Bitcoin In Gaming: Lightning As The Game Changer
This article is part of our ongoing research work and series of publications on the Lightning ecosystem. The previous articles provided an overview of the Lightning Network project ecosystem and an analysis of different Lightning implementations — their key characteristics, usage, development statistics and features. In this article, we attempt to take a closer look at Bitcoin and the Lightning Network applications in gaming.
- Interactions in games largely influence enjoyment and engagement of gamers and subsequently monetization of a game for game developers and publishers.
- Micropayments increase interactions within the gaming ecosystem and have already been used successfully to unlock new experiences for gamers and value for the ecosystem.
- As Bitcoin adoption continues, bitcoin-based micropayments can break up closed gaming economies and enable disintermediated, bidirectional value flows between game operators, gamers, the audience and advertisers.
- Bitcoin can create more liquidity and interoperability of payments between gaming platforms, while also providing the global infrastructure to securely transfer identities (SSI) of persons and assets across trust domains.
Introduction: Seizing The Opportunity
Historically dominated by large incumbents, the gaming industry has been evolving continuously in recent years driven by technological innovation and changing consumer needs. The rapid growth has led the global gaming industry to surpass $150 billion in size in 2019, a ~10% expansion per year.1 For the first time, the gaming market grew to be larger than music and video combined, becoming the most lucrative form of leisurely entertainment.2
Much of today’s gaming ecosystem lives on and thrives off of massive multiplayer platforms. Many of those subsequently designed and developed internal markets and economies, with proprietary currencies that players use to buy and sell virtual goods and services. These platforms simultaneously represent places for entertainment, content creation and social interaction.
The Evolution Of Business Models In Gaming
Looking at the history of this industry, we not only experienced a shift in access devices from PC and console to mobile but also in business models. The gaming ecosystems developed from a single-player gaming model to gaming economies with multiplayer platforms as their heartbeat.
In 2020, Activision Blizzard generated $5.74 billion of revenue through microtransactions and downloadable content, subscriptions, licensing royalties from products and franchises among other revenues. Gaming product sales only accounted for a third of the company revenue streams — a 50% decrease from 2014 when product sales contributed almost two-thirds.4
About 85% of the revenue of these gaming economies is caused by spending inside these platforms in the form of repeated purchases of virtual goods, known as in-game transactions. Ranging between $5–12,5 they replaced one-time product sales as the main revenue stream. Retail and digital sales, downloadable content and advertising make up the remaining revenue streams.6
The chart depicts the increasing importance of in-game transactions for new business models in the gaming industry. Together with other technologies such as the internet that opened up new distribution channels, advancements in computing for more sophisticated gameplays, in-game transactions managed to create enormous value that is reflected in the market size of the gaming industry today.
However, many games are designed to have internal markets with proprietary currencies to fuel their economies. Gamers are required to use game-specific transaction mechanisms to buy and sell virtual goods or services. Limited monetary interaction between stakeholders results in closed systems and prevents further value generation. Once a player exits the ecosystem, all value accrued by him is lost.
As research has shown, interactions within games are of paramount importance, influencing both the enjoyment and engagement that a gamer has.8 Interactions are, therefore, in the keen interest of the game developer when optimizing for gamer engagement.
Value flows, as a very direct form of the social exchange theory,9 are a driving force behind interactions and, thus, the guiding theme of this article.
After pointing out how value flows move and where value remains locked in gaming today, this article presents ways to unlock it based on short case studies.
From Uni- To Bidirectional Value Flows In Games
Gaming today is mainly characterized by one-way (i.e., unidirectional) value flows from different stakeholders directly to the game as displayed in this simplified graphic.
Apart from the value of the game itself, we assume most value is generated by the gamer through in-game activity originating in time and monetary contributions.
Therefore, the article focuses on describing value flows from the gamer perspective and reveals four areas where value is accumulated today:
- digital assets after in-game purchases (e.g., skins) as a consequence of monetary contributions
- game-specific points or currencies for successful gaming as a consequence of time contributions
- attention to advertisement from brands as a consequence of time contributions
- gaming skills to generate entertaining content for the audience as a consequence of time contributions
Following the trend of decreasing transaction sizes in games, Bitcoin and its second-layer payment network provides us the tools to unlock the described accumulated values for gamers by enabling two-way (i.e., bidirectional) value flows between participants of the gaming ecosystem.
