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Bitkraft Ventures raised a $75 million token fund last week to invest in blockchain gaming and digital entertainment investments.
The company did so even though it already has more than $540 million in assets under management and 60 companies in its portfolio of game startups. This means that Berlin-based Bitkraft is doubling down on investments at the intersection of cryptocurrency, blockchain, nonfungible tokens (NFTs), and gaming, said Jen Hilgers, in an interview with GamesBeat.
Piers Kicks (who will speak at our upcoming GamesBeat Summit Next online event on Novemer 9-10) will help run the fund as it navigates the various challenges of the crypto ecosystem, which depends upon the transparent and secure digital ledger of the blockchain. Many crypto believers think that the decentralized tech of blockchain will bring sweeping changes to all industries, including games. In particular, NFTs can use blockchain to authenticate one-of-a-kind digital items, and that will enable those items to be sold in games for higher prices, enabling better monetization for all games as well as new user acquisitions strategies and game experiences.
But there are hazards, such as the history of crypto scams, the lack of awareness of crypto among mainstream audiences, and even a belief that crypto games just aren’t very fun — largely because mainstream game companies haven’t embraced blockchain yet. But Hilgers believes that mainstream adoption is coming with the right high-quality games. To make sure that the company stays on the right side of regulations, Bitkraft became a Registered Investment Advisor with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Three top investment pros open up about what it takes to get your video game funded.
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In the blockchain space, Bitkraft has already investd in Yield Guild Games, a play-to-earn decentralized gaming guild of players and investors who generate yields from NFT-based games; Immutable, maker of the Immutable X Layer-2 protocol for NFTs on Ethereum; Alethea AI, which is using AI to power game-like avatars; and Horizon Games, a game company and Web 3 (the blockchain web) wallet and platform for blockchain tech.
I talked about these matters — as well as how blockchain can usher in the metaverse — in an in-depth conversation with Hilgers. Hilgers started Bitkraft Ventures in 2015, and he was the cofounder of esports team G2 Esports and founder of ESL, which MTG boubht a majority stake in during 2015.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: When you call it a token fund, how is it being distinguished from other kinds of funds you have?
Jens Hilgers: To understand how we set it up, it’s important to understand the origin of the fund. Last year, blockchain and crypto seemed to be maturing to a level where their adoption, their use in gaming was finally bringing forward use cases that we could see being adopted at a larger scale. Any time before it felt very experimental. Very CryptoKitties, if you will. That changed last year. We began looking for interesting deals that we could dabble in.
While doing that, we were obviously seeing that–what you’re investing in when you invest in these crypto companies and blockchain companies is often also tokens. Tokens are a new asset class. It’s not public stock. It’s not private equity. It’s a new asset class that brings, on the one hand, quite a lot of opportunity for companies building on tokens, because it allows you to potentially raise capital in different ways. It feels a bit like Kickstarter on steroids. At the same time, though, it’s different in how you look at investing in tokens. Most important, it’s different in how tokens are regulated. They’re mostly not very regulated at all, which is obviously an opportunity as well as a threat or a problem.
All of our funds are U.S.-based. We’ve been looking at how we could invest in tokens. Should we do that with our core funds? Our core fund has been called the Bitkraft Venture Fund #1. We have a second one called Bitkraft Venture Fund #2. While thinking about it, on the one hand we saw that with many of these blockchain deals, the dynamics around the groups that come together to invest are a bit different. The rounds typically have smaller allocations and they’re distributed across larger groups. The allocations typically are a bit smaller in a seed round than what you’d find in an equity seed round. That would not necessarily be compatible with the strategy of our core fund. Second, investing in tokens as an asset class is something where, after consultation with some of our LPs, we got to know that some of them are actually not comfortable investing in something that’s still–I don’t want to call it the regulatory wild west, but regulation is still in the making. There’s a bit of a higher risk.
With these two challenges in mind, we decided that the smart thing to do was to build a separate fund that focuses–it’s a bit of a different risk-reward profile. It’s a fund that will have LPs who are committed and want to invest in tokens. They don’t feel bad about us dabbling in this. It’s a fund that’s a bit more opportunistic about how big the allocations it gets in individual companies. It could be a $100,000 allocation or a $5 million allocation, in an early stage company or a late stage company, which is a very open strategy.
