Last Friday, Dom Hofmann tweeted the launch of Loot, one of his new projects looking at games and game creation through the lens of NFTs:
– randomized adventurer gear
– no images or stats. intentionally omitted for others to interpret
– no fee, just gas
– 8000 bags total
available via contract only. not audited. mint at your own risk pic.twitter.com/uLukzFayUK
— dom (@dhof) August 27, 2021
If “NFTs,” “gas” and “minting” sound unintelligible, the short version is that this project lets you spend some money to create a unique list of items that you could keep in the same wallet (an app like Rainbow) where you’d keep cryptocurrencies or other digital collectibles, typically art (or, as skeptics gleefully note, JPEGs).
I repeat: a unique list of items. No artwork, stats to compare quality or even game rules that could inform such stats.
People spent money to get those unique lists. Thousands. And as happens in NFTs, a market quickly formed around these unique lists of items. The “floor,” or minimum price to buy into a Loot “bag,” shot to thousands of dollars worth of Ethereum. Certain kinds of items in these lists sounded cool and were found to be rare upon analysis of the entire set, and so bags containing them rose in value to extreme heights:
And people began to fill in those missing elements like art — not fundamentally changing the underlying lists, but creating new works that explicitly reference the items in particular lists:
— gremplin (@supergremplin) August 30, 2021
And like the lists themselves, people began taking an algorithmic approach to generating that art:
Creating AI-generated pixel art for @lootproject.
Made using @dribnet's Colab (CLIPIT/PixelDraw).
– Demon Crown
– Maelstrom Tear Amulet of Brilliance
– Holy Chestplate
– Ornate Belt pic.twitter.com/GGr0N7eMQg
— MOΞ (@moesalih_) September 1, 2021
By August 31st, there was a legible community of people…
Except, there’s still no game rules for these items — including what it would even mean to have a character equipping them!
Hey, what’s that? Oh right, people could make or generate stats too!
This tweet really nails the overall phenomenon:
Loot is NFT improv.
It is an invitation to respond with, "Yes, and…"
— Redefined Life Podcast (RedefinedLife.eth) (@redefined_life) September 1, 2021
In less than a week, a community has gone from lists of text to infinitely many illustrations of those items to worlds for those items to reside in and characters to wield them. All from taking simple primitives and generating context around them that gives them value.
It’s pretty magical stuff. But even if there’s some speculative angle to the creation happening, how many people get to participate if these bags cost tens of thousands of dollars at a minimum? On the one hand: If you just think the game of making up a game is fun, because all of these bags and items live on the Ethereum network, then you can still make things that incorporate them at no cost (short of the painful fees currently associated with using Ethereum).
And if it really matters to you to have those unique objects in a wallet of your own so you can really participate, people are thinking of interesting paths there, as well:
– returns a "virtual nft" of loot based on a given wallet
– b/c the wallet is the seed, only one bag per wallet
– because it's not a "real" nft, no minting, transferring, selling, etc
anyone with an ethereum wallet has synthetic loothttps://t.co/K2fx9Zw7qQ
— dom (@dhof) September 1, 2021
We need an ordained “basic” loot bag with free minting and unlimited supply so anyone can participate. https://t.co/aok9EqhlZX
— John Palmer (@john_c_palmer) September 1, 2021
If that’s all too jargon-y, I’ll again summarize: There are feasible paths to making it free to “have” these items for the purpose of playing with the growing set of inter-compatible apps or games that might incorporate Loot — you just won’t have a Legit Bag with rare items that could sell for lots of money.
Oh, and what if you like some of the items in a Loot bag, but wish your adventurer could mix-and-match with other items from the broader set that just dropped?
1. Connect wallet
2. Unbundle your Loot Bag into individual ERC 1155 Loot items
3. Trade your Loot items to upgrade your adventurer
4. Dominate the metaverse pic.twitter.com/d4WiHEWtKo
— Jon Yan (@jonjyan) September 1, 2021
Less than a week and already getting disrupted by unbundling!
