Most people will agree on at least one thing: 2020 is a dumpster fire. From the coronavirus to economic meltdowns to wrenching clashes over police brutality and systemic racism, we now live in a world that can feel, with every headline, impossible to stomach.
In science fiction works like "Ready Player One," sometimes the actual world is so bad that people retreat to another world, a fictional world, an immersive world that allows you to become someone else or perhaps to live in a society with less cruelty, more justice and a better system for deciding who gets what.
The concept is not exactly new, as the millions who have played Second Life can attest. Then there’s MineCraft and Fortnite and even Animal Crossing. And there are multiple companies and projects racing to create a playable “metaverse” – a three-dimensional, virtual reality-infused ecosystem – perhaps most notably Facebook Horizons.
In a surreal twist on the idea, Decentraland, the first metaverse to be built on the blockchain, is now open for business. Ever since the Argentina-based team raised $25 million in its 2017 ICO, much of the blockchain community has been eager to enter the matrix. The metaverse has been quietly open for early users (and investors) since 2019. It more fully opened to the public on Feb. 20 (as covered by CoinDesk) and it continues to work out the glitches as it prepares for wider adoption.
How is Decentraland different from Second Life? “The world is owned by the users,” explains co-founder Esteban Ordano from his home in Uruguay. (Ordano lives in Uruguay now, but most of Decentraland’s 20-ish developers are based in his home country of Argentina.) “If the Decentraland organization goes away, the world goes on.” (Disclosure: CoinDesk’s parent company, Digital Currency Group, is a significant investor in Decentraland.)
The design of their universe is humanistic. Once the world is fully created, there won’t be any gods in Decentraland or corporate owners or any rules the users don’t like, because the users will literally own the world. They own the mana, the ERC-20 tokens that fuel the world’s in-game economy. They own NFTs (non-fungible tokens, like CryptoKitties) in the form of wearables, clothes, homes or even cuddly little monsters called Ethermon. And they own the virtual soil and dirt of the land itself.
Welcome to the strange, glitchy, fascinating, frustrating and potentially wonderful reality of Decentraland.
i. Da Club
You arrive in Decentraland to the sounds and sights of paradise. Birds chirp. Blue sky beckons. This is Genesis Plaza, located in the center of the world.
Decentraland is organized in perhaps the cleanest, most logical grid in the history of multiverses. There are a total of roughly 90,000 units of land, or “parcels.” They’re arranged in a 300 by 300 grid. You designate an address with the coordinates on an X axis, from 150 to -150, and then the coordinates on a Y axis, from -150 to 150. Genesis, in the middle of the matrix, is at 0,0. Some helpful bots help guide you to points of interest, such as the Crypto Valley conference super-suite (where CoinDesk held an event during Consensus: Distributed), a human-size chess board or the casino. The graphics range from spectacular to clunky 90s-era computer games, and much of the quality depends on what the users have built. (More on that in a bit.)
Anyone can log into Decentraland for free using a browser (although not every browser works) and wander around as a guest. If you want to claim a name for your avatar, this will cost you 100 mana, or around $4 at the time of writing.
Connecting your wallet and adding mana is a bit of a headache, in the same way that almost everything in the crypto space is a bit of a headache. To get mana I first had to convert my Coinbase account to Coinbase Pro (as mana is not available on Coinbase proper), use Coinbase Pro to trade some ETH for USDC, then trade USDC for mana, then transfer the mana to my MetaMask wallet, which hooks in to Decentraland. Ultimately all of this worked, and those familiar with crypto interfaces should find it straightforward enough, but it’s hard to imagine non-blockchain enthusiasts willing to jump through all these hoops.
Now it’s time to customize your avatar.
Setting up your avatar, typically, is one of the underrated highlights of most games. Usually you can customize the exact shape of your eyes, the density of your freckles, even the diameter of your nostrils. Like the egoist I am, of course I try to make the avatar look like me. Those who are accustomed to the sliders and granular customization of modern games – from Fallout to Dragon Age to Madden – might be disappointed by the limited range of options, which includes just a handful of body types and faces. Presumably this will improve in time, and is one of many reminders that Decentraland is in its early days.
