In-depth interview: the general partner of a16z talks about his views on web3 games and metaverse
Arianna Simpson is a general partner at a16z (Andreessen Horowitz), a top venture capital firm in technology, games and cryptocurrencies. She has participated in investing in various cryptocurrency and game companies, including Irreverent Labs. She believes in the power of decentralization brought about by blockchain technology, and believes that it will lead us to the metaverse.
a16z has a $600 million dedicated gaming fund and a $4.5 billion cryptocurrency fund. Simpson is deploying the funds, but we are also in a crypto downturn and facing resistance to NFTs from hardcore players. That makes the company much more risky than it was a few months ago. In an interview with GamesBeat, Simpson said that a16z intends to take a long-term view of this market.
GameBeat conducted an in-depth interview with Simpson to explore the intersection of cryptocurrencies and games, her views on players accepting NFTs, why players should share in game revenue, and why a16z founders Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz see the potential of this space. opportunities and doubled down on specific funds in this area. That belief hasn't changed despite the many rollercoaster cycles the market has gone through.
The following is the text of the interview.
GamesBeat: When did you become interested in this field? How did you discover the connection between cryptocurrencies and gaming?
Arianna Simpson: I fell down the cryptocurrency rabbit hole about ten years ago. I first became interested in 2013 when I was traveling in southern Africa. I have spent time in six countries, including Zimbabwe. I have witnessed the aftermath of the hyperinflation they experienced. Apparently this broke the economy and forced them to turn to the dollar to stabilize the economy. This forced them to take drastic measures.
I spoke to a friend about this when I was back in the US, and he mentioned that Bitcoin is deflationary, not something that could be hyperinflated. This has taken me a long way. Obviously, the current Bitcoin market has gone far beyond the scope of Bitcoin. But that's just the initial catalyst. The deeper I go, the more interesting it becomes. This is a very rich design space, bringing together many fields, from cryptography to game theory to computer science and more.
The field of games is one of the core contents of my fund. Before I joined a16z, I started a fund called Autonomous Partners. I'm already very interested in the field of games. I have made many investments in this space, including Mythical and Flow blockchains. I contacted the team at Dapper Labs. They are to be commended for using the NFT idea as part of the gaming experience, and of course many other teams have adopted and extended this idea.
I've been digging into the NFT and gaming space for a long time. It's been incredible to see them really start to gain mainstream attention. This is the 2021 phenomenon. I'm looking forward to our next development. In fact, we've only scratched the surface. We believe that web3 games are a huge catalyst that can bring tens or even hundreds of millions of people into the web3 field. Web3 games can do exactly that. Gaming environments often set trends in technology. We've seen it many times. It's very exciting to be able to engage people in a low-stakes environment and educate them on the principles they need to learn in order to thrive in this ecosystem. I'm still looking forward to the future of this field.
Cryptocurrency prices plummeted.
GamesBeat: I know that a16z also has an early background in cryptocurrency investing, but in a way, would it surprise you that a large VC firm like this would get into something like cryptocurrency? How did they deduce that this was something to be concerned about?
Simpson: The company, and especially Mark (Andreessen) and Ben (Horowitz), deserve a lot of credit for being willing to take what seemed like a huge risk at the time to fully commit to this space. Most of my fellow VCs didn't do that at the time. One of the reasons why I want to join a16z is that this company is willing to establish a dedicated independent fund and make decisive bets on the fields it believes. I'm not looking for a job, but that does make them stand out from most of their VC peers.
I think the firm's confidence in the space over the years is unique among the big VC platforms. This allows us to work with the best founders. Founders want to know their investors have confidence in the space. They will not linger in a certain field because of changes in the market on a certain day. Mark, Ben and Chris saw it early on. That's why I want to join and be a part of it.
GamesBeat: In terms of its initial appeal, was it the debate around decentralization, or something else, that attracted you guys to invest in new ideas?
Simpson: In our industry, we are somewhat reactive. We must pay attention to the direction of development of great entrepreneurs. Even in the early days, this was required. Brian Armstrong of Coinbase, and many others. Even so, although this is a very new field, you have very good founders who are very interested in this technology. Likewise, our investment radar is somewhat paper-driven, but also very talent-driven. Founders, top founders, we have always believed that this is a key issue to consider when choosing the field of encryption.
GamesBeat: Did you experience two crypto winters? How many winters have you been through and how do you see them in terms of the overall development of cryptocurrencies?
Simpson: The length of the cycle will definitely increase over time. Back in 2013, there were multiple cycles within a single year. Then, of course, the timeline stretches outward. The most important point is to focus on technology and not pay too much attention to cycles. We've seen that many of the best businesses - both in technology more broadly and in encryption or specifically web3 - started during times of market instability. We see this as an opportunity to focus on technology. One of the challenges with cryptocurrencies is having a ticker, which early-stage startups don't have. It can be distracting. But in reality, periods of subdued price activity can be excellent opportunities to focus on building.
