In high school, Star Atlas co-founder and CEO Michael Wager was part of a group of computer nerds that called themselves "The LANarchists."
"This was back in the 90s, when local area networking was the only form of multi-player gaming. Twenty-five years later, the group is still pretty tight."
As I talk to Wagner via Zoom on a mid-February morning (evening for him), he assures me he's not just indulging in reminiscence. While immersing himself in gaming as a teenager, he learned a lot about building his own systems and configuring hardware.
Wagner has a background in traditional finance. He started his career in capital markets. As a CFA charter holder, he managed portfolios, performed investment and security analysis, and managed wealth for both high-worth individuals and institutions.
Crypto + cannabis?
In 2013, a friend showed him how to mine cryptocurrency with GPUs. He soon began mining Scrypt coins, thinking it would become a considerable source of passive income.
Turns out the market deemed otherwise. His venture into crypto mining was followed by a two-year bear market.
"Although I didn't make much money, this was a period when I was allowed to explore my interest in the underlying technology behind crypto."
Wagner's interest in crypto wasn't superficial. In 2015, he gave up his formal career in finance to go all-in on crypto. He started off by pooling capital with a group of friends to speculate on cryptocurrencies. This was successful, allowing him to launch his first company at the end of 2016.
Wagner describes the Tokes Platform as being born at "the intersection of cryptocurrency and cannabis." Its objective was to provide decentralized financial infrastructure to the legal cannabis industry.
Caught in the limbo between federal and state laws, the US cannabis industry was deprived of many traditional financial services. They couldn't deposit company funds into bank accounts or process payments electronically.
"The business is actually still operational, and I'm managing it through a separate team.
Tokes is actually how Wagner met Star Atlas co-founders Jacob Floyd, current chief technology officer (CTO), and Danny Floyd, who is now chief product officer (CPO).
Birth of Star Atlas
"In 2019, we were still in a bear market, so I sat down with Jacob and Danny to discuss emerging trends like NFTs and DeFi. This is during the rudimentary stages of blockchain gaming. We determined that, as gamers, we could bring a superior product to the market. A game you actually wanted to play, something that could attract mainstream gamers. And thus, Star Atlas was born."
Wagner and his team went around doing some pitching, and finally closed a deal with FTX and Alameda Research in December 2020. Star Atlas made its formal debut in January 2021.
The ambition behind Star Atlas is difficult to describe. In Wagner's words, he aims to achieve a "high-quality, triple-A gaming experience that's centered around space exploration, territorial control, and political domination." A grand-strategy massively multiplayer online game (MMO) built on the Solana blockchain.
Imagine a sci-fi strategy game that allows you to build and modify your own ship, which you use to travel around a vast universe occupied by a vast spectrum of characters, items and adventures. Your ship, items and property within the game are NFTs, meaning you can resell them at any time. You battle other characters for territory and property, making the stakes rather high. Users trade with the in-game currency ATLAS, while participating in the game's DAO governance through the POLIS token.
Wagner and the creators envision a completely immersive gaming experience with realistic graphics. The developers are building the game within Unreal Engine 5, a game engine that has been used for a variety of 3D-graphic games. Wagner wants to create a "hyper-realistic, cinematic quality environment." If you want an idea of what he's picturing, watch this trailer.
But the creators' vision will take years to fully realize. Right now, users can purchase, modify and trade assets on the platform, but fully immersive play has a ways to go.
"Right now, people in our studio are building a gaming experience, but as we continue into the future we're going to increasingly focus on constructing a virtual economy that will allow other creators to build on top of our platform."
"Imagine a completely borderless country in the digital world, an independent sovereign state."
A blockchain game for gamers, by gamers
The way Wagner sees it, there are different types of people that will venture into blockchain gaming.
The first is the speculator/investor. These people have been in the crypto world for a while, and will purchase in-game assets not necessarily to play the game, but to flip their assets for profit.
The second is the P2E gamer. This type of user is often from emerging markets like Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Such users can potentially earn more through gaming than through traditional jobs in their local economies. Filipino gamers in Axie Infinity are the most well-known example.