The Lightning Network is a decentralized, privacy-preserving system for instant, high-volume micropayments at low transaction fees. It builds on bitcoin’s properties of fixed supply,10 peer-to-peer focus,11 network security,12 liquidity13 and accessibility.14 This list of characteristics helps to understand how bitcoin provides unique benefits to its users over fiat or other cryptocurrencies and is especially suited for a global, multinational gaming ecosystem.
The following sections show how bitcoin-based micropayments enable social interaction via novel bidirectional value flows among existing participants of the gaming ecosystem. Gamers, the game developer/publisher, the advertiser and the audience can all transact monetary value peer-to-peer without relying on an intermediary among each other as displayed in the graphic.
Micropayments Between Gamers And Game Operators
This section focuses on bidirectional money flows between the game operator and the gamer and the benefits for both sides. The play-to-earn concept that rewards gamers for putting time and money into a game is not new to the gaming industry but is an established business model in gambling and esports.
Over the last 10 years, the esports industry is on an impressive growth trajectory that outperformed the global gaming market. The esports market size measured in industry revenues increased by 30% yearly reaching $1.084 million in 2021 and is expected to grow to $1.617 million by 2024. Prize money that is paid out to gamers and audience numbers show a similar upward trend from 2010 to 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 caused a slight decrease of market size and total prize money but audience engagement, however, kept rising showing the resilience of the gaming industry compared to many others.
An increase in prize money has helped accelerate the professionalization of the industry.16 Big prize winnings draw in other gamers and large fan followings creating a positive feedback loop and can be considered a valuable tool to bootstrap new markets such as esports.
Numbers from India show that real money games (RMG)17 constitute 55–60% of revenue of the total gaming market in 2019. Only 20% of all online gamers are registered users in real money games indicating a stronger monetization per user for RMG. As RMG operators account for around 40% of all online gaming developing companies, these operators tend to generate more revenue compared to their non-RMG counterparts.18
RMG companies often operate on a service fee model, retaining a portion of the entry fee (typically 5–15%) while distributing the rest as winnings.19 For instance, the ability to stake money generates this “skin in the game” feeling for gamers to incrementally increase engagement.
Random drops and rewards are another game design enabled by real money flows to build a reinforcing stimulus in the gameplay. THNDR Games, a Lightning games developer company, uses lotteries to motivate gamers. To enter the draw, gamers collect THNDR tickets. Each ticket counts as an entry to a draw in which bitcoin prizes are distributed. Winners can cash out instantly to bitcoin wallet apps with Lightning Network support.
This anticipation for future rewards as gamers are never sure when the next essential item will be dropped, adds on to their enjoyment and tempts gamers to stay engaged.20
To sum up, bidirectional value flows between the game operator and the gamer are an established concept in the gaming industry. The example of esports and the case of the Indian market show how real money–based games can unlock additional value for game operators. Monetary payouts professionalize ecosystems, lead to further monetization strategies, and particularly enable new forms of game design with higher levels of engagement.
But there are more than economic benefits for established businesses of using bitcoin and Lightning in games. More granular payments in a peer-to-peer manner can enable a fairer system between creators and users by distributing revenues generated across the value chain proportionally. For instance, gamers pay for accessing special areas in maps. The proceedings are shared directly among all contributors such as content creators, game developers and operators. Hence, bitcoin-based bidirectional value flows in gaming even have the potential to help gamers and creators that cannot afford high upfront investments or simply have no access to the financial system such as hundreds of millions of people of the unbanked population in developing countries21 to participate in the world wide gaming economy. Thus, gaming use cases can serve as an additional on-ramp to bitcoin and existing ecosystems within the gaming industry can create their own circular economy based on bitcoin.
Micropayments Between Gamers
This section describes the case of embracing secondary marketplaces by game operators as a way to realize monetary value exchange between gamers using bitcoin.
Selling virtual goods through in-game purchases has become the dominant business model in the gaming industry.22
On the primary market, the game operator engages in sales of new virtual goods to users for real money and, thus, acts as a monopolist with profit-maximizing price settings.
