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 outfit 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.