Former EA exec Michael Blank on joining Polygon Studios and the promise of blockchain gaming
Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Tuesday, we have an exclusive interview with Polygon Studios chief operating officer Michael Blank about his decision to leave Electronic Arts for the blockchain gaming sector. Also: Why Zero Latency is banking on older gamers and what everyone will be playing 50 years from now.
Why Michael Blank left traditional gaming for Web3
When Michael Blank left Apex Legends and Madden publisher Electronic Arts in March, he was coming up on his 20th anniversary working for one of the oldest, biggest game makers in the world. At EA, Blank had done it all: He had been a producer in the trenches of game development in Vancouver; led major initiatives at EA Sports and the company’s Origin platform in California; and up until this year was the senior vice president of the company’s player network, overseeing a 400-plus person team.
But earlier this year, Blank walked away from the traditional industry for a role as chief operating officer at Polygon Studios. The Web3 company oversees blockchain gaming, NFT and related metaverse projects on the Polygon network, a sidechain of Ethereum dedicated to helping blockchain networks work together and scale. Blank told Protocol in an interview that the promise of Web3, for gaming and beyond, is far too big to ignore.
Leaving EA was difficult, Blank told me. “I worked at EA for most of my adult life,” he said. “I felt like I was part of a family. I love games and loved the people I worked with, and making this shift was not an easy one.”
- The decision to take the plunge came as Blank was trying to figure out the next big shift not just in gaming, but for the entire internet, too.
- “How do I help a gaming company, whether it was EA or another one, think about the future of gaming? There are many companies out there, EA included, constantly grappling with what is the next thing,” Blank said.
- “I felt like I had the opportunity at Polygon to do this beyond gaming … to help create the future of the internet — this expansive view at a company that enabled it not just for gaming but also movies, music, finance marketplaces across the experience of what people do on the internet,” he added. “That’s the direction I started to migrate down.”
There was never a “now or never” moment. Instead, Blank said his work at EA thinking about the early stages of the metaverse, and what it might mean to develop all-new platforms and definitions for gaming, led him to Web3.
- “I was drawn to Web3 based on the reading I was doing about what was going on with NFTs at the time,” he said. “I thought that these were new vehicles of engagement. I was excited, and the excitement snowballed, and I felt like I needed to try and do something not entirely different, but different.”
- Blank turned to a friend, Phyl Terry, who runs an organization called Collaborative Gain, a kind of professional community oriented around business leadership. Blank said Terry helped him go through the deliberation process to arrive at his decision to leave EA and join Polygon Studios.
- “I started to follow Polygon because it was making significant advances in blockchain tech and adoption of blockchain tech in partnership with both Web 2.0 and Web3 companies,” Blank said.
- “Polygon was one of the natural companies that one would look at if they wanted to make a leap into this world and frankly this has only accelerated over the last six months, despite what we are seeing in the crypto market.”
Blank isn’t worried about the current crypto struggles. While 2021 was a breakout year for NFTs and the crypto market at large, 2022 has been a harsh wake-up call for Web3 enthusiasts.
- While investment in blockchain gaming companies continues to rise, the bad headlines have been relentless: plummeting cryptocurrency prices, macroeconomic struggles hitting tech and gaming alike, and a public backlash against blockchain gaming and NFTs gaming projects in particular.
- In July, Minecraft maker Mojang banned NFTs and doomed several high-profile crypto projects in the process, while pay-to-win hit Axie Infinity suffered a shocking fall from grace after a devastating hack this past spring.
- “I think there’s a lot of things we need to do better. There are things that have been done that are not good for the world of crypto and the world of blockchain,” Blank told me. “We’re creating something new here, and in the creation of something new there’s so much learning to be done and game companies need to drive those learnings.”
- “With any new innovation, there are peaks and valleys, just like with mobile and free-to-play,” he added. “We’re seeing today gaming companies across the board, Web3 and the biggest Web 2.0, thinking about how to engage in the world of blockchain gaming … they sometimes succeed and sometimes fail, but we learn a lot.”
For Blank, the role of blockchain gaming is not to revolutionize the game industry and replace the old guard, but to turn more people all over the world into players and expand the definition of what it means to play a game.
