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Shocking: game devs still not that into blockchain

I'm shocked, shocked! Well not that shocked.

Today's release of the Game Developers Conference State of the Industry Report gives us another look at developer interest in blockchain game technology. Or more specifically, the lack of interest.

Let's run through the numbers, shall we? Across 2,300 surveyed developers (with a +/-3 percent margin of error), 75 percent of survey respondents said their studio was "not interested" in using blockchain technology. 16 percent indicated their studio was "somewhat interested," 7 percent said their studio was "very interested," and 2 percent said they were already using it.

That comes out to about a 25/75 division between studios interested in/actively using the technology versus studios not interested in it. If those numbers seem familiar, that's because in the 2022 State of the Industry report, 28 percent of respondents indicated studio interest in the technology, with 70-ish percent saying they were not interested.

The shift in interest is within the survey's 3 percent margin of error, so it might be premature to call this a decline. What we can say at the very least is that after three to four years of hype in big investment...developers still don't seem that interested in using blockchain tech for games.

Are there chances this trend could reverse? Doubtful. Here's why:

Developer opinions on blockchain technology seem locked-in

2023's State of the Industry report provides a little extra data on how developers are thinking about using blockchain in games. 2022 gave plenty of reason for developers to shift their opinions on the use of the technology. For those concerned about the environmental impact of NFTs, Ethereum did complete its transition to using proof-of-stake computing, which lowered the carbon dioxide output of computers minting NFTs.

And for developers who thought blockchain technology made assets safer to store...well, 2022 was also a year of massive fraud in the spaces, and the collapse of two major exchanges and an array of stablecoins put plenty of damage in that line of thinking.

So it was a busy, headline-filling year. But developers surveyed about changes in their opinion indicated little of it changed how they view blockchain tech.

The majority of respondents (56 percent) indicated they were opposed to blockchain technology a year ago, and remained so now. Only 12 percent said they were in favor a year ago, and remain so today.

25 percent stated that they were "unsure" or had "no opinion." That meant the number of respondents who changed their minds on blockchain in either direction was surprisingly small. 5 percent indicated they'd soured on the technology, and 2 percent said they'd come around on it.

A promotional image for CryptoKitties. It shows a bunch of dumb-looking cats.

This breakdown gives us a little more clarity on the 75/25 split above. What seems obvious here is that 50 percent of developers are probably incredibly cynical about blockchain tech—and only 12 percent are full-steam ahead on it.

Which then makes the 25 percent of "unsure/no opinion" developers an interesting bunch. We don't have year-over-year data, but I'd argue that if the technology was as viable as we've heard over the last few years, that number would be smaller.

I wouldn't say that number proves that my personal gripes with the technology are 100 percent correct, but they do give weight to another argument: that the highly-touted "benefits" of the technology just aren't that exciting. We've gone back and forth about the plusses, the minuses, the potential, the costs—but what if this is all just kinda boring?

For a decade, the functional implementation of blockchain has primarily attracted the interest of passionate programmers, finance-minded folks looking to turn a buck, libertarians of varying sub-ideologies, and criminals.

The last few years have seen some of those parties try to take the tech mainstream with projects like Bored Apes and games like CryptoKitties, and Axie Infinity.

And there's just...still nothing "fun" or "compelling" there. The games that have at least entered into Early Access have used the technology for these main functions:

  1. Collecting cute creatures to buy and sell (pseudo-Pokémon, but Pokémon knockoffs haven't even done that well outside of the blockchain world).
  2. Buying and selling in-game resources in Minecraft-like survival games or Eve Online-like space games (seems pretty bad that Mojang banned this practice in Minecraft itself).
  3. Adding monetary value to high-stakes PvEvP games like Certain Affinity's Last Expedition.
  4. Buoying would-be metaverses (which aren't attracting many actual players).

Not every game needs to be "fun" (boy is this not the place for that discourse) but few of these pitches feel exciting or worthwhile. The video game industry has made its business out of chasing fun twists on beloved mechanics, developing new rendering technologies, and finding new means for players to pay for games.

Sure, blockchain computing addresses the third practice, but it's almost shocking how little it contributes to the other two by now. Say what you will about loot boxes, battle passes, or even MMO subscriptions, at least it feels like you can make those feel "fun!"

"Anything that you can do with a blockchain, you can also just do with a database."

When asked to share their thinking on blockchain tech, even developers keen on blockchain weren't happy with how it's been pitched. "It has its positives and negatives," one respondent said before claiming that it became "fashionable to be openly opposed and score points on social media." This person said they know "many developers who are exploring its use more quietly."

A screenshot from Everywhere showing a futuristic city with a tall white tower at golden hour.
Everywhere developer Build A Rocket Boy Games has signaled that it's researching blockchain tech.

Another respondent said they thought the tech was applicable to plenty of fields, but that the current spectrum of marketplace value and quality is "way too broad," and complicated by player uneasiness over DLC and in-game spending.

Another developer keen on the tech stated that now that "the hype has died down and the scammers moved on," it's a good time to explore its utility for "positive player experiences." Fair enough, that just depends on if "the scammers" have moved on or not (and is one person's scammer another person's Silicon Valley venture capital firm?)

It's hard to believe that developers think "the scammers have moved on" when others responding to the survey complained about blockchain dev recruiters that still "feel overwhelmingly cash grabby." "High salaries are nice, but pitch me your game, not your profits!" one developer wrote.

And though this report shows plenty of respondents wanted to consider the plusses and minuses of the technology, plenty still have good reason to be against it. One called it "unethical," and noted that their triple-A studio updated its internal guidelines to state it wouldn't use the technology.

Meanwhile another called it "non-viable" for triple-A devs. "Simply put, we still don't know what we are dealing with and how blockchain can be really used—not as a gimmick but as something bringing value to the product." That respondent said the problem might be solved "in 10 years or so."

And then there were developers who've worked with the technology and still see nothing there. "I've designed a game for use of blockchain, and having spent three months doing nothing but researching use-cases," one said.

"I have concluded firmly that there aren't any worth pursuing."

Game Developer and GDC are sibling companies under Informa Tech. The 2023 State of the Industry report was produced in a collaboration between Game Developer and Game Developers Conference.

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