Loveable Digital Kittens Are Clogging Ethereum’s Blockchain

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Alyssa Hertig

 

Can a crypto app be too easy and fun?

That might be the case on ethereum, where one project is proving so popular it’s putting pressure on the network’s technology. Best thought of as a decentralized Tamagotchi, CryptoKitties appears to be striking a nerve with new users, making ethereum fun and accessible to those who aren’t in the tech nerd domain.

Already, the app, which uses ethereum’s blockchain to create a public, shared history of cryptographically unique (not to mention cute and cuddly) fluffballs, is ethereum’s most popular, with users having spent at least $3 million total on breeding, buying and selling the in-game items, up from $1 million just yesterday. And currently, the average cat is trading for $100 in ether.

But the application is clogging the ethereum network, putting transactions in a long-time limbo.

“Due to network congestion, we are increasing the birthing fee from 0.001 ETH to 0.002 ETH. This will ensure your kittens are born on time!” the CryptoKitties team stated in a tweet surrounded by siren emojis to express the direness of the situation.

In its short lifespan, CryptoKitties has grown to make up 20 percent of all ethereum computations, a number that seems to still be growing.

While it’s certainly not the sole culprit behind ethereum’s lagging transactions, as ethereum developer Nick Johnson pointed out, it is one, and at the very least, it’s where people are placing the blame for exposing ethereum’s limits.

Johnson continued, telling CoinDesk:

“CryptoKitties is definitely a significant contributor to network congestion, and it may have been what pushed us over the edge from mostly-full blocks to full blocks in the last day or so.”

Messy underbelly

The issue is a bit ironic, seeing how ethereum is touted as a world “world computer” that hosts unstoppable decentralized applications, replacing the internet.

With aspirations like that, it might seem strange that one app for trading otherworldly kittens could clog the network, but because of the way blockchains work – with every transaction needing all network nodes to process it – there are limits on the number of computations that can be done all at one time.

Not only does that mean that an insane amount of kitty trading can slow down the network, but it can also add to the expense of using ethereum as well.

And whether people are right to point fingers at the CryptoKitties app or not, it is laughable that kittens are bringing new awareness to the messy underbelly of public blockchains, including ethereum, bitcoin and many others – scalability.

As a tweet from coder Boris Kozak displays, the issue is well-established and there are many proposed fixes, including state channels, Raiden, sharding and Casper – ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin’s and other developer’s interest in moving ethereum to proof-of-stake – but all these solutions require major engineering work and are still unfinished.

“It may also hasten the ethereum scaling crisis,” tweeted BlockTower chief information officer Ari Paul.

Others made parallels to bitcoin’s fierce scaling debates – which this year saw several groups split from the main bitcoin blockchain to create new versions of the protocol, in bitcoin cash’s case raising the block size limit to allow for more transactions.

Johnson Lau, Bitcoin Core contributor, quipped on Twitter:

“We need Ethereum Cash or many kittens would be killed.”

Blessing in disguise?

In short, ethereum has its work cut out for it.

And as usual, whether or not you think CryptoKitties is a positive movement for the ethereum community is colored by whether you support the protocol in the first place.

Ethereum supporters have a reason to be excited that an app is finally showing what the platform is capable of, as outlined in a reddit thread, which lauds the game as a successful proof-of-concept.

“I’m glad smart contracts are productizing a variety of use cases beyond speculation,” said The Initiative for Cryptocurrencies & Contracts (IC3) researcher Phil Daian, pointing to the bout of speculation generated by the thousands of initial coin offerings (ICOs) that have launched on the blockchain.

And Buterin even chimed in, tweeting: “I actually like the digital cat games. They illustrate very well that the value of a blockchain extends far beyond applications that would literally get shut down by banks or governments if they did not use one.”

And, as far as scaling ethereum goes, many are glad it’s bringing awareness to the issue – one ethereum user even called it a “blessing in disguise.”

Martin Köppelmann, founder of ethereum app Gnosis, echoed that sentiment, telling CoinDesk:

“If it is that successful – and even if it increases fees, even better – it will reveal weaknesses of the current tech but ultimately make it better. I’m all for experiments.”

Kitty image via CryptoKitties website