For those reasons, we put together what we call the Bitkraft Token Fund No. 1. While we were planning for that, we also realized that we wouldn’t be able to invest in tokens under the regulation or the license that we had with the SEC at that point. Every standard venture capital fund runs under what is called the venture capital exemption rule at the SEC. It says that if you invest like a venture capitalist — if you invest a bit of capital under certain terms and get a bit of equity for that — then you’re under that rule. Oversight is fairly limited. The requirement from the SEC of what you have to take care of is fairly limited.
With tokens it’s a bit different. You’re only really authorized or allowed to invest in these if you become a registered investment advisor. Now, a registered investment advisor–that classification is something that is way more complex to deal with for funds. We’ve been going through that process. Ultimately we became an RIA. The entire firm, Bitkraft, is now an RIA. That adds quite a lot of overhead to the firm. We have a chief compliance officer now. We can’t just tweet as Bitkraft, “I think we’re the coolest dudes on the corner.” Not that we did that anyway. But we can’t communicate as easily as we did before. Everything that goes out to the public, we need to look at that, because it can be understood as presenting facts, or misrepresenting facts.
It’s easy to say, “We just invested in the greatest company in gaming, blah blah.” But all of a sudden that’s actually a difficult statement. If we use these superlatives, well, how can you prove that in fact? That’s what the SEC would ask. So we have to be careful with that, and lots of other stuff, including cybersecurity and things like that. It has to be handled at a way higher level. We also have to make sure we fulfill that fiduciary duty to all of our limited partners. When you put all of this together to define the Bitkraft Token Fund at large–we became an RIA to be able to run that fund. For context, there’s an increasing amount of funds that we see and hear about that are upgrading to RIA, because they all want to be able to tap into tokens as an asset class.
GamesBeat: It seems like there’s investing in tokens, but also simply buying tokens. Is there an important distinction there? There’s a governance token, and when you buy that you get ownership in something you’re buying. Whereas if you buy cryptocurrency, you’re just buying that Bitcoin, rather than investing. Is there a distinction there?
Hilgers: Fundamentally, Bitcoin is a token, like a land sale in a game is a token as well. Many of these things are tokenized assets. But a token can also give you a certain level of governance. We’re fundamentally able to do all of that. We want to focus on tokens and token issuances that give us something that at least somehow represents how an investor would look at a company. We have a certain say here. Which obviously brings forward this fascinating new dynamic around, how do you exercise governance? What role do you play as a token investor? That’s something fascinating to learn. It’s extremely important to be good at it. Not only other investors, but the entire community is watching your decisions that you make as a larger institutional investor on the token cap table.
GamesBeat: I was looking at Sky Mavis and how they set themselves up. They own 20 percent of the protocol, and then 80 percent is governance tokens either earned in the game or purchased by investors. It’s interesting that you could invest in the company, but you could also invest in the protocol, and the protocol also gives you a certain amount of say in how the whole project is run, how the company is run.
Hilgers: You’re right. The tokens that we often buy in what is called a private token issuance, meaning it’s not publicly accessible, obviously–it’s pretty much the same token that somebody could buy publicly later on. But for one, these private token issuances come earlier, and they typically come at a lower price. Second, particularly in the early stage, it’s pretty difficult to get a bigger allocation of the size that institutional investors would potentially look at. These private token sales that would take place and set up the company for bigger long-term success are the ones we’re looking for to begin with, but we have an ability, with a token fund, to potentially top up. Would it have made sense for us to top up Yield Guild after it went public? Yes, it might have made sense. We haven’t done that so far, but the fund allows us to do that.
Obviously it’s so much more fascinating to see how you can basically create, in terms of sell and buy, in real time as these companies go into liquidity pools and later into public listings. That changes your fund strategy, potentially quite dramatically. One, you need a trading operation. You need someone who monitors all these things. In a private company, while you monitor during the financing round, or potentially if an exit appears, otherwise what’s there to monitor? In a company that’s publicly listed you look at the stock price every day. It’s an interesting time.
GamesBeat: I recall that Andreessen Horowitz has purchased a lot of tokens. I don’t know if they also have their funds set up the way yours are.
