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Validated | What It Takes to Build a AAA On-Chain with Michael Wagner

By Validated

Published on 2023-07-18

Star Atlas CEO Michael Wagner discusses the challenges and opportunities of building AAA blockchain games on Solana, revolutionizing game economies and player ownership.

The notes below are AI generated and may not be 100% accurate. Watch the video to be sure!

The Evolution of Blockchain Gaming

The gaming industry, valued at hundreds of billions of dollars, is on the cusp of a revolutionary change with the introduction of blockchain technology. Michael Wagner, CEO and co-founder of ATMTA, the core development studio behind Star Atlas, is at the forefront of this transformation. In a recent episode of the Validated podcast, Wagner elaborates on the compelling case for blockchain games and how Star Atlas is pioneering this new frontier.

Blockchain gaming has come a long way since its inception. Initially, many projects simply minted characters or items as NFTs while keeping 99% of the game off-chain. However, Wagner and his team at Star Atlas are taking a much more ambitious approach. They are building Star Atlas so that the blockchain, specifically Solana, functions as the game's infrastructure.

What Sets Star Atlas Apart

Star Atlas is not just another blockchain game; it's a AAA game that uses Solana as its main infrastructure. This design choice is compelling for several reasons:

  1. True asset ownership for players
  2. Play-to-earn capabilities
  3. Governance structure allowing community participation
  4. Integration capabilities for developers

Wagner explains, "Our vision largely has not changed. If anything, the scope has expanded since inception, but we've always had this idea of differentiating ourselves in a couple of different ways. The first of those was through AAA game development."

The Scope of On-Chain Gaming

Wagner outlines three main avenues that a studio can take when developing blockchain games:

  1. Building a traditional game and minting NFTs to integrate into the game
  2. Creating a crypto-native economy where in-game currency is a cryptocurrency
  3. Abstracting game logic from the game engine and delivering it through on-chain programs

Star Atlas is taking the third approach, which Wagner believes has the most potential. He states, "What we want to do is turn Solana into the game server, into the game engine."

The Technology Behind Star Atlas

Building a game like Star Atlas on blockchain requires a significant amount of innovation and development of new tools. Wagner explains, "I think people at large underestimate the amount of innovation that we're creating right now as a necessity of building the tools that will enable us to fulfill this vision that we've outlined."

Some of the key technological developments include:

  • A marketplace for selling NFTs
  • A governance system with locking programs
  • Starcom, a middleware that captures data from the blockchain and delivers it to the client
  • A real-time on-chain gaming environment

Wagner emphasizes the importance of Solana for their project: "This is one of the reasons why we selected Solana initially is because of the scalability, because of the low cost of operations and this low inherent latency, the sub-second finality that was talked about a lot back then."

Balancing On-Chain and Off-Chain Elements

While the goal is to put as much on-chain as possible, there are practical considerations to balance. Wagner explains their approach: "Our ambition is to develop and deliver as much of the logic on-chain as possible, which means we rely heavily on Solana and Solana reliability as well as data services that are up and coming."

However, the implementation varies across different environments. For example, in the Unreal Engine product, it's unlikely that combat systems will be on-chain, but in the browser-based application, they will be.

The Star Atlas Experience

Star Atlas is conceptualized as a "space sim key" - a space simulation with easier access and more immediate action in-game compared to more complex titles like Kerbal Space Program or Star Citizen. Wagner describes the game: "It's quick to get to your spaceship. It's quick to get out and start engaging in battles and maybe just having fun but open world MMO."

The game is being developed across multiple environments:

  1. Unreal Engine product: A hyper-realistic cinematic open-world MMO
  2. Browser-based application: More top-down real-time strategy
  3. Mobile application (in development)

All these environments are synchronized through Solana.

Ambitious Player Numbers

One of the most exciting aspects of Star Atlas is its ambition to support an unprecedented number of concurrent players. Wagner reveals, "We are preparing to showcase is 5,000 concurrent users in a single instance, and then going into the end of the year, being able to support 30,000 concurrent players in a single instance."

This is a significant leap from current MMO server infrastructures, which typically support around 100 players in a single environment. Wagner envisions massive space battles and vibrant, flourishing societies on central space stations, all within a single server.

Competing in the AAA Game Market

When it comes to competing in the traditional AAA game market, Star Atlas faces unique challenges and opportunities. While major titles like Call of Duty might have budgets of around $500 million for development and marketing combined, Star Atlas is taking a different approach.

