Last week, I joined Phil from the CryptoGameTalk Discord server for a talk about crypto gaming, community building, and NFTs. We covered those topics, not to mention private key management, paying taxes on CryptoKitties earnings, and even talked a bit about how to make the world’s best smoked brisket macaroni and cheese.
Phil’s humble demeanor is more consistent with his roots (Pennsylvania) than with his demographic (late 20s) or the scale of his earnings as a gamer (substantial). He was one of the earliest adopters in crypto gaming and he continues to be one of the most dedicated explorers of the space.
CryptoGameTalk is a server that hosts an ongoing, in-depth discussion of dapps. Its focus, as the name suggests, is crypto games, but the conversation reaches related topics including on chain gambling, dapp development, and the Ethereum toolchain. Since its inception in early January 2018, the server has grown to 6273 users.
You can follow our conversation across this three-part series.
Dan: Do you have an elevator pitch for your server?
Phil: Since the beginning, I saw an opportunity to build a community of people interested in this stuff, because it didn’t seem like there really was any place for it yet. And since CryptoKitties used Discord and a lot of other games started using Discord, I decided to go with Discord. Since then, it’s grown a bit and I think most people in the sphere have some general recognition of it. I think its value lies in the community and creating access to a bunch of people who are experienced with this stuff, people who have interacted with dapps.
Our developer community is great in terms of auditing contracts and fixing bugs in other developers’ code. Sometimes a new developer will show up asking for a review and, right away, the people in my community will immediately point out things that they could have done better to optimize for gas efficiency, or to avoid bugs. I think that’s really the valuable thing.
Also, we keep an eye out on each other to try to stay safe. Obviously, there’s a lot of bad actors and scams. So, part of our value prop is watching out for each other and helping one another avoid these bad things.
Dan: I’m curious about the screening process for when a new dev shows up and says, “Hey, I’ve got an idea.” How does that flow usually work?
Phil: Well, usually a new developer would come from one of two perspectives. Either they are some entity, some game studio or whatever, and they’ve decided to enter into crypto games. Usually, that starts them off on good ground. We don’t have as much concern if they decide to keep some of their code unverified.
Or on the other end of the spectrum, there are these complete random devs. You don’t know who they are; they’re completely anonymous. They could be just somebody fooling around with Ethereum. They say, “I’m going to make a game, a smart contract, or something.” And that’s usually where things are a little different. Whenever somebody pops up like that, especially if nobody knows who they are, there’s immediately a strong push by our community to learn about them and to understand who they are, what their goals are, and why they’ve come to our server. Usually, if they are anonymous, our community will demand that they show their code.
You know, even well-intentioned people can make critical mistakes that can really mess things up. Without public source code, you never know what’s going to happen. You never know if they put in some type of scammy functionality. Some people do that. They show up randomly, they’re just an anonymous nobody with an intention to scam people. And that’s unfortunate.
Dan: Yeah. By the way, my friend runs a bitcoin gambling site and he’s looking to pick a winner and he wants to split the winnings with you, are you interested?
Phil: [Laughs] Exactly. That’s a stupid one that keeps going around and around. Hopefully, everybody knows what it is by now. It’s just a scam.
Usually, the good games are the ones that leave you a little uncertain. There may be potential, but you’re not fully sure. Those games usually turn out to be more promising than the games you first discover by way of an unapologetic shill. If someone shows up trying to tell you it’s a definite thing and promises that you’ll definitely profit off it this year, that’s trouble. They might say, “This is definitely going to moon, China is going to wake up.” It’s nonsense shilling behavior. When people are overly confident and say, “Oh, you should do this because you’ll make money,” usually that’s a red flag. It’s not that easy, you know?
Dan: Yeah. Never is. Couldn’t possibly be. So, the people who show up with the promise of profit raise the alarm. It’s definitely a bad sign. Their game is likely to be either a scam or low quality.
Is it fair to say that the people who come from game studios, the well-known people who have something to lose, are producing better games? Or is it equally likely that somebody who comes from crypto towards gaming, as opposed to coming from gaming towards crypto, could produce an equally good game? And could you cite an example on either side?
