As co-founder of Zynga, Justin Waldron helped create the $20bn social gaming sector. Now he wants to do the same in web3, and define storytelling as a new category in NFTs. He speaks to Leo Nasskau about building a genre-defining business, advice for young entrepreneurs, and his plan for Storyverse. Clovis McEvoy brings the conversation to life.
If there’s one thread that runs through Justin Waldron’s career, it’s people. Bringing groups together and giving them a space to play has been his lifelong passion and, as luck might have it, he’s exceptionally good at it.
Of course, he didn’t know that back in 2007, when he dropped out of the University of Connecticut to co-found Zynga, the gaming giant that all but invented the social gaming genre. Aged 19 at the time, he built the company’s first game, Zynga Poker, and stayed with the company until 2013. By that point, Zynga Poker had quickly grown to 38 million daily players; other hits included FarmVille and Words with Friends. Zynga the company, meanwhile, had since debuted on the stock market at a $10 billion valuation in 2011.
Moving onto new projects, Waldron went on to advise and invest in a range of startups, including Substack, Kik, and Decentraland, working with the latter since the last crypto winter in 2018. Soon later, Waldron was back in the ring himself. After nonchalantly raising another $100m for his next gaming company Playco in 2020, he is now leading their mission to define the next category of NFTs in web3: stories.
“Storyverse is ArtBlocks for stories.”
— Justin Waldron
“Writers haven't been able to participate in the web3 boom as artists have,” Waldon begins. “How do you help them be part of building the culture of web3? How do you help them to create fun, shared experiences?” He draws a comparison with ArtBlocks, the platform that gave generative artists the tools to turn their niche into a fully-fledged artistic category. “ArtBlocks solved the problem of putting generative art on the blockchain in a way that was fun and interesting. How do we do that for stories. Storyverse is ArtBlocks for stories.”
“That's the problem we set out to solve for storytellers,” Waldron explains. Storyverse is his solution: a storytelling platform that empowers writers to produce, publish, and monetise short-form animated stories, using the IP of top-tier NFT collections, like the Bored Ape Yacht Club. “We're letting IP holders allow creators to make successful collections, use this IP, and actually create a business together,” he explains. “It is something that people have been talking about for over a year in NFT communities: how we go about using the IP rights. This is the solution that people have wanted for a long time.”
Not only can storytellers write and animate the adventures of the characters (each licensed by their owners), but Waldron has also drawn upon his extensive gaming background to emphasise choice-driven game mechanics on the platform, letting writers engage their community in an ever-evolving ‘choose your own adventure’ style narrative.
“We thought, ‘what if we made story collections where all the people who mint get the same first minute, but at the end of that first minute there's a choice: take the red pill or the blue pill?’ The choice that users make becomes a permanent trait of their NFT. While everyone starts off at the same point, each choice makes a person’s story NFT increasingly unique.”
“This is the solution that people have wanted for a long time.”
— Justin Waldron
Drawing lessons from the previous era of collectible stories, comic books, Waldron plans to build a thriving marketplace for collectible stories in web3. “Writers as a creative class are so important to the broader culture,” he emphasises. “People want to collect stories. We know this; comic books have been collected for decades. Authors could have an even bigger opportunity than artists, in terms of scale, but with current platforms they're put in a situation where it's hard for them to stand out in this mostly visual world.”
Making stories competitive in the web3 marketplace is exactly the kind of design challenge that Waldron thrives on. There is no ‘tried and true’ solution. It’s a technological and social landscape that he says has significant parallels to the early days of social media, where solving new and unique problems was the name of the game — literally.
“It was a real innovation when companies like Facebook started offering APIs,” Waldron reflects, noting that Zynga was built on the back of Facebook’s social network. “You can’t overstate how important it is when somebody comes out with a new platform that allows businesses to build on top of it. That's at the core of Ethereum — but it's also so much more, making everything interoperable by default and permissionless. Everyone is free to collaborate with any other project. It's a foundational platform layer that's going to enable so many different types of businesses over the next decade. Storyverse is something that you couldn't do without blockchain.”
New platforms is not the only similarity Waldron perceives between the early days of Zynga and the early days of web3: what it takes to succeed is similar too. He argues that the fundamental originality of web3’s paradigms favour the same humble, beginner’s mindset that he initially relied on at Zynga. “We lacked experience, and we didn't know what we didn't know,” he recalls.
“That meant we made some very dumb mistakes, but it also meant that we invented things from scratch, we reinvented business models, and we didn't take anything for granted. When something is as different as web3, you have to approach it in the same way: experience is incredibly useful, but a huge amount of the space is a new problem to solve.”
The biggest lesson Waldron learnt from his formative years at Zynga can be summarised in one word: focus. “You have to know what you want to make,” he says. Whenever that north star was forgotten, Waldron explains, “we started losing sight of the customers, or we were trying to serve somebody else.” He recalls the pressure that came with becoming a public company, with myriad investors watching your decisions every quarter.
At the time, Zynga ran the world's largest free poker website, and pressure was piling on from investors to monetise the opportunity and pivot to real money poker online, which was being legalised across Europe and the United States at the time.
“But the truth is that real money gaming is such a different business than free and premium games,” Waldron says. When they tried to make the switch, it didn't go smoothly. “It's a great lesson in how similar things can look different and how something logical can be wrong at the same time. There weren't people in the company who were even excited about doing that (real money gaming). We gave it the best shot, but I think it was just doomed from the start. It was a decision where we started following what common sense Wall Street logic would tell us. It wasn't an initiative that we birthed within the company. That's not a good way to go.”
“It wasn't an initiative that we birthed within the company. That's not a good way to go.”
— Justin Waldron
Now, after a year spent focusing on what Waldron describes as “the hard infrastructure and architecture problems,” the Storyverse team are ready to roll out their first collections. At first, only Bored Ape holders will be able to license their characters to writers on Storyverse, and only the first 3,000 to sign up (from January 27th), but Waldron is optimistic about how the next few months will pan out. “I'm super stoked to get our first collections out,” he says. “I think when people see for the first time that there's a story being told with all these different apes, that it features the IP they already care about, that they already love, and that they already want to support, it will be a huge step forward for the space.”
“We want to show them that collectible stories are the next wave.”
— Justin Waldron
While Storyverse’s tools are open for anyone to experiment with, the company’s initial drops will focus on high-quality, curated content. “Delivering on quality probably means curating a lot of the collections that go out over the next few months. I think we'll revisit that approach, but for now we’re working with people who we think are going to make great content, who can push the platform forward, and who can get everyone excited about story collections.”
At its heart, Storyverse is trying to do something foundational: inspire a brand-new category of NFTs. No small challenge, but, if past is prologue, then it’s one that Waldron is uniquely suited to achieve. “This will be the year that writers have their moment,” he predicts. “We have to go out there and show the value of this to everybody in the ecosystem. We want to show them that collectible stories are the next wave.”
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