Digital Land Sales in Blockchain Gaming: The Crypto Winter Has Started to Impact Price Appreciation.
If I compare where we are now to the 2018 recession, we're in a whole different world in terms of actually building things. In 2018, a lot of things are going on, a lot of Layer 1 blockchains are being built, a lot of infrastructure is being built, far more than applications. Infrastructure must come first. There's not much a single person can do in this field. Today is different from the past, many agreements have been launched. Hundreds of applications are already available in real time. Games, wallets, all kinds of stuff. In my opinion, this is the most important progress. We've seen tremendous progress.
We also published a cryptocurrency report, which you may have seen. We plotted the various parts of this cycle with data. While they may look like chaotic cycles of volatility, they are actually very predictable. Each part of the cycle has a specific role to play, and periods of rising prices in particular draw people into the space. Enthusiastic investors poured in. Some left when the tide went out, but they probably weren't builders. They may be speculators. Many core talents remain in this field. This allows us to prepare for the next wave of construction, and eventually prices will appreciate as more value is created. But cycles are very important. The most important thing is to focus on the development of technology. Obviously, this cannot be achieved overnight.
GamesBeat: It's interesting that you can see your confidence in the developers that are coming into the space. They either have a background in encryption or gaming. It's a good thing to gamble on. If there's anything uncertain about this space, these great teams, with experienced talent, seem worth betting on. When did people in gaming realize this was something they wanted to be in, when did you start seeing that happen?
Simpson: The wave is really heating up in 2021. Prior to this, several founders from traditional gaming backgrounds had expressed interest in NFTs and web3 games. But in terms of really starting to hit critical mass, it's early 2021. We've seen it pick up from there. Mapping talent migration is very exciting. While not yet everyone in the games industry, there has been a significant increase in the percentage of founders expressing interest in or already actively building Web3 components in their games. Again, we think this is an important trend to watch. We've been investing in those teams ever since.
GamesBeat: I think it's going to put pressure on other industries, which is interesting. CEOs of big companies are under pressure to say, "Don't leave, we'll explore this too." When I interviewed Bobby Kotick at Activision Blizzard, he said one of the reasons they sold the company to Microsoft It's hard for them to find talent, keep talent, and hire the thousands of people they need for the games they promise to make. Interestingly, this particular blockchain gaming trend may make a comeback and impact mainstream gaming.
Simpson: Yes. We think the whole game concept is going to have a big impact on traditional game entities, whether it's a publisher or a big game developer. At this point, the secret is out. We think players should capture some of the value they create. Although these models still need some iterations, we have not yet reached a perfect architecture, but the core idea that the players who created these worlds and communities and created so much value should share in these values We think this is a very important idea .
Now, as players become more familiar with the fact that this is a new mode, we think this will put a lot of pressure on the more traditional entities in the game world to adopt a more favorable mode. They won't all have the same model. This can take many forms. But this core idea is crucial.
Arianna Simspon fell down the cryptocurrency rabbit hole a decade ago.
GamesBeat: One area where I'm confused and wondering right now is, who is a gamer? Throughout 2021, I have been thinking that blockchain games will be a stepping stone to the metaverse. You can use all these technologies for identity and interoperability of assets, which are necessary ingredients to create a metaverse. But in December, we had issues with players objecting to Ubisoft's NFT in Rainbow Six. They also started to push against other NFT games for traditional players.
So, who loves NFTs and who hates them? Asians seem to embrace the experimentation of certain markets, as they do in free-to-play, while traditional and hardcore gamers in the West feel free-to-play has betrayed them. They feel like the loot box is all there is to it. I looked at the entire market and found that free-to-play games account for more than half of the gaming market. It permeates every aspect of the game, from mobile to console, and we have 10 times the number of players in the past. To me, these are good things. But for this group of people, they think that free games and blockchain games are evil things.
Strangely, the Filipinos were the first to embrace the play-and-earn game model. I don't know who has a higher percentage of players who like this game or players who don't. But I can see that if the current players have the mainstream characteristics to accept it, it is only a matter of time before NFT games become mainstream. But if these gamers have some eccentricity - they are crypto lunatics who want to avoid taxes by putting money into NFTs - there is some specific behavior here that is a small group, not mainstream - maybe it will never become mainstream. If it was just people paying $10,000 for a piece of land in a virtual world, the activity wouldn't be mainstream.
That said, what do you think the current audience is interested in about this? What kind of audience can take off and grow into millions or even tens of millions of NFT game users?
