Design thinking for blockchain applications

Lessons learned from designing blockchain gaming applications for the mainstream market.

Designing backwards-looking products can be a robust yet systematic process. It involves the use of analytic and problem-focused approaches to achieve future improvements in existing solutions and better understand the unmet need of existing markets. But what happens when you are experimenting with new uncertain technologies, targeting an audience that is unfamiliar with its value proposition?

In our second blog post, we share our perspective from the past 12 months of designing blockchain applications for non-blockchainers. We describe a hands-on approach that shapes the way we think when creating experiences with differentiating value for the user while acknowledging all the critical limitations of blockchain technology to future-proof our products.

#1. Get onboard the blockchain bandwagon only where it makes sense

Blockchain has the potential to do many things in the gaming industry. However, when designing blockchain products, it is often useful to start by thinking about what blockchain can’t do for your product and the user. Questions such as “can we achieve this without blockchain?” or “what is the distinct value that blockchain really adds here?” should be present throughout the concept phase and every future iteration. Blockchain “just for the hype” is not a wise strategy. Sooner or later users will sense the lack of utility and will disengage from the product. This situation, however, begs the question: Which parts of the game should I keep on the blockchain? The answer depends on three elements; feasibility, product-fit, resources.

First, feasibility is the most crucial consideration as current blockchain networks and tools are yet to become hassle-free. If a blockchain feature creates more pain-points that solutions, it is strongly advisable to focus on another use-case. Second, product-fit between your game genre and the blockchain tools is crucial too. Games that introduce crafting and breeding mechanisms, a high volume trading between players or items that historically have been valued at really high prices can definitely win a lot by using blockchain. At the same time, if your game has limited player-to-player interactions or does not allow improving the assets through the game trajectory dynamically, there is a good chance that blockchain won’t bring the expected results. Lastly, designers should also consider that a blockchain implementation is another layer of complexity on top of the existing product roadmap. In smaller teams with limited resources, creators should balance their focus between building a great game and a sophisticated blockchain integration. If the core product is still at nascent stages, focusing excessively on blockchain solutions design can lead to a spiral of complexity and lack of competitive advantage.

#2. Market the experience, not blockchain technology itself

Blockchain is truly an innovative approach to gaming, both for the users and the developers. But we must resist the temptation to build products that are all about blockchain and not about the traditional gaming experience. Put simply, blockchain or not, games will still compete on how exciting, challenging and alluring they are. The quality of the core product is the one that will drive the customer base high in the long term. Blockchain should be part of the “how” and not the whole of “what”.

It’s true that during the past years, the quality of many blockchain games was considered as simplistic, and partially for valid reasons. The first movers in the industry had to build applications on almost non-existing tools, hence producing a game was more of proof-of-concept exercise than a complete product design process. However, we have observed several newer applications that are either euphemistically games, trying to monetise the hype around the cryptocurrency market, or obsessed with the theme of alternative investment and profit-seeking as a gaming motivation.

Both approaches can undoubtedly provide the much needed financial injection to promising startups, but relying on it for the long-run carries essential risks. Designers should thoroughly weigh the rewards from overemphasising blockchain as their key offering. Gaming is a competitive market. Without a unique and delightful core product, any market opportunity should be considered short-lived. And even in cases where the blockchain-powered mechanisms are the undoubted protagonists of the product, one should know that is far easier for a competitor to copy a blockchain functionality, built on an open network, than to replicate the quality of genuine gaming experience.

#3. Think blockchain-agnostic

Blockchain is not a single thing. Its an array of open and private networks, as well as various tools for distinct use-cases. Given the promise of such a disruptive technology, many startup companies have created over the past years similar solutions for the same problems and opportunities. No doubt, selecting the right blockchain infrastructure and solution vendor is a vital milestone when designing blockchain products.

However, a common confusion originates from the fact that a selection of a blockchain provider is often perceived as picking sides. Over-linking a product to a specific blockchain network or platform will turn your product into a stress-test for the underlying technology, rather than a holistic experience for the user.

