Throughout 2020 and 2021, the broader cryptocurrency market has risen four-fold. For those who have interfaced with the world of crypto since the 2017 to 2018 bull run, this bull run feels similar. Large-cap cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum still lead the market as up-and-coming projects like Binance Coin and Cardano attempt to solidify their status. Meme cryptocurrencies like Dogecoin and “shitcoins” like SAFEMOON are also back, pumped in the private Telegram chats of crypto influencers.
However, there are a few things that put the 2020 to 2021 crypto bull run in its own zip code. Unlike in the last bull run, prominent blockchains actually have smart apps, projects and assets living on them. This has allowed intermingling of real assets on the blockchain, allowing crypto investors to gain exposure to precious metals, equities, bonds and other assets without having to leave the chain. And conversely, this new blockchain renaissance has helped mint the permanence of digital collectables as an asset class.
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are one of the phenomena that have defined this bull run. NFTs, which represent ownership of digital assets on the blockchain, have mostly perplexed people. It is a little strange that someone spent over $69 million on a token representing ownership of digital art they didn’t even own. However, on a micro scale, the world of NFTs is not all that distant from the digital economies of video games such as Team Fortress 2, ROBLOX, Stardew Valley, Fortnite, and Minecraft.
As it would turn out, there might be one more game to add to that list. The game in question is Decentraland — a fully decentralized world that lives on the Ethereum blockchain where the users own all the assets. They can show off their NFTs, purchase clothes or collectables, buy digital real estate, build on their plots and explore this digital domain. It’s a concept that feels eerily familiar, but is somehow completely novel in the world of finance, sandbox games and blockchain.
That’s why I decided to hop on and feel it out for myself.
Going Down the Rabbit Hole
When you are dropped into the world of Decentraland, you spawn in a plaza that shows where the action is. It’s a quick and easy way to find the liveliest parts of this unfamiliar space. But in the case you’d like to get comfortable first, you can jump down the plaza’s fountain to enter Genesis Plaza. This plaza is the center of action in the Decentraland universe. It’s one of nine such plazas littered throughout the game, which are owned and maintained by the powers that be.
Decentraland is filled with millions of “LAND parcels,” which are 16 by 16 meter plots which can be bought by users with Decentraland’s native currency, $MANA. And as you probably guessed, each individual plot is represented by an NFT. Each individual dark grey square on the map represents one parcel of LAND. If you own adjacent parcels of land, you can join these into an Estate. The bigger, purple boxes on the screen are Districts. Districts are active places in the world of Decentraland, created by users, which are community-owned parcels which feature various things to do.
“By organizing parcels into Districts, the community can create shared spaces with common interests and uses,” according to the Decentraland Introduction.
Decentraland will quickly evoke comparisons to Minecraft’s creative servers. In these servers, users are given a plot and unlimited resources to build. In Decentraland, these plots and unlimited resources (at least barring the limited amount of room you have in your parcel) belong to the users. The contents of that parcel are their own. Many of these parcels lie dormant, owned by people expectant upon the appreciation of Decentraland’s digital real estate, looking to flip the land. The empty parcels are simply a flat land, populated with randomly generated trees and plants.
Though that empty space is pervasive throughout Decentraland in its current state, there are many plots filled with extravagant creations made by the game’s residents. Among them are users and companies making their presence felt in this new world.
Exploring Crypto Valley
The Crypto Valley, which lies directly adjacent to one of the digital world’s handful of community-owned plazas, is one of the places where leading companies such as Kraken, Gemini and Binance have room to flex. It’s a play on Silicon Valley, the IRL hub of tech companies in San Francisco.
Their large, extravagant “offices” in Crypto Valley have grown beyond the district’s original boundaries. In the surrounding space, leading blockchain companies have been joined by quaint constructions built by supporters of blockchain projects such as Maker, Polygon and Skale.
Glossing Over This World of NFTs
Outside of the Crypto Valley, there are a number of other districts. One of them is dedicated to the world of crypto art, which includes NFTs and NFT sales. In fact, as you’re probably unsurprised to hear, NFTs are a huge part of Decentraland. The game offers a medium for sites and organizations to do live art auctions, show off art in digital gallery spaces, and help connect artists with creators.
In the Art Alley, leading NFT marketplaces such as SuperRare and NiftyGateway have curated gallery spaces in the digital world to show off art from promising artists in their community. The marketplaces hold live events in these spaces from time-to-time, including auctions, artist meetups and the like. However, NFTs don’t solely exist in the Art Alley. Many individual users have taken their 16 by 16 plots as an opportunity to showcase their wealth of digital assets. One common staple of the Decentraland map is bizarre vertical structures filled with a player’s owned NFTs.
Some might say that it’s a representation of digital wealth in this world of new money. Others might say that it’s a blight in the broader world of experiences. After all, there is more to Decentraland than just sight-seeing and flexes.
The game boasts a number of “mini-games” where visitors can play games on parcels owned by users. On one such plot called “The Infinity Engine,” users can play a mini-game which involves mining and collecting gold and coal. After the clock has run down, the users are made to jump onto a train and escape from bandits trailing them using the coal for fuel.
Another plot nearby has a full-fledged race track called DAYT-MANA, a play on Daytona Speedway and MANA, the native currency of Decentraland. Players can hop into a car and do laps around the track, running time trials or racing against other users.
DAYT-MANA and The Infinity Engine are just two examples of quaint experiences in Decentraland. But the hottest games might be the casinos, which allow bettors to bet real money. One such casino, Tominoya, is operated by a project called Decentral Games. Decentral Games claims to be a “provably fair” casino operator. Decentral Games has even launched their own token to reward players at their casinos, effectively allowing bettors to become stakeholders in the casino as they play with real money.
At Tominoya, users can play Blackjack, Roulette and Slots. They can also bet using cryptos such as MANA, DAI or USDT. There’s always free play if iGaming isn’t legal in your jurisdiction or if you’re squeamish about gambling in an online world. In the weeks ahead, the Decentral Games team plans to add other casino games like poker with the hopes of making games that bring bettors together on the virtual game.
It might sound slightly ridiculous to hear “casino on the blockchain,” but that is essentially what casinos like Tominoya are. And while the model might sound crazy, the model of paying out bettors a token for simply playing is a novel one you’re unlikely to find in the real world.
A Short Summary
Ultimately, the world of Decentraland is far too extensive to fully capture in a brief photo essay. It falls at a unique intersection between sandbox games such as ROBLOX and Minecraft and digital game economies such as Team Fortress 2 and Counterstrike: Global Offense. Of course, that’s a gross generalization of lots of different games. But if you think in terms of the abstraction of what Decentraland represents, it offers promise as a medium for communal creation where the creators maintain equity in what they build and offer. Decentraland is not perfect, but it feels like the makings of a anarcho-libertarian metaverse utopia.