The Future of NFTs Beyond Collectibles, with Robby Yung, Co-founder and CEO of Animoca Brands | Asia Startup Pulse Podcast

As the popularity of metaverse gaming and NFTs has increased, so has the interest in and growth of blockchain-based gaming projects. A recent report revealed that blockchain gaming companies have received nearly $500 million in funding in the first half of 2021.

Robby Yung is the CEO of Animoca Brands, the developer of a broad portfolio of blockchain games, traditional games, and other products, many of which are based on popular global brands including Formula 1®, Marvel, WWE, Power Rangers, MotoGP™, and Doraemon. Animoca Brands is also a prolific investor with more than 50 investments in NFT-related blockchain companies, including Sky Mavis (Axie Infinity), Dapper Labs (CryptoKitties and NBA Top Shot), OpenSea, Harmony, Bitski, and Alien Worlds. Yung previously was the co-founder of Redgate Media, acquired by Inno-Tech Holdings Limited. 

We recently sat down with Yung to talk about all things NFT, digital entertainment, and what excites him about the future of blockchain. Here are some excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the whole episode here.

Axie Infinity by Sky Mavis, backed by Animoca Brands. Image: Decrypt

How did you make your foray into the world of blockchain gaming?

We began our lives in the current form as a mobile game studio focused on mobile, free-to-play casual games, and we’ve been doing that for about 10 years since the beginning of the App Store and Google Play. About 4 years ago, we came across a very interesting idea which was pioneered by some friends of ours at a company that’s now called Dapper Labs, with a game called CryptoKitties. We published CryptoKitties in Greater China, and then probably within about 60 days, we just decided we were going to turn the ship and focus exclusively on making games using blockchain. Because this is really exciting: it is going to revolutionize the way that games are made. It’s going to be the way that we onboard the next billion people into blockchain, because games are the biggest entertainment medium in the world.

Tell us more about your investment thesis and how Animoca Brands evaluates different projects.

We tend to support companies that are interested in having a multi-chain universe. We’re chain-agnostic and we think that healthy competition amongst different blockchains is good for the industry. Blockchains and NFTs have become a store of culture: blockchains themselves also have their own cultural communities, with different philosophies and interests. So I think it’s quite healthy to have a very vibrant ecosystem with a diverse array of different tech. 

We look for companies that are ambitious, that are trying to build big projects such as The Sandbox, where they’re creating a full-on metaverse, or companies that are creating triple-A console grade experiences for blockchain gaming, because I think that’s what blockchain gaming needs to demonstrate that we can produce compelling experiences available on other platforms but using blockchain. It’s still very early days, and it takes a long time to make a good game. If you think back to the development of mobile, Angry Birds didn’t come out until 2011, several years after the App Store came out.

What are your thoughts on NFTs’ recent surge in popularity?

2021 has been a watershed year for NFTs and blockchain gaming. We’ve seen a lot of success in games that have had some crossover to DeFi: in July of 2021, Axie Infinity by Sky Mavis (full disclosure, we have a small investment in them) has been in the spotlight. And this game has been incredibly successful at tapping into the zeitgeist, the intersection of gaming and DeFi by really demonstrating the play-to-earn business model.

Collectibles and art have had a tremendous amount of momentum in the NFT space. It’s the most simple and straightforward execution, an example of what it means to own a digital item. And so now, I think the next phase of the evolution is for us to show what happens when that digital item that you own has a lot of utility and potential, such as an in-game item that you can play and use. 

For example, with our F1® Delta Time game, we have people who come to the game because they just love playing racing games. But we also have players who come to the game because some of the F1® cars that we make as NFTs are limited-edition collectible cars. Here you can buy Lewis Hamilton’s 2020 and 2019 F1 championship cars. 

I think the collectability part is fabulous. It has allowed companies like Dapper Labs with NBA Top Shot to really demonstrate the potential of ownership, because collectability is the first step on the ladder of ownership.

In your mind, if you know you can get $10 back when you spend $100, maybe you would spend $110 to begin with. And if that’s the case, then we’re growing the market because people will spend more money, because they know it’s not all going to zero at the end of the day. People ask me now: ‘There’s been all this hype and investments in NFTs, is it too late to get in?’ I say it’s absolutely not too late to get in. Honestly, it’s still early. That’s why I’m so excited about the sector because I think that it’s early. But we now have enough attention from the market in general that we’re able to attract good long term investors.

How can traditional game developers adapt? How does blockchain fit into the future of the game industry?

When places like eBay first started out, it was not easy to sell things because there were not that many buyers and sellers on the platform. But now today, when it’s so well developed, you can sell almost anything overnight because there are so many people in that one marketplace. And so I think the same thing is true of content, in the sense of NFTs.

It’s evolutionary, not so revolutionary. 10 years from now, all games will have blockchain inside. It will be similar to the way all games have online connectivity as a prerequisite. Games will still be about entertainment experiences: deep, social metaverse spaces where people can interact with each other. Digital ownership by blockchain will be taken for granted and won’t be a special feature by that point.