Last December, a new game became an overnight mega-trend in the blockchain world. CryptoKitties allowed users to buy, own, and trade unique collectible cartoon cats on the blockchain. Around the time of launch, CryptoKitties was so successful that it slowed the Ethereum network.
This is a big deal, as the Ethereum blockchain is, without a doubt, the most active smart contract platform in existence. Of the top 100 tokens by market cap, 94% are built on top of Ethereum. Of the top 800 tokens, 87% are built on Ethereum. Most of these tokens are ERC20 tokens, which made possible the majority of the $5.5 billion raised through ICOs in 2017 and the $6.5 billion raised in token sales during just the first quarter of this year.
The driving principle behind the creation of CryptoKitties was to demonstrate the potential of Ethereum and the blockchain ecosystem for trading and securing digital assets. In the white paper, the founders discuss the narrow focus of most blockchain projects on payments. Ultimately, they hoped CryptoKitties would help people expand their vision of what a blockchain could do.
A few weeks back Digital in Asia met with Benny Giang, the founder of CryptoKitties, to talk Ethereum, cats and art on the blockchain.
Digital in Asia: So Benny, where did the inspiration for CryptoKitties come from? How did it start?
Benny: We love cats, and we know it’s a fact that the internet and cats is just married, right? Basically any new internet technology always starts with cats.
We also thought that blockchain seemed pretty interesting, but we wanted to make it more accessible. We saw so many ICOs happening, and we loved the variety. Some were solving really big interesting problems, like world hunger level. But there were some that were just … I don’t even know what they were doing. It’s just getting DJ Khaled to hype up their ICOs! It felt like what was missing was the education and accessibility piece. So we had the idea of putting cats on the blockchain to drive our education and accessibility agenda.
This turned our attention to a couple of existing crypto collectibles like CryptoPunks and Spells of Genesis. These were the first to use the ERC20 token standard from Ethereum, and then create a collectible on the blockchain. But the limitation with the existing collectibles was that they were only an image. We wanted to take it to the next level. So we started exploring the game play, and we arrived on this interesting idea of allowing people to breed their kitties on the blockchain.
We then spent a month on genetic simulations, trying to figure out how deep we could go and how we could evolve the idea. We established a 256 bit genome. That results in about 4 billion variations of kitties. In terms of human genetics, that’s nothing, it’s very controllable. But in game play, 4 billion potential kitties is quite a lot of variations. It was more of an experiment, playing around, and that was the initial genesis of CryptoKitties.
Digital in Asia: Where did you get started with blockchain? Because it seems as if you were already very familiar with the technology. CryptoKitties was more about doing something in blockchain, as opposed to doing CryptoKitties.
Benny: It started in the spring of 2017. I began reading more, specifically on Ethereum. Most of our team, except a couple of members, were already involved in blockchain, the Bitcoin side. They mined Bitcoin, they bought them, they sold them from way back.
From a more typical internet technology perspective, a lot of the product teams and my background was around building B2B Enterprise SaaS Software. I was interested in the concept of the world computer, and creating a decentralised app store to build real utility. That’s really fascinating, and the whole decentralised aspect really caught my attention.
But I love the quote: “Any disruptive technology starts off as a toy”. And in there I saw the opportunity to bring the educational piece forward, in a way that people could learn, but also have fun.
Digital in Asia: Crypto can be complicated. How long did you think it would take people to get their heads around digital wallets, Gas price and all the other complexities of blockchain, and Ethereum specifically.
Benny: In the first week about 80,000 people signed up. These are new users we had never interacted with, and probably don’t even know what a digital wallet is. So that was already a huge factor. 80,000 new people were so attracted to this game that they were willing to jump through all these hoops.
My biggest goals always involve optimizing the experience for the end user. That’s all I care about, that’s all our team cares about. But in blockchain, and Cryptokitties, we’re still pretty far away from having it where you click on the button and everything just works.
Are people scared of Gas and all these things? I would say they are. Sometimes Gas price goes up and they don’t understand why, but that’s kind of our role, and part of why we created the game. Right now we’re building a whole new onboarding process that will help educate: “Hey this is what Gas is, this is why we need it, this is why it keeps fluctuating.” So people will understand.
Digital in Asia: Why did you decide to build on the Ethereum blockchain? There are alternative blockchains out there like Neo, and as we’ve seen with Gas price increases, and congestion, it’s not always an easy environment.