Once I create a vanilla avatar that looks as boring and white as I do in real life, I jump straight to the virtual hub of nightlife, the “Sugar Club.” It feels like the right first stop. Thanks to the quarantine, I haven’t been to a bar in more than three months. I wonder what it’s like to flirt in a virtual lounge? To dance, to order a crypto whiskey and soda? I arrive at this mecca of meta nightlife to find techno music and a glowing purple floor…but no people. The place is empty.
There are three reasons the place feels so desolate.
The first is that, well, it’s three in the afternoon and a real-life club would be deserted now, too. (Sugar Club has a nightly party, which you can see on Decentraland’s events page.) The second reason the club is empty is also obvious: Decentraland is still in its infancy and there simply aren’t that many active users. Federico Molina, Decentraland’s head of marketing, says 20,000 users have signed up, but there are only 500 active avatars on an average day.
The third is more subtle. Because of the limitations of rendering the world, the users are split across multiple nodes and servers. Even when people are in the same place, they might not be in the same place. In other words, if you and I both decide to visit Sugar Club at 10 p.m. for a virtual cocktail, you might be on one Decentraland node and I could be on another and we wouldn’t be able to see each other.
“That’s going to be tough to fix,” acknowledges Ordano, the co-founder. Yet, he notes that this is a common feature of massive multiplayer games. Fortnite, for example, has 250 million players but you can only see around 100 at any given time because otherwise your computer and head would explode.
Back to the bar.
The Sugar Club is the creation of a 40-year-old named Kay, a performance artist who lives in Amsterdam. Like so many others he was crypto-curious in 2017, heard about Decentraland during the buzz of its ICO, and he was one of the early wave of land investors. Like other digital landowners, he thought he should do something with this virtual real estate, so he decided to build a club. He taught himself how to code and learned 3D modeling.
“I can stream music into the club from my own DJ mixing table,” says Kay, who, in the real world, now runs an acupuncture company with his wife. On an average night Sugar Club will host 20 to 30 avatars, but that’s spread across multiple servers. (A crowded rave this is not.) Sugar Club’s most hopping night was in March during the virtual CoinFest Conference, when 100 avatars came for “synthwave, crypto art and exclusive NFTs!” (Decentraland tweets out events like this to its roughly 50,000 followers.)
Feeling like a high roller? If you spend some extra mana you can buy a VIP pass, which takes you up an elevator to a lounge that offers richer animation, a wider choice of music, and a viewing of Kay’s crypto-art collection.
It’s time to go shopping. At the in-game Marketplace, you can scroll through NFT wearables such as a tuxedo t-shirt, “vampire hair” and “jester leggings.” The only thing in my price range is a Mariachi Hat, for 105 mana, or around $4, described by the seller as “Rare.” Screw it, why not? I load my wallet with more mana (once again, via the super convenient route of Coinbase Pro’s ETH -> USDC -> MANA -> Meta Mask wallet), and now I’m the owner of a NFT mariachi hat, which means that my avatar can proudly roam around the metaverse looking like a cryptographically unique, non-fungible dork.
One corner of the marketplace sells “names,” as in the names you can use for your avatar. You can nab “Amazon” for 2,000 mana, “Professor X” for 24,000 mana, or “Food” for 1,000,000 mana. These are effectively URL squatters. My favorite is the offer of “Taylor Swift” for 2,350,000 mana, as I’m trying to imagine Taylor Swift sitting at her laptop after an exhausting concert, excited to play Decentraland and desperate to claim her rightful name.
Some of the names for sale are opportunistic and distasteful, such as “GeorgeFloyd,” selling for 5,000 mana. This raises the thorny questions that any new society must address: How to handle that age-old tension between free speech and freedom from racism, misogyny or other forms of abuse? What if someone goes by the avatar name of Adolf Hitler? Or unfurls a Nazi flag on their land? Slings a racial slur?
