Saito Arcade — Boardgames Come To The Blockchain

Saito is no stranger to controversy. While the Beijing-based blockchain project has been controversial in the past for its public criticism of proof-of-work, this month the project has taken on another sacred cow with its release of the Saito Arcade: a gaming platform with three free-to-play games: Twilight Struggle, Chess and Wordblocks.

According to David Lancashire, the founder of Saito, the biggest challenge in building a blockchain usable for on-chain gaming is finding a replacement for proof-of-work. In an extended conversation, Lancashire explained that proof-of-work isn’t suitable for blockchain gaming because miners aren’t incentivized to pay for the terabytes of data that a gaming blockchain requires. As he furthered, the problem is caused by the way that miners are incentivized to spend all of their money mining and as little as possible on anything else.

The solution Saito offers to this problem — paying for bandwidth — is essentially to make everyone on the network a miner. But instead of paying people to hash, Saito pays them for bringing fee-paying transactions into the network.

“Saito turns the collection of fees into the work we measure,” said Lancashire, “and pays nodes depending on the amount of work they do.” The result is a network that incentivizes people to invest in bandwidth and network connectivity — the equipment needed to service users — instead of building factories filled with ASICs.

And where does scalability get us with gaming? When we talked about the gaming industry, Lancashire was critical of the speculative hype that surrounds many blockchain game projects, which focus narrowly on creating tokens or digital assets. He sees these activities as closer to Ponzi schemes than games, saying directly that “CryptoKitties is not a blockchain game,” for instance, referring to the 2018 kitten-trading game that started a massive wave of hype over tokenization. While Lancashire agreed that there is a bright future for asset-backed games, he balked at the idea that the current generation of DApps are the sorts of games that people really want to play, telling that “I don’t know a single game on EOS or Ethereum that is actually fun to play.”

The sense that games should be fun is clear and centers at Saito Arcade. The network supports Chess and Wordblocks — casual games designed for play with friends — and flexes its muscles with the inclusion of Twilight Struggle: a complicated strategy game in which two players compete for world domination in a simulated version of the Cold War. While all three games use advanced cryptographic exchanges to handle things like deck shuffling and provably-fair card selection, the focus is on being fun to play. And there is little question that they are: Twilight Struggle was the highest-ranked game on BoardGameGeek from 2010 to 2016 and remains solidly in the top five even today.

From a technical perspective, the biggest difference between the Saito games and most existing blockchain games is that the games in the Saito Arcade don’t require smart contacts to work. “In many cases, building a smart contract is the worst thing that you can do,” Lancashire explained, citing the inefficiency and high cost of the applications. Instead of pushing all of its data through smart contracts, all of the Saito games operate the old-fashioned way: players stick their data into normal on-chain transactions and send them out onto a blockchain like any other transactions.

This explains why the Saito team repeatedly called their programs “blockchain applications” instead of “DApps”. While the Saito testnet sports an email system and online social network, the games are probably the clearest examples of how Saito’s different underlying focus is encouraging its developers to build different type of applications.

When asked about the roadmap of Saito, Lancashire takes on a down-to-earth attitude. “People need to see the underlying economic problems with proof-of-work and proof-of-stake networks,” he argued, “before they will understand why Saito takes a different approach.” When asked about how long that might take, he suggested that Saito is in roughly the same position that Bitcoin was in 2008, and that it may take years for the team to get the network to a point where it can support mission critical applications.

In the meantime, at least there will be games to play. And while Saito has a long way to go in building transaction volume and usage, it seems to be making strides on the right track. On March 29th, the Saito network processed over 1,000 transactions from Arcade testers alone. If enough people in the world share the team’s clear love for the Cold War, we wouldn’t be surprised to see these numbers skyrocket.

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