The third cohort is the traditional gamer, who is mainly looking for an entertaining, escapist experience. These are the people that Wagner wants to target. If the platform can attract this cohort in masses, then the other two cohorts will follow. This phenomenon usually doesn't work the other way around. A game that is profitable will always attract the P2E user and the speculator, but if the gaming experience isn't entertaining and immersive, the traditional gamer most likely won't play, even if there's the potential for financial profit.
Simply put, Wagner wants to create an engaging gaming experience that also provides financial incentives and economic value to its user community.
"Interestingly enough, a lot of traditional gamers are very skeptical of NFTs and blockchain gaming in general," Wagner admits.
In his view, maybe this is because gamers know that game developers are always looking to maximize profit, something that's demonstrated through micro-transactions.
"You never get the full game. You're always paying for a little bit more and a little bit more all the time to continue playing."
However, Wagner thinks that many traditional gamers haven't fully grasped NFTs, which they seem to view as simply the next step in extracting more value from the player by the platform.
"They haven't realized that with NFTs, they have real ownership. We open up peer-to-peer marketplaces where they can trade their assets, something traditional game platforms have restricted so far. They can curate their assets and increase their value and then sell them later. Later, they'll be able to create their own items. It's a revolution in the paradigm of gaming that I don't think a lot of gamers really understand right now."
Also, many blockchain games we've seen so far are actually just "DeFi with a game wrapper on it," Wagner says. They provide profit potential, but they're not fun to play.
"We're gamers ourselves. Many of our employees are from the gaming world -- not crypto. We've scaled our team to around 250 people over the last year, and most of them are traditional gamers. We know what it takes to create an engaging experience that gamers want."
What makes a true blockchain game?
What also sets Star Atlas apart from its predecessors is that the developers actually build game logic on-chain. What does that mean? For example, when you buy fuel for your ship within the game, that event is actually recorded on the Solana blockchain. Other games record NFT ownership and transactions on-chain, but not game events.
"No other game has incorporated NFTs, crypto-native assets and on-chain technology to the degree that we're doing. True blockchain gaming isn't just a game with an NFT feature. True blockchain gaming is building on-chain logic."
Star Atlas has released a web-based mini-game called Score. Wagner recognizes that this initial launch is "DeFi-like" and doesn't come close to the gameplay expected by traditional gamers.
"However, Score allows us to deliver value back to our users who've purchased our assets so far."
Wagner also says that the gameplay within the browser will be upgraded by mid-2022. Star Atlas has two separate teams. One focuses on building the gaming experience using Unreal Engine, and the other focuses on developing the Star Atlas marketplace.
Users should also expect an initial module in Unreal Engine by mid-2022. Wagner admits it won't be fully immersive gameplay, but it will be a "fully immersive digital environment, where you can socialize with other people, interact with your assets, and walk around the interior of your ship."
"The coolest part of it is that it will be multiplayer."
Value of releasing in stages
Wagner predicts free flight in Unreal Engine will be available in around two years.
It should be noted that game development in Unreal Engine normally takes several years. The common observer might ask: Why not release a fully developed product? Why launch in stages?
Wagner says the Star Atlas will roll out components in their mini-game before incorporating them into Unreal Engine. Also, by building in stages, they can take in feedback from users in real-time and apply it in the upgrades and enhancements that will be reflected in Unreal Engine.
"We're very proactive about engaging with our community and listening to their concerns and recommendations. In this way, we can truly build the game that they want, because they tell us what they want every day."
He also comments that the market moves too quickly for the team to wait for a complete gaming experience.
"If we waited, let's say, five or seven years, before releasing anything we'd be behind the curve. By then, there'd already be aggressive and established players in the metaverse and blockchain gaming."
Wagner's vision for Star Atlas extends beyond gaming itself. He thinks the metaverse will eventually evolve to the point where it houses millions, even billions of users. He wants the Star Atlas ecosystem to outlast him.
"Eventually, we'll have shops in Star Atlas where people can purchase items that will be delivered to their front doors in the real world. Replace Amazon with Star Atlas."
He envisions a digital universe that could last hundreds of years, which is why the Star Atlas team will build tools that will allow outside developers and creators to create their own worlds linked to the Star Atlas universe. New creators will bring in new users and other creators, who will then build their own worlds, thereby amplifying the ecosystem.
“We build a system that can build upon itself.”
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