And this also has many implications for the commercial success of the product. If you want to capture the audience of a specific blockchain network, at the same time you are excluding potential users from other market segments, plus you add complexity for your target customer — the mass market won’t care whether its Bitcoin, Ethereum, Tezos, EOS and the likes. But they will care, however, about a friction-free and enjoyable experience.

Selecting the right blockchain partners is still tremendously important. Some solutions may be a better match for a specific use-case, while a large number of solutions still remain ill-designed and should be avoided. Instead of relying too much on the communities of particular blockchain networks to market your product, we suggest a more “chain-agnostic” approach where designers select the best tools for their backend needs while building strong linkages between other blockchain networks as well.

#4. Target the future market not the current niche

Current blockchain communities mainly consist of strong advocates of blockchain technology and parties with speculative interest for the cryptocurrency markets. Both groups often translate their interest to hefty financial support towards the project they love. So in a way, it makes sense to listen carefully to their needs when developing your products, as this will ensure a high level of support in future crowdfundings, sales etc.

While an opportunistic viewpoint of this situation is advantageous and often necessary in the short-term, it is rarely sufficient when building products for future markets. In the case of gaming, we’re seeing a trend in popular communities with maximalist beliefs towards the use of blockchain in every part of the gaming experience and a strong favouring of the idea that blockchain gaming is a diversified investment vehicle for its users. Product designers should balance the expectation of the audience with the realities of each product. If you focus too much on the two areas mentioned above, you are risking to create a product that will look strange to mainstream players and will result in a self-isolation to only a tiny fraction of your addressable market.

Nonetheless, listening carefully to the feedback of your user base is still relevant. Especially if we take into account the novelty of the technology involved; it may even be advisable to co-create with them. But this process should always be governed with realism and a solid long-term design aspiration. After all, the rules of the game remain the same for any game, blockchain or not.

#5. Use existing constraints to embrace technological breakthrough

Blockchain can be often slow, over-structured, and expensive by design. Those three example limitations stem from the same fundamentals of the technology itself. Its also true that for at least a couple of years ahead, blockchain applications won’t compete with traditional products solely based on those characteristics. And even if they do, they will have to sacrifice the level of security and decentralisation that core blockchain technology offers.

When most blockchain applications are facing with those limitations, they often decide to keep blockchain mainly in their title and almost hide it from their backend, claiming that “we can’t use the X blockchain feature yet as it is too slow (or expensive), but maybe in a few years”. While this claim is partially valid, we believe it won’t benefit the commercial success of blockchain applications for two reasons.

First, from a transactional perspective, blockchain technology is the strategic differentiator of these products. Every bit of this technology you remove from the product, the less likely it is to capture market share from incumbents. To illustrate, the quality of blockchain games won’t be superior to the gameplay experience offered from leading gaming studios, nor decentralised marketplaces will beat Amazon to convenience and speed of service. Unless you have a truly fantastic product already, the only way to secure a stable place in the market is by aiming to be as innovative as possible.

Second, from a design perspective, game-changing innovations won’t come from incremental tweaks. If blockchain applications in existing markets are to prevail, they will do if product designers explore the inherent constraints strategically and collaborate in creative ways that will push the technology to the right directions. Blockchain applications don’t have the option to “wait and see”. When the technology is ready for everyone, challengers will no longer have a place in the market. You can either adopt an experimental mindset today, trying to crack current barriers, or you might not have even a chance to try.

Summarizing, blockchain technology facilitates the emergence of new decentralised gaming experiences. It can support a paradigm shift to a much more open, transparent and cooperative form of entertainment, as users will contribute but also own a part of the experience. Will it mark the end of gaming as we know it? We don’t think so. After all, blockchain should be considered an opportunity for those that will embrace it rather than an existential threat to those that won’t. But as with prior architectural innovations, blockchain will have winners and losers in every affected industry. We hope our approach can help other blockchain startups understand how their competitive and product strategy can be designed to balance the abundance of opportunities and tradeoffs that blockchain technology offers.

BlockPegnio

Working towards a new era for gaming, powered by blockchain technology.