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Mapping the metaverse to the real world, an interview with Upland Co-Founder Idan Zuckerman
There are so many approaches to creating metaverse environments. Some are game-based in fantasy worlds, others are simple grid-based maps. Upland has built a property-trading metaverse mapped to the real world. I had a chance to speak with Co-Founder and Co-CEO Idan Zuckerman about their approach to building a metaverse with long-term vision in mind and why that attracted brands like the NFL Players Association.
The following has been edited for clarity and length.
How would you describe Upland to someone who isn’t immersed in Web3?
I would say Upland is a metaverse that’s mapped onto the real world. There, users can play, earn, and connect.
They play by having gamified or entertainment experiences. This can mean trading, competing in scavenger hunts, or racing cars around streets either for fun or for stakes.
They can also earn. In Upland, there are ways to speculate by flipping properties, but we are putting a whole new level of play-to-earn mechanics with what we call “meta ventures”. These are player-run businesses. In Upland, you can buy a property and then operate a business out of it. This could be a shop to sell NFTs, but you could also manufacture outdoor decor items or create your own car brand. There are also services and experiences: You can create a virtual cafe in Upland where people can socialize.
One of the important things we did in Upland is creating value for virtual localities by adding friction to travel. You can’t teleport — you have to take a flight or train or drive.
Finally, we have the connection pillar. A lot of players find value in socializing with each other. Right now a lot of that happens outside of Upland, on Discord or YouTube, but we’re planning to bring those interactions inside Upland.
Why did you start Upland? What problems were you trying to solve?
We have three co-founders, two of us come from the consumer internet and casual games space. We ran a company called RocketPlay in the social casino space. Our third founder comes from a background of economies and decentralized technologies.
When the term NFTs was coined in 2018, we took a look at it. We foresaw that every digital economy that is going to be worth something is going to be based on the concept of NFTs or an evolution of that technology.
The next step was to envision the perfect NFT that could be a base for these types of metaverses. We felt that a virtual property map could be perfect because there’s a very easy cognitive association you can make. You can understand why a property in San Francisco is worth more than a property in Fresno. There’s a very easy emotional connection also, when you think about Monopoly. Who hasn’t played Monopoly?
We knew immediately that we had to make this product applicable to mass consumer audiences. This is where we diverged from similar projects and metaverses. For us, it was a prerequisite that it was a mobile-first experience, discoverable in app stores, cross-platform and cross-device, and would solve friction points that consumers have when interacting with blockchain technologies.
The final thing is that we wanted to be able to operate within the US and also sell and market to consumers in the US and the rest of the world. This meant we wanted to adhere to US regulations. We also wanted to allow consumers the means of carrying value into the platform and out of the platform using FIAT currencies and US dollars, not just crypto, because the vast majority of consumers today think and act in US dollars.
You see a lot of projects taking the route of full decentralization and ignoring regulatory constraints, probably because it’s the easier way to go. But if you think about it a bit further, free societies impose restrictions on themselves for a reason. We feel that you can’t just ignore these reasons. You have to work with current rules as they evolve and change in order to reach mass audiences.
I think that’s a pretty unique approach. Why do you think other Web3 founders avoid a regulatory-first approach?
I think there are two reasons. One is the utopian vision of having everything decentralized. I’d love to buy into that utopian vision, but I don’t think it works. At the end of the day, there are very few examples of fully decentralized ecosystems, and those examples usually lead to chaos. There needs to be some kind of governance, which may be achieved by DAOs, but you have to structure that with good foresight.
The way we’re doing that is by putting in governance systems. In Upland, some are decentralized and some are centralized. But when it comes to the curation of the economy, we currently take the role of a bank, with the hopes of one day delegating it to a third party. If we let the system self-curate, it will probably lead to a risky situation for the entire economy.
The other part of it is that a lot of projects start out with ICOs (initial coin offerings). It’s a great way to fund your project, but it immediately puts you in conflict with some US-based regulation.
So there’s the philosophical and ideological part, and the practical part of getting the funds to kickstart a project. There will be some fantastic projects that emerge that start with an ICO, but from the get-go it puts you in a place where it’s hard to curate the economy and puts you in conflict with US-based regulation.
