'CryptoKitties Are Digital Art': Talking Cats, Crypto with Axiom Zen
Of all the cryptocurrencies to rise stratospherically in value last year, perhaps the unlikeliest success story was CryptoKitties. Not really a cryptocurrency as such, the virtual cats players were able to breed as part of the game of the same name nonetheless became a valuable crypto asset, with at least one trader publicly testifying to having made over USD 40,000 thanks to his purchases. It seemed that what was intended as a fun way of teaching people about the blockchain had quickly become fittingly emblematic of 2017's crypto-mania.
Yet as improbable as it may have seemed for CryptoKitties to become a runaway hit, the game's developers – Vancouver's Axiom Zen – were never in much doubt that it would capture the public's imagination.
Speaking to us, Bryce Bladon, the Head of Communications at Axiom Zen and one of the founding team members on CryptoKitties, identifies three "big reasons" as to why the game succeeded.
"The product delivers something new and novel," he explains, "the design and brand of the product is accessible and fun (two things that are "new and novel" in crypto), and because we sought, found, and continued to foster our community before we even launched."
For those who aren't familiar with CryptoKitties, the community Bladon refers to is spread throughout the web, located on such social networks as Reddit, Discord, Facebook and Twitter. It's on these sites that players of the game share tips on how to breed and trade kitties, with each cat being a genetically unique, one-of-a-kind specimen.
It's largely because of the intended uniqueness of the CryptoKitties that the game was built on the Ethereum blockchain, since the latter's immutability as a distributed ledger guarantees that each unique cat can't be replicated or forged.
Yet added to this, Bladon also affirms that another big motivation behind the use of the blockchain was educational. "This game wouldn't be possible without the blockchain," he says. "We built it to introduce consumers to the technology and its potential — and a big aspect of that potential is digital scarcity and the concept of true digital ownership."
Given that the blockchain and cryptocurrencies are still widely misunderstood, there's a great deal of social utility in giving the public first-hand experience of the workings of one particular blockchain and one particular crypto asset.
"Before a user actually acquires their first CryptoKitty, the blockchain element is imposing and difficult to understand," Bladon admits. "Once they've acquired their first ether or bred their first cat, they're left with a working fluency in the technology."
The result, as Bladon attests, "is a game that's fun, novel, and educational." This perhaps accounts for why the game became popular enough after its launch on November 28 to result in a sixfold rise in pending transactions on the Ethereum blockchain. It was so popular, in fact, that in December it accounted for 25% of traffic on this blockchain, which saw congestion and significant slowdown as a result.
"Clogging the Ethereum network was exciting, horrifying, and humbling all at once," Bladon recounts. What excited Axiom in particular about the network clogging was the fact that, even though the game was intended to educate the general public about the Ethereum blockchain, it also ended up educating the experts responsible for the blockchain's operation.
"With CryptoKitties, we're trying to push this technology and its potential forward," he boasts. "While a lot of people were negatively affected by these scaling issues, the Ethereum team managed some impressive solutions at a breakneck pace. We still haven't overcome the problem itself, but we're closer than we would have been if CryptoKitties never happened.
CryptoKitty for USD 120,000
One other notorious 'problem' thrown up by CryptoKitties – at least for those who sniff at both cats and conspicuous consumption – is that it has also resulted in some CryptoKitties being sold for eye-wateringly high fees. As of the beginning of February, more than USD 19 million has been spent in total on purchasing CryptoKitties, with the biggest single fee for a digital cat being almost as high as USD 120,000.
This might raise a few eyebrows in some quarters, yet for the most part Axiom Zen are fine with intermittent high fees, so long as they don't become common. "Yes, we're fine with cats selling for high prices," Bladon confirms, "provided that doesn't somehow lead to a negative or exclusionary experience for the majority of users."
As a comeback to the many stories on Cryptokitties that have heavily foregrounded the very highest fees, Bladon also informs us of the average (mean) and median fees paid for the digital cats: USD 72.39 and USD 11.14. These are a long way from the thousand-dollar sums quoted by most media outlets, with Bladon adding, "Keep in mind that the cats that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars are in the minority."
As for for this minority, Bladon nonetheless sees a valid place for it.
"All of these cats are collectibles and one of the world's first examples of digital art that a user can truly own," he argues. "It may seem silly to see someone spend thousands of dollars on a digital cat, but it's not that different from someone spending thousands of dollars on some canvas stained with oil paint."
It's true that people with wealth to spare already have a tendency to store it in some curious places, which is largely why Axiom don't have any immediate intention to curb heavy spending within the game. "People find value in art in terms of its societal impact, its relevance to a specific time and place, and their personal connection. We're not going to police that."
The biggest challenge in China
One thing Axiom are planning, however, is to launch CryptoKitties in China, where the game will be made available for the first time ever as a mobile app. The company are already witnessing an "immense amount of excitement" in China surrounding the launch, although the game will face some stiff competition in the form of Laici Gao, a dog-trading game produced by Baidu.
Yet according to Bladon, the "biggest challenge is ensuring that the brand and product is communicated effectively in China; the art is the same, but numerous playful elements of the brand are difficult to translate effectively."
Still, given that the fundamentals of CryptoKitties – cute cats and their breeding – are fairly universal, there's no apparent reason why the game shouldn't translate as successfully in China as it has elsewhere.
And just because Axiom Zen are now focusing on Asia doesn't mean it has forgotten its preexisting audience. "We have a mobile app that we're very excited to move forward with," Bladon reveals. Meanwhile, the "game itself has numerous big features planned, and we have some exciting blockchain projects at Axiom Zen that we can't wait to share."
Sadly, Bladon didn't let us in on what these projects are. However, combining the runaway craze of 2016 with CryptoKitties itself, we can only speculate – wildly, and with no evidence – that Axiom must be planning a Pokémon game that will see players trading Pokémon on the blockchain. And if they aren't planning this, surely someone else already is.