Wagner believes they have several advantages:

  1. A head start in understanding and building with blockchain technology
  2. A unique value proposition including asset ownership, play-to-earn, and governance structure
  3. High-quality AAA development that competes on entertainment and quality

He states, "I think we will compete on the entertainment scope, which is are game mechanics more fun or equally as fun as these other games that are coming out. And I think the answer is yes."

The Marketing Strategy

Rather than taking a conventional approach to marketing, Star Atlas is focusing on organic growth and product quality. Wagner explains, "We don't want to necessarily go out and start promoting Star Atlas to the traditional gamer where there's already this stigma out there that, you know, crypto games or NFTs are scams."

Instead, they're building openly and releasing modules, allowing players to experience the development process firsthand. Wagner believes this behind-the-scenes look at game development is unique and valuable.

Changing Monetization Models

The gaming industry has seen significant changes in monetization strategies over the years, from one-time purchases of cartridges or CDs to free-to-play models with in-app purchases. Star Atlas introduces yet another model.

Wagner explains, "Our model is once again, a slightly different one, which is you don't actually have to pay for the game. The game is free to access. What you have to purchase are the assets that you use within the game."

This model allows for a wide range of player investment, from $5 to potentially millions of dollars. However, Wagner emphasizes the importance of balancing this to avoid a "pay-to-win" scenario.

The In-Game Economy

One of the most innovative aspects of Star Atlas is its in-game economy. Unlike traditional games where transactions are one-way (from player to game company), Star Atlas allows for a bilateral transaction flow.

Wagner explains, "What's different about what three, what's different about a game like Star Atlas is it's not a single transaction flow into us as a studio. It's actually a bilateral transaction flow wherein they can pull value back out of the game."

This opens up possibilities for players to not only spend money but also earn it through gameplay, crafting, and trading. Wagner envisions a future where players could have full-time jobs within the game economy, such as manufacturing ships or creating and selling character skins.

Community Governance and Economic Management

Star Atlas incorporates community governance, allowing players to have a say in the game's development and economy. However, this comes with challenges, particularly when it comes to economic management.

Wagner acknowledges these challenges and explains their approach: "We've taken a very slow, methodical approach to how we roll out decentralized governance. In fact, we've only just recently released the proposal mechanism on our DAO."

While the long-term goal is full decentralization, the team currently maintains a degree of control to ensure the game's stability and success. Wagner states, "We inherently have what is effectively a veto capability over that governance system as well. And this is not to take away from players rights. It's actually again, just to ensure that this is stewarded in the right direction in the near term with the intention of turning over greater and greater authority to that stakeholder base over time."

The Vision of Full Decentralization

Wagner's ultimate vision for Star Atlas is full decentralization. As a self-proclaimed "crypto maximalist," he aims to create a game that could theoretically continue to exist and evolve even without the original development team.

He explains, "We've structured the DAO in a way that it collects revenue off of the entire GDP of the Star Atlas economy. So it has a cash flow and income stream, which can then be leveraged to encourage development or engage in contracts or pay developers or other studios to build the next version of this with or without us."

This ambitious goal faces significant technical challenges, particularly when it comes to decentralizing game servers while maintaining network performance. However, Wagner believes that with advancing technology, this vision could become a reality.

The Philosophy of Blockchain Integration

One of the most interesting aspects of Star Atlas's approach is their stance on blockchain integration. While many projects aim to abstract away the blockchain elements to ease user adoption, Wagner takes a different view.

He states, "My viewpoint, which is maybe counterproductive to the business lens, is that I do not want to completely abstract away blockchain." Wagner believes that there's a fundamental philosophy behind cryptocurrency and blockchain technology - that of self-sovereign ownership - which should be communicated to users.

While this approach may present challenges in terms of user education and onboarding, Wagner sees it as essential to the project's ethos. He explains, "I do not want to completely abstract away the blockchain. And while I know that it will be more of a burden on us to educate users on the benefits of integration into this new paradigm, it's a challenge that I'm willing to take on because I think the benefits are strongly in favor of the user."

The Future of Gaming and Blockchain

As Star Atlas continues to develop, it stands as a testament to the potential of blockchain technology in gaming. By combining AAA game development with the innovative features of blockchain, Star Atlas is not just creating a game, but potentially reshaping the entire gaming industry.

