How to build The Sandbox

In the latest episode of his Blockchain Gaming World podcast, editor-in-chief Jon Jordan talks to Sebastien Borget and Nicola Sebastiani from The Sandbox.

Currently available in rolling alpha seasons on PC, the user-generated metaverse expects to hit beta later in 2024 and also has plans to release on mobile, so there’s plenty to discuss.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You can also listen to the podcast via the Fountain app and earn Bitcoin. Nicola, can you give us some history about what you were doing before you joined The Sandbox?

Nicola Sebastiani: I started my career in games at Square Enix London as a QA tester. I worked on Drakengard and Final Fantasy X2 and a few other games back in the day. Then I left gaming and did entrepreneurial and startup stuff. I came back to games when I moved to the States in 2010. I was the first product manager for mobile at Ubisoft, launching games like Rayman Jungle Run with a great team. Then I was lucky enough to move to the Apple App Store, first as the head of games business management and then head of content on Apple Arcade. After that, I joined PlayStation as VP and head of mobile to build their mobile business.

During that time, I met Arthur and Sebastian. They were one of the first meetings I had at Apple, and we became friends. I became a big fan of The Sandbox and watched their careers, first in mobile and then in web3. Eventually, they reached out to me because they wanted someone to focus on creators and the North American market and partnerships. It seemed like an opportunity too good to be true. It’s been a great year, lots of learning.

Were you into blockchain before joining?

Nicola Sebastiani: I got into blockchain in 2017. I hired a guy in my team at Apple called Steve Cho, who’s now a VC in the blockchain space [at Mechanism Capital] and he started teaching me. I can’t say I was ever a sophisticated investor, but I invested a little bit. I learned about it. Obviously when the craze started, from 2020 to 2022, I really looked into it. 

In terms of The Sandbox, the fact we are on the blockchain and we have land NFTs and all that make us so much more competitive and so much more appealing. I probably would not have joined another UGC company, but I joined The Sandbox also because of that.

And what does a chief content officer actually do?

Nicola Sebastiani: At the highest level, there’s two sides to it. The first is making sure players have a great experience when they get on The Sandbox. They find the best possible experience they enjoy, they want to stay, they want to interact, and they have the features that they like. So it’s very much about ensuring the experiences are great. 

On the creator side is that creators choose to work and to develop for The Sandbox. That it’s a great home. It empowers you. The no-code tools make it easy, but it’s also sophisticated enough that you can create complex things. And you get serious rewards as a creator, both in glory and financially.

Sebastien Borget: From my point of view, Nicola’s been a great connector of the traditional game industry. We thought he was the right person to help bridge toward that world of game studios to web3 and for them to realize the potential of what our platform has to offer, what blockchain technology has to offer in general. He’s been working with us now for almost a year and one of the early results of that work is this milestone that we’ve achieved of a thousand experiences live on The Sandbox map made by individuals and small creator studios.

We reached that number in a short amount of time since we announced the opening of publishing in October 2023 at our first Global Creator Day which we held in Hong Kong. We have run some initiatives to support and drive content creation. The first series has been the Builder Challenge ongoing for 10 weeks, a program that has been rewarding any creator who is publishing an experience on the map. The amount they receive is proportional. So there’s a price pool of 1.5 million SAND. It’s being distributed every week to the creators based on the traffic they bring to the platform. That’s one of the great incentives in web3. The fact that you contribute to grow a platform, you also benefit from it as a creator.

The second initiative is game jams. These are time-limited competitions where anyone can enter to create games based on a certain theme or topic. We’ve already held five game jams in the first three months of this year. Our goal is to run 30 to 40 this year alone. And in those game jams, we often collaborate with major brands of IPs. Recently, we’ve had Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay. We’ve done Avenged Sevenfold. We’ve done The Walking Dead. These big brands are opening themselves to co-creation with the young, talented creators we have in The Sandbox

And it gives two benefits. One, it attracts fans and new creators to try out the Game Maker, learn different skills. All the participants receive a land NFT for free, and the ones who complete the game and go further and publish, they also earn a portion of revenue in the form of SAND tokens, and they improve their skill and go on that journey. So we call it build-to-earn, actually. 

And the second is there is a great benefit from those brands who are getting a lot of content made by those creators for free, and the best ones get featured on their lands directly. So it saves them time and money to produce content. For a brand that’s open to UGC, it’s something rather new. Generally, in this space, you don’t see that, so this makes something that’s unique for The Sandbox

We just passed the 330,000 unique creators who are using The Sandbox’s Game Maker over the past 12 months. This isn’t the number of downloads. It’s the number of unique users. This isn’t a small number anymore. Some of the creators are starting to earn a revenue as well. They are making four to five figures in SAND token. Hopefully this year we’ll have the first creator earning a six figure number SAND, which represents $65,000. We are definitely looking at how we are going to drive the success story, the first success story and many success stories afterwards for creators who earn and make a living in the metaverse.

With platforms like The Sandbox, you have a cold start problem in that you need players to attract creators and creators to attract players. How do you hope to solve this?

Sebastien Borget: There’s always this chicken and egg problem, right? At The Sandbox, we focus on creators first. So our choice and a lot of UGC platforms like YouTube, Twitch etc always started by bringing the creators. Usually the creators will also be your first players. And among those creators, many of them will emerge as successful companies on the platform. 