Phil: I’m on the fence about this. I would say it’s possible for the scrappy crypto devs to produce better games. I mean, for the people coming from game studios, they’re coming from an entirely different mindset and trying to fit traditional gaming into the blockchain.
Whereas, there’s this crop of random experiments, with devs fooling around, creating games based on other popular dapp concepts. We often find their work really interesting because they’re just iterating on tried and tested concepts, already proved by people interacting with them on the blockchain. The freelance crypto devs tend to build off those proven ideas.
It can go either way. I haven’t really seen any blatant scams coming from anyone with that traditional gaming background. So, I think the game dev background provides users a little more confidence, but at the same time, sometimes we see these game studios trying to put these ridiculously complicated concepts on the blockchain. The games get really awkward and bulky, which is a major turn off for users. The studios’ efforts sometimes turn out to be less user-friendly than some of the simpler concepts that come from experimentation and iteration on what people are already playing on the blockchain.
Dan: What do you mean you say, “ridiculously complicated concepts on the blockchain [that] get really awkward and bulky?” What are you referencing?
Phil: It’s just a general principle. I’m not pointing fingers or naming names.
But the thing about some of these games that you mentioned, like Gods Unchained: they can’t be fully on chain. That would be impossible. Owning the cards, sure, that works on chain. But, imagine if you tried to accomplish all that game functionality on chain. I don’t think that would work, with every single card played in every single move handled on chain. Without some scaling solution, making that work would be a very difficult task. I think MLB Crypto Baseball will take the same approach, too, putting some core game functionality off chain or on side chains, even.
The limiting factor is usually gas costs. ETH TOWN had some interesting and more complex games like their Moon Factory, but the thing about that was their gas costs. Given the current level of throughput, that can really eat at the users. It’s not conducive to a good user experience.
Dan: Yeah, that’s a tricky balance, right? If you don’t put enough on chain, it’s not meaningful to involve blockchain in your game at all. But, if you’re too much on chain, the experience becomes intolerable. So, there’s an optimal balance and I think we’re still, as a community, finding it. What’s the sweet spot look like for you? Is asset ownership on chain enough to make a game interesting? Or do you want to see some core mechanics on chain, too?
Phil: I think we’re starting to see this more nuanced combination of on chain and off chain functionality. In my opinion, ownership on chain is very good. It ensures that all those assets are yours in a real and undeniable sense. But then, you can use them off chain in a more centralized and convenient way.
A good example of one of the games that I think is too bulky on chain is Etheremon. It’s a great concept, basically Pokemon-ish things on the blockchain, but they’re doing a lot of things on chain, like the battles and whatnot. I remember it being very expensive in gas fees. It can feel very cumbersome.
So, I think we’re starting to see a shift away from the idea of pure decentralization. You used to hear, “Oh, we want everything completely decentralized.” I think people are starting to realize that isn’t necessarily ideal when it comes to crypto gaming. Assuming you’re dealing with a team that’s operating in good faith, taking some of those operations off chain or putting them on a side chain produces a result that’s more optimal. In the right situations, trusting somebody else can have a lot of benefits.
Dan: What improvements to the onboarding experience are you most excited about?
Phil: I think that as time goes by, we’ll see ways better ways to interact with and explain the blockchain. MetaMask is the primary way of interacting with these decentralized applications right now. And it’s a great tool, for now. You know, it works really well. But it’s still pretty raw.
I remember my first time using it for CryptoKitties. A lot of it, I didn’t fully understand. And I remember getting all these stuck transactions because I didn’t use enough gas and replacing transactions and whatnot. I feel like there could be a much smoother way of showing and depicting all this stuff. You know, really dumbing it down. I would hope that the intermediaries that we use interact with the blockchain will improve substantially in the next year.
Even Etherscan… it can be intimidating to people. But, imagine if somebody made an Etherscan-Lite that provided a more verbal experience. Something that specifically explained to you exactly what was happening in these transactions in easier terms. I think that would be a step in the right direction — something to iron out the creases and make the edges a little less rough on the user experience.