The Marvel Cinematic Universe started with Marvel Comics taking out a billion-dollar loan to finance the first four movies based on its iconic superhero characters. The seeds of awareness of these characters had been planted in the minds of the masses through decades of appearances in comics and TV leading up to their first appearances in blockbuster films. Decades of perhaps hundreds of writers and artists were getting paid to create fantastical stories for those characters that people would want to read and that would get them hooked to come back for the next issue. People came to closely associate themselves with characters with kind of funny origins (bit by a radioactive spider!).
This all happened in a top-down, corporate, mass-production context. A few creatives at Marvel did high-leverage work on a freelance or in-house basis, printers made a ton of copies and a supply chain got those issues to comics shops and dime stores across the country. Like dominoes, Stan Lee thinks of some new superhero (pitch: this guy’s not a hippy, he’s a weapons manufacturer industrialist!) to five decades later, Avengers: Endgame and Black Panther warp the definition of blockbuster forever.
But what if someone wanted to create an MCU competitor as a community, instead of going head-to-head with Disney?
Extrapolating from the last week of Loot…
You’d release a contract to generate sets of superhero names and associated powers. People would mint those heroes and they would begin to trade on the open market. People would build tools that determine which powers are more rare, especially around ones that sound cool (“flight” is a gimme).
They’d imagine their hero, illustrate them themselves and commission artists who could make them look cool. Eventually more technical folks in the community would do the heavy lifting to piece together tools that could generate art for characters in a common style, or be customizable by some key parameters.
Eventually, people would commission crossover art, and then you’re only a step away from shared storylines (increase the value of multiple characters with a single commissioned piece!).
DAOs, or decentralized groups who come together to create new projects in the crypto space or even “just” invest together, might buy up more popular characters and commission more elaborate visual stories with the aim of boosting the value of that underlying item containing a hero name + powers and any popular artworks that they inspired.
And assuming the project’s originators went with the direction of the Loot zeitgeist, all of this would be IP that could be re-used and remixed by anyone. That might sound crazy — isn’t the point to own it, and the point of owning it is to control how it’s used?
That’s the Disney status quo. In a world of projects like Loot, you want to reinforce the value of the NFT you own — and that value reflects that NFT’s renown and reputation. Echoing the phrase “all press is good press”: Any remix is a good remix. To be referenced is to still be culturally relevant. So if you own an NFT describing Arachnid Person, you want to contribute to an environment where as many people want to include Arachnid Person in their works as possible so that Arachnid Man No. 1 becomes something worth owning.
I’m really just expanding on Dylan Field:
Feels like two paths are emerging in NFT space.
(2) Form a community to build a universe. Give all the IP away. See what happens. Ex: @lootproject
Personally like approach #2 better!
— Dylan Field (@zoink) August 31, 2021
And John Palmer rightly emphasizes something special: The lack of anybody who can say “no,” as people try to figure out how to make Loot cool:
Crucial decision *not* to have a company, or a team leading the way. Impossible to gate-keep any creative decisions.
— John Palmer (@john_c_palmer) August 31, 2021
One of Hollywood’s biggest talent agencies is getting into the NFT game.
Larva Labs, the creator of CryptoPunks, just signed with United Talent Agency (UTA) in a representation deal that will bring one of the earliest and most iconic NFT projects into the entertainment and branding worlds.
“I would say that it is one of the first opportunities for an IP that fully originated in crypto-world to enter a broader entertainment space, and they earned it,” head of UTA Digital Assets Lesley Silverman told The Hollywood Reporter. “They really have hit the zeitgeist in a tremendous way.”
The deal could see CryptoPunks popping up across film, TV, video games and other licensing areas. Larva Labs’ other art projects, Meebits and Autoglyphs, will also be represented by UTA moving forward. The terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.
