interview dom hofmann loot
Today, let’s talk about the latest project from a co-founder of Vine and what it tells us about how the tech industry is evolving. This is a rare tech story where basically every fact of it has surprised me on some level. And while some of the ideas here are way out there — to the point that I’m imagining many of you slamming your laptops closed to avoid hearing any more — the far frontier they represent appears to be inching closer to the mainstream every day.
I. The road to Loot
When I wrote here in March about non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, I tried to dazzle you by rattling off some of the more impressive sales numbers from the time: $600,000 for the Nyan Cat meme, $5.8 million for artwork by Grimes, $230 million in lifetime sales for NBA Top Shot.
What has happened since then has been enough to make some of those numbers look minuscule by comparison. On Thursday, the owners of an NFT associated with the original doge meme, which had been purchased for $4 million in June, sold partial ownership in the piece via tokens. (Coindesk has a great explanation of how this works.) Buyers snapped up the token, and now that single NFT is valued at $225 million.
Even as NFTs slipped out of the headlines in the mainstream press, then, the number of people creating, acquiring and trading them continued to grow.
That brings us to Dom Hofmann. Hofmann is best known as the co-creator of Vine, which helped to establish the short-form video format on mobile devices and became an incredible engine of meme culture along the way. Later he created Peach, a pop-up social network that remained beloved by its users far after its brief moment in the spotlight faded. More recently he worked on an effort to revive Vine as an app called Byte; it sold earlier this year.
Like a lot of software engineers, Hofmann had kept tabs on the world of cryptocurrencies as they evolved over the past decade, occasionally buying coins to better understand how they work. In the last decade, most of the focus on the blockchain was related to the original project: Bitcoin. More recently, though, developers have grown fond of an alternative blockchain, Ethereum, which is designed to let them create decentralized applications through more sophisticated smart contracts than Bitcoin enables.
For the first few years after Ethereum was invited, nothing much materialized that would be of great interest to the mainstream. But then a bunch of companies started growing really quickly last year by building decentralized finance apps on its blockchain, over a handful of months that came to be known as “DeFi summer.” (The worst part of writing about blockchain technologies is every single name involved.)
After that happened, Ethereum became like any other platform that had suddenly proven itself capable of generating huge amounts of money: it started to attract developers in droves.
Hofmann was one of them. In December, he began to teach himself Solidity, the programming language for creating smart contracts on Ethereum. He also sold an art piece he had created as an NFT and enjoyed the process. As he created, he became more and more interested in using NFTs to inspire decentralized creative projects.
In March, he created Blitmap, which he described as a “community-created fantasy universe.” It wound up serving as a kind of blueprint for what Loot would become.
Working with 16 other artists, Hofmann created 100 32-by-32 pixel images combining elements of science fiction and fantasy; those were then “remixed” into 1,600 “siblings.” The idea was to use the Blitmaps as the basis for a kind of blockchain version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, turning characters into merchandise, games. The project was a modest hit — the cheapest Blitmap today costs about $98,000.
More importantly, it set the stage for what was to come.
II. Loot drops
One of Hofmann’s other side projects in recent years was to create a text-based adventure of the sort that served as the basis for some of the original video games. As part of the development process, he wrote a random item generator: a piece of software that would return names for various weapons, pieces of armor, and accessories.
Since Blitmap’s launch, Hofmann had been thinking about other novel ways to promote the creation of blockchain-based art and communities to surround them. One idea he had was to let people create (or “mint,” in blockchain-speak) NFTs based on his random-item generator for free — essentially just to see what would happen. He would not provide any art work or any instructions on what to do with them. And he would give these “bags” of items away for free, minus the transaction fees required by the Ethereum network.
“A lot of people have been wanting some sort of game that takes place in a fantasy realm, or a science-fiction realm,” he told me. “They want it to be compatible with with other realms. They want to be able to build on top of that. They want to know that the items that they have will always be with them. [I was] just kind of building in that direction. It was an experiment.”