What is the profile of your users right now, and how do you think that will change over time?
It’s always a gradient. Some players are in there for gamification loops, others want to connect with other players. It’s usually people between the ages of 20-45.
Interestingly, for about 65% of players, the only place they own a NFT is in Upland. We have more than 200,000 landowners, and we’ve sold just over 2.5 million NFTs. A lot of people play Upland and don’t even know they own NFTs.
I think that approach is really smart because it’s difficult for a casual person to go buy an NFT right now. The fact that people own NFTs in Upland and don’t even know it is similar, to me, to how people were building payment rails using crypto but the users didn’t know it was powered by blockchain.
I think that’s the way to go. In the short run, it creates some difficulties for us. A lot of hype today is driven by what blockchain something is on. But in the future, we think it will be similar to how you play games today. You don’t care if the backend infrastructure is on Amazon Web Services or Azure. What you care about is fast responses and a great user experience.
We’re trying to focus on the value proposition, not necessarily on the hype and branding surrounding which blockchain it’s on.
What needs to exist for the more casual user to be attracted to Upland or any of these types of universes?
Again, it’s about the value proposition, not the technology. For us, the value propositions are:
True ownership, or the inability of the operator to touch your assets.
An open economy that allows you to do whatever you want with your assets, including selling them to other players or taking them to external platforms.
What do you see as the use cases for Upland assets translating to other environments?
It’s really easy to do a bad job of designing NFTs. When we design them, one of our guidelines is: If I look at this from the outside, will the NFT be fully reproducible with information that is on the blockchain and on IPFS? That way, we know that whoever wants to look at it from the outside doesn’t necessarily need our permission to make use of it.
We have a few mechanics in place for the future of interoperability. Beyond that, we want to open up the metaverse for third-party developers. We’re currently working on ways for people to either create competitive experiences that make use of the same assets that Upland users own, but we’re making sure that when the assets are moved, it will have the owner’s explicit permission to do so.
Upland has a partnership with the NFL Players Association, which is a big brand. How important will it be to bring in partners like that, rather than having native digital assets without brand recognition?
It’s super important. It has the potential to attract new audiences into this ecosystem, but beyond that, it makes it a bit more legit. If the NFLPA is coming in, it shows more confidence in the ecosystem.
One of the most interesting aspects of partnerships goes back to embracing the meaning of Web3. When we bring these brands into Upland, we’re not just thinking about how many NFTs they can sell and how they can monetize their audiences. We’re thinking about how they can empower their audiences to participate in the value creation and extraction that goes with their IP.
Let’s say we bring out a meta venture for people to create outdoor decor items. Why not leverage our relationship with the NFLPA, allow those creators to use the brand’s IP, and create a contract-based revenue share? If someone wants to build a statue of Odell Beckham Jr.’s “The Catch” and then sell it to other Uplanders, why not empower them to do that? It would still need to be validated by the NFLPA, theoretically, but once that’s done, you have an endless number of creators who can use that IP to make a profit and add value to the entire ecosystem.
There’s a limit to what we can do as a team. There’s a limit to what the NFLPA can do. But there’s an endless number of things that everyone can do once you connect those dots and leverage those relationships.
What are some mistakes you think people are making when they think about Web3 or approaches you wouldn’t necessarily agree with?
The most common mistake I see is a badly designed economy. I think it goes back to whether you’re playing the short game or the long game. If you’re playing the short game and you want to score a cool ICO, it’s doable. But I’ve rarely seen a very good, pre-planned economy. It’s impossible to predict.
You want to build an economy that has levers you can pull and push to support its different stages, from hypergrowth to maturity to stability. These can be macroeconomic elements like interest rates, or supply and demand. If you’re trying to build value for the long term, make sure you have a solid economic foundation that you can manipulate and guide through its various stages of existence.
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Hi, I’m Andrew Chang - I created the Web3 Roundup to share what I’m learning in this space. I’ve spent my career at the forefront of the technology industry in areas such as crypto/blockchain (Former COO @ Paxos, co-founding partner of Liberty City Ventures), video and adtech. I learn by meeting with founders, investors and other thought leaders and approach Web3 with the same enthusiasm – and skepticism – I had about crypto/blockchain technologies 10 years ago.