Hilgers: Andreessen Horowitz has a dedicated crypto fund. They’re branding it separately for the different funds. It’s definitely a bit more complex for them.
GamesBeat: Could you have the same thing happening? But then you probably have the same people in charge.
Hilgers: I believe what would happen is that–ultimately the token strategy will emerge in the main fund again. One of the main reasons why we did this is because we had this regulatory issue with some LPs. As crypto gets more regulated, I suspect that in three, four, five years these issues will not be there anymore. It will find its place. I also believe that we’ll see, after these years of experience with how you issue tokens, at what point in time, at what sizes–best practices will continue to come forward. Then I think it will be in the core fund again. I don’t think we’ll have a separate crypto fund. Crypto will be an essential part of what the games industry and digital entertainment does and touches and how it’s built. Tokens will just be an integral asset class we invest in.
GamesBeat: In cases like Yield Guild, were you basically buying tokens, or were you otherwise investing in a company? What about some of your other investments?
Hilgers: Yield Guild was a token investment. Alethea was a token investment. Horizon was an equity investment, and then Immutable was an equity investment as well. It’s a colorful mix.
GamesBeat: Do those all belong in this fund for any particular reason?
Hilgers: Where we draw the line–if a company either is issuing tokens as part of the raise directly, or the token issuance is set up as part of the investment agreement–if the token issuance is visible or can be seen, it’s also in the right place with the token fund.
GamesBeat: As far as wider trends in gaming, Sky Mavis and Yield Guild have a revolutionary flavor to them. They’re upsetting how things are done in the game industry. How much of your interest in them was due to their potentially disruptive strategies? They want to establish more ownership for players, provide them with rewards, and even potentially let them escape from the platforms that are out there. They want to exist outside those platform structures.
Hilgers: There are two main reasons why we’re excited about the whole crypto and blockchain stuff. One, through tokens there’s a new way for game companies to fund themselves. That’s exciting to look at. That quite dramatically changes how things work. Two, there’s an entire new set of functionality and features that changes how you operate, build, and scale a game, how you service a game, and that’s all being touched significantly by the blockchain.
I look back and think about what were the big eras of disruption. Or if not disruption, fundamentally big changes in the game landscape. The last one that was really meaningful would be social gaming. We looked at Zynga and FarmVille and thought they were doing things so differently. At the same time we all thought, though, “What a shitty game this is.” But we realized they were opening a huge new gaming audience with a different kind of gameplay. They played very true to that new platform on Facebook, with the social graph and whatnot. It inspired a whole craze of investing in social games. You remember that. That was great for entrepreneurs, great for investors. It brought forward a lot of changes in how you operate games. Then there was mobile gaming, smartphones. That touched so much about games: the way you distribute, the way you monetize, the way you design games, the form factor, the place where people play. It touched so much about the game industry.
When I look at crypto, at the scale or level of magnitude of what crypto does to gaming, I put it somewhere between the internet and the smartphone as a new platform. Crypto touches the economy itself. All of a sudden game economies open up. The next few years will be so fascinating, as you see more and more economies that open up where the revenues are made on secondary transactions, not primary transactions. How people play with the economies, and how ultimately–what we saw happening with EVE Online or Runescape, on eBay and other platforms, will become a real business model. That’s one part, which is dramatic in its impact.
Two, we see games starting to be created by creators that create assets and own assets that form games and not the other way around. That’s all pushed and enabled by the blockchain. We saw this big move toward what I thought was great for consumers with free-to-play. Games as a service. That’s how I always wanted games to be. Will I ever get another patch for Command and Conquer: Red Alert? I never got it. With games as a service, it’s a different story. But crypto and blockchain take this one step further, where as we alluded to before, the community starts to have influence on what happens next. People will have a real say. You have to listen to them. Combined with that, people will have true ownership of assets that have real value on markets in the open world. They’re actually invested stakeholders.
How you operate these games–just as Ethereum, basically, is a decentralized computer, you will actually find games that can live entirely autonomously without an AWS. Nobody can shut it down. It will live on decentralized computer networks. When somebody shut down my favorite Quakeworld server, I couldn’t play there anymore. That can’t happen anymore if a game is operated by a DAO and is decentralized in its compute. It can live forever as long as the gamer community plays it and pays to operate it. That can be a smart contract with a decentralized compute network. It’s crazy, right?
