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Mobile Bitcoin Gaming Is Powering Up on Lightning

A new game will soon drop in the App Store. You are a cat – a cute cat, a cartoon cat – who flings items like fish, seashells, and golden stars into the sky. Your goal is to smash targets.

I tested the game, called THNDR Bay, while it was still in beta. In the spirit of games like Candy Crush, it’s a bit mindless yet oddly addictive, and it serves the usual purpose of putting off work.

But the game has a twist.

This article is part of CoinDesk’s Culture and Entertainment Week.

When you finish each level you win purple tickets, and these tickets automatically enroll you in a daily raffle that doles out free Bitcoin. The day after I first played my game, I opened THNDR Bay and learned that I had just won 20 Satoshi, or roughly $.01. Finally, at long last, I’m leveraging my journalism to get rich in crypto.

I might have only won a penny, but each month, 50,000 users are regularly playing other games from THNDR (the developer of THNDR Bay), such as Turbo 84 and Bitcoin Bounce, to “stack Sats.” Zebedee, another bitcoin gaming company, says 50,000 people have downloaded a mobile game called SaruTobi. These numbers are tiny compared to the 1.8 million daily users of Axie Infinity, but there are some in the space who see the rise of mobile bitcoin gaming – especially in a “normal” ecosystem like the App Store – as key to spurring global bitcoin adoption.

“Mobile games are the most frictionless way for people to onboard into bitcoin,” says Desiree Dickerson, the new CEO of THNDR. “Nothing feels safer than going to the App Store, or the Google Play store. Everything feels safe.” You don’t need to upload a picture of your passport. You don’t need 2-factor authentication. “That is the most beautiful experience for getting your first bitcoin,” says Dickerson. “You’re literally having fun and you’re earning bitcoin.”

Dickerson’s very presence at THNDR, in a way, is a massive vote of confidence in mobile gaming, and perhaps a signal for the future. She’s a good get. For years Dickerson served as VP of business operations at Lightning Labs, arguably the most consequential project in all of Bitcoin. She had a top role at a top company. She’s popular in the space and well-connected, and she could have landed any job.

So why cartoon cats?

The shorthand is that Dickerson left Lightning to launch a bitcoin mobile gaming company. The truth is more complex. At the end of July, she left Lightning to help care for her mother, spending 14 hours a day in a Cleveland hospital – often sleeping there – as her mother battled diverticulitis. “I had to make a call on where to spend my time,” says Dickerson, and her mom was more important than bitcoin.

When her mother recovered, Dickerson, exhausted and drained, took her first break in years and went on an “epic vacation” with her husband and bounced around Europe – Barcelona, Krakow, Naples, Prague, Slovakia, and on and on. “We ate and drank and did nothing,” says Dickerson. But wherever she went, and on every flight, she noticed something: People were playing games on their phones. Grandparents, teenagers, kids, parents, men, women – everyone was on their phone playing games. “It was literally everywhere,” says Dickerson. “Even in Ohio in the hospital waiting rooms. They’re not reading books anymore.” Even her mom was playing “these stupid Clue-like games.”

Meanwhile she had been doing research. Crunching numbers. “I was like, holy shit, mobile gaming makes up 60% of the entire gaming market,” she says. “That’s larger than both desktop and console gaming combined. Insane numbers.” And there are an estimated 3.1 billion gamers in the world. She found the math compelling.

Then there’s the lure of gaming itself – a lifetime obsession. When Dickerson was a kid, her dad had the original Nintendo and they played Duck Hunter. The N64 came out when her parents divorced, and the console brightened an otherwise bleak time, as “so much was breaking down in our lives.” Over pizza, she bonded with her father while playing Goldeneye and Mario Party. “It was such a huge, huge, huge part of my youth,” she says.

Later, at the University of Chicago, she got hooked on Facebook games, even using her student loan money on FarmVille. After college, working in management consulting for the federal government (she helped with the roll-out of HealthCare.gov, calling it two years of “non-stop nuts” and “insanity”), she was hell-bent on winning Pokemon Go battles… at the White House.

That gaming obsession continued at Lightning. She worked with Jack Everitt, the game developer who originally launched THNDR, and Christian Moss, the co-founder and head developer at Zebedee, to launch a bitcoin e-sports tournament called Mint Gox. “My favorite use case [for Lightning] is gaming,” Dickerson told me back in May of 2021, months before she made the switch. “Gaming is the perfect onramp for people who never thought about bitcoin. It’s a no-brainer.”

