A16z Crypto has been minting plenty of NFT unicorns this year. In July, they backed NFT marketplace OpenSea at a $1.5 billion valuation. They participated in a September raise for NBA Top Shot-maker Dapper Labs, which valued the company at a whopping $7.6 billion. Just last month, they backed the team behind play-to-earn crypto game Axie Infinity with a $3 billion valuation.
While the NFT space in general is quite young, a16z’s latest unicorn NFT bet is a bit earlier than usual. Mythical Games is raising a $150 million Series C from the firm at a $1.25 billion valuation just a few months after it closed a whopping $75 million Series B. Mythical Games’ sole title Blankos Block Party is an NFT-based game that’s only been in “early access” for a few months and has a player base of monthly active users just in the “high tens of thousands,” according to the company.
“We weren’t planning on raising for quite a few more months,” CEO John Linden tells TechCrunch. “And [a16z crypto] came to us early and they kind of preempted everybody else. They knew we weren’t raising but they said, ‘Hey, let’s do this now…’ And we’re sitting in such a great position now where we have many years of capital at this point.”
There actually aren’t too many crypto gaming startups out there, but a good chunk of them are built by crypto founders with crypto economics at the center of every part of the titles. As a result, most blockchain games have pretty advanced economies and pretty rudimentary gameplay.
One of the reasons Mythical Games has struck a nerve with investors is that they’re a team of gaming industry veterans who are building a platform that is gameplay first, blockchain-based investment-platform second. The studio’s main title Blankos Block Party feels much less crypto-centric than other NFT titles. It’s a polished game that looks pretty similar to the title Fall Guys, but boasts a revenue model that combines a BattlePass-style subscription with a non-crypto in-game currency that users can buy NFTs with and then sell for real cash on a secondary marketplace.
Hundreds of thousands of NFTs of user avatars or accessories have already been minted on the platform, where users can also sell the goods they’ve purchased with in-game currency for actual cash, part of a broader “play-to-earn” mechanic which rewards users for investing time in the platform. Users can choose to navigate all of this without ever touching cryptocurrencies. Linden says that Mythical Games will continue to get “deeper and deeper” into crypto mechanics, but notes that they’re looking to tread carefully as they gauge where to stick to conventions and where to push the limits.
Mythical Games’ unicorn status is a bet from a16z Crypto that game developers are potentially going to be interested in as a more subtle embrace of blockchain-based in-game economies. The studio has been working with a handful of smaller studios to integrate some of their infrastructure, including marketplace services, compliance tech, token management and access to their custom blockchain. They’re generally looking to build a path forward for the gaming industry adopting more complex in-game economies based around NFTs while also ensuring users aren’t left navigating a web of crypto confusion.
“To us, this is the future of gaming,” a16z Crypto general partner Arianna Simpson tells TechCrunch. “This is the future of how people will expect to play games and participate and be rewarded for the time and the investments that they make on these platforms. And this is a multitrillion-dollar market, without question.”
Blockchain-based mechanics can be a tough sell for game studios today largely because it’s still a pretty hostile platform environment for NFT-based titles at the moment. Apple and Google haven’t showcased much of an interest in building a path for crypto payments or NFT sales inside their mobile app stores while Steam has outright banned NFT titles from their PC game store, a move which directly impacted Blankos. Part of this has undoubtedly been the desire of platforms not to upend the in-game payment systems that have made them rich, but there are also legal uncertainties around how deeply some titles are wading into securities territory.
For now, Blankos is only available as a desktop PC client directly downloadable from their own website. They don’t have mobile apps and they aren’t available on any PC game stores. Even without accessibility on mobile today, a16z Crypto sees a big opportunity for Blankos and crypto gaming in general. “I think mobile is definitely going to be an important part of the story going forward. There’s no doubt about that, but desktop is still huge,” Simpson says. “If you look at it even today, the majority of the highest value transactions are happening on desktop.”