Alethea, which is our virtual influencer–you have virtual beings living entirely distributed on the blockchain now, without anybody being able to suppress or mute them. The same thing will happen to–game characters, NPCs that you have in games before, all of a sudden they’ll take on their own life and float around the internet and nobody can stop them anywhere. They’re just there. You could take some of them and integrate them into your next game if you want. There are these super mind-boggling concepts coming up. You pair that with digital identity — which hasn’t been solved so far globally, but will be with the blockchain as well — and add to that the piece of global availability of these items and assets. It becomes super, super powerful. We’re incredibly excited about what all of that brings forward for gamers.
Axie Infinity, I’ll be honest with you, I couldn’t invest in the game, because I thought the game–I didn’t think it was of the quality where we as a games investor would say, “Wow, what a great game, I need to invest in that.” I couldn’t make myself invest in Axie. But what I didn’t see was that, just like FarmVille–in the beginning you look at that game and think, “Why would I ever play that?” Then you realize that there’s a whole new audience it opens. There’s a whole new game design that will likely be adopted in the future. We’re seeing the same thing here. That’s why Yield Guild is so interesting. It discovers these new blockchain games very early. For me, Yield Guild was a hedge against my inability to understand these early blockchain games. They’ll find the best ones.
GamesBeat: The whole Web3 movement is interesting as well, with decentralized companies. In some ways there’s still a capitalistic part of this, where investors can buy these tokens and help run these companies. But there’s also a kind of communistic part to it, where these companies aren’t exactly companies anymore. They share their tokens with the players, and the players run the company.
Hilgers: This is such a fantastic and wonderful social experiment, if you will. With crypto, the pendulum swings–one extreme is the element of, everybody can have a say. But if you look at the grand scheme of things, how countries are run–for me a game is a country. It’s a digital society. The more complex games get, the more of those characteristics they develop all around. You look at what a wonderful digital society World of Warcraft is.
We know in real life that too many people having a say is not always the best way to run a country. It can take a long time. It can be slow. On the one hand, we’ll see a fascinating development in which interest groups of players form and try to push their interests through. That might become a metagame on top of the game somehow. At the same time, innovation–I don’t have an answer to this. But innovation has come from single people. Disruptive stuff, whatever it was, has come from single people that broke stuff and had a say and were able to do things that others wouldn’t be able to do, that groups of people wouldn’t be able to do.
I think we’ll always see that great innovation in games will come from individuals that want to develop greatness. The community taking over to too great an extent will slow down game development eventually. There’s a certain risk. I’m not sure how we address that with crypto. But it’s a very artificial discussion just now, because we’ll have to see how it plays out in the real world. What happens if the Axie governance goes over to the community? You have to file suggestions and people have to debate and vote? We’re talking about complex economies, complex virtual societies. Making the best decision, you have to weigh in so many different considerations. I’m curious to see how community governance ultimately can work out at scale.
Some of the best games on this planet–look at Half-Life. Look at Counter-Strike. Counter-Strike has been basically broken five times in its history. Don’t you think the community itself–they actually held back, right? It split at key points in time. It’s funny. You see this in blockchains as well. Sometimes they split, because some of the community wants to go a different way. What happens if you have that going on in a game? It’s going to be super fascinating to see how this plays out. There’s plenty of benefits, but ultimately we’ll see several years of fascinating experience. It’ll certainly bring forward better products, but it will teach us a lot.
GamesBeat: When you have community governance of a token and a project or a company, it really does matter–does the core management team own 51 percent or 20 percent or even a smaller amount? That suggests what kind of governance philosophy they have. For you guys, would it be much easier to put money into companies where the management team has more control of the project?
Hilgers: There are approaches where you want that. There are approaches where you don’t want that. There are also grades in between. It’s not just black and white. You can give the community governance over certain aspects of what’s happening and still retain certain aspects for yourself. But something that, from day one, is entirely controlled by the community, I might do–look at Alethea for example. There’s a point where we can unleash that entirely to the community and it might actually be for the greater good. There’s a bigger likelihood that it sets a standard across the board, gets adopted as a standard. It might give bigger incentives to creators to go forward using it if more upside and influence is available to the creators.