Simpson: You bring up a good point that new form elements, new modes are not usually embraced by the hardcore gaming community. As you point out, there's a lot of precedent for this. But that hasn't stopped certain modes from gaining greater scale, such as free-to-play. I think this train is heading towards the station, it won't really stop here.
There is a group of people who have been very vocal about their reservations about NFTs, and in many cases, their criticisms are baseless. They either don't fully understand the issues, or they just see them from a very skewed perspective. But they are only a few. There are many people who have started to see the benefits of this model and embrace it. I don't think it's a small universe with very mysterious natives. In fact, Axie Infinity was the first Web3 game to become a mainstream game. They attract millions of players. And this isn't just a few cryptocurrency insiders. They have massive scale and most of their players are new to cryptocurrencies.
This shows that while we still have a lot of room to grow, we are headed in the right direction. Games are tools that bring people into the field, not self-references that only appeal to a small percentage of people. Of course there are Web3 haters, but I think the bottom line is that there are millions of people who have shown a strong interest in Web3 games. That's our focus and that's the focus of our portfolio companies.
We had a friendly discussion about NFTs at the GamesBeat Summit in April 2022.
GamesBeat: The interesting part of the discussion is that some game developers continue to resist. Their arguments are sometimes more technical. Everyone says it's about decentralization, but why are so many centralized entities like OpenSea involved? If OpenSea goes down, 90% of NFTs will become worthless. If you had these kinds of discussions with game developers, and you needed to convince them, how would that go?
Simpson: Most of the founders we talk to are excited about Web3. Obviously, I'm part of the encryption team, so there's going to be a kind of filter before they get to me. But overall, we've seen a very open mind and willingness to experiment with this new model. Games are an ideal place to test out new technologies and iterations, although certain subsections of the player community may be more reluctant to change. Many Web 2.0 founders who had made games before saw the potential here, which is why they got into the space.
I've talked to a lot of founders who made big games before joining web3 and they'll now say "that's the most obvious answer. I can't think of anything else. It makes sense. It solves a lot of problems "The ability to own your own assets - While this may affect the market briefly if OpenSea disappears, the fact that I still control my sword or any NFT assets I own, no matter what happens, because I Having keys on a chain is an important shift. Many savvy game creators understand this. This is one of the reasons they entered this field.
GamesBeat: As far as things that might be out of the entrepreneur’s control, like regulation in the U.S., or what’s allowed or not, whether it’s classified as securities or gambling, or companies just don’t want to give up some of their revenue streams — what do you think Will we arrive at a freer market for blockchain gaming companies than we have now?
Simpson: There are of course some regulatory gray areas. In our founders, we see that they want to be compliant. They are looking for clear rules to follow. That's why we've built a large regulatory team to work with policymakers and help them stay on track. We think about this field all day long. They have many considerations. Just to help them think about the nuances of the field. Web3 games don't need rules like DeFi protocols or other things that fall squarely in this space. What we're looking for is regulation that is nuanced, makes appropriate distinctions, and applies to what they're trying to regulate.
In our view, regulation is critical. We welcome regulation. From a consumer protection point of view, this is very important. But it needs to make sense. That's why we've built a large team and spend a lot of time in Washington, D.C., working with regulators and policymakers on these issues.
GamesBeat: I don't know if you agree with that, but I wonder if the big game companies are going to be at a disadvantage in this market. This has to do with their public status. They worry about rules and regulations. They wait for a clear signal before moving quickly. However, some startups are rising in value so quickly that they will surpass the big game companies. The usual solution for large companies is to buy whoever wins. But in mobile games, developers like Supercell are almost too big to care about. Tencent is almost the only possibility. But the winners in the mobile gaming market aren't companies like Electronic Arts. Startups that can move fast and don't worry about regulation are the free game winners. In my opinion, we have the same opportunity now in blockchain games.
Simpson: Definitely. We've invested in a lot of these startups, as you describe. We think they have the ability to understand the technology from day one. They are crypto native, web3 native. They see the positives that this field can bring. And, I think that's an important concept beyond just putting a game on a blockchain that might exist off-chain. Instead, the special design constraints and opportunities afforded by the blockchain architecture should be utilized as a new canvas for designing different forms of gameplay.
For example, the on-chain gaming space is very new, but very exciting, because it's really -- I mean, it's a game world where you can fight on-chain, not just own assets. You integrate blockchain into gameplay. The logic is on-chain. Smart contracts are a key part of the architecture. It all comes together so you can't create the same type of game that you can play off-chain. But you can have a new, very compelling experience that's distinctly web3-native and crypto-native. We think this category will drive the development of web3 games, but I hope we will see more of this soon.
Arianna Simpson led a16z's investment in Irreverent Labs.
GamesBeat: Do you think the technical reserves of blockchain game companies will become simpler? Now it still looks complicated. They have a lot of options to choose which chain to use and other things. Do you think this part will get easy quickly? Or is web3 going to be a fundamentally more complex set of technologies?