As speculative investment in NFTs explodes, CryptoPunks remain one of the most recognizable — and valuable — pioneers in the space. Larva Labs launched 10,000 of the individual algorithmically generated pixelated figures on the Ethereum blockchain back in 2017.
To the untrained eye, and arguably to the trained eye too, CryptoPunks are just little pixelated portraits of different characters, some wearing pirate hats, others in aviator glasses smoking pipes. But to the crypto world, punks are a social signifier, communicating early investment into NFTs, personal style and, importantly, wealth.
The value of CryptoPunks skyrocketed from zero (they were initially given away for free) and now even the least expensive collectible punks run for hundreds of thousands of dollars, with the most valuable selling for millions. In May, a bundle of nine CryptoPunks sold for just under $17 million in an auction run by Christie’s. And last week, even Visa got in the game, spending $150,000 on CryptoPunk #7610, a digital illustration sporting a mohawk and green face makeup.
Over the last 60 years, Visa has built a collection of historic commerce artifacts – from early paper credit cards to the zip-zap machine. Today, as we enter a new era of NFT-commerce, Visa welcomes CryptoPunk #7610 to our collection. https://t.co/XoPFfwxUiu
— VisaNews (@VisaNews) August 23, 2021
It’s noteworthy that a traditional talent agency best known for representing A-list celebrities is getting into the NFT game, but it’s not the group’s first time getting its feet wet in the wild world of crypto. Earlier this month, UTA signed a company called Rally that runs a platform that helps creators issue branded social tokens that fans can spend on merch and exclusive content.
Founders Fund and Paradigm are leading an investment in a platform that’s aiming to wed music rights with NFTs, allowing user to buy shares of songs through the company’s marketplace, earning royalties as the music they’ve invested in gains popularity.
The venture, called Royal, is led by Justin Blau, an EDM artist who performs under the name 3LAU, and JD Ross, a co-founder of home-buying startup Opendoor. Blau has been one of the more active and visible figures in the NFT community, launching a number of upstart efforts aimed at exploring how musicians can monetize their work through crypto markets. Blau says that as Covid cut off his ability to tour, he dug into NFTs full-time, aiming to find a way to flip the power dynamics on “platforms that were extracting all the value from creators.“
Back in March, weeks before many would first hear about NFTs following the $69 million Beeple sale at Christies, Blau set his own record, selling a batch of custom songs and custom artwork for a collective $11.7 million worth of cryptocurrency.
Royal’s investment announcement comes just as a broader bull run for the NFT market seems to reach a fever pitch with investors dumping hundreds of million of dollars worth of cryptocurrencies into community NFT projects like CryptoPunks and Bored Apes. While visual artists interested in putting their digital works on the blockchain have seen a number of platforms spring up and mature in recent months to simplify the process of monetizing their art, there have been fewer efforts focused on musicians.
Paradigm and Founders Fund are leading a $16 million seed round in Royal, with participation from Atomic — where Ross was recently a General Partner. Ross’s fellow Opendoor co-founder Keith Rabois led the deal for Founders Fund.
The company isn’t sharing an awful lot about their launch or product plans, including when the platform will actually begin selling fractionalized assets, but it seems pretty clear the company will be heavily leveraging Blau’s music and position inside the music industry to bring early fans/investors to the platform. Users can sign-up for early access on the site currently.
As NFT startups chase more complex ownership splits that aim to help creators share their success with fans, there’s plenty of speculation taking off around how regulators will eventually treat them. While the ICO boom of 2017 led to plenty of founders receiving SEC letters alleging securities fraud, entrepreneurs in this wave seem to be working a little harder to avoid that outcome. Blau says that the startup’s team is working closely with legal counsel to ensure the startup is staying fully compliant.
The company’s bigger challenge may be ensuring that democratizing access to buying up music rights actually benefits the fans of those artists or creates new fans for them, given the wide landscape of crypto speculators looking to diversify. That said, Blau notes there’s plenty of room for improvement among the current ownership spread of music royalties, largely spread among labels, private equity groups and hedge funds.