All this stuff will improve as the years go by. If you were to go on the internet 20 years ago, it would be kind of confusing. You might not understand the whole stack and it could be intimidating. But nowadays, when you get a new Mac or PC, it’s this very user-friendly experience to go from zero to browsing. Setting it up is easy. Anyone can do it. You just follow instructions. Then, after you get that simple understanding, it’s easier to dive into the technical side of it.
Dan: Would you take me through the experience of buying your first cryptocurrency, buying your first CryptoKitty, and selling your first CryptoKitty? What was that experience like for you?
Phil: At the point CryptoKitties launched, I had some Ether, just because I picked some up during that ridiculous bull run.
Dan: How did you acquire it?
Phil: Through Coinbase. And I actually bought some bitcoins back when they were $10, but didn’t manage to hang onto them. It wasn’t until late 2017 when I decided to give it another try.
And then I heard about CryptoKitties and I thought, “This is cool. How do I do it?” And I saw, “Go Install MetaMask”. I’m looking back at my initial transactions now. I remember not understanding why any of my transactions weren’t going through and wondering how my new transactions could get stuck behind earlier transactions with lower gas.
I feel like that’s there’s definitely a lot of room for improvement on the MetaMask paradigm. It should be easy to replace a transaction if it’s slow. I remember, back then, people were just on Discord telling each other, “You have to go to MyEtherWallet, get set up, put in the transaction, and then you can either cancel or replace it.” I didn’t really understand exactly what it was doing for a while. I kind of just did it on faith.
It’s not impossible for someone who is experienced with technology to pick up on the existing workflow pretty quickly, but for there to be more adoption, developers would have to start framing UX from the perspective that a lot of users don’t have deep technical chops. You know, kind of provide a much more toned down approach.
Dan: Yeah, I think there will always be a contingent of crypto diehards who like the hard way that gives them more flexibility. To extend your PC and Mac analogy from earlier, there will always be Linux users. There will always be people who want to compile it themselves.
But at this point, developers believe that all users are really protective of each Wei. They say to themselves, “We can’t be doing anything automatically that spends money on a user’s behalf.” But some users want that sort of functionality.
What do you do for key management? What lessons can I learn from your security practices?
Phil: Obviously, you always have to write down your keys. Whenever you create a new wallet, that’s very essential. Even if you don’t think you’re going to use it for much. I’ve seen a lot of people who thought they wouldn’t forget it, but then their browser crashed, or it locked them out. And then they lost that wallet forever. So, yeah, definitely write it down.
One thing you can even do, if you’re worried about people finding your key or seed phrase, is use an internal code in your own mind. You write down your phrase, but you use your favorite encryption method as you do it. For me, it provides another layer of protection. Even if somebody found my key, they wouldn’t know what was going on in my mind when I wrote it down.
Dan: Badass! That’s awesome. That is that is deep protection.
If you’re investing that kind of mental energy, it seems like a safe inference that you’ve got something to protect. Also, it just so happens that internally at OpenSea you’re called “Phil the Whale.” So, in general terms or at whatever level of specificity you’re comfortable with, would you share what you started with and where are you now?
Phil: I started with a thousand dollars. And… I… I mean, I don’t want to get into too much detail. People that know my addresses can see some of the amounts that I transact in. I wouldn’t say that I’m set for life. But, you know, I’ve been able to accumulate enough ETH through playing these dapps that I feel comfortable now and I believe I would be for the foreseeable future.
Dan: What was your best dapp? What’s your biggest earner?
Phil: It’s tough to say because it’s hard to remember the details. I know CryptoCelebrities would have been a big earner for me, but then I eventually bought some more celebrities on OpenSea, hoping that they would eventually sell. So, there’s a discrepancy between my actual earnings and what’s on the contract, on the books.
That actually brings me to a point that I think would be very useful for people. I recently coded a little script in R to show a net profit and loss from each wallet-contract interaction. It’s really crude, but tax season coming up and I think that it’s in each user’s best interest to play by the rules and report anything profit that they’ve taken out.