Once a virtual good has been sold in the primary market, any further trading done with it is considered to be secondary market trading. In virtual worlds, secondary markets users buy and sell virtual assets between each other, often exchanging them for real money or in-game currencies. Prices are set by users and are determined by supply and demand. Secondary markets arise for the same reasons as their real life counterparts: There are certain consumers who value the used goods more than their current owner. Healthy primary markets tend to give rise to even bigger secondary ones.
The primary car market, for instance, accounts for a fairly small percentage of overall car sales compared to the secondary market. The same phenomenon applies to real estate and many other industries. The virtual item economy is just another instance in which a strong primary market can lead to a flourishing secondary market.
Dedicated marketplaces for virtual gaming items emerged, such as G2A, Loot.Farm or DMarket. But also websites such as Discord, Reddit, eBay and various online chat forums serve as trading platforms. Juniper research estimated the total value of in-game items listed on secondary markets in 2019 to be $16.7 billion.23 As these markets for virtual goods keep growing, business model–related questions gain relevance. Why should profit-maximizing virtual world operators embrace these secondary markets instead of eliminating them?
In fact, research shows that a retailer-operated used goods market actually leads to higher manufacturer profits for two reasons.24 First, the sale of used goods serves as a price discrimination mechanism, thereby expanding the total sales and increasing profits. Second, a retailer-operated secondary market generates higher valuations for new goods due to consumers’ ability to re-sell goods they no longer value.
Introducing new versions of goods is another strategy the monopolist can utilize to protect primary market profits against the substitution effect. Players will spend more time in the game, either playing to get new items or to collect enough in-game currency to buy an item — or simply buying it with real money — which leads to more engagement for the game.
Additionally, market operators can engage in new transaction models such as leasing its products instead of selling them or buying them back. The latter one would give the market operator more control over the available supply and the possibility to earn on the price difference.25
These measures show how and why secondary markets have a positive effect on primary market profits provided that the virtual world operator takes measures to mitigate the substitution effect caused by used goods.
Satoshi’s Games, another Lightning Network gaming company, already provides the necessary tool set for developers, called Elixir, to add bitcoin and a marketplace for in-game assets to games. Based on the Liquid sidechain, the Lightning Network, IPFS and L-SATs, Elixir ports the concept of non-fungible tokens (NFTs)26 to bitcoin and makes them tradable in a decentralized manner.
In short, this section describes the case of embracing secondary marketplaces based on real money. Examples show how bidirectional value flows in secondary marketplaces between gamers can unlock additional value for operators and gamers. Due to the peer-to-peer network, the high accessibility and liquidity with instant, privacy-preserving payments at low cost, bitcoin transactions over the Lightning Network facilitate marketplaces by reducing transaction costs for gamers and operators alike. A market that natively runs on Lightning Network technology, if this becomes possible, could potentially provide access to even more liquidity and a seamless user experience.
Micropayments Between Gamers And The Audience
This section looks at interactions between the gamer and the audience through the format of livestreaming coupled with bitcoin-based micropayments.
Livestreaming is the act of simultaneously recording and broadcasting content (including gaming) to a live audience through social platforms. Content creators, or streamers, record themselves live while engaging in video communication with their viewers on platforms like Twitch or YouTube.
Accelerated by the pandemic, the worldwide games livestreaming audience will hit 728.8 million in 2021. The number of people watching livestreams of games will increase 10% from 2020 and continue to grow to 920.3 million by 2024.27
While most content on livestreaming platforms is free, viewers can choose to financially support the streamers through various avenues, including monetary donations or via a monthly subscription to the streamer’s channel. However, significant parts of the value goes directly to the streaming platform passing by the gamer. Roughly 50% of the subscription revenue and around 25% of the tips from followers remain with Twitch.28 Spectators and gamers have to adhere to the rules of the platform limiting the scope of interactions on both sides.
That’s why ZEBEDEE was founded, according to André Neves, CTO of ZEBEDEE: “Value on the internet is no longer bound by a game, platform, or universe. Now internet money is accepted across any reality. All worlds speak Bitcoin.”29 ZEBEDEE provides a suite of products ranging from a mobile wallet, the product Infuse and a developer dashboard to introduce bitcoin into existing games. To address the mentioned challenge and break “the fourth wall,” they built the Gamertag representing the user’s name within the ZEBEDEE ecosystem. It comes with a static QR code for collecting donations or payments anywhere online. Now, video streamers can receive tips in the form of real money and messages from spectators without third-party processor fees and any intermediary.