Simpson: For game creators, I hope it gets easier soon. You're right, we see founders who want to develop a game need to make a lot of decisions like where to develop the game. In some cases, this also affects how they design the actual game. For example, Irreverent Labs chose to develop on Solana. This comes with a series of specific decisions. We're also an investor in Mysten Labs, which I think is very well structured in games and entertainment. It devises a very different programming model for this use case.
The good news is that founders have increasingly powerful, technically sound options. There is no doubt that we still have a lot of work to do. We are still in the infrastructure building phase. But that will be the case whenever there is a new field of technology emerging. Build tools are required. The tracks of the infrastructure need to be stabilized. It needs to be battle tested. In that regard, it's happening. Just need a little time.
GamesBeat: Through decentralization, this also has the opportunity to change the relationship between gaming and the big tech companies, who are the middlemen in the gaming industry, and they have been taking a piece of the action. How attractive is the opportunity in this area?
Simpson: Absolutely fascinating. Being able to control your own destiny is very important and very attractive.
GamesBeat: Do you think that besides the blockchain, the metaverse is the winner of the game, rather than other types of groups? Be it a large tech company, enterprise or brand.
Simpson: I think there's a lot of overlap in the categories you mentioned. They are not identical, but overlap at the edges. We believe some of the same important pillars are at the heart of these concepts. We recently published an article on what we believe to be the seven fundamental elements of the Metaverse. Things like openness and decentralization are important to what we consider the final state of the Metaverse. Obviously, some people are trying to launch a closed metaverse, but we think the opportunity lies in an open metaverse.
Likewise, people are publishing closed-ecosystem games in more traditional formats. We see opportunity in Web3 gaming, which is opening up and giving more ownership to the community that plays the game. There are definitely some similarities, and some overlap. In some cases, you'll see games live in the Metaverse. The lines are getting a bit blurred. But right now they're all experimental, very exciting areas that are pushing the frontier.
I think web3 components are important elements both in metaverse and in web3 games. I mean, tokens as part of ownership, persistent digital identities, decentralization, all of these concepts that are very important to Web3. These elements are integral to both the metaverse and the game environment. Here are some similarities and overlaps.
GamesBeat: If there is a war between the pros and the naysayers of Web3, the deciding factor may be how many examples of great game developers we have joining and achieving great success. I think of companies like Mythical or Forte. Paul Bettner's company, Wildcard Alliance. They are all very focused on making hardcore games with NFT functionality. But I also recall that the free-to-play winner wasn't putting Grand Theft Auto on mobile. But Supercell. Comparing the developers of Axie Infinity to the developers who make hardcore games and bring them in, who do you think deserves the most attention?
Simpson: We invest in both web3-native platforms, as well as founders who are new to the game space, as well as founders with a long history in the traditional game space. I don't think it's a matter of one person versus another. We're looking for people who can understand what it takes to make a great game, and who can understand Web3 technologies and see the opportunities and limitations. This gets what I described earlier. It's a different design space. This means that, in some ways, it can be better, and in others, it can be more challenging. We didn't prioritize one type of founder or one model. Instead, we're looking for key insights into creating great games, and supporting top-tier teams that we believe can create great gaming experiences.
Rahul Sood and David Raskino, co-founders of Irreverent Labs
GamesBeat: Do you all have expertise in different parts of the company, or do you all become more multidisciplinary and learn a bit about the metaverse, cryptocurrencies, and blockchain?
Simpson: We are all crypto and web3 generalists, although some of us tend to specialize in certain areas. I'm more focused on the application layer, consumer metaverse, Web3, games, etc. If there's an investment that's relevant - for example, Mysten Labs, a great team with a lot of technology primarily geared towards application layer games, and other companies that I've spent a lot of time researching - in this case it's probably infrastructure Invest, but it still supports the category.
GamesBeat: I think a lot of people will want me to ask you when we're going to get out of this crypto winter, but I don't know if that matters to your plans.
Simpson: We need to take a long-term view of this market. After being in this space for a while, we've seen cycles come and go. In reality, they are very difficult to predict. My job is to find great technologists and help them build their businesses, not short-term forecasts. Unfortunately, I can't help you much with this. But the good news is that we recently announced a $4.5 billion fund. That speaks to the size of the opportunity we see here and the fact that we're very excited about the future of this space.
GamesBeat: Is there anything else you would like to comment today?
Simpson: We think web3 gaming is one of the most exciting areas. It's really amazing to see games bring humans into the realm of the web. I've talked to a lot of people who said, "Oh, I first got into crypto because I started playing Axie Infinity." That's an important way to educate people about the technology and what it can do. I'm looking forward to seeing other achievements in this field.