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Irreverent Labs confirmed it has raised $40 million to further boost its efforts to create MechaFightClub, a robot cockfighting game that uses non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
Created by Voodoo PC founder Rahul Sood and David Raskino, the Seattle-based blockchain game company recently unveiled its first game: MechaFightClub. The characters are mechanical-looking roosters that are reminiscent of cock fighting.
MechaFightClub’s chickens are mechabots with NFTs, which use the blockchain to verify the uniqueness of each chicken. The title is a “play-to-earn” game, where players can own the characters that they buy and profit from them if they can resell them to someone else once they’re leveled up.
While cockfighting is controversial, it is popular in Asia and the creators are aware that people are concerned about the cruelty of the real-world sport, and so the developers are emphasizing humorous combat, not gory realism, Sood said in an interview with GamesBeat.
MFC players will collect, train and battle combat robots in a futuristic, mixed martial arts-inspired experience. Each mechabot develops unique fighting styles, abilities, and preferences over the course of its life, utilizing machine learning to give each NFT a lifelike personality on and off the battlefield, Sood said.
The funding was disclosed on Friday in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Today, Irreverent Labs confirmed that Andreessen Horowitz led the round, with other investors including blockchain cryptocurrency Solana; Brian Lu, founder of Infinity Ventures Crypto; Michael Ovitz, founder of Creative Artists Agency; Sonam Kapoor, Bollywood actress; and Capitoria.
Raising a new round
In an interview with GamesBeat, Sood said that Kapoor will be especially helpful in recruiting fans in Southeast Asia, as she has tens of millions of followers. Ovitz brings Hollywood connections and brand opportunities, while Solana will provide resources for blockchain technology and growth. IVC has a lot of experience in web 3 projects. The Solana blockchain has an ecosystem that is popular with games and processes transactions faster and more efficiently.
Sood said the company wasn’t planning on raising a round, but A16z’s Ariana Simpson, who invested in the first $5 million round and the Andreessen Horowitz team approached Irreverent Labs to instigate another round.
“We had a review with A16z, and they liked our momentum so they decided to push ahead the funding and get it done,” Sood said. “We do understand gaming, and we do understand tokenomics, and how to build, you know, something that’s really fun and entertaining. So that’s why we went the venture route.”
Sood said raising a venture round made more sense to establish credibility in the NFT space, where a lot of projects raised money first through NFT sales before delivering anything related to the game. Sood said that the company will do an NFT drop later. But he said the VCs have more experience with company building and users can easily become impatient with startups if they have delivered their money upfront, like in Kickstarter campaigns.
“For all its lighthearted fun, Irreverent Labs is a deep technology company building advanced tech on top of a futuristic mecha-cockfighting game,” A16z’s Simpson said in a statement. “The software they’re building is unique, and combined with the web3 economy they plan to launch in the coming months, will allow all kinds of creators, from artists to musicians to engineers, to play a role in further developing the game and storyline. We couldn’t be more excited to double down and lead Irreverent Labs’s Series A.”
Accelerating the momentum
You don’t want to drive speculative behavior with users who buy NFTs first and then bail on the project later on, Sood said.
“What this allows us to do is allow us to hire top talent early,” Sood said. “We’re building these super-funny, highly-interactive 100-year entertainment experiences on blockchain. A big part of what we’re doing is using machine learning to create these characters. We can hire people now, rather than waiting longer.”
“It allows us to accelerate our work,” said Raskino, chief technology officer at Irreverent Labs, in an interview.
Sood acknowledges that MechaFightClub is both a ridiculous and a controversial idea. In the game, robotic roosters and hens will fight in combat sport that is part Mixed Martial Arts, part Tamagotchi, part Gundam Wing, part Mortal Kombat, with a sense of humor as well, he said.
Every character in the game is an individually unique, artificially intelligent non-player-character (NPC) living on the blockchain as an NFT. The fighting styles of each character will be unique as well as absurd. You will be able to, for instance, get a hen to do a drop kick on a rooster in the game. You’ll also have moves called “cock blockers,” and you’ll be able to cast magic spells from the Arc-like lights in the chests of the robot chickens.
The game takes place in 2065 after extraterrestrials make their first contact with Earthy. They deemed humanity finally worthy of joining the interstellar races of the galaxy. And then the aliens realized they seriously overestimated humanity. They left, and abandoned Earth. But they left behind some technology for the humans to figure out.
Owners will train their robots, but they will also serve as promoters and managers for their mechabots, and mechabots will earn more by generating more human engagement. Sood said the company is putting its innovative efforts into 3D art pipelines, new applications for artificial intelligence and new decentralized economic models.
Raskino, who worked with Sood at Microsoft Ventures, cofounded the firm with Sood. Raskino brought some expertise in AI in a field dubbed agent simulation. That is the basis for the AI brains of the chicken-like creatures. The game is being built in 3D in Unity. The game brings together breeding, arena fighting, AI, and leveling up mechanics. The startup is a switch for Sood, the creator of Microsoft Ventures, founder of Voodoo PC (acquired by HP) and the esports gambling firm Unikrn (acquired by Entain).