“All of these innovations in distribution and delivery and connectivity and social … they expanded the market, they created more opportunities for play,” he said. “I anticipate that what we're seeing in blockchain will be another tool to help expand and create new experiences for players in games, just like mobile and free-to-play did and just like streaming and subscription will. I’m super excited and can’t wait to see what game companies create.”
— Nick Statt
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Zero Latency’s CTO on why location-based VR appeals to older gamers
Location-based VR startup Zero Latency is bringing another well-known video game to its more than 50 venues in 24 countries: The company is adapting the 2011 title Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine for free-roam VR. Zero Latency is developing the title in-house with help from Focus Entertainment, which is supplying some of the game’s original assets.
Using well-known, slightly older IP has been working well for Zero Latency. The startup previously adapted Ubisoft’s Far Cry 3, which was first released in 2012. The title has been a big part of Zero Latency’s recovery from the pandemic.
- The company has seen ticket sales increase 191% over the past 12 months, according to CTO Scott Vandonkelaar. The number of games played on the platform even increased by 288%.
- Zero Latency launched Far Cry about a year ago, and Vandonkelaar told me that the company has seen a lot of older gamers come to its locations since.
- “A really common thread is people who used to play games when they were younger, and they're still looking to come in and re-engage with these games,” Vandonkelaar said.
- “They're people who haven't used a controller or maybe sat at a PC and played a game for a long time,” he said. “They remember back in their earlier days, when they had free time, that they could sit down and play a game.”
- Part of the reason location-based VR is so appealing to these gamers is that they don’t have to remember the exact controls of a game to have fun.
- Instead they can just walk around inside the game and battle enemies with their friends. “That really, really resonates strongly with that older gamer audience,” Vandonkelaar said.
- Bringing these titles back to location-based VR also means that gamers can share them with their kids and have fun as a family together.
At least some of these gamers will likely buy their own VR headsets as well. However, Vandonkelaar told me he wasn’t too worried about it from a business standpoint. “As more people have been buying headsets, it has not hurt our business at all,” he said.
Vandonkelaar argued that location-based VR isn’t like theaters, which have struggled with people watching movies at home. Instead he likened it to basketball courts. If people buy their own basketballs to practice at home, it only increases the chance they visit a court one day. “Playing VR at home is just very different to doing it at a dedicated venue,” he said.
— Janko Roettgers
In other news
Take-Two confirms Grand Theft Auto VI leak. Hackers have accessed the company’s internal systems and leaked dozens of development videos of the unreleased game, Take-Two Interactive announced yesterday.
Pico is announcing its new VR headset this week. The Pico 4/Phoenix device will be unveiled at an online event this Thursday.
Apple and Amazon didn’t want LIV Golf. The controversial Saudi-backed golf venture has reportedly been having a hard time finding a media partner to stream its tournaments.
Why does China hate the MCU so much? A fascinating deep dive into China’s decision to not release any new Marvel movies, the types of films that do well in the U.S., and why those may not be best-suited for global markets.
Netflix’s “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” gets people to play the game again. Interest in Cyberpunk 2077 has been surging ever since Netflix debuted the anime adaptation on its service. Kind of proves the point behind Netflix’s gaming franchise strategy, doesn’t it?
Streaming made up 35% of TV viewing in August. That’s according to Nielsen, which reports that YouTube for the first time tied Netflix for the most-used streaming services on TV sets.
Forget pickleball, here comes drone racing. The Drone Racing League wants to be the new frontier of sports — and advance drone tech for everyday use cases while doing so.G2 Esports puts its CEO on unpaid leave. Carlos Rodriguez is stepping back for eight weeks after he shared videos of him partying with Andrew Tate, an influencer who got kicked off “Big Brother” for alleged assault and who has been banned from multiple social platforms for hate speech.
Going viral, 60 years later
Speaking of pickleball, this weekend someone told me that the game no one can stop talking about these days was invented by parents whose kids were bored over the summer. Turns out that’s true, with the caveats that these weren’t just any parents, but in fact a congressman and his buddies, and that the whole thing happened nearly 60 years ago. That’s a long time for a game to go viral, but it also gives me hope: If it has the same trajectory, our grandchildren will all be playing The Cones of Dunshire 50 years from now!
— Janko Roettgers
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