Wagner's vision extends beyond just creating a successful game. He sees Star Atlas as a step towards a new paradigm of digital interaction and ownership. From digital identity management to new forms of governance and economy, the implications of this project reach far beyond the gaming world.

As the project progresses, it will be fascinating to see how Star Atlas navigates the challenges of blockchain integration, community governance, and AAA game development. If successful, it could pave the way for a new generation of games that offer not just entertainment, but also genuine ownership, economic opportunity, and community participation.

The journey of Star Atlas is just beginning, but it already offers a glimpse into a future where games are not just played, but lived in - a future where virtual worlds have real-world implications, and where players are not just consumers, but stakeholders in the worlds they inhabit.

As Wagner puts it, "This is an organism that can continuously grow. And I think it's something that if we do this right, could live for 100 years plus hundreds of years, it could essentially live on in perpetuity and be that digital world that we all exist in the metaverse."

Facts + Figures

  • Star Atlas is a AAA blockchain game being built on Solana
  • The game is being developed across multiple environments: Unreal Engine, browser-based, and mobile
  • Star Atlas aims to support 5,000 concurrent users in a single instance by the end of 2023, and 30,000 by the end of the year
  • Traditional AAA games like Call of Duty cost around $250 million to develop and another $250 million to market
  • Star Atlas is free to access, with players purchasing in-game assets
  • The Star Atlas DAO collects revenue from the entire GDP of the game's economy
  • The game's development roadmap spans 5-7 years
  • Star Atlas is targeting Breakpoint as a major announcement date for 2023
  • The game incorporates a decentralized autonomous corporation (DAC) platform for guild management
  • Star Atlas is developing a "Star Atlas account" system, which acts as a passport for web3 games

Questions Answered

What is Star Atlas?

Star Atlas is a AAA blockchain game being built on Solana. It's a space-themed game that aims to provide an immersive, open-world MMO experience with high-quality graphics and gameplay. The game is unique in its approach to integrating blockchain technology, using Solana as its main infrastructure and incorporating features like true asset ownership, play-to-earn mechanics, and community governance.

How does Star Atlas differ from other blockchain games?

Star Atlas differs from other blockchain games in its ambitious scope and deep integration of blockchain technology. While many blockchain games simply mint NFTs for in-game items, Star Atlas aims to use Solana as the game's infrastructure, putting as much of the game logic on-chain as possible. This allows for features like true asset ownership, a player-driven economy, and the potential for community-driven development and governance.

What challenges does Star Atlas face in competing with traditional AAA games?

Star Atlas faces several challenges in competing with traditional AAA games. These include a smaller budget for development and marketing compared to major titles, the need to educate users about blockchain technology, and overcoming the stigma associated with crypto games. However, the team believes their unique value proposition, including asset ownership and play-to-earn mechanics, along with high-quality AAA development, will allow them to compete effectively.

How does Star Atlas plan to handle community governance?

Star Atlas plans to implement community governance through a DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization) system. However, they're taking a cautious approach, gradually rolling out governance features to ensure stability and proper management of the game's economy. While the long-term goal is full decentralization, the development team currently maintains some control to guide the game's development in the right direction.

What is the vision for Star Atlas's in-game economy?

The vision for Star Atlas's in-game economy is to create a bilateral transaction flow where players can not only spend money but also earn it through gameplay, crafting, and trading. The game's economy is designed to support various roles, potentially allowing players to have full-time jobs within the game, such as manufacturing ships or creating and selling character skins. The goal is to create a self-sustaining economy that could theoretically continue to function and evolve even without the original development team.

How does Star Atlas plan to handle the technical challenges of running a massive multiplayer game on blockchain?

Star Atlas is developing several custom technologies to handle the technical challenges of running a massive multiplayer game on blockchain. These include Starcom, a middleware that captures data from the blockchain and delivers it to the client, and a custom indexing and caching service. The team is also working with emerging authoritative server infrastructure to support thousands of concurrent users in a single instance, far beyond what traditional MMOs can support.

What is Star Atlas's approach to blockchain integration and user experience?

Unlike many blockchain projects that aim to abstract away the blockchain elements, Star Atlas takes a more transparent approach. The team believes in educating users about the benefits of blockchain technology and the philosophy of self-sovereign ownership. While this may present challenges in terms of user onboarding, they see it as essential to the project's ethos and the long-term benefits for users.

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