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Can Blockchain Gaming Be Good? A 90s-Era Nintendo Legend Weighs In

BY Jex Exmundo

October 21, 2022

In the early 1990s, game industry exec Tony Harman was sitting on a long flight to Kyoto, Japan. After publishing a report questioning the then-widely accepted dogma that only Japanese studios could make good games, word spread from his U.S. office to its Japanese headquarters.

While he didn’t know it then — Harman was headed for a date with destiny. Upon arriving in Japan, he had only one place to go: Nintendo’s global headquarters, for a meeting with the man behind the legend: Shigeru Miyamoto — one of the creators of the Italian plumber named Mario.

But what was Harman doing at Nintendo HQ? His mission was to convince the bigwigs at the Japanese gaming giant to do something they’d never done before: give someone else the keys to one of their fiercely-guarded IPs. Donkey Kong, to be exact. Harman recalled the exact words he told Nintendo in an interview with nft now: “If you give me a Western developer, […] one of the Nintendo characters, and the same budget as a Japanese company, I’ll make you a number-one hit.”

With those words echoing throughout the halls of Nintendo’s Minami-ku headquarters came the start of a bittersweet chain of events. And at the end of it all, Web3, where Harman is looking to apply his vision today.

The state of blockchain gaming in Web3

For the cynical mainstream gamer, there isn’t a trend in gaming more deserving of scorn than the nascent blockchain gaming movement. The very concept of play-to-earn (P2E) games has quickly shifted from an ideal worth working toward to what some would describe as a chore.

Even blockchain game developers have grown tired of the models popularized by titles like Axie Infinity. But that might be a good thing — and it’s attracting the very kind of people that Web3 needs in its early stages: committed builders with proven track records.

With so much at stake, the blockchain gaming space shouldn’t have to wait for a newcomer to burst onto the scene à la Axie or even Flappy Bird. The task of bringing blockchain gaming into a new light is on the shoulders of those who’ve delivered triple-A games to mainstream audiences.

But what does this “experience” entail? Surprisingly, understanding requires an immersion in the history of gaming.

Journey to Nintendo HQ

Let’s cut back to Harman. Why did he want Nintendo to let a Western third-party studio have access to one of its closely-guarded IPs? Simply put, he thought tailoring a game from the ground up for the U.S. market would be more efficient than simply localizing one of Nintendo’s in-house titles. With much of Nintendo’s storytelling focused on Japanese folklore and culture, it was only inevitable that crucial nuances of their stories would end up getting lost in translation. From a more practical point of view, it’d also go a long way toward helping the brand establish itself further in Western markets — or so Harman claimed.

Once Nintendo’s top brass begrudgingly agreed to that request, Harman got to work assembling his team, starting with British game development studio Rare. At the time, the studio was best known for titles like Battletoads and licensed works based on characters like Spider-Man and Freddy Kreuger. Now, it had access to video game royalty: Donkey Kong, the character that arguably started Nintendo’s rapid rise to fame in the 1980s.

Donkey Kong Country’s North American box art. Source: Nintendo

To say they made the most of that opportunity would be an understatement. The resulting game from Harman’s pitch was Donkey Kong Country, arguably 1994’s game of the year, and one of Super Nintendo’s most beloved games of all time. Rare also eventually went on to develop some of the most beloved titles for Nintendo’s subsequent platform, the N64 — Goldeneye, Perfect Dark, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day still hold a solid spot in today’s zeitgeist.

As for Harman, he looked to steward yet another groundbreaking project for Nintendo. “I wanted to go to the next level. So I did the first 3D game on a Nintendo console that was a successful hit. That was Star Fox,” Harman said.

Reality bites

Now let’s do a barrel roll into 2022. What could Harman be up to today? After getting involved in the development of the first Grand Theft Auto, he kept his innovative streak up by heading projects like Crackdown and APB — the latter of which was hailed by gaming content creators the “Fortnite before Fortnite” — or a game whose ideas flew a bit too close to the sun for a gaming populace that simply wasn’t ready yet. In Harman’s words, it was “ten years too early.”

Unfortunately, given the trajectory the gaming industry started to go in during the turn of the 2010s, Harman was starting to get burnt out. “I got really, really frustrated with the industry because of free-to-play primarily. You’re expecting small game developers to have Harvard MBA business analytics to make a successful game because only one to three percent of [the audience] is paying users,” he said. “You need all these analytics to determine who they are and how to get as much money out of them, and that warps the whole revenue generation for the game.”

It wasn’t until recently that Harman felt like jumping into the fire again — a decision mostly spurred by the developing NFT market and infrastructure, and a long-held love for user-generated content (UGC). Enter the Unioverse, the latest project by the Harman-led outfit Random Games. It’s a decentralized sci-fi franchise that’s giving away a treasure trove of high-quality 3D assets to its collectors. The plan? To give collectors the same opportunities Harman had throughout his career to make great games. No questions asked.

Of course, all you’ll need to do to get in on the action is to purchase a Unioverse character NFT straight-up. After which, you’ll have free access to Unioverse’s planned suite of video games, as well as the opportunity to develop your own titles using Unioverse assets, which Harman stressed will be “given away” to holders of the initial collection to use as they wish. “We give away our character models, all the textures, all the rigging, all the animation goes to [Unioverse holders], and [we] ask them what else they need and help build those assets,” Harman said.

All this is in service of further developing the Unioverse IP. While the Unioverse team will be receiving a cut of a holder’s profit, each NFT’s underlying smart contract will ensure that players don’t lose out on any of their own revenue. “We only make content for our community. We have no in-game transactions on purpose because we don’t want to pay Google or Apple’s team anything,” Harman said. “So, none of the money’s being spun out of the system. Our early supporters will get the increased value of the characters hopefully and they’ll make all the money from the distribution of the characters.”

The writing on the wall

In some ways, the entrance of Harman and other gaming industry veterans in Web3 can be seen as a way to escape some of the biggest problems plaguing the current gaming industry. Particularly, the ways in which big corporations structure out how people behind the scenes are compensated.

Although Harman proudly recounts the origins of Donkey Kong Country as one of his most cherished career highlights, he also noted the reality he faced following such an achievement. Despite spearheading the launch and development of one of Nintendo’s most cherished games, Harman faced a pay cut at the end of the fiscal year due to how Nintendo as a company took in less revenue overall that year. “My pay went down that year because they said the company’s success wasn’t as good. It just wasn’t fair to my team. I went into a meeting [learning this] while watching Donkey Kong Country [fly off the shelves.]”

For Harman, starting a franchise in a decentralized manner is the clearest way to ensure that subsequent creators and project leads won’t suffer the same fate. “If you look at Stan Lee, if he literally would have made just a five percent commission off all his work in his lifetime, he would have died with a lot more than a few million dollars,” Harman stated. And the key lies in smart contracts — perhaps one of the most revolutionary functionalities offered to creators building using NFT platforms. “Smart contracts are the right thing to do. You should be able to participate proportionately to your success,” Harman said.

If anything, that simple reality alone should be enough to steer even the most jaded gamer toward giving blockchain games a shot. Games are art too, and the artists behind these works deserve fair compensation for their work.

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