The story of Dickerson, Everitt, and Moss is still largely untold – perhaps because they’re not part of any crypto speculation frenzy. (Yet.) But they could write the next chapter of bitcoin gaming and bitcoin adoption…and it all started with lighting. No, not the Lightning Network – Force Lightning from Star Wars.

Not strictly sadistic

Emperor Palpatine, as every Star Wars fan knows, shoots evil lightning bolts from his fingers. In 2008, a young computer graphics wizard from the U.K., Jack Everitt, was tasked with creating a Force Lightning plug-in for After Effects, the video effects software program.

So Everitt built the effect. It was cool. And it gave Everitt an idea. The iPhone had just been released, and Everitt knew that the App Store – still in its infancy – was an untapped goldmine for those who could code. Everitt quickly created an App, called Volt, where you touch the screen and then you see lightning bolts. That’s it. That’s all it did. This lightning-themed app shot to #2 in the paid App Store.

Read more: These Gaming Studios Are Bringing Bitcoin Payouts to Everyday Esport Gamers – Colin Harper

Laughing, Everitt remembers that in those early days of the iPhone, people were still dazzled by the ability to pinch your screen and zoom in on pictures, “and anything that wasn’t zooming in on the phone was amazing.”

He made enough money from Volt to quit his job and focus on creating more games, such as 2013′s “Smash Dude,” where you basically beat the crap out of a wooden doll with a variety of weapons: punches, tomatoes, darts, thumbtacks, and Everitt’s beloved lightning. In a mixed review (2.5 stars), CNET called it a “frustration vent like none other” while clarifying that the game is “not strictly sadistic.”

Perhaps Everitt would have remained a traditional game developer forever, but two developments would change his course. Everitt was shocked when Apple yanked Smash Dude from the App Store, apparently because it was too violent. This struck Everitt as bizarre and capricious. The game was “cartoony, with no blood,” says Everitt. “They were opaque and didn’t give any explanation.” And it was getting harder and harder for his games to get noticed. Competition on the App Store and Google Play had stiffened – if you didn’t splurge on a marketing budget, your game would get buried by the algorithm.

The second development: Lightning. As early as 2013, Everitt toyed with the idea of somehow injecting his game with bitcoin, but the fees were too high and the 10-minute lag (to settle base-layer transactions) was a deal-breaker. Then came Lightning. Near-instant transactions. Near-zero fees.

Just before a Lightning Network conference in Berlin, in 2019, Everitt slapped together a quick game, called Bitcoin Bounce, that could demonstrate how players could win Satoshis in-game. The game was crude and simple; Everitt created it as an “ice breaker” for the conference. You basically “bounce” on the blockchain and pick up Satoshi coins. At the time Everitt was still a nobody in the crypto world, so he attended the Berlin conference as a regular crypto-bro. But he noticed a spare booth where an exhibitor had no-showed, and without asking anyone’s permission, he claimed it as his own and set up shop, then he showed the Lightning community Bitcoin Bounce.

The game was a hit. Dickerson remembers downloading Bitcoin Bounce (shortly after the conference), playing the game and thinking, “Wow, this is really happening in the palm of my hand. Gaming on bitcoin is actually a reality.”

The Berlin conference is also when Everitt met another central figure in mobile bitcoin gaming: a fellow British game developer named Christian Moss.

Boozy coins

Soon after Christian Moss graduated university in the UK, he moved to Japan to teach English. He found it odd that his Computer Science degree failed to teach him computer programming, so almost on a lark, he went to YouTube and searched “How to make an iOS app?” He taught himself how to program and make games, or what he now describes as “bad games,” like taking an image from your phone’s photo library and turning it into a jigsaw puzzle. When he uploaded his first app to the App Store in 2010, after it launched, he excitedly checked the sats to see how many people had downloaded it. The answer was five. Not 5,000. Five people.

Moss soon built other games, better games, like one that incorporated robots, puzzles, and time traveling. (A robot is trapped in an elevator and it has to press a button to open the doors. But the button is broken. So the robot needs to time-travel to a moment where the button wasn’t broken.) He moved with his girlfriend (now wife) to Australia, then landed a job with an app development company, and one day he was tasked with designing a bitcoin wallet app. “For a small amount of time I was the only bitcoin wallet app on the App Store,” Moss remembers.