But the thing is, that can be really difficult, with a sea of all these transactions. So I foresee an area of growth, that hasn’t really been explored yet, of basically creating analysis websites where you can easily see your ins and outs on each application. If dapps were to continue growing to a large scale, that stuff would be essential. It’d be useful if anyone ever needed to provide the proof of how they were able to accumulate, or even to show their losses if they wanted to write off a loss. It’s all on the blockchain, but it’s kind of murky and muddy. That would be a really cool thing for someone to build.
I thought of trying to build a product like that, but I’m not sure if I really would want to. I feel like that could be something up your alley. I know you’re pretty good with statistics and whatnot. Kind of like a dapp portfolio. Imagine if that were on OpenSea, for example, and you could get a list of transactions for someone’s wallet and their net profit.
Dapp Volume sort of does it, but they’re wrong with a lot of their statistics. I don’t know why. I just think they’re overestimating volume. I’m not sure exactly how they’re doing it, but I think that’s a type of product we’ll start seeing popping up soon.
Dan: What’s the two-year plan look like for you? Do you have any ambition to find a technical co-founder and set off building that? Create a proof of concept and raise a round? Is that something that interests you? Do you want to go in the entrepreneurial direction? The financial direction? Games? What’s your two-year plan? Your five-year plan?
Phil: For me, my problem is that I always have a lot of ideas, a lot of things that I see potential in, but it’s hard for me to commit myself to one. I’m simultaneously managing my community, keeping my connections live, talking to people, and using dapps. That, usually, takes the bulk of my time.
And I enjoy it, you know? I kind of enjoy just being a floater. I’m not sure if I would really enjoy feeling bound to something. I kind of like having the ability to float around. I’m very happy to supply people with my ideas and advice, to suggest things.
There have been situations where I advocate for products to be built and then eventually somebody makes it. I think it works out for me, for all of us in the long term. But yeah, it’s something that I consider. I think I’d be in a good position. It would really have to be something that speaks to me and resonates with me for me to commit myself to it.
Dan: It’s funny that you say that you like to be a floater. Your server CryptoGameTalk is sort of an institution in a dynamic scene. So, it’s ironic that you say that you like to float around while you’re managing one of the most stable places in the space.
Phil: I think for a while I’ve been saying that I’m going to make a website and stuff and try and build off of the existing product. It’s still something on my “possibly-to-do” list. But, I don’t know. I don’t feel any need to rush. I feel it’s pretty valuable just staying where I am and doing what I’m doing: trying to be an honest person, trying to help support this scene.
It’s not like there’s too much competition right now. It’s more about trying to get people in from the outside. For adoption to hit escape velocity, we’ll need people from the outside who have never played dapps. I would estimate that about half of all dapp users are exposed to more than one dapp.
Sometimes you get these exceptions where a community forms of people who stick with just one dapp. Maybe they like CryptoKitties and they just want to stick with that. There are some people who only play Gods Unchained and they just want to stick with that. But I think that a significant portion of people is made up of repeat players. They are interested in dapps as a whole and kind of keep an eye on the scene. You know, obviously, a lot of people in my server are of that mindset.
Dan: In a sense, you’re better positioned than anybody to provide insights on that debate, but in another sense, you’re probably biased towards thinking that it’s all repeat players because the repeat players are drawn towards your server. What games have brought in new users?
Phil: I think each new large scale dapp does bring in some new people. I would say that a decent number of the new people discover that crypto gaming is not their thing and they don’t end up sticking around. But I think, little by little, more people are becoming aware of the dapp ecosystem as a whole. There’s value in having a diversity of dapps out there, so that more people can be onboarded and exposed to this stuff and see how interesting it can be.
Dan: I agree that offering a diversity of daps is important, to cater to different needs of different users. But I’m also bullish on the network effects that a diverse set of dapps can generate.
Can you talk a little bit about the superstars in your community?
Phil: The regulars seem to have changed a lot as time goes by. A lot of the people with higher roles in my server aren’t necessarily as active as they used to be. The structure was designed almost a year ago — six months to a year ago. From time to time I’ll try and change things up and make everything more balanced.
It’s hard to name specific people because almost everybody has some sort of role. I can look at the list of online people right now. There’s me. There’s Karupin. Karupin is a great guy. He’s one of the most honest and kind people that I’ve met. I haven’t actually met him in person yet but, I’m sure I will someday. He’s a great guy.
