Exploring Player Sovereignty through Dark Forest Arena

0xhank
dfdao
Published in
5 min readSep 14, 2022

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The entry page for our on-chain game Dark Forest Arena

Written by 0xhank

Special thanks to @dangerwillrobin for discussion and feedback on multiple topics, and thanks to @cha0sg0d_ and @lermchair for their edit suggestions.

We have seen that blockchains can enable radical individual autonomy, or sovereignty, through decentralized finance and digital art. At dfdao, we have applied the unique properties of a blockchain to increase player sovereignty in video games. We allow players to compose their experiences by placing the game’s state on a blockchain, organizing player-run competitions, and making source code public.

For the past few months, our team has been building a modified version of the on-chain game Dark Forest called Dark Forest Arena. The game runs on the subsidized blockchain Gnosis Optimism, making it fast (<1tx/second) and free (1 wei/tx). You can play now here.

A Dark Forest Refresher

Dark Forest is a massively multiplayer video game. All players simultaneously race to farm the most silver from their intergalactic empires. Rounds last for days at a time, and the game never stops.

Hundreds of players compete at the same time in Dark Forest. PC: @Ner0nzz

The game state of Dark Forest lives on a blockchain. Every time a player performs an action, like launching a spaceship, they send a transaction to update the chain’s state. Dark Forest aims to prove that hosting a game on a blockchain unlocks unique interactions by allowing players to compose new experiences from the core mechanics of the game. We call this composability, and it impacts all levels of the player’s experience.

A player can create a custom experience by writing a plugin. Dark Forest grants access to a suite of methods that expose client functionality. Players can use them to write code that automates repetitive actions or modifies the appearance of the game.

A plugin created by a Dark Forest player

Dark Forest includes a creation portal that allows players to design their own round and instantly play it with their friends.

Some of the options for a customized Dark Forest round

The codebase is open-source and well-documented. It is easy for a technically skilled player to clone the codebase, customize game features, and deploy their own version.

Dark Forest provides a glimpse into the beauty of composable, decentralized on-chain gaming.

However, when we played Dark Forest, we identified some deficiencies with its persistent MMO gameplay model.

The Limits of On-Chain MMOs

In February, Dark Forest hosted a two-week round called the Junk Wars. Dfdao wanted to win, so we assembled a 12 person super-guild. Our team included elite software engineers, who automated our point farms, and degenerate post-grads, who played around the clock. (In case you were wondering, I was in the latter category).

For us, the round was unforgettably fun, as we would go on to win (for the whole story, check out my article series here). But it raised concerns about the future of persistent-world on-chain MMOs.

On-chain MMOs are difficult to regulate and are winner-takes-all. Since the game’s code is publicly accessible on the blockchain, exploits are hard to patch and bots are unstoppable. This leads to well-funded, technically skilled guilds (like us) dominating casual and inexperienced players.

Once an official round ends, nobody can play until the next release, which may take months. During this time, the development team is unable to receive feedback and iterate on the product. The most important metric for a video game is the number of daily active users, and the infrequency of rounds meant nobody was playing for vast stretches of time.

On-chain MMOs have seen two unfortunate trends: low retention rate of new players and slow iteration of game design. This gives Dark Forest a reputation for being hard to learn.

Our team wanted to tackle these concerns with an approachable, fast-paced version of Dark Forest. Thankfully, the composable nature of the pre-existing game made it trivial to begin. After five months of work, the result is Dark Forest Arena.

Dark Forest Arena

Dark Forest Arena shrinks the massive Dark Forest universe into a small battlefield. Instead of a single match lasting days, an Arena round consists of hundreds of matches that end in minutes.

This model allows inexperienced players to compete with others at their skill level, and means the development team receives feedback and iterates on game design much faster.

The most popular game mode of Dark Forest Arena is Grand Prix, in which players race across a universe as fast as possible to capture a ‘target’ planet. Players get unlimited tries to set the fastest time. The player with the fastest time by the end of the round wins.

Players navigate from the spawn planet (baby bottle) to target planet as fast as possible.

Grand Prix is just one of endless potential games that Dark Forest Arena supports. The round creation portal allows designers to customize nearly every setting, from game speed to artifact rarity to custom planets.

Dark Forest Arena has demonstrated the potential of a new genre of on-chain game: the Battle Arena. Fast-paced gameplay over short sessions creates competition at any skill level and forms exciting player interactions.

The Future of Dark Forest

By making source code public and free, the Dark Forest team ensured that the game would thrive after they exited. Since then, we have created a sovereign version of Dark Forest. And we are creating ways for future players to gain autonomy themselves.

We have continued to build with open source ideals and have maintained a modifiable codebase. We have released a light client, Light Forest, that allows community members to spin up their own version of the game without technical expertise. The administrator simply customizes a configuration file and deploys the client to a hosting service.

Our current game round, Grand Prix Season 1, is entirely player run. If you win a round within the season, you receive an NFT that grants access to the Wallbreaker Council. The Council makes decisions on the future of Grand Prix, such as maps, rule changes, and rewards. We believe this will allow the community to have further sovereignty of the Dark Forest world.

We are excited to continue innovating in the on-chain gaming space, using blockchain affordances to increase player sovereignty and ownership.

If you would like to experience Dark Forest Arena for yourself, join our live round. You can compete for a chance to join the Wallbreaker Council. The winner of Dark Forest Arena will earn a Valhalla Planet trophy NFT!

Also, if you want to support us on Gitcoin, please do: https://gitcoin.co/grants/4875/dfdao-dark-forest-gaming-collective

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