I think there are projects where there’s a good reason it could work that way. Then there are projects, complex games–you couldn’t give the 0.2 version of World of Warcraft to the community and expect that two years later you’d have the best MMORPG on the planet. I don’t think it would work that way. For newer and more complex games I believe you have to bring it to a certain point first, a certain state, some time before you hand over more governance to the community. It’s case by case.
GamesBeat: As far as the kind of games that you like and that you’d like to see funded here, do you believe that they’re on the way? Are the biggest companies in the industry going to make blockchain and crypto games?
Hilgers: Yes. No question. Axie was the FarmVille moment, the dam breaking for a new breed of games. We can see it in our deal flow. There’s so much substance now in new blockchain-empowered, truly built for the blockchain games and game ideas, digital entertainment platforms and plays. We’re totally blown away right now by what people are doing with it.
The challenge, though–there’s great potential, but it’s harder and more risky than other comparable situations. The entire blockchain ecosystem is still coming together. We still have so many unknowns. Regulation is still unknown. What are the networks that will ultimately power this? Is Ethereum the big winner? Is it going to be other chains? How will they interoperate with each other? What are the economic models that ultimately work out best? There are so many question marks that fundamentally define how blockchain games will operate best.
I made the comparisons to smartphones and touch devices. It’s not as if the situation is much different today there compared to where it started. There was an app store. You paid a fee. There was an approval process. There was a certain form factor. All of that is faster, better, and nicer-looking today, at a bigger scale, but the ecosystem was still clear back then. The parameters of the ecosystem and the platform were clear. With blockchain, there are way more parameters that still need to come together and play out as we actively invest in the space right now. Great ideas might fail because some things in the ecosystem might go a different way than we anticipate. There’s more variance and more risk because of that, which you might not see if you invest in a gaming platform like AR/VR. There you have many more knowns in front of you.
GamesBeat: The big companies may be waiting for those regulations to sort out.
Hilgers: From what I see, the big companies are buckling up way faster than I anticipated. They’re hiring experts to help them maneuver in the space. I’ve seen this happening at several large public game companies. They’re going faster than I expected in dabbling with NFTs and blockchain economies. They know that ultimately they’ll have to build against this technology. I think they feel that the consumer will not be satisfied entirely anymore with a game being a silo. This goes back to–I’m sure you saw the founder of Ethereum saying, “I built this technology because World of Warcraft’s developers took away my favorite sword. That shouldn’t be the case. This was mine. How can you take it away?”
I think they see that the younger generations are growing up more digital than you and I have ever been. They’re growing up with the idea that digital assets belong to them. Why should they be confined to that single virtual space? Why would I not be able to trade them? They’re growing up with the digital being so much like the physical. Having that thing locked away from them just isn’t right.
The genie is out of the bottle. These assets should be tradeable. That’s out of the bottle for younger generations. The large companies, the large players understand that. It’s going to be incredibly hard to put that genie back in.
GamesBeat: One concern I have is that the gaming industry’s core community may not be so receptive to these new ideas. They hated FarmVille, right? They hated loot boxes. They’re afraid of the environmental effects of blockchain. They’re saying right now, “We don’t want your shitty blockchain games. We want traditional games.”
Hilgers: There’s this rubbish argument about all this being energy inefficient. Ethereum [is converting] to proof of stake, and all these side chains and Layer 2 chains–it’s not even a discussion anymore. Sure, the proof of work in Bitcoin consumes energy. It can feel wasteful–
GamesBeat: Somebody else pointed out to me that the whole banking system as it is has physical banks and data centers, so what are you comparing it against?
Hilgers: It was wasteful and damaging to the planet when gold was the standard and we had gold mines everywhere and all that destruction. I don’t think it’s necessarily super great. But the limit of scarcity, unfortunately–whenever you look at other stuff, somehow it has this impact that takes a toll on this planet. People are trying to get the scarce element. Scarce elements tend to be harder to get. It will have, inevitably and logically, an impact on a resource on this planet to get more of this scarce thing. In Bitcoin’s case it’s energy to begin with. With gold other components played a role. But a store of value ultimately has to have that element of scarcity. It has to have a strong correlation with it. Bitcoin just happens to have done that right, honestly.