The benefit for the audience is obvious. Traditional audiences are uniform, static and often passive, but multiplayer games with p2p micropayments give designers opportunities to subvert traditional roles by allowing audiences to impact gameplay both individually and as a collective in a seamless manner. For example, in a racing game, when the streamer is too far ahead, audience participants can impose penalties on him to make the race closer. When he falls behind as a result of these penalties, audience participants can respond by sending him gifts to help him catch up. In other words, spectators play a role usually taken by game systems: balancing player performance against that of opponents.
As a result, this form of gaming, coupled with peer-to-peer micropayments, can create a mutually aware group of audience members and gamers.
On the other side, the success of streamers in large part depends on their ability to entertain the audience through direct participation.30 Real money–based micropayments broaden the set of interactions as we have seen. But there is another part to it: If streamers expect to play a game with thousands of viewers on a consistent basis in a way that generates revenue through donations, sponsorships or increased ad viewership, they can justify spending a much larger amount of money on the game than most individual users would normally spend.
Consequently, game developers and publishers benefit by an increased engagement of gamers and spectators, but also by the incremental monetary value flow to the gamer. For example, a feature that lets spectators pay to trigger an in-game event such as releasing an enemy for players to combat. Thus, interactions based on micropayments increase the scope of monetizing the game.
Furthermore, the development of new, richer modes of communication such as a messaging layer integrated with Lightning, could substantially boost the development of feelings of social inclusion and commitment to the group in the gameplay. It might even make sense to build games for a specific segment of gamers and spectators that benefit from the ability to collaborate to achieve a goal.
These examples show how real money–based micropayments can bring innovation in game development and game distribution for developers, publishers and gamers alike. Audience participation games with peer-to-peer micropayments let spectators interact in a way that has a meaningful impact on the game and blur the line between player and spectator.
Micropayments Between Gamers And Advertisers
The final subsection introduces potential ways and benefits of bitcoin-based micropayments for advertisers.
Revenue from in-game ads paid by advertisers amounted to $42.3 billion in 2019 and is expected to continue its remarkable growth to $56 billion in 2024.31
While some game publishers already leverage many ad formats available to monetize their users, other publishers are just starting to realize the potential of ads. That is because the type of ad that works for a game depends heavily on the genre of the game. Understanding the user journey in the game is the best place to start in order to know what ad formats to integrate and where.
The common misconception is that in-game ads hurt game metrics such as retention or revenue from in-app purchases. However, if integrated correctly, in-game ads actually add incremental value and do not interfere with gameplay retention as Bitcoin Bounty Hunt shows.
Donnerlab the developer behind Bitcoin Bounty Hunt operates a new interactive concept of in-game advertising. Advertisers create images with a credit balance that is measured in satoshis. These images are selected by an algorithm and displayed on in-game advertising panels. Once an image is selected, credits are deducted and made available in the game in the form of Satoshi Cubes. Each time a player collects one of these Satoshi Cubes with an image of the advertiser the bitcoin balance increases.
To participate, sponsors can create their own images or help others to be more visible in the game by increasing their credit. Thus, Bitcoin Bounty Hunt creates a bidirectional value flow directly between gamers and advertisers and helps to build a positive relationship between these two.
ZEBEDEE’s survival game mode for CS:GO is another example of how ads can be linked to payouts. Apart from ad banners distributed on maps inside the game, gamers earn sponsor-branded coins that are generated in the maps as users are shot. These custom coins are paid out in real satoshis. However, ZEBEDEE’s survival mode of CS:GO introduces another innovation. The amount of satoshis represents a gamer’s lives within the game. Players have to stake their own or earn real money to continue playing by actively collecting the bounty where it was dropped but potentially exposing themselves to other players. This risk combined with real money adds a new incentive structure to the gameplay of first person shooters (FPS).
An open approach for in-game ads is especially important when you consider that only 3.8% of mobile game players make in-app purchases.32 Advertisers have the chance to compensate players for their attention with direct payouts of real money and instantly deliver value back to the gamer. A rise in interactivity can affect gamers to be more involved in the gameplay and result in higher brand responses, that is, high brand recall and favorable brand attitude.33
Ultimately, advertisement revenues of games correlate with time spent in games by players and the possibility to display ads. Developers, therefore, will optimize for player retention and enjoyment. With bitcoin-based micropayments developers now have a new tool to support engaging interactions and unlock additional value for the gamer and the advertiser.
