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The People of Decentraland Will Greet You Now

Most people will agree on at least one thing: 2020 is a dumpster fire. From the coronavirus to economic meltdowns to wrenching clashes over police brutality and systemic racism, we now live in a world that can feel, with every headline, impossible to stomach. In science fiction works like “Ready Player One,” sometimes the actual world is so bad that people retreat to another world, a fictional world, an immersive world that allows you to become someone else or perhaps to live in a society with less cruelty, more justice and a better system for deciding who gets what. The concept is not exactly new, as the millions who have played Second Life can attest. Then there’s MineCraft and Fortnite and even Animal Crossing. And there are multiple companies and projects racing to create a playable “metaverse” – a three-dimensional, virtual reality-infused ecosystem – perhaps most notably Facebook Horizons. In a surreal twist on the idea, Decentraland, the first metaverse to be built on the blockchain, is now open for business. Ever since the Argentina-based team raised $25 million in its 2017 ICO, much of the blockchain community has been eager to enter the matrix. The metaverse has been quietly open for early users (and investors) since 2019. It more fully opened to the public on Feb. 20 (as covered by CoinDesk) and it continues to work out the glitches as it prepares for wider adoption. How is Decentraland different from Second Life? “The world is owned by the users,” explains co-founder Esteban Ordano from his home in Uruguay. (Ordano lives in Uruguay now, but most of Decentraland’s 20-ish developers are based in his home country of Argentina.) “If the Decentraland organization goes away, the world goes on.” (Disclosure: CoinDesk’s parent company, Digital Currency Group, is a significant investor in Decentraland.) The design of their universe is humanistic. Once the world is fully created, there won’t be any gods in Decentraland or corporate owners or any rules the users don’t like, because the users will literally own the world. They own the mana, the ERC-20 tokens that fuel the world’s in-game economy. They own NFTs (non-fungible tokens, like CryptoKitties) in the form of wearables, clothes, homes or even cuddly little monsters called Ethermon. And they own the virtual soil and dirt of the land itself. Welcome to the strange, glitchy, fascinating, frustrating and potentially wonderful reality of Decentraland.


You arrive in Decentraland to the sounds and sights of paradise. Birds chirp. Blue sky beckons. This is Genesis Plaza, located in the center of the world. Decentraland is organized in perhaps the cleanest, most logical grid in the history of multiverses. There are a total of roughly 90,000 units of land, or “parcels.” They’re arranged in a 300 by 300 grid. You designate an address with the coordinates on an X axis, from 150 to -150, and then the coordinates on a Y axis, from -150 to 150. Genesis, in the middle of the matrix, is at 0,0. Some helpful bots help guide you to points of interest, such as the Crypto Valley conference super-suite (where CoinDesk held an event during Consensus: Distributed), a human-size chess board or the casino. The graphics range from spectacular to clunky 90s-era computer games, and much of the quality depends on what the users have built. (More on that in a bit.) Anyone can log into Decentraland for free using a browser (although not every browser works) and wander around as a guest. If you want to claim a name for your avatar, this will cost you 100 mana, or around $4 at the time of writing. Connecting your wallet and adding mana is a bit of a headache, in the same way that almost everything in the crypto space is a bit of a headache. To get mana I first had to convert my Coinbase account to Coinbase Pro (as mana is not available on Coinbase proper), use Coinbase Pro to trade some ETH for USDC, then trade USDC for mana, then transfer the mana to my MetaMask wallet, which hooks in to Decentraland. Ultimately all of this worked, and those familiar with crypto interfaces should find it straightforward enough, but it’s hard to imagine non-blockchain enthusiasts willing to jump through all these hoops. Now it’s time to customize your avatar. Setting up your avatar, typically, is one of the underrated highlights of most games. Usually you can customize the exact shape of your eyes, the density of your freckles, even the diameter of your nostrils. Like the egoist I am, of course I try to make the avatar look like me. Those who are accustomed to the sliders and granular customization of modern games – from Fallout to Dragon Age to Madden – might be disappointed by the limited range of options, which includes just a handful of body types and faces. Presumably this will improve in time, and is one of many reminders that Decentraland is in its early days. Once I create a vanilla avatar that looks as boring and white as I do in real life, I jump straight to the virtual hub of nightlife, the “Sugar Club.” It feels like the right first stop. Thanks to the quarantine, I haven’t been to a bar in more than three months. I wonder what it’s like to flirt in a virtual lounge? To dance, to order a crypto whiskey and soda? I arrive at this mecca of meta nightlife to find techno music and a glowing purple floor…but no people. The place is empty. There are three reasons the place feels so desolate. The first is that, well, it’s three in the afternoon and a real-life club would be deserted now, too. (Sugar Club has a nightly party, which you can see on Decentraland’s events page.) The second reason the club is empty is also obvious: Decentraland is still in its infancy and there simply aren’t that many active users. Federico Molina, Decentraland’s head of marketing, says 20,000 users have signed up, but there are only 500 active avatars on an average day. The third is more subtle. Because of the limitations of rendering the world, the users are split across multiple nodes and servers. Even when people are in the same place, they might not be in the same place. In other words, if you and I both decide to visit Sugar Club at 10 p.m. for a virtual cocktail, you might be on one Decentraland node and I could be on another and we wouldn’t be able to see each other. “That’s going to be tough to fix,” acknowledges Ordano, the co-founder. Yet, he notes that this is a common feature of massive multiplayer games. Fortnite, for example, has 250 million players but you can only see around 100 at any given time because otherwise your computer and head would explode.

Back to the bar. The Sugar Club is the creation of a 40-year-old named Kay, a performance artist who lives in Amsterdam. Like so many others he was crypto-curious in 2017, heard about Decentraland during the buzz of its ICO, and he was one of the early wave of land investors. Like other digital landowners, he thought he should do something with this virtual real estate, so he decided to build a club. He taught himself how to code and learned 3D modeling. “I can stream music into the club from my own DJ mixing table,” says Kay, who, in the real world, now runs an acupuncture company with his wife. On an average night Sugar Club will host 20 to 30 avatars, but that’s spread across multiple servers. (A crowded rave this is not.) Sugar Club’s most hopping night was in March during the virtual CoinFest Conference, when 100 avatars came for “synthwave, crypto art and exclusive NFTs!” (Decentraland tweets out events like this to its roughly 50,000 followers.) Feeling like a high roller? If you spend some extra mana you can buy a VIP pass, which takes you up an elevator to a lounge that offers richer animation, a wider choice of music, and a viewing of Kay’s crypto-art collection. Read More...