Again, when we look at games–we invested in Immutable X for a reason. The reason was, let’s make something that has a light footprint, incredibly fast, low transaction fees, and still has the security and the safety of Ethereum built in. That’s what Immutable achieves. Anybody who still brings up that argument–it feels like somebody talking about how video games are evil because they make everybody aggressive and brutal. A generation of people has learned that’s not necessarily the case.
GamesBeat: Another interesting thing about the hesitation among big game companies–they’re worried about scams, but they’re also worried that they can’t pick the right company, the right NFT game company for example. They sit on the sidelines for a while, and then they wait to buy somebody. But I was looking at some of these transactions and thinking, “It’s too late to buy somebody now.”
Hilgers: Blockchain has this beautiful component of being decentralized and trustless. And thereby you can really be sure that you own your stuff. There’s nobody who can switch a knob and it’s done. If Activision Blizzard buys Dapper Labs, I can tell you who has the keys and the button to define the parameters and potentially shut it off. The beauty of the blockchain is that decentralized, community-driven, trustless aspect. It’s an eternal footprint. You can’t delete the records anymore. It’s just out there.
They shouldn’t buy any of these. That would be the death of the concept, if you will. They should be a part of a consortium that ultimately can define the best standards. A group of larger game developers will probably come together in some sort of blockchain game consortium and rally behind something and make sure that they can confirm it checks the boxes. Behind Immutable we have StartNet’s council of a lot of big participants on that blockchain who debate and make sure that this data is intact, decentralized, and nobody can ever touch it. Everybody can always access the data. That’s what the industry really needs.
I don’t think it would be a good idea for any of them to buy companies. What they should buy is tools, or potentially build or buy a marketplace for themselves. That’s not contrary to the concept. You can have your own marketplace and there can still be open marketplaces. There’s no problem with that.
Game economies where you have full control over your items, your in-game assets, the pricing and the liquidity of those–you know exactly what knob to turn to create what outcome. On the one side, they’re afraid that an open economy, particularly to begin with, is much harder to design. You remember the big Counter-Strike experiment when Valve opened up the game economy. I’m sure you had more than a few articles about scammy lottery sites with counterfeit gun skins. When you do things like that, it’s a grand experiment. The big companies are afraid of that.
Something like Call of Duty’s item economy is a golden goose, no question. If you touch that, it’s really sensitive. What does that mean? Particularly for public game companies, I agree, there are questions about whether this is really safe, whether they can trust this. But with a couple of due diligence calls, ultimately they’ll understand that the current generation of blockchain companies is bringing forward really solid technology that checks the boxes. It’s reliable on the scale they need. I’m fairly optimistic that we’ll see things change in an interesting way soon.
GamesBeat: If you do embrace some of these new ideas about ownership and earning rewards, playing to earn, it does feel like something that can happen faster is the metaverse. In some ways, lots of people want that to come about faster. But if you embrace this part of the revolution, then you do get things like cross-platform, cross-game ownership, and an interest in people migrating to different things. They’re willing to hop from game to game to game, which is one of those definitions of the metaverse. Earning a living would enable more people to come into games, and earning a living would mean people would stay in those games longer. That’s all the metaverse, right? These big companies–I think they think they want the metaverse, but they have to embrace some of this first, some of the more revolutionary aspects. We have to change the internet to get to the metaverse.
Hilgers: What brings forward this nebulous and gigantic concept of the metaverse–it’s compute, for sure. It’s networks. It’s what we describe at Bitkraft as synthetic reality, generations growing up with digital and physical merging into one perception. You don’t do that with just better games. You do that with generations growing up around new paradigms and a new framework. Ultimately the blockchain is solving for trust. That’s what the blockchain brings to the table. And the blockchain in particular now is accelerating the progress of the metaverse. Blockchain came at the right point in time.
Both of these things started to pick up their narrative around the same point in time, and I think that’s no accident. There’s a strong correlation. The blockchain will play a very significant role, because the blockchain is Web3. It’s all microservices that work autonomously coming together to create a greater experience. It’s coming forward at a time where we see games opening up and being built–things move in and out of these game worlds, right? Assets move in and out. Characters move in and out. Content moves in and out. The blockchain plays a significant role in making that happen.