I see Carlini there. He’s a CryptoKitties OG. He’s not around my server as much but I know he’s still grinding CryptoKitties and he’s definitely good guy. Enderhero. Ferocious. Slush. All good people. Pranked: really into CryptoKitties.
There’s klob and EtherGuy, the guys from Zethr, who I had a chance to hang out with. I got to spend some time with them in North Carolina earlier this summer and I was watching them code and everything for a while. They are really, really, talented people. They’re self made through this community.
8 Bit Trip is a ridiculously talented auditor. He is always one of the first people to catch a bug. He’s a solidity genius in my mind. And triceratops. He’s a known figure in this space. He plays a lot of dapps just as much as I do. There’s A1337 | Eth Town. Good guy. Alex | OpenSea, obviously you know him.
CryptoOpinions. Very talented guy, made a lot of great things. He was the one behind the original shrimp games and the original hot potato concept, which a lot of people enjoyed. There’s you. Dan. Good guy. [Laughter] Devin.
Louie | FairDapp. He’s started coming around here more recently, but he has a lot of good ideas. He’s building a platform type of thing for on chain gambling games. He’s really ambitious, doing some good stuff.
Mr. Blobby from Goo. Goo was a big deal at one time. He has World War Goo coming. I can say good things about so many people around here.
Dan: How about the opposite extreme? Who’s the most egregious scammer? Who’s the most obnoxious? Who are the bad actors we should be aware of?
Phil: Well the thing is about bad actors, they usually use aliases, you know? And they change their names. There was this group of scammers that were repeat offenders. That was hard. You’d have to sleuth into the blockchain to find the connections. These guys launched an unverified contract and then took everyone’s money. Me and some friends started looking at the connections and saw that they were related to some other scams. So, yeah, it’s unfortunate that some of those people are still active, preying on newcomers.
Another hot topic for us is the rise of the cloners. There are some people, as soon as a new concept comes out, they’re the first ones to copy paste it and try to create another wave of the original. I don’t want to name names or point fingers. But generally, people frown on that, when people are just relentlessly, opportunistically trying to clone others’ concepts for their personal gain.
Dan: The cloners are sort of a different breed, though, right? They’re certainly not as malicious. And while they’re not creating much value in the space, they’re not intentionally harming people directly. But I’m more interested in the difference between cloners and expanders.
Right after CryptoKitties, hundreds of clones emerged. Not a lot of them added value, but some did. So, would you mention a couple of games that expanded meaningfully on the CryptoKitties paradigm?
Phil: Well, I’ve been buying some more Gods Unchained cards. Just opening the packs is kind of addicting and being able to play them in the card game should be should be fun. I also bought into Nova tokens. Are you familiar with Nova Blitz?.
Dan: It rings a bell but I’m not really familiar. Would you tell me about it?
Phil: I think they had some advisors from Magic: The Gathering and a working game mechanic. They were going to do a platform of on chain ownership of the cards. It’s been kind of slow recently, but I did play that game a lot and I had a lot of fun. So, yeah, I’m hoping that Gods Unchained can provide a similar experience.
I’m the Community Manager for ETH TOWN and they’ve been working on a side chain strategy battle game. I’m hoping it turns out to be pretty good. They’re really good with their custom art. There have been some rough patches for the core game design, but they’re experienced mobile game developers and I think that if they keep putting in effort, they’ll eventually create something that has some decent value.
There’s a lot of gambling ecosystems coming out. Zethr was a big one that people in CryptoGameTalk have been talking about for the last couple of months. They offer users a token that receives some of the profit from the house cut on chain. I find those applications really interesting.
FairDapp is doing something like that. The developer of FairDapp has some fun concepts that build on what’s been successful in these games in the past. So, I’m excited to see what he comes up with.
I’m sure there are other things that aren’t on my mind right now. There’s just so much in the space that, sometimes, it’s hard to fully keep track of it all.
Dan: Yeah, absolutely. Really, since CryptoKitties, there hasn’t been any game that’s felt like the definitive thing at the moment. There has not been a natural leader since those days.