“A true fan might want to own something way earlier than a speculator would even get wind of it,” Blau says. “Democratizing access to asset classes is a huge part of crypto’s future.”
As one of four general partners at Andreessen Horowitz who are now investing the venture firm’s third crypto fund, a $2.2 billion vehicle, Arianna Simpson is very focused on how to return that capital and much more to the firm’s limited partners.
Toward that end, she has been more focused of late on startups that combine crypto with gaming. Last month, for example, her team co-led an investment in Virtually Human Studio, the startup behind a digital horse racing service Zed Run, wherein users buy, sell and breed virtual horses whose value rises depending on their performance against other virtual horses. (Each is essentially a non-fungible token, or NFT, meaning it is unique.)
Simpson is relatedly intrigued with NFT-based “play-to-earn” models, wherein gamers can earn cryptocurrency that they can then cash out for their local currency if they so choose. Indeed, a16z is announcing today that it just led a $4.6 million investment in the tokens of Yield Guild Games (YGG), a decentralized gaming startup based in the Philippines that invites players to share in the company’s revenue by playing games like “Axie Infinity,” a blockchain-based game where players breed, battle and trade digital creatures named Axies in order to earn tokens called “Small Love Potion” that they can eventually cash out. YGG lends players the money to buy the Axies and other digital assets to start the game, so they can start earning money. (The obvious hope is that they earn more than they have to pay YGG for the use of its assets.)
We talked yesterday with Simpson — who joined a16z after first backing some of the same startups, including the blockchain infrastructure company Dapper Labs and the global payment platform Celo — to learn more about what’s happening at the intersection of crypto and gaming. She also shared which platforms a16z tracks most closely to identify up-and-coming crypto startups. Our chat, edited for length, follows.
TC: Zed Run is really interesting. How did you first come across this digital horse racing business?
AS: I think it was crypto Twitter, which honestly is where we’re finding a lot of our gaming investments. The community on there is really incredible and often one of the first places where really exciting new projects are surfaced.
Zed really marks the advent of kind of a new type of more involved gameplay in crypto. If you look at [the collectibles game] CryptoKitties, it was one of the first NFT-based games that really caught the attention of people outside of the crypto sphere. Zed is definitely a derivative extension in the sense that you have a digital animal that you’re playing with, but the gameplay is much more complex, and the thing that’s been incredible to watch is just how excited the community is. People are putting together all kinds of very sophisticated guides around how to play the game, to read [race] courses, how to do all kinds of different things in the game, and tens of thousands of people all over the world [are playing].
TC: Maybe these already exist, but are there endless opportunities across verticals here, like, say, a digital car racing equivalent or a UFC-style equivalent, or are people buying and betting on digital fighters and hoping they’ll rise in value?
AS: There’s an incredibly broad range of possibilities in terms of what’s happening and what will happen in the universe of crypto games. I think at the core of this movement is really the idea of giving more of the value and ownership in these game assets back to the players. That’s something that has historically been a problem. You might spend years and years building up your arsenal of skins or in-game assets, and then a game will change the rules, take [some of your winnings] away from you or do any number of things that can leave players feeling very disappointed and kind of ripped off. The idea [with blockchain-based games] is to make them more open and allow players to have actual ownership in the space themselves.
TC: Which leads us to your newest investment, Yield Guild Games, or YGG. Why did this company capture the firm’s attention?
AS: During the pandemic, a lot of people were put out of work and not able to provide for themselves and for their families. This time kind of coincided with the rise of a game called “Axie Infinity,” one of the first games to pioneer a play-to-earn model, which is becoming a very important theme in crypto games.
In order to play “Axie Infinity,” you need to have three Axies, and generally speaking, that means you need
to buy them upfront. Obviously if you’re out of work, you have no money [so buying these digital pets] can become a very challenging proposition. So [YGG founder] Gabby Dizon in the Philippines, who played “Axie Infinity” started lending out his Axies so other people could play the game and earn tokens that could then be converted to local currency. And so basically YGG emerged as sort of the productization of what they were doing here, so YGG either purchases or breeds in-game assets that are yield-earning, then loans them to out “scholars,” who are the recipients of these in-game assets, and YGG then takes a small cut of the in-game revenue that the players generate over time.
