When I first heard about Decentraland, I didn’t know quite what to think of it. A decentralized-authority, open source virtual world using the blockchain for transactions? At first, it sounded like an even more libertarian version of High Fidelity. I was curious.
In late December, I joined the Decentraland chat server, and I lurked there a couple of months, following the discussions of people who had invested significant sums of money in buying Decentraland’s blockchain-based currency, whimsically named MANA, and who had then used that MANA in a bidding frenzy on 10-metre-by-10-metre plots of virtual real estate, called (of course) LAND. And I must admit that I am still somewhat mystified by all the feverish speculation. But then, I’ve been mystified by the whole idea of the blockchain and the market bubble Bitcoin and its fellow cryptocurrencies have created in the past couple of years.
You see, last August Decentraland raised 24 million dollars in an initial coin offering (ICO) for their cryptocurrency MANA, selling out in less than one minute according to published reports. Then on December 15th, they launched their first LAND auction, which concluded a couple of weeks later. Apparently, over 28 million dollars (U.S.) was spent on LAND in total, making it what Decentraland calls “the largest ever virtual land sale”. On January 10th, I made the following comments on the #offtopic Sansar Discord channel about Decentraland:
According to comments on the Decentraland chat server, some 10m by 10m parcels of land actually sold for over US$120,000…
When someone questioned the validity of this assertion, I did some quick calculations, and discovered that this was indeed true:
Well, they do have it all listed someplace…. hold on let me find it…
Here’s the stats on the land auction: https://auction.decentraland.org/stats According to this, the highest bid on a plot of land was 600,000 MANA, which works out to:
Using the value from here: https://coinmarketcap.com/currencies/decentraland/
Whoever it was who paid that much, I’m pretty sure it is a speculator who hopes to flip it for profit. Or someone who actually hopes to earn back that astronomical amount through advertising or sales. Although how somebody expects to make a profit after paying over US$120,000 on a 10 m-by-10 m parcel of virtual land is a mystery to me.
And compare Decentraland’s land model with other virtual worlds like Sansar, which offers you up to three parcels of virtual space, which can be up to 4 km by 4 km in size, FOR FREE. Note this direct quote taken from the Decentraland website:
Why is land scarce?
Without scarcity, most LAND would be left abandoned, which would hurt content discoverability and the user experience overall.
Now, artificial scarcity of a digital resource is not a new concept. I remember people bidding up the price of virtual land to unheard-of prices when Bay City was launched in Second Life, for example. But hurting content discoverability? It’s called SEARCH, people. Every virtual world has a search function. (Although they do have a point about abandoned land, as anyone who wanders through Second Life’s mainland lately can attest.)
The two young Argentinian co-founders of Decentraland, Esteban Ordano and Ari Meilich, give an overview of their virtual world in this recent 40-minute YouTube video from HashedLounge, a crypto meetup in Seoul, Korea:
There’s lots of talk in this video about something called cryptocollectibles. As this article from Salon explains, cryptocollectibles are a new fad: one-of-a-kind digital collectibles like Beanie Babies, each purchase verified by the blockchain (some recent examples: CryptoKitties, CryptoPunks). Frankly, I’m pretty skeptical about the whole idea of cryptocollectibles as a way to make money, but then again, breedables are still a thing in Second Life, so what do I know? Maybe they’re on to something new here.
Here’s a map of Decentraland, called Genesis City. All the black lines are roads. The green areas are land parcels that were bought by individuals (almost all of these were sold in the recent auction). The blue areas are called districts, and those are places where a group of people got together to pool their LAND and build an area based on a particular theme or for a particular purpose. For example, the Aetherian Project in the upper right-hand corner of the map is meant to be a cyberpunk-themed area (here’s their website). Note that they also have plans for a university and a conference centre (located together in a rectangular area near the top of the map).
The lands near the white square right in the middle of Genesis City were the ones that went for the most money. The idea appears to be that avatars will spawn in the centre of this map and actually have to walk to get to wherever they want to go, thus making lands around the central plaza more valuable. Excuse me? Have the people behind Decentraland ever heard of teleporting? I can’t imagine a virtual world without teleporting, which makes the idea of one location being more valuable than another somewhat of a moot point. Have people learned nothing from Second Life?!??
Here’s the original proposal for Vegas City, the proposed gambling district. They even took a picture from a Second Life blog to illustrate their proposal!
Note that Decentraland is absolutely nowhere near the level of development to have avatars bobbing around in inner tubes in fancy swimming pools! In fact, as far as I can tell, they haven’t really talked much about avatars at all. Yes, that’s right, a virtual world where people have invested millions of dollars, and there’s been next-to-no discussion of what their avatars are going to look like.
That’s the thing that drives me crazy about all this. Look at this slick promotional video they put out. EVERYTHING in this video is an artist-created simulation of what Decentraland is supposed to look like; NONE of it is actual in-world footage, because there’s nothing to see yet!
In the HashedLounge video above, in response to a question from the audience, the founders stated that a Web browser client or a VR client for Decentraland will not be publicly available until much later this year. So people have spent up to US$120,000 on 10 m-by-10 m parcels of land that they can’t visit yet! All they have right now is a recently-announced CLI (command-line interface) for developers.
The company behind Decentraland is still very small—one of the founders said in the video that they had quadrupled in size from 5 to 20 staff in just a couple of months—and I get the impression that they still have a tremendous amount of work to do to build a functional virtual world. I’m still not sure they completely understand the magnitude of the challenge they have taken on.
Oh, and another thing. I posted a comment to the busy Decentraland Reddit channel, reminding them that the FBI investigated gambling in Second Life, which had led to them shutting down online gambling a decade ago, and asking if anyone had stopped to think about whether the U.S. federal government would step in to stop Americans from gambling using cryptocurrency in Decentraland’s Vegas City district. That Reddit post was taken down by the moderators less than an hour after I posted it. I can only assume I was censored because they didn’t want to spook investors in their platform. I’m not impressed.
So, despite all the energy and enthusiasm I see all around me on the Decentraland chat forums, I predict some troubles ahead. I do want them to succeed, but I see lots of people with stars in their eyes who leapt on board this project when they heard the magic word “blockchain”, without doing proper checking beforehand.
Profit and the economy are squarely front and centre in Decentraland, and product development (the actual building of a virtual world) seems to be taking place afterward. That’s putting the cart before the horse. Compare this with Sansar, where Linden Lab invested years of work to build an actual, visitable virtual world before the expectation of earning any profit, both for the company and for its users. The same goes with High Fidelity, Sinespace, and almost every other viable virtual world. Nobody’s tried to sell a virtual world up-front, on speculation, the way that Decentraland has.
But I’d love to be proven wrong. Maybe Decentraland (the virtual world) will take off the way their ICO did. I wish them luck. All in all, it’s going to be fascinating to watch the platform evolve.