Phil: Yeah. I think there’s a polarity to the space, though. There were two major successes so far. I believe CryptoKitties is one, it’s kind of what I would call the yang of this sphere, you know? The right side of the yin-yang, the positive intention.
And then there’s Proof of Weak Hands. Do you know Team JUST? I think they were the second highest in overall volume and users, especially with their Fomo3D release. I kind of see that as the yin, the other side of the spectrum. It’s people trying to make money and conduct gambling experiments. In my mind, those are the two dominant forces so far. Obviously, then, there are thousands of clones and similar concepts all in between those two poles.
Dan: Excellent metaphor. Ethereum is just a technology. It’s not inherently good or bad, it’s all about how to use it.
Dan: Alright, let’s take a break from crypto for a minute and talk a little bit about your outside life. You worked in a kitchen, right? What was your role in food service like? What job did you have? I worked in a pizza shop for a year and it was amazing.
Phil: I worked in a few pizza shops. I also spent a lot of time in cafes. Barista work — coffee. I’m a big coffee connoisseur, I guess you could say. I was into home roasting for a bit, with hot air popper machines. That’s a very simple way to get into home roasting. But I think I’m going to try to expand to the actual machine that was built for roasting coffee.
I enjoyed working in random, low paying jobs. As much as some people hate it at times, I found it satisfying. I’ve learned to live a very modest and humble life. I’m content with not having much. I think it set a precedent for how I’ve entered the crypto scene.
I try to give assets to new players for random things or contests or whatnot. Because at the end of the day, it’s not all about trying to make money for me. I think the cool thing is the community and what’s developing here. You know, the whole storyline that we’re all building. That’s what gives me the most satisfaction in the day.
Dan: I saw a tweet recently that took roughly that same posture on wealth. I think it was Naval Ravikant, who said something to the effect of, “Being rich doesn’t mean having a lot of stuff. It doesn’t mean having a lot of money. It means that your burn rate is less than your income rate.”
If you can make more than you spend, passively or through whatever effort you find gratifying, that means that you’re a wealthy person in the modern sense. It sounds like you have found that balance and I commend you for it.
You said to me in the past that outside of crypto, your main hobby is cooking. I love cooking, too. I love everything about food. What do you make when you want to get a break from playing crypto games?
Phil: For the past couple of years, I’ve been into smoked meats. You know, pulled pork, brisket, ribs. Even cold smoking applications like cold smoked salmon. I’ve been playing around with my smoker a lot.
The other week I made a really nice brisket mac and cheese. I caramelized some shallots and I put some whiskey in there to kind of give it a nice sweet flavor. I used mostly white cheddar and some monterey jack, with some pepper. It turned out really good. Sometimes when I make things, I’m begging my friends to help me eat it and other times I make something and then I like it so much that I don’t want other people to eat it.
I read a lot about food on the internet. If I’m interested in making something, I’ll usually look up the more niche concepts. I go on smoked meat forums and try to learn the techniques. Then I look at various types of recipes and see what I find interesting. You learn a ton from examining the differences between recipes for the same dish and seeing how different people are making it. So I look at recipes and what other cooks are doing, then I try to synthesize that with my own knowledge to make something that I believe would be the best.
Dan: We should have a crypto gaming potluck sometime!
Phil: I’m always down for that.
Dan: What’s your daily routine like? Are you a night owl? How much time do you usually spend in your server?
Phil: I go to bed late. My girlfriend yells at me for doing so. [Laughs] I usually sleep in until around 11:00 or so. You know, it depends. Sometimes I end up staying later. Since the community is international, sometimes there are things happening all around the clock that I’ll want to attend to.
Honestly, I’ve probably been spending too much time on the internet, recently. But, I mean… It makes me happy. I get satisfaction. I have so many new friends as a result of this and I like that. So, I do think that, for the sake of my long term mental health, I should probably try and balance myself a little more, you know? Spend some time doing things outside of Discord and the internet. But at the same time, it doesn’t feel like it’s really hurting me as it is.
Dan: Yeah. I’m with you there. I feel exactly the same way.
Continued in Part Two.