“We want to decentralize all of those decisions,” says Molina. “The landholders are the ones who will make the decision.” (This is, in a sense, an echo of Mark Zuckerberg’s We’re just a platform position.) The Foundation plans to transfer most authority to the DAO soon, giving full governing power to the owners of the world – the players. (How the DAO will decide on these questions is still very much an open question.) In the case of objectionable content, Molina imagines future functionality where users can choose whether to filter the content they want to see, similar to Google’s Safe Mode.
Another problematic issue: copyright and intellectual property. “This platform lends itself well to copying, to taking ideas and trying to make them your own,” says a user who goes by the alias of Clark Kent, and a prominent member in the Decentraland community. In real life, Kent is a 30-year-old lawyer. “We have to be cognizant of the laws that already exist that we need to comply with,” he says.
If a user streams "Uncut Gems" on her parcel and charges 10 mana for other avatars to watch it, that’s a legal risk that could jeopardize the entire metaverse. “I don’t think there’s any reason why, all of the sudden when you’re in Decentraland, you can violate copyright laws,” says Kent. “There can be real-world consequences.” It’s easy to imagine a future of IP lawsuits, battles over “fair use,” and new debates over ownership in the digital age.
Intellectual property concerns aside, let’s say you’re inspired by The Sugar Club and you want to start your own business or build your home. How do you buy land? This is a sore subject of some, who begrudge the early wave of speculators who gobbled up all the land in the game’s early days, meaning now you have to purchase land in secondary markets. Others argue: This is how the real world works. Land is scarce. Many see the scarcity of land in Decentraland as a feature, not a bug, just like the forced scarcity of 21 million bitcoin.
If you want to invest in land, it helps to know a guy named Matty, based in Melbourne, who’s something of a Decentraland real estate baron. Matty caught the crypto-speculation bug in 2017, plunked some cash in projects like NEO, and found that “this is a really easy way to make money.” Then came December 2017 and the looming bear market. He viewed the idea of buying real-estate in Decentraland as a way to diversify his cryptocurrency portfolio, just as a traditional investor might view actual real estate as a slice of their investment portfolio. “Plus,” he says in his Australian accent, “the logo looked really cool.”
So he dove into Decentraland’s embryonic real estate market, scooping up parcels that others were trying to ditch. Back then, there wasn’t a liquid or well-organized market, so Matty took advantage of the chaos. He bought parcels and then flipped them a day or two later, constantly wheeling and dealing. Over the last three years, Matty estimates he has transacted at least $1 million of real estate value, moving over 1,000 parcels in and out of his wallet. In 2018 alone, he claims to have made $83,000 in profit from parcel-flipping. He’s also plugged into the community, so people often come to him when they want to make a deal.
Matty gives me a quick tour of Decentraland real estate, explaining how parcels close to the center of the various districts (like Vegas City, Crypto Valley, or Dragon City) are more valuable, how parcels near crossroads are worth more, and how there are benefits to purchasing adjacent parcels that form an “estate,” which permit you to build higher. The more parcels you own, the higher you can build. In other words, the basic physics of real-life real estate apply to Decentraland real estate.
You certainly pay more for parcels near the center of it all, Genesis Plaza. This is where I went on Saturday, May 30, when SpaceX launched the first American manned spacecraft in nearly a decade. I watched this event in Decentraland. Along with maybe a dozen other avatars, I gather in Genesis plaza to stare at a massive TV screen that pipes in the actual footage of the Crew Dragon.
Honestly? It was pretty great. The communal experience with fellow Decentralanders – even strangers – made this feel like more of an event than if I just watched it by myself on the laptop. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this could scale. Think of how, at times, it can be more fun to watch an event like the Academy Awards while also geeking out with your online friends on a second screen, perhaps through Twitter. What if you could do both of these things within the same screen, within the same metaverse?
The gathering for the SpaceX launch is smooth and seamless and perhaps a glimpse of the world’s future. There’s something arresting, even provocative, about the merging of real-life video with the cartoon-style graphics of the metaverse, and the coolness of this alone feels like a legitimate use case.
Yet as the SpaceX shuttle blasts off, there’s no way to celebrate with your online buddies, high five, or really do much of anything besides a text based chat. “Excellent!” I typed in the chat box.