This article presented different stakeholders of the virtual gaming economy: gamers, game operators, the audience and the advertiser.
Today, the value of the virtual economy manifests especially across massive multiplayer platforms. Fifteen years into the mass adoption of virtual gaming, the virtual economy is still largely based on primary marketplaces — closed worlds, where data and content are centrally owned, stored and managed. Yet a number of pioneers, some of which were presented in this article, are building for the virtual economy what computer scientists built for the early internet — new infrastructure that links disparate platforms with decentralisation at its core.
After pointing out the traditional gaming model with one-way payment flows, we have seen examples how bidirectional value flows can unlock value in today’s closed ecosystems. Using bitcoin-based micropayments over the Lightning Network between gamers, the audience, the advertiser and the game operator become part of an open virtual economy or what can be the future digital “Metaverse.”
While decoupling payments from platforms through a digital peer-to-peer currency such as bitcoin is one step toward this vision of a metaverse, a self-sovereign digital identity that gamers can use across all experiences is another component with great potential and yet remains unsolved.
Today, there are a few dominant account systems, but none have exhaustive coverage of the web and they often stack atop one another with only limited data sharing. As a result, identity silos emerged to secure trust within a limited federation of organizations or by centralized platform providers.34 Lack of privacy, limited data control and bad service experiences are the consequences for users.
What if developers cannot only use bitcoin to enable interoperability of payments on gaming platforms, but also to make identities of persons and assets securely transferable across trust domains?
The good news is, the necessary tools already exist in different forms:
The LSAT Protocol Standard can serve as both authentication and payment mechanism. It allows the unbundling of the authentication and payment logic from the application logic. Game operators can sell their products or services through micropayments, without the necessity of providing a login, email or password to users.
lnurl-auth is another authentication protocol that ensures privacy and makes passwords obsolete. Bitcoin and Lightning wallets are already keeping track of one seed that can be used to generate keys to identify the user, which facilitates the bootstrapping of the protocol. The service can request additional details from the user and associate it with an internal id or username.
ION is a public, permissionless, Decentralized Identifier (DID) network that implements the blockchain-agnostic Sidetree protocol on top of Bitcoin. Similar to Lightning, ION is a Layer 2 overlay to support DIDs and a Decentralized Public Key Infrastructure (DPKI) at scale. Combined with verifiable credentials, the effects are powerful. Users obtain full control over their identity and can share it with any game. Operators can instantly verify user credentials without having to trust the holder.
While secure identities for a person is one part, transferable identity and with it ownership of digital assets is the other one. Normally, a gamer’s assets, such as clothing and weapon skins, are not only stuck in the same game but also stuck in a single account after acquiring them. Non-fungible tokens, as a solution to this problem, are booming.
The Liquid Network, a sidechain of Bitcoin, allows the issuance of digital assets today. Amounts and asset types are not visible to third parties (i.e., confidential) and are settled with one-minute block time.
RGB, another initiative, is a smart contract system developed on top of the Lightning Network to create different forms of fungible or non-fungible assets. RGB smart contracts are designed to operate with a client-side validation paradigm, that is, all the data is kept outside of the bitcoin transaction. This allows the system to operate on top of the Lightning Network without any changes and gives a foundation for a high level of protocol scalability and privacy.
As these tools mature and gain traction among game developers, a bitcoin-powered open virtual economy can become a reality.
While writing this article, we conducted interviews with several industry experts. We would like to thank Kenrick Drijkoningen, Sami Lababidi, Thomas Klocanas, Martijn Bolt and many others who took the time to submit thoughtful contributions.
If you have further interest in the subject matter and would like to keep updated: Fulgur Ventures’ Lightning resources web page aggregates statistical data on the Lightning Network and visualizes the activity of the Lightning ecosystem since early 2019.
Check it out here.
About the authors:
Moritz Kaminski is a business development specialist with years of experience in tech ventures and early stage funding. Oleg Mikhalsky is a partner at Fulgur Ventures focused on the Lightning Network and Bitcoin ecosystem.
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This is a guest post by Moritz Kaminski and Oleg Mikhalsky. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC, Inc. or Bitcoin Magazine.