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Moss realized that no one was putting bitcoin into games. So he made a game called SaruTobi, which literally means “monkey fly,” the name of a famous ninja in Japanese folklore. Like Everitt’s Bitcoin Bounce, the game wasn’t super complicated. You tap the screen and spin the monkey, and the monkey would fly through the air, and if you’re lucky the monkey would swing into some bitcoin. (CoinDesk covered the game’s release in 2015.)

Moss was now hooked on bitcoin gaming. He moved back to Tokyo where he attended bitcoin meetups – at the time organized by Roger Ver – and made connections who became sponsors of the game. That was the early business model: Crypto sponsors (like Genesis Mining and Bread Wallet) would give Moss the capital that he could then give to players.

One night at a Tokyo meetup, Moss got drunk. “You know how sometimes when you’re drunk, sometimes you see coins on the floor? But they’re really just bottle caps?” (Moss adds that “maybe you don’t, maybe that’s just me.”) This gave him boozy inspiration: Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if you can just drop bitcoin on the floor for other people to pick up? This was before Pokemon Go. “The idea is that people could drop bitcoin anywhere in the world for others to pick up,” Moss says, in an idea that now – with the price of bitcoin around $50,000 – feels hilariously unlikely.

But 2016 was a simpler time in crypto. So Moss created a game, called Takara, where you use your phone’s GPS to navigate to dropped bitcoin, and then you need to answer questions to prove you’re actually there.

Why the questions? Moss says that GPS can be faked, so he added real-world challenges as a safeguard. For example, if you’re at a diner, you might have to answer “What’s the breakfast special?” Japanese businesses even used the game for advertisements, such as Tokyo bars that dropped bitcoin into their establishments as a way to lure customers.

Takara and SaruTobi were fun, they were creative, and they were being played by actual people. Then came the scaling problem. The games “all broke because the fees became too high,” says Moss. He put a pause on mobile bitcoin gaming, a pause that would last for years, until a solution emerged that cracked the scaling problem – Lighting.

Moss was then approached by a crypto entrepreneur named Simon Cowell (not that one), who years ago played SaruTobi, remembered it fondly, and wanted to start a Lightning-infused bitcoin gaming company Zebedee. Moss is now Zebedee’s Head of Gaming, Cowell is the CEO, and Zebedee now creates both bitcoin games and tools to help developers make bitcoin games. “We think bitcoin will be the main currency of the digital world,” says Moss.

Idle Clickers

Maybe mobile bitcoin gaming is the future, but to get there, Dickerson, Everitt, Moss, and the other mobile bitcoin gaming developers (such as Viker) will have to solve some very real problems in the present.

Consider the design of the games themselves. Bitcoin can make it tricky. “You can’t just add bitcoin to a game and give it away,” says Everitt. “You have to think about it when you design the game.” THNDR measures every in-game metric: how many ads do people watch, when do they spend their money in the game, how quickly do they complete levels. You measure all of those metrics like normal, says Everitt, but “now you’ve got a hole in the ship. And money’s being leaked out of it.”

THNDR’s revenue model, at least in these early days, is almost surprisingly traditional. “We make money through ads and in-app purchases,” says Everitt. (And the ads, speaking from personal experience, can be jarring and annoying.) They’re not receiving crypto from players – it’s the reverse. They spread Satoshis to entice users to keep playing. But how much should they give? How often?

Everitt and team are testing these variables constantly. They use A/B testing to compare different payouts – maybe Group A plays a version of the game that gives out 25 Satoshis, and Group B plays an identical version but only gets 1 Satoshi. They measure engagement and retention. Everitt was reluctant to share examples of this kind of testing, as “that’s where our edge is. It’s our secret sauce.” But he did let slip that they found something surprising in their analysis: Gamers seemed to find the prize of 1 Satoshi more valuable than 25 Satoshi. Perhaps the former feels fun and cute; the latter feels cheap. And this is obviously a happy insight for a gaming company; the players don’t notice any difference, but switching from 25 to 1 slashes giveaway costs by 96%.

Gamers seem to love these 1 Sat giveaways. They even give Sats to each other as a sign of fellowship. “When we want to give something nice to another player, we say that one Sat equals one digital hug,” says a Venezuelan-based gamer who goes by Koty. He plays Bitcoin Bounce and Turbo84 every day for 10 to 15 minutes, hoping to stack sats, and is excited about how he can use them in the future. “Imagine playing a casual game, earning sats, and use those sats to buy a new armor in a MMORPG, or a set of tires in a racing game, or to even do groceries in the analog world,” says Koty.