No one responded, and I imagine the other avatars thought, weirdo. They’re not wrong.
Getting around Decentraland is fairly easy and quick. A clever system of teleports whisks you directly to your points of interest, thankfully, so there’s no need to slog through parcel after barren parcel. Yet the universe can be laggy, glitchy and slow. Sometimes when you teleport to a location it takes 10 seconds, but sometimes it can take more than a minute, and sometimes nothing will load at all and I give up. At times it feels like the main activity of Decentraland is watching the red status bar at the bottom of a loading screen.
Much of the interface involves typing in text commands, such as “/players” to find other users nearby, which feels like a throwback to the early-1990s, pre Graphic User Interface days of computing, when you used MS-DOS. Yet there are also moments and scenes of real beauty, particularly in the Museum District, such as electric, towering green trees that evoke the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore. The life-size chess board is inspired.
Before Decentraland, the only way you can really view crypto-art is from inside a web browser. The Museum District changes that. “Now you have the ability to take that art, and make it into a 3D model, and put it on a wall of your house in Decentraland,” says Clark Kent, the pseudonymous Decentralander. This has the added benefit of not just increasing the value of Decentraland, but boosting the value of crypto art as a whole.
I bring my little Mariachi-hat wearing dude to the casino, which has impressive graphics that exude a Bellagio-esque vibe. You can play games like slot machines and roulette, and here it’s easy to see the potential of Decentraland. You can gamble with actual money – for real stakes – and in theory, once more users enter the system, you can do it with your friends surrounding you, making it a more social experience.
The casino is owned by a 25-year-old named Miles Anthony, who’s from Southern California and spends most of his time in Portugal. He graduated from UCLA in June 2017, caught the crypto-speculation bug, and invested in the Decentraland ICO. “At one point it was a 26x return,” he says, and like other early investors, he decided to reinvest some of that windfall into the project itself. He was shocked that no one was trying to solve what, to him, seemed like the most obvious use case for a decentralized metaverse: gambling. “A lot of these other metaverses, like Second Life, can’t do gambling, because they’re bound by U.S. laws,” Anthony explains. He soon plans to add blackjack and poker.
In addition to the casino games, of course, in Decentraland you can play a variety of actual game-games – like Tomb Chaser or The Block Runner. Many of these are won by a user named “RedNitrous18,” who IRL is an 18-year-old living in Wisconsin, with bright red hair and blue eyes, who just graduated high school and is now living at home with his parents during quarantine. (Soon he’ll go to college for a degree in aerospace engineering.)
RedNitrous18 is a gamer. He had a sense he could use his skills to make some money in this metaverse. Sometimes the project team would host events and tournaments (such as on their Feb. 20 launch party), which can cost 10 mana to play (around 40 cents), and if you get the highest score you can win wearable NFTs, which have real value on the secondary market.
“I come from a gaming background, so I didn’t find it too difficult,” he tells me over Zoom. RedNitrous18 targeted games like the “treasure hunt,” where players searched for 50 treasure chests around the metaverse, and the final one contained 5,000 mana, or roughly $200. He won game after game, scoring wearables like custom Decentraland sneakers, and estimates that he’s hauled in around $2,000 worth of mana and wearables.
The wearables and the NFTs are a big deal in Decentraland, and for some they are the deal. NFTs can reveal personality, showcase creativity, flaunt status, and potentially be lucrative. Some of the NFT concepts are truly slick. If you buy a billboard and plunk it on your parcel, you can then rent the advertising space to others, and when an avatar clicks on the billboard, the link can open a new window outside of Decentraland into a normal browser. Assuming the user-base grows, it seems only a matter of time before mainstream companies begin in-world advertising.
Many of Decentraland’s users take pride in building their own tricked-out houses or displays, like a digital version of Burning Man. But you don’t need to be a coder to do this. You can shop at MetaZone.io, a marketplace that lets you buy NFTs on the real-life internet, and then drop them on your parcel. At the moment, you can nab some “Corona Zombies” for 27,000 mana (“Gun your way through wave after wave of infected undead! Win mana!); or a Tree House (think: the Ewoks homes on Endor) for 600; or a DJ booth for 1,755 (“Drop the needle playa”…) It’s a long list.