It will not be existing companies that are building on other platforms. The leaders will be those who start early on such a platform. We’ve seen this on social media. We’ve seen this on the App Store. It’s a proven formula, but it always starts slow. Every small step, whether you get your first 10 players or first 100 players or 1,000 players, 10,000, 100 million, it’s always a celebration. 

The second thing in web3, I think the dynamics are a bit different than traditionally in web2, in which we’re all competing for the attention of users and the money of users. There’s no network effect because we’re all competing for the same value. In web3, when a game or platform or ecosystem becomes successful, users can use their wallet to connect across different applications. It only takes one game to become successful to benefit all the others. We’ve seen that before with Axie Infinity, we’ve seen that with CryptoKitties. So as soon as there will be a new hit game, and hopefully The Sandbox can be part of this, it will help to grow, attract new users by interoperability by using wallets as a way to connect.

At present, The Sandbox has rolling seasons so when do you plan to have permanent content available because that’s when you can start to build network effects?

Sebastien Borget: We’re still in an alpha stage. What does it mean to be in alpha? It means the product is not fully stable, not fully feature complete. It can be optimized in so many ways, but we’ve been able to test it to some extent over the past two years. We’ve run three alpha seasons. We’ve run something like 50 events with major brands and IPs. And now we have a thousand experiences live.

It’s not so unusual for a game or a platform to be in alpha or beta stage for a few years. I still think The Sandbox is young – maybe three, four years overall development time. I’m confident we can be in beta in 2024, maybe v1.0 in 2025 and also available on mobile. And once we’re v1.0 live, we can start to scale audiences to bring many more users, to do massive user acquisition and so on. 

How much complexity has blockchain added to the development process?

Sebastien Borget: Adding the blockchain, it’s an extra product by itself. You have the blockchain, all the technologies, the smart contracts, thinking about the design and the architecture for all the tokens from land, from avatars, the migration from Ethereum to Polygon. This might have added some delay. 

We’ve also contributed to some NFT standards and standards around royalties. When you’re on a centralized platform, you don’t have to think about these things. But a very exciting part of decentralization is the chance to be involved in these core aspects, and to experiment with things like interoperability, bridging, staking, etc. There are so many things you can do with blockchain – DeFi, GameFi, staking, new mechanisms with DAOs. Blockchain is a very powerful tool that is still very underused. I think we can do much more in terms of exploring with those gameplays. It can lead to different game designs and innovation in business models. We love to play with it. We already have a lot of exciting ideas around like creator tokens, around launchpads, around The Sandbox DAO that’s coming as well. 

Metaverse was hot in 2022, but not so much now. Do you still think The Sandbox is a metaverse?

Nicola Sebastiani: Yes, we think of ourselves as a metaverse company and we believe strongly that the metaverse is still there. In fact, when we talk to people from some of the most prominent gaming companies, they still think of themselves as metaverse. In a way, I think it’s good that the buzz is a little bit faded because it gives us the chance to build and focus on what it really is. And what it really is is still being shaped, right? We envision a future with many metaverses. We envision a future where metaverses talk and interact with one another and people can pick – like today you choose to live in New York, Los Angeles or Tokyo. 

More generally, what’s the attitude around blockchain games now?

Nicola Sebastiani: When I joined, the attitude was way worse than it is today. People change a little bit where the industry is going. What the standard web2 gaming industry person will tell you is, yes, I see a reason for the technology to exist, but not yet. 

Look, I was making premium games for Ubisoft in 2012 when Clash of Clans launched, so the disruptions take a little bit to be embraced. Seb spends a lot of time in Asia and the perception is it’s probably two, three years ahead of us. Web3 interoperability ownership seemed to be way more normal for those players. I think it just takes some time for the industry. It’s normally to be a little bit cautious, especially with a market that goes up and down. You can’t blame people, but eventually it’s inevitable.

Sebastien Borget: I’ve been saying for some time now, Asia is becoming the main web3 hub. For The Sandbox, it grew to represent about 35 to 40% of our audience, landowners and holders as well. I was recently in Hong Kong for the Web3 Festival and Web3 Game Summit. I felt like I was at an anime convention or a massive game conference with thousands of people at the booths, collecting merch, signing up, earning tokens, doing air drops. There is an audience. There are players. There are people engaging with the projects. And I’m not talking about the overall quality of each project. I’m talking about the audience, there are projects. It’s exciting.

Also, there’s a strong GenZ population that already has a wallet or a crypto account on an exchange. I think in Korea, we’re talking 10 million users with a wallet. Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, these are in the top five countries using Binance. That’s the level of penetration that blockchain and crypto has in Asia. It’s logical it will move from payments and the transfer of money to a store of value, NFTs being used for art, for gaming and other exciting things. It’s much more seamless to go across all those different industries.

Finally, do you think The Sandbox has to go mobile to go mass market?

Sebastien Borget: I think that’s a bit simplistic. The PC gaming market is big enough. There are large marketplaces like Steam and Epic Store. Palworld has done 15 million sales at $30, so there’s a way for PC gaming to keep growing. However, I do think mobile represents two exciting things. One is more casual audiences and two is the ability to play and enter metaverse experience, join your friends and interact from anywhere on the go. 

I don’t think it will kick off mass adoption necessarily. There might be unrelated events. We’ve been doing mobile for 10 years, so we are more used to that ecosystem than PC gaming, but it’s not necessarily the only way forward.

Check out The Sandbox via its website.

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