Benny: It was a timing thing and also more of a mission alignment thing. We met some of the Ethereum team last year and saw that these people really do have the builder mentality, they’re very product focused and development focused. Looking at other blockchains there is potential scalability, but in terms of full production readiness, with thousands of dApps already built on top of it, and battle tested, I would say there is only one at this point.
There are some blockchains being talked about in terms of being Ethereum killers, and that may be true, but let’s see when they get full production ready. Practically, if we were to consider these other chains then we wouldn’t have launched CryptoKitties when we did, as we would’ve waited six more months. It was more of we need to do it now, and we need to ship the product because the timing was right, it was when ICOs were popping like crazy. But as you know we didn’t do an ICO. We actually did the reverse ICO where we built the product, and we sold people kitties!
Digital in Asia: Where is CryptoKitties going? What are your future plans?
Benny: We’re going to work towards deepening the user experience. That means more game play features and expanding to new ways of thinking about the platform. It’s very interesting the three areas we play in. One is crypto, the other one is gaming and the final area is art. We were invited to the Rare Art Festival New York, and we asked a bunch of people to basically talk about this new contemporary art form which is digital collectibles. And some people laughed, definitely.
What’s interesting to me is these Kitties will live for thousands of years. What we have done is basically made history. No matter if we are alive, or the company is alive, these kitties will live. We have this concept of infinite extensibility which is related to the kitties as art form.
Digital in Asia: This is an interesting area. What do you mean by infinite extensibility?
Benny: You buy a painting, let’s say it’s the Mona Lisa. It’s pretty old. You just keep it, and you just look at it, right? And as it ages with time, it just deteriorates. But with the digital collectibles as an art form, as time passes, more functionalities can be added. Right now all you can do is buy and sell and breed. But what if you could walk it, what if this kitty could be a real kitty in your mind. So it’s like an art piece that you can continually interact with as time progresses.
Digital in Asia: It’s apparent you’re not actually a blockchain business, you’re a gaming or collectibles business. Blockchain is just the technology you’re building your business on, in the same way that the internet is the technology that Uber or Amazon build their business on. But we don’t – for the most part – talk about that any more. Every business built on the blockchain right now is called a blockchain business, and this is just about the early stage nature of the space really. What other projects do you feel are good enough to transcend blockchain, and become real businesses?
Benny: The whole blockchain gaming and collectibles category is going to be huge this year. In regards to ICOs, there are a few products I find interesting. They’re more related to AI blockchain, and the convergence of the two. But I don’t actively get involved with many ICOs because the space is almost too hot right now. I would rather hang around the people who are developers or product people, who focus on the end view. There is so much work to do on protocols, all these different things. If we want more businesses to transcend blockchain, we need better and more secure blockchain platforms.
Digital in Asia: Okay. On that, are there any ways in which Ethereum limits you?
Benny: Limitations? We really support the Ethereum ecosystem. We have a team of six that are focused on long term scaling of Ethereum, talking to other chains, working with side chains, trying to find the right solutions. Introducing Casper, or at least the MVP of Casper, will be a big milestone for Ethereum this year. If they pull it off without doing a super hard fork, and the community comes to a consensus, they’re going to be way ahead of other people. Because again, they really have the masses, they just need to move the masses to the next level.
Digital in Asia: Do you think there is a danger that they won’t successfully deliver, or build consensus around, sharding or proof-of-stake? We don’t want Ethereum Classic 2.
Benny: No, No, No. Nobody wants that. Ethereum is below 600 dollars right now, which is low compared to a few months back. When CryptoKitties started it was at 400 dollars. So it’s back to a level of normality for us. It’s good for everybody to calm down, and come together around common goals, because we need to think long term. We all know the market was bound for a correction, and while that’s sad because I own Ethereum, it’s good as it lowers costs to build and operate on the blockchain.
Digital in Asia: What plans do you have around mobile? Any sort of AR functionality? People think it would be cool to see your kitties.
Benny: We have launched a mobile version of CryptoKitties in Asia. There are Chinese focused collectibles, and we’re looking at Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. China feels a bit difficult to get into, but we’ll see.
Considering new features like AR as a blockchain gaming company who really believes in the philosophy of decentralisation is tricky. If you walk your cat, should that be on a blockchain? When you have a kitty for a thousand years, we think that entire history – including any AR excursions – should be logged. But that’s not easy, and we can’t handle all of the transactions yet. But we are brainstorming a bunch of these new gaming features because that will help keep the experience interesting.
Digital in Asia: Thanks for your time Benny. This has been an interesting conversation. Any final words of advice?
Benny: Blockchain is only just getting started. Thanks again.