The business model of MetaZone, explains the founder and owner, Will Gomez, is similar to Apple’s App Store, or Google Play. These “metas” are created by artists and developers, just as most apps in the Apple ecosystem are created by third parties. Revenue is split between the platform (MetaZone) and the creator of the meta. (It’s a 70/30 split, in favor of the creator.) Just as the iPhone became exponentially more useful once third parties developed cooler apps, the hope with Decentraland is that incentive structures like MetaZone will spur both user growth and functionality.
Oh, and you will soon be able to own pets. Ethermon is a game where you can collect, train, and then battle your unique and cryptographic digital monsters. The monsters are generally cute and cuddly and are built on the blockchain, a la CryptoKitties. What can you do with these things? You can grow food and fruit for your little Ethermon to eat, and as one Ethermon enthusiast explains, “You can grow your bond with your Ethermon. Your Ethermon will level up, and become more responsive to you.”
And I’ll give you 10 mana if you’re able to explain this to your parents.
iv. The future
Franky Needles, 37, has been a DJ for years, mostly in hip-hop. He carved out a role in the metaverse as one of the community leaders, interviewing other Decentraland influencers (such as Matty, Will and Clarke Kent) and posting the interviews in-game. Now he’s working on launching Decentraland News, which he envisions, ultimately, as video that would stream inside the game, where the avatar is the news anchor.
And here’s where things begin to get bigger than mariachi hats or tree houses or cute little crypto-monsters. “The idea for the news is much bigger than Decentraland,” says Needles. “This would be an actual news network, funded internationally, that has no ties to any sort of corporation. You can report on things from China to Saudi Arabia. You can show what’s actually happening.”
Needles likes that Decentraland is hosted on 40 nodes from all over the world, and “it would take a huge effort to take it down.” This taps into the bloodline of what inspires so many about cryptocurrencies and blockchain tech – the idea that, at scale, people could create real change without the structure (or oppression) of governments and oligarchies.
As Needles began to explore the digital world — particularly the district of Dragon City, filled primarily with Chinese users — he had a light bulb moment. “You can tap into other people’s cultures,” he says, in the sense that you can learn about, and swap ideas with, other communities in ways that you simply can’t do in traditional text-based internet chatrooms.
“I’ve never been to China,” he says. “I’ve never spent much time doing any sort of thought building with a person from China.” Now, by strolling through the meta-homes of his new buddies in Dragon City, he has more insight into Chinese culture and architecture. He has new friends he communicates with over WeChat (China’s version of WhatsApp), and he plans to put his content on Chinese social media.
Needles compares Decentraland and the virtual reality universe of the movie "Ready Player One," where the VR world was a paradise yet the real world was a dystopia. Given everything that has happened in 2020, suddenly this doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Why wouldn’t people want to spend more time in a (virtual) world that’s free of corruption and police brutality and systemic racism? “We could change the whole structure of the world,” Needles says, “by having a separate world you can go to.”
Follow the logic further. If we are headed in that direction – a virtual world – then it makes sense to think seriously about how that virtual world is governed, and who’s in charge. It’s not crazy to think that if the world (the actual Planet Earth) will eventually incorporate this virtual alternate reality, then maybe it should be a world that’s owned entirely by the players. The real villains of Ready Player One, after all, were the grubby corporations who run the game. With Decentraland, there’s no overlord. With Decentraland, there is no police state. With Decentraland, there is no God.
Whether anything comes of this project is very much up in the air. Like so much in the blockchain space, it’s still more potential than functional. Yet, the seeds are planted. How much the seeds grow, in the end, will be up to the users.
And speaking of users, while browsing art at the Museum District, finally, I see a female avatar.
I’m a bit nervous but I say hi.
There’s no response.
I wait a bit. Was I flirting? Is she offended?
And then the woman vanishes.
Ah, so Decentraland really is like real life.
Correction: This article has been amended to say Robbie Cochrane is not the founder of Ethermon.