypto-based game online, a strategy game, and a conversation struck up about why that particular game charged crypto for everything. The conversation centered around using an altcoin for faster confirmation times versus using Bitcoin with a longer confirmation time. I’ve heard this argument before, that Bitcoin is bad for gaming, because you may need to wait longer than 10 minutes for transactions to confirm. The implication there is that if you buy a game asset, that players want to use that game asset as soon as the transaction is made or under a minute. I asked whether or not this particular game used Bitcoin or not; it turns out that it used alt-coins and Bitcoin. “Give it a try”, so, I decided to sign up and play it.

That particular game we were playing had a couple thousand players at the time and had more than a few alt-coins integrated into it. In the game, you’re building bases, defending them, etc. We played for a bit and then we were in the chat box and I asked how many people were using the supported altcoins to buy game items. A few players said they playing using the alt-coins, but most just wanted to get whatever they could from the game without having to spend any cryptocurrency. I asked why players weren’t willing to spend some of the alt-coins (which some were averaging thousands of a fraction of a cent) for an upgrade in the game. For the most part, players didn’t want to deal with the time to spend it. I asked more than a few in some private message exchanges whether it made a difference on settlement of transactions. What the answers boiled down to is that it didn’t matter because they didn’t even want to open a wallet or go to an exchange to login and withdrawl.

While the strategy game was interesting, the mechanics of it forced players to deal with alt-coins or Bitcoin wallets to buy upgrades for forward progression in quick succession. It didn’t matter if it took 1 minute or 20 minutes for players to get game assets, the players didn’t care either way, what they did care about was talking about trading coins, analyzing transactions, and getting coins through other means than the game. The focus of the game became more about the coins than the actual game. I don’t believe the developer had this in mind, but that’s what happened. The game became about cryptocurrency rather than the game universe. Players were distracted and cloistered away in the universe of cryptocurrency and not the strategy of base building and defending them.

Unleaded and Premium

As a game developer, building a game with cryptocurrency, getting the model right would be key. What I found is that it depends on the game and what the designer wants to get from it. After playing many games that have cryptocurrency integrated into them, what’s obvious is that games that have two types of currency (crypto and non-crypto) appeals to gamers. Cryptocurrency enthusiasts who are also gamers will prefer an in-game currency to be a cryptocurrency, but gamers who are aware of cryptocurrency don’t want the cryptocurrency learning-curve in the game. The solution that seems to fit best is to have both worlds integrated, a non-cryptocurrency for needs in a game and a premium currency (cryptocurrency) for rewards and long-term advantages.

Those of you who may have played Age of Rust in the alpha version will know that the game used testnet Bitcoins as an internal currency. The game also had real Bitcoin as rewards for solving difficult puzzles. During the game, a few things were added and changed in the game economy to test what players liked, disliked, and wanted. At times, things in the game were free or free testnet coins were available, other times coins were non-crypto. Players used the non-crypto four times as much as the free cryptocurrency. As I talked to a few players about what the difference was in terms of gameplay. Several players said the same thing, they were willing to spend crypto, but didn’t want to leave to game to spend unless it gave them a large advantage. When asked why, the answer was basically, that cryptocurrency can be a hassle, even when it’s free. Players want to spend hassle-free coins to earn cryptocurrency, free or not free.

In the end, Charon always got his coin to get the dead across the river Styx. I could imagine what Charon would have done if someone tried to pay him in Bitcoin, Litecoin, or Rustbits. One thing is for sure, the dead likely wouldn’t want the hassle of getting a wallet sync’d and writing down a deposit address. The cryptocurrency enthusiast would stick a QRCode on his boat and help Charon get logged into an exchange. The gamer would have a pocketful of coins and ask Charon where they can get a boatman skin.


Age of Rust — Dev Update #2 was originally published in age-of-rust-game on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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