TC: Does a “scholar” have to be a sophisticated player?
AS: There are managers who basically manage teams of scholars; they’re the ones who effectively decide who to bring into the guild.
TC: So these Axies can be cashed out for currency, but where, and who is buying them?
AS: They can be bought or sold on exchanges and other players are buying them if they need to breed in “Axie” and needs some [Axies]; others are buying them for investment purposes. Also, they aren’t necessarily selling the NFTs but they may be selling the tokens that they earn as part of the gameplay.
TC: There are now 5,000 of these scholars playing the game. Are they mostly in Southeast Asia?
AS: A majority of the players and scholars are in Southeast Asia, but we’re seeing really strong international growth as well, both for “Axie Infinity” and YGG, in particular. At this point, scaling internationally is definitely a core focus for the YGG team.
TC: You mentioned crypto Twitter. What about Discord and Reddit? Where else are you looking around for new crypto projects that are bubbling up and capturing people’s imagination?
AS: All of the above. Discord in particular is very actively used by the crypto community, and the thing that’s interesting there is it really allows you to get a pulse for how active a community is, how engaged people are, how frequently they’re talking, and what they’re talking about. It gives you a look into the community at large and that’s a very important thing to consider when looking to make an investment or assess the health of a project.
DraftKings is charging into the NFT game, announcing a marketplace aimed at curating sports and entertainment-themed digital collectibles for its audience of enthusiasts. The platform is “debuting later this summer,” and showcases another potentially lucrative expansion for the fantasy sports betting company.
DraftKings is entering a market that is both crowded and sparse — with plenty of NFT marketplace options for today’s niche group of collectors though offerings are still light when considering the billions that have flowed through the space in the first several months of the year. This week, investors gave NFT marketplace OpenSea a $1.5 billion valuation. Dapper Labs, which makes NBA Top Shot, recently raised at a reported $7.5 billion valuation.
Dapper’s existing sway in the space will leave DraftKings pursuing opportunities outside exclusive league partnerships. NBA Top Shot allows players to buy “Moments” from NBA history, clips of actual game and player footage which it has access to via league and players association partnerships. In addition to the NBA, Dapper has already partnered with other leagues.
DraftKings foothold in the space will come from an exclusive partnership with Autograph, a newly-launched NFT startup co-founded by quarterback Tom Brady. The company has inked exclusive NFT deals with some top athletes including Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky, Derek Jeter, Naomi Osaka and Tony Hawk, hoping to build out its platform as the hub for sports personality collectibles.
Aside from the partnerships, DraftKings is hoping to get a leg up in the space by further simplifying the user onboarding process, allowing users to buy NFTs without loading a wallet with cryptocurrency, instead purchasing with USD. When the platform launches users will be able to purchase NFTs from DraftKings and resell or trade them through the platform.
For DraftKings, which has raised some $720 million in funding since launch in 2012, the NFT expansion could offer an opportunity of funneling their existing audience into the new vertical. Few existing tech startups have made noteworthy expansions into the NFT world despite plenty of hype and investor interest. DraftKings co-founder Matt Kalish tells TechCrunch that the startup’s devoted community is its biggest asset to winning in the rising space.
“DraftKings has millions of people in our community who show up to out platform every day and every week,” Kalish says. “We think our biggest advantage is the strength and size of our community… [We] will bring a lot of eyeballs to the table.”
It’s been a wild 2021 for NFT auction marketplace OpenSea. The startup was exceedingly well-positioned in a niche space when NFTs exploded earlier this year seemingly out of nowhere. Since then, the startup has found its user base expanding, the total volume of sales skyrocketing and more investor dollars being thrown at them.
