Sunflower Diaries: Part 2

I am not an expert in Blockchain, protocol design or cryptocurrency. In the eyes of Web3 veterans I am still a freshman and have much to learn. Over the past year I have been fortunate enough to ride the journey of a wildly successful crypto game and community.

The purpose of the Sunflower Diaries are to share the origins of Sunflower Land and explore how an open source project with no funding, no marketing and no employees grew to become the #1 crypto game for a brief period of time. The hope is that others find inspiration to start their own Blockchain project or come contribute to Sunflower Land on our Github and live game development streams.

Nothing expressed is financial advice and all opinions expressed are of my own. Always do your own research around NFTs and cryptocurrency.

Tokenise everything!

While working on other dapps (decentralised apps), I began to explore mainstream blockchain services and how I could integrate with them. It deeply fascinated me that I could openly communicate with DEXs (decentralised exchanges) and other projects through a public interface. The current model I was accustomed to (Web2) was closed doors and pricing gates — essentially unless there was a monetary incentive, companies would not expose their data and APIs to build on top of.

As a developer, I felt like a kid in a toy store. There were thousands of protocols that I could play with and build tools on top of. Additionally, majority of the code was open source so it was easy to navigate around and learn the ropes. With amazing tools like PolygonScan, it was easy for a newcomer to scan the network, learn about transactions and how tokens were being exchanged. The blockchain ecosystem as a whole felt like paradise.

I began to imagine what it would look like if I built a game where every single resource followed the same principles that these projects and protocols were implementing.

The key idea was that every single item in the game would be represented by a unique ERC20 or ERC721 token. This meant that wood, iron, stone, eggs and more all became their own ERC20 token. Likewise, all of the collectible items in the game became their own ERC721 (NFT) that could be crafted with a combination of ERC20 tokens.

The hope was that it would be easy for developers to build functionality on top of these items and that emergent behaviour would develop amongst the players. The model I was proposing was extremely flexible and meant that ordinary players could do a range of unrestricted actions such as set up liquidity pools between resources like eggs and gold (which become extremely popular).

We could essentially launch a game with a fundamental structure and then let the community decide how the resources should operate. It was risky giving so much power to the players, but the idea was too tempting to resist.

Blockchain first game

By this time the space was filled with well known game designers and what was becoming the initial AAA crypto gaming corporations. With my limited success in launching games I knew that I wouldn’t produce a successful project through design alone. These companies had better artists, better programmers and better marketing. However, almost none of these companies were actually building a “Blockchain first” game. They were simply building a traditional Web2 game, piling on an NFT, a native token and calling themselves a “crypto game”.

Whilst it seems obvious now, at the time building a game where EVERYTHING lives on the blockchain was uncommon. Most NFT projects supported a single ERC721 token and kept majority of the resources “off-chain” (this means they live exclusively in some centralised game server they operate).

Our approach on the other hand wasn’t to make a blockbuster game. We wanted to make the traditional concepts of the Blockchain fun. Every item was a token, everything was decentralised and everything could be built upon by the community. Whenever an action took place (e.g. a player harvests eggs) it would be wrapped up in a transaction that would be public for the world to see using tools like PolygonScan. At any time players could check what items everyone had and what certain players were doing.

The best part, we didn’t even need to run a game server or database. It all lived on the Blockchain.

The idea had no business model nor did I know whether other people would find it entertaining. The ambitious idea excited and frightened me. So I began to build.

Sunflower Farmers V2

I didn’t have a clear idea how this would work so I began tinkering and learning along the way. My focus at the time was around the protocol flexibility, rather than scalability or security. Over the course of a week I made some key updates to the smart contracts and was ready to deploy them.

Remember how I mentioned that the game was immutable? Well that meant that I could not make any updates to the existing game, I needed to deploy an entirely new game. All of the previous tokens and progress that the players had earned up until that point had been lost. Luckily there was only around 150 players and I was able to work with everyone on Discord to ensure that their tokens and progress could be recovered.

After a brutal 2 day recovery period, everyone had been migrated to the new smart contracts and I was pumped. We hadn’t launched any of these ‘tokenised’ resources (Wood, Stone, Gold etc) but the community was engaged and curious to see how it would work. This was the beginning of momentum in the project. The players and open source contributors now had their eyes on a grandiose vision and an exciting concept for crypto gaming. This was the fuel we needed.

Let’s show the world.

To increase interest in the project I decided to enter a range of hackathons and blockchain events. One of these events was a DoraHacks Polygon competition where you had a 20 minute pitch with a chance to win up to $20,000 in funding on the Polygon network. There were roughly 50 projects and I felt like we stood a good chance. I prepared a pitch deck, some gameplay and after waking up at 2am to present my slides and watch the other presentations I felt confident. In 3 weeks we would find out what the results were.

During this waiting period I got more and more involved in the game. It was becoming my obsession and I would spend all of my weekends working part-time on the project and helping the community. I did not feel alone. There were some incredible open source developers and artists contributing to the game. At least 25% of the player base were actively helping the game with code, pixel art and awesome ideas.

The community at the time was small, but we all had a great time building a game together. Spencer, a founding engineer, was touching up the user interface and giving it a professional feel. We also had Romy, another founding engineer, who had produced a soundtrack. It began to feel like we were a ‘real game’.

Everyone in the community was new to decentralised app development, but all ego was set aside and we had an incredible time learning together. There was no pressure onboarding users, earning revenue or building a company.

Off to Brazil!

The past 3 months had been exhausting. I was working full-time whilst maintaining 3 Blockchain projects in my spare time. Signs of burn-out were emerging and some rest and resetting was sorely needed.

On November 1st, the international borders had opened for Australians and like most of my friends I was ready to do some exploring. Within 2 weeks I had flights booked to Brazil for what I thought would be a relaxing 4 month trip with my partner.

Sunflower Land had some solid developers, artists & community members who were taking the reins of the project and it felt self-sustaining. My plan was to check in a couple times a week and help out where I could. As I hopped on the plane to Brazil I mentally shifted my mind into first gear.

Little did I know I was about to embark on the most gruesome and tiring 4 months of my life.

Part 3 coming next week.

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