Welcome to the Crypto Version of ‘Blade Runner’
Big chunky pixels. Lots of pixels. That’s what you see when you enter most of the early crypto metaverses, such as Decentraland and The Sandbox. The avatars are simple. The graphics are crude. The ambitions are grand and perhaps the future is bright, but the actual aesthetics, to put it charitably, are still in the “early days.”
And then there’s Neon District.
The Neon District is part crypto metaverse, part RPG (role-playing video game). It just looks different. The visuals are stunning and hauntingly bleak – a cyberpunk dystopia full of thieves, hackers, guilds and assassins. It’s dark. It’s even beautiful. “What if we made a cyberpunk Final Fantasy 7?” was the original idea from Marguerite deCourcelle, aka “Coin Artist,” the CEO and co-founder of Blockade Games, the company building Neon District, which recently raised $5 million. (Investors include Animoca Brands and Dapper Labs’ Roham Gharegozlou.)
“The current version of the game is very rudimentary,” says Ben Heidorn, Blockade’s chief technology officer and co-founder. But even with the raw prototype, according to Heidorn, an average of 33,000 gamers play it each day. Perhaps they’re playing because it truly looks and feels like a game, a game with a real story, a game with emotion. A game that just … looks undeniably cool.
For that, we can thank deCourcelle. A former director of an art gallery, deCourcelle was one of the first – possibly the very first – artists to create cryptographic art puzzles, starting with “Dark Wallet” in 2014, a digital painting that hid a key to 3.4 bitcoin. Around then, she read “Snow Crash” and “Ready Player One.”
“It clicked that bitcoin had real-world value, but could be used anywhere across the internet,” says deCourcelle, who started to envision a crypto-infused metaverse.
DeCourcelle kept experimenting. Her crypto puzzles appeared in one of the early influential books on blockchain, Andreas Antonopoulos’ “Mastering Bitcoin.” In 2015, she unveiled a series of art puzzles called “The Legend of Satoshi Nakamoto,” which included one painting that contained the key to 4.87 bitcoin, at the time worth a total of $1,200. (She often gave away her own bitcoin.)
Crypto-geeks raced to solve the puzzle. But no one could solve the puzzle for a week. Then a month. Then a year. “The Legend of Satoshi Nakamoto” became something of a legend itself and went unsolved for nearly three years. Meanwhile, the price of bitcoin soared. The prize swelled to $100,000. deCourcelle began to think of the puzzle as a “sword in the stone.” Would anyone be worthy?
In January 2018, finally, an anonymous programmer cracked the code and claimed the prize. Suddenly, deCourcelle found herself in the limelight, as mainstream outlets like Vice and BBC covered the story. That flurry of press would be life-changing. The publicity soon caught the eye of “Pine,” the anonymous benefactor who created the “Pineapple Fund” that donated $50 million to philanthropic causes.
By the time Pine reached out to deCourcelle, he had already given away most of the $50 million. “But for his last giveaway, he wanted to give it to the community,” says deCourcelle. Specifically, Pine wanted deCourcelle to create a series of challenges and puzzles that would dole out more bitcoin. So he funded the “Pineapple Arcade,” which led to eight crypto-arcade games like a crypto Pac-Man (“CoiinMan”) and a crypto Space Invaders (“DAO Invaders”). “We did it all in a month and a half, and it was insane,” deCourcelle says.
Blockade Games was born. The early team included Heidorn and Diego Rodriguez (now the lead artist), a longtime crypto-artist who worked at Bitcoin Magazine in 2012. “I was doing Bitcoin art without knowing it was Bitcoin art,” says Rodriguez, who briefly crossed paths with a young writer for Bitcoin Magazine named Vitalik Buterin, a computer programmer who’s one of the founders of the Ethereum network.
So in early 2018, the core team of deCourcelle, Heidorn and Rodriguez began hatching the ideas for Neon District. The premise: It’s “300 to 400” years in the future. Climate change has ravaged the planet. Some cities have shielded themselves from the damage, such as “Unity,” an oasis for the well-heeled and privileged. You are not in Unity. All of the game play of Neon District occurs outside the protected area, where you trawl through the Mad Max-inspired wastelands.
The mechanics of the game are familiar to anyone who loves RPGs. First, you pick a character class, such as Demons (combat specialists), Ghosts (assassins) or Jacks (hackers). Then you build a squad. Over time you earn the right (or can purchase) new skills and weapons and “cards,” which are used in battle. You can spend money to build your squad and upgrade your characters, but you don’t need to.
This was important to deCourcelle. “Neon District is the only free-to-play blockchain game,” she says, clarifying that while some games give you a freebie starter kit, to truly compete you need to spend. “Neon District is truly free. You can start with nothing. You can play the entire game, and win, without spending money.”
Your objective? In a mode called “Neon Pizza,” you choose one of two roles: You either go on missions to deliver pizza or ambush the people delivering pizza. This opening mode is “extremely simple,” Heidorn acknowledges. Soon that will change. Heidorn suggests a hypothetical: Let’s say that your mission is to steal money from a bank. Once you complete the steps to get inside the vault, which involves deactivating a robot guard, you learn that the money you’re stealing was going to be given to charity. “You have to make a moral choice,” Heidorn says. These choices would then change the future game play.
In theory, your chain of moral choices – which could alter the non-fungible tokens of your characters – will have repercussions throughout the life of the game. If you double-cross a hacker, that could complicate a mission in the future. These are the kind of gripping choices, stories and narrative arcs that kept me playing RPGs like Dragon Age, Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic for a profoundly embarrassing number of hours.
Then you add NFTs. Then you add a community. deCourcelle envisions a “creator economy” of gamers who customize their characters and build assets, form alliances and ultimately change the world and the story of Neon District itself. They’re even starting to think about how to render the game in 3D.
The game isn’t there … yet. But it shows fascinating potential, and it suggests that there are many paths to the future of the metaverse. The future might be an open blank canvas like Decentraland, it might be a centralized monster like Meta, or it might be a game like Neon District with a hyper-specific tone and personality. (Or maybe it’s all of the above.)
And as for deCourcelle’s goals? Her New Year's resolutions are simple. 1) Wake up at 6:30 a.m., 2) no drinking “except if offered at dinner,” 3) headed home by midnight each night and 4) “Create a billion-dollar company.”
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