Maybe someday. But another challenge: The very “safety” of the App Store, which Dickerson credits for frictionless adoption, is also a brutal constraint to game design. There’s only so much, at the moment, that game developers are allowed to do with bitcoin. Can users make in-app purchases with bitcoin? Nope. This is one reason why the current crop of games (unlike Axie Infinity) generally only give out bitcoin, not create an in-game economy.

Adding bitcoin can warp the core incentives of a game. When Zebedee added bitcoin to a Mario Kart-style game, you scoop up coins when racing around the track. But then something funky happened. Moss found that instead of completing each level, players would actually drive the cart backwards to collect more coins. “The incentive to finish wasn’t there,” says Moss. So they tweaked the game to give an extra incentive to finish the level. “As a game designer, you kind of want people to actually play the game,” says Moss. “Otherwise, you kind of feel like, ‘I might as well just make a game that has a button that you press, like a chicken.’ That can be disheartening.”

Game security is a constant danger. If you create a game that directly gives out bitcoin, then you have unwittingly created a juicy target for hackers. As Everitt describes it, maybe the game’s code has a line that says “give me 10 Sats” and then the hacker rewrites that to “Give me 1,000 Sats.”

Then there are the “Satoshi farms.” Most of these games have daily limits, so you can only earn 500 Sats (for example) before seeing a message like “You’ve reached your limit for today.” This prevents THNDR and Zebedee from getting bled dry. Moss says that to juke this constraint, some gamers create virtual accounts on multiple machines – an army of machines – to rack up the free Satoshi. Moss is constantly playing what he calls “wackamole” to ban the IP addresses of these Satoshi farms, and says that “It happens all the time.”

Finally, it can be helpful to look at that original game I played, the cartoon cat shooter THNDR Bay, and to consider the logic that went into the design choices. “We have to choose easy gameplay,” says Grzegorz Flor, THNDR’s Poland-based new Chief Product Officer. “In the beginning we have to focus on the very easy games for the mass audience.”

Flor, who has a background in both psychology and traditional gaming (he has made over 100), categorizes mobile games in different buckets: “hyper-casual,” “bubble shooters,” “idle clickers,” and so on. He teaches Dickerson the nuance of gaming; she teaches him the nuance of bitcoin.

Read more: The Lightning Network Is Going to Change How You Think About Bitcoin – Jeff Wilser

“Idle clickers,” Dickerson says, amused. “I didn’t know that was a category. All you do is click it. Like, teenage girls will play these games in class, and they’ll put it under their leg and just click without looking.” She’s particularly amused by a game called KleptoCats, where you “have this cat, and you feed him, and you watch him, and you just click, and he steals shit from people and he brings it back to you,” Dickerson says, laughing so hard she can barely speak. “It’s so stupid, and I’ve already spent $10 on it.”

THNDR is not making Idle Clickers, but Turbo 84 is a racer, THNDR Bay is a bubble shooter, and all of these games fit squarely in the lane of “casual.”

That could change. Consider the track record of Flor, who says he is “connected with MS Excel on a cellular level.” In Poland, he used big data to create a MMORPG game, “Blackout Age,” that blends in-game action with real-world knowledge.

Blackout Age is a dystopian survival game. That’s not so unique. But Flor gave it a new spin: he used the data to create maps and scenarios that conform to the real world, allowing players to benefit from their knowledge of actual neighborhoods. (Data sets of real-world light pollution, for example, helped inform the game map’s city density. Actual crime data might inform the difficultly levels of neighborhoods.)

If the player needs a weapon, and she knows that a sporting goods store is only a few blocks away, she might head to that store in the hopes of finding arrows. It’s a slick concept. The game has over 1 million downloads, according to Flor, and 25,562 gamers on Google Play have given it an average rating of 4.1.

Suddenly the game doesn’t feel so casual. Now imagine this kind of inventive, sophisticated gameplay on a mobile device – one that you can safely grab from the App Store – and injecting it with bitcoin. That’s the kind of magic that could help realize THNDR’s end-game. As Dickerson describes her modest mission: “We want to gamify the world with bitcoin.”

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