We are about to witness a wave of high-profile Proof-of-Stake projects launch their main networks. At Chorus One, we have spent more than a year researching the ecosystem, designing our infrastructure, and most importantly, actively participated in multiple PoS networks. This led us to experience different approaches to bootstrap a staking community.

A key question is how to transition from testnets to a permission-less, decentralized network with millions of dollars of value at stake. This post summarizes the problem statement and introduces the concept and value proposition of incentivized testnets. Another follow-on post will cover more concrete insights, learnings, and recommendations on how to ideally bootstrap a staking community utilizing testnet competitions.

The Core Idea

The goal for a PoS network is to be maintained by a multitude of independent, geographically diversified entities (validators). Voting power should (ideally) be somewhat evenly distributed across these validators to minimize the likelihood of a small number of actors wielding outsized control over the network. A genuinely decentralized network will also assist with network stability and favorable regulatory treatment.

The Problem

Operating blockchain nodes costs money. There are costs related to provisioning and configuring the infrastructure. But there are also, often overlooked, costs associated with the time and skill (human capital) that is required to set up, operate, and maintain a validator.

Proof-of-Stake networks have a token that is supposed to compensate validators for these costs. But rewards are only paid out once the network is live. Who is incentivized to run nodes on a testnet with no compensation?

One approach is to assume that the community aka investors holding the token will run nodes themselves and will prepare adequately for the mainnet by participating in testnets. In reality, it is likely that the best node operators aren’t already invested in the project. The skills and capacity for investing capital in early-stage projects can be totally orthogonal to the skills required to operate a node well. Also, having investors as node operators will probably result in a more centralized network, especially considering concentrated token distributions.

Some node operators will participate in testnets in expectation of delegations on the mainnet. This implies the existence of some form of delegation mechanism. But what about validator skin in the game? Many projects emphasize the need for validators to have some economic stake in the project. This mostly translates to requiring a minimum buy-in for validators, which narrows the set of potential node operators to those that have enough capital to invest relatively large amounts themselves.

Additionally, because there are no economic incentives to participate in testnets, operators won’t put in too much effort to seriously test the software or optimize their architecture and operations. Finally, the choices of networks to validate on for node operators are increasing. Joining a testnet has associated opportunity cost for validators. In conclusion, PoS projects need a way to convince good and dedicated node operators that will increase the value of the network to join their ecosystem.

As a summary, the high-level goals to accomplish before launching a PoS mainnet are:

  1. Get a diverse set of high-quality node operators to join the network
  2. Optimize network stability and performance
  3. Test cryptoeconomic incentives and protocol features
  4. Ensure node operator incentives align with those of the overall network

The Solution

An emerging trend is to run an incentivized testnet competition that rewards participants with tokens based on their performance during the competition. The idea is to bootstrap a community of high-quality node operators while at the same time testing and improving network performance, robustness, incentives, and other features in adversarial conditions that resemble a live network.

The project that first established and carried out such a competition is Cosmos with their “Game of Stakes” (GoS). Multiple PoS projects are currently exploring their own testnet competitions. We’re aware of the Enigma incentivized testnet and many others that didn’t announce their plans publicly yet.

The common thread across these competitions is the desire to battle test the protocol’s cryptoeconomic design, network performance, and features such as governance and delegation. Often additional rewards (bounties) are offered to participants that scrutinize each part of the system to uncover code or incentive flaws.

Going back to the PoS network launch goals stated above, we can see that an incentivized testnet competition is an amazing tool to realize them:

  1. The promise of token rewards incentivizes node operators to join and engage with the test network. A well-designed competition will highlight and reward both validators that perform well and those that contribute in other ways.
  2. The potential for rewards will attract many diverse node operators. To improve their performance, operators will optimize their infrastructure. An example is to minimize potential downtime by implementing tools for monitoring and alerting. As a result, validators will be prepared for mainnet. Additionally, network performance can be tested under more realistic conditions compared to a non-value-bearing testnet.
  3. A good design will reward participants for testing features like delegation, sending transactions, governance, and other network interactions. Uncovered flaws can additionally be rewarded through bug bounties.
  4. Rewarding the best node operators with tokens means that they gain an economic stake in the project. It is likely that they will stake these tokens on mainnet itself. Thus, validators can earn skin in the game by doing work instead of investing money.

Another positive side-effect of a testnet competition is that it enables project teams and validators to test and establish communication channels and coordination processes that will persist to the mainnet. This can include announcement and discussion channels, upgrade processes, call schedules, etc.

While GoS worked out incredibly well on many fronts, we believe that there is room for improvements for future incentivized testnet competitions. We’re always happy to share our experiences and feedback, reach out to us to learn more! A follow-on post will go into detail covering learnings and recommendations gathered from the GoS experience, our research, and conversations with validators, protocol designers, as well as other players in the staking space.

Featured image by Inactive. on Unsplash