The startup announced in March, it had closed a $23 million Series A, and now some four months later, the company tells TechCrunch it has raised another $100 million in a Series B round led by Andreessen Horowitz at a $1.5 billion valuation. Other investors in the round include Coatue, CAA, Michael Ovitz, Kevin Hartz, Kevin Durant and Ashton Kutcher.
Despite a fall from stratospheric heights in the early summer, the broader NFT market has still been chugging along and OpenSea is continuing to see plenty of action. The startup saw $160 million in sales last month and is on track to blow past that figure this month, CEO Devin Finzer tells TechCrunch.
One of the company’s clearer growth roadblocks has been infrastructure issues native to the Ethereum blockchain that its marketplace has been built around. The Ethereum blockchain, which has a number of network upgrades outstanding, has struggled to keep up with the NFT boom at times, leaving users footing the bill with occasionally pricey “gas” fees needed to mint an item or make a transaction. Though these fees have largely cooled down in recent weeks, OpenSea is aiming to make a move towards long-term scalability by announcing that they plan to bring support for several more blockchains to its platform.
They’re starting with Polygon, a popular Layer 2 Ethereum blockchain which boasts a more energy-efficient structure that will allow OpenSea to entirely eliminate gas fees for creators, buyers and sellers on that blockchain. Losing these fees may give OpenSea a better shot at expanding its ambitions, which include finding a future for NFTs in the gaming world and in the events space, Finzer says.
Beyond Polygon, OpenSea has plans to integrate with Dapper Labs’ Flow blockchain as well as Tezos down the road, the company says.
Operating across multiple blockchains could create some headaches for consumers operating across platforms with differing levels of support for each network. Some NFT investors are also more hesitant to buy items on blockchains they see as less time-tested than Ethereum, worrying that newer chains may lose support over time. But overall, the user-friendly changes will likely be well-received by the wider NFT community which has seen the explosion in new interest stress-test its systems and highlight need for user interface and user experience improvements.
If you spent any time this year desperately trying to figure out what the heck NFTs are, you probably have Dapper Labs CEO Roham Gharegozlou to thank for that.
His startup’s crypto trading card marketplace NBA Top Shot went viral earlier this year with users dropping hundreds of millions of dollars on digital NBA collectibles. At the end of last year, the Top Shot platform was averaging around $20K-30K in digital collectibles sales volume per day. By late February, the platform hit an all-time-high, moving more than $45 million in trading volume, according to analytics site Cryptoslam, as a wave of crypto newbies descended on the platform.
Within months, Gharegozlou’s company went from a niche crypto gaming startup largely known to industry insiders to locking in a hulking reported $7.5 billion valuation as venture capitalists chased the opportunity to get a piece of it.
Top Shot’s sudden popularity triggered a massive moment for NFTs, with billions of dollars moving through an asset class that few had heard of months prior. We’re thrilled to have Gharegozlou joining us at Disrupt this September 21-23, to discuss the future of NFTs, crypto gaming and the decentralized internet.
NBA Top Shot was an industry anomaly, but it wasn’t even Dapper’s first industry-shaking hit. In 2017, CryptoKitties — another trading game where users could swap digital cats — caught on among early adopters and brought the nascent Ethereum network to a crawl, inspiring the developers of the popular blockchain to make a number of key changes over time. Gharegozlou has his own vision for the future of the crypto web; Dapper’s big bet of late is on the proprietary Flow blockchain that underpins Top Shot. The company is gunning to bring more gaming platforms onboard to take advantage of the faster, more energy-efficient blockchain network, and investors are betting hundreds of millions of dollars on their ability to capture the market.
With the larger NFT market’s sales volume sliding significantly in recent months, can it make a comeback? Will developers move away from the popular Ethereum blockchain to embrace Dapper’s more centralized network? Could NFTs reshape the entire online economy? We’re excited to dig into some of these questions with Gharegozlou onstage at Disrupt — it’s a session you won’t want to miss.