“The big progress we’ve made since the last time we talked is demonstrating to ourselves a fully automated pipeline that allows us to create an entire population of characters from a single 3D model,” Raskin said. “What this means is an artist can create a character and then we can take that character and create a whole population of those characters programmatically. And we’re almost at the place where we can just slap on an AI and animate these characters in an automated way as well.”
In the past three months, Irreverent Labs’ Discord community has growth to 25,000 fans, with social media reach hitting millions. Sood said that MechaFightClub will be a modular game, with different mini-games. The company is also hoping to build a creator economy that rewards fans and creators.
Sood said the company is working on its economic whitepaper, which will debut before the first NFTs are minted before the end of June. The first fights will likely happen in the summer, after a Hatchening event where mechabots will be hatched. Then tournaments will come after that. It’s a big task for the team of 18 people, and the company hopes to double that staff in the next year.
“We’re assembling a team that is highly talented in very specific areas, like machine learning, level design, and Unity development,” said Sood.
Sood said the game is built on the blockchain because it is at its core a collectibles game. The game resembles Warhammer or Heroclix, where the main way you interact with the game economy is through collection and customization of a fighter (or mechabot).
However, unlike traditional collectibles games, every collectible in MFC is totally unique. They’re totally unique not just because of the contents of their models and related metadata, but also because each mechabot has an individual artificial intelligence that houses millions of personal experiences unique to that mechabot, and the mechabot has learned from every one of those unique experiences. They also have their own simulated genetic code.
The NFT is intended to mean that no two versions of those tokens are the same. These can uniquely identify the characters. That’s important because MFC’s mechabots will be so artificially intelligent, so genetically rich, so individualistic that they will be more akin to living, breathing creatures, Sood said.
The blockchain means players can trust that the company is creating what it says it is, and it permits players to take individual ownership of their mechabot and utilize it however they want, including selling, staking or even using in other blockchain applications, Sood said.
Blockchain games have drawn a lot of criticism from gamers who are concerned they’re a cash grab by get-rich-quick entrepreneurs who have no plans to follow through on promises. They see NFTs as scams, while some game developers have said NFTs bring little innovation to the table beyond monetization schemes.
“Blockchain has become the thing to do, and a lot of companies don’t have a real thesis on why they’re building on blockchain, nor do they have the DNA to build a real game,” Sood said. “Everyone is chasing down this rainbow, and they’re trying to get in. But unless you really have a clear vision of where you’re going, and unless you have a team that can execute against that, then I don’t have a lot of hope for all of these companies coming in.”
He agreed that old school gamres are still quite skeptical of blockchain games, as NFTs have gained a negative connotation.
“I believe that we’re going to show them why [this works] because, because when we create an emotional connection between the player and the characters that you own, that emotional connection is a bond that you cannot measure,” he said. “It’s an intangible that builds over time. And it starts with community. It’s the art and the storytelling that we’re building into it. It’s the movements that the character does. And the user is going to build the social profile of their character. And it becomes an extension of them. That emotional connection is the intangible that I think is going to make us very wildly different from anything else out there.”
Sood thinks that NFTs will command a mainstream audience over time, thanks to the crossover of people who are crypto enthusiasts who are also gamers, as well as the focus on entertainment that gamers will enjoy.
“You’ll see fans from both sides coming in,” he said.
As for the cockfighting criticism, some folks commented on my previous story saying that cockfighting is inhumane and such a game is reprehensible. I asked Sood about this.
“I think it’s important to address that. When we first started the game, we made a point of designing these characters, these mechabots, to look like robots, like from the bionic future, and to not look in any way shape or form like real organic characters,” he said. “We find animal fighting to be generally cruel. The second thing is we created a game where the characters and the players have an emotional bond. And it’s a humorous connection. We use humor all throughout the game.”
He said the company tries not to take itself seriously, and that explains the name. He noted that the play-to-earn games are particularly popular in Southeast Asia, especially the Philippines, where cockfighting is a multibillion-dollar industry.
He said that young people who have been entertained by animal fighting generation after generation can now own a digital robot and have them fight in “hilarious, cruelty-free cockfighting games.”
He added, “If anything, if we’re able to pull market share away from real animal fighting, then I think that’s a massive win for us. That wasn’t our intention. But if we do it, man, I’m super excited about it.”
So I asked him whether the game is excessively violent, or it had realistic violence.
“I wouldn’t even call it video game violence,” he said. “Video game violence would mean that there’s blood and that sort of thing. There is magic. And it’s ridiculous moves that you would not expect. Like, you wouldn’t expect that a hen to drop kick a rooster. We have these magic moves that emanate from their reactor, that circular object on their chests.”
He noted you can do a tea bag move or a cock block.
“I’m trying to keep a straight face, but that’s the kind of stuff that happens,” he said. “So it’s not like you would ever see that in a real animal fight.”
He acknowledged it would still be controversial but his team has to be prepared to explain it to people who assume it’s about realistic cockfighting.
“That’s not at all what we’re doing and we don’t plan to do that,” he said.