A bitcoin startup wants to bring collectible card games (CCG) into the block chain age with an online game called Deckbound.
Deckbound is a lot like other collectible card games – the most well-known of which is Magic: The Gathering, which is played online and on tabletops. The difference is that each Deckbound card exists as a transaction on the block chain.
The Isle of Man-based maker of Deckbound, EVA Plexus, is run by founder Gareth Jenkins, who has run an independent game development studio in the past.
Jenkins said block chain-linked cards allow players to trade them without the involvement of the game-maker, harking back to when CCGs first came on the scene as purely paper-based games.
"Because cards were physically printed, you ended up with all these interesting systems that exist in the communities around the cards. For example, most Magic [tournament] rules came from players themselves, not Wizards of the Coast," he said, referring to the company that created Magic.
Jenkins said fusing cards to the block chain means that each card would then become a permanent digital object that would be independent of its maker.
"By basing it on the block chain [...] we provide a level of guarantee to players that if, for whatever reason, in two years our business goes bust, everything is still public," he said.
This is a departure from the conventional way online CCGs are managed, where the publisher acts as the central authority issuing new cards, deciding how cards can be traded and ensuring that the systems are in place to sustain the game world.
"In the digital space, you're tied to using someone else's system, you can't come up with the rules yourself. It's completely opaque."
Big money in digital card games
Digital CCGs are proving to be major money-makers for big game publishers.
Hasbro, which owns Magic's maker Wizards of the Coast, reported $1.3bn in sales from its game division in 2013, representing growth of 10% over the previous year. The games and toys giant doesn't break out figures for individual titles, but singled out Magic for contributing to its revenue gains.
Meanwhile, Activision Blizzard, which owns the hugely popular World of Warcraft and Diablo franchises, launched its own online CCG, Hearthstone, in March. The company said it expected Hearthstone to exceed $100m in revenues, with Blizzard Entertainment chief executive Michael Morhaime saying the title "has been exceeding all of our expectations", in an August earnings call with investors.
How it works
Jenkins has had to perform some complicated manoeuvres to link Deckbound cards to the block chain. For starters, he built a system that allows various tags to be attached to a bitcoin transaction, called BitBind. The system can be thought of as a simplified implementation of coloured coins, Jenkins said.
The BitBind system is used by Deckbound to attach various card attributes to a given transaction, effectively turning that transaction into a Deckbound card.
"BitBind allows us to follow things around the block chain [...] it allows players to freely trade cards; it doesn't involve us, but we still know where [the cards] are, and so on," Jenkins said.
Because each Deckbound card is essentially a bitcoin transaction, it also has a nominal bitcoin value, which is a percentage of the price of that card. The first Deckbound cards are priced at $1 worth of bitcoin, so each card has a value of $0.25 worth of bitcoin.
The BitBind system sits on top of the block chain, so it doesn't write any information to the bitcoin public ledger. It is currently hosted by Jenkins' company and its accessible through an API. Jenkins said the plan is to make the project open-source and available to anyone to run in the long-term.
Turning cards into investment assets
Deckbound's next link to the block chain is its crowdfunding scheme. Jenkins is trying to raise funds for the game by turning cards into return-yielding assets.
Instead of issuing new cards and slapping a price tag on them, Deckbound cards are issued from a 'genesis block'. Each block is released when it hits a funding target. Investors who fund the block then stand to earn a return as the card is traded among players, gaining or losing value.
The first block has raised 30.4 BTC, putting it at 41% of its funding target of 75 BTC. The minimum projected return, according to Deckbound's website, is 130% of the principal invested.
Collectible cards have long been traded on marketplaces, fetching sky-high prices. The most expensive Magic card on record sold on eBay last year for more than $27,000, while the most expensive Pokemon trading card was on the block for $100,000 last September.
Deckbound is also selling cards ahead of its release in an 'alpha' stage of development this year. The game can be played for free with 'Nomad' cards supplied by the game-maker, but packs of cards can also be purchased, with prices starting at $5.
According to Jenkins, 5,000 cards have already been sold, worth about 2.5 BTC in all.
"The response we've had so far has been great," he said.
One gaming enthusiast on Bitcointalk, who is a self-professed player of Magic and Hearthstone, had this to say about Deckbound's concept:
"I love these strategic card games [...] I think with the right marketing, this could become huge!"
Part of the reason Jenkins is bootstrapping the game is because he's encountered difficulty finding investors who are comfortable both in the cryptocurrency world and in the gaming space – although failed exchange Mt Gox, notably, started life as a trading platform for Magic cards.
Jenkins described one conversation with a prominent Silicon Valley investor who was clued-in on bitcoin, but struggled to understand the market for online card games. Still, he said he was hopeful he would be in a better position to raise traditional funding if the game gets some traction with customers first.
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