Intro. [Recording date: June 11th, 2020.]
Russ Roberts: Today is June 11th, 2020, and my guest is Josh Williams. He is the CEO [Chief Executive Officer] and co-founder of Forte, a blockchain gaming company. Our topic today is the gaming industry and learning about what exactly is a blockchain gaming company. Josh, welcome to EconTalk.
Josh Williams: Hi, Russ. So, happy to be here. It's a big honor.
Russ Roberts: I want to remind listeners we're recording via Zoom during the pandemic. We may not achieve our usual audio quality. Please be patient and forgiving. I also hope this makes it to YouTube as a video. All 730+ episodes of EconTalk are now available on YouTube in audio form, and increasingly we are putting up video as well. Please go to YouTube, search for EconTalk, and subscribe if that appeals to you.
Russ Roberts: Josh, let's begin with the gaming industry. How many gamers are out there and do we have any idea of what that number means. How do we count them?
Josh Williams: Sure. Yeah. The games industry is really huge. There's about three billion gamers worldwide, so, the vast majority of people that are connected to the internet in any way or have a computing device of any kind. We can count those numbers because there's pretty detailed reports from the industry, from publicly traded companies, as well as from data firms that specialize in this stuff. And so, lot of people play games. That's a massive change from where it was, say, 15 or 20 years ago where really gaming was confined to a pretty small group of people, relatively speaking, who purchased a home computer for the purposes of gaming or a console for the purposes of gaming. It's really become nearly ubiquitous now.
Russ Roberts: The only EconTalk episode in this area that we've done before, really, is with Edward Castronova. That was on the Exodus to the Virtual World. It was in 2008, which was very prescient of Edward. He was very focused at that point on Second Life and World of Warcraft, and the potential for doing social science experimentation within those games. We also talked a lot about the incredible thing that people were spending time inside virtual worlds, which then was particularly strange. It's still a little bit strange to a lot of people today.
But, that world of what are called MMORPGs, Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games--
Josh Williams: You got it--
Russ Roberts: has exploded. World of Warcraft was one of the early ones, but there's now popular ones like League of Legends. What is the experience like of playing a game like League of Legends on your computer? Try to give listeners and viewers a feel for what that's about.
Josh Williams: Sure. Yeah. So, League of Legends is a competitive game, but it's also cooperative. So, you team up with a group of people online--and that's part of what's really cool about games like that and most games today--is you team up with other people. You connect with them, and you basically engage in teamwork and strategy to try to beat an opposing team. You can be connected with people from anywhere around the world, and these games are pretty complicated.
And if you see both adults and kids playing games today, they're really engaged in systems of mastery. They take these complex systems, like in League of Legends, where you have to think about your little character, your avatar in the game world, and how you want to configure them so that you can play to your strengths maybe as a person and what you're interested in, but also synergize well with or cooperate well with the other people on your team. You have to think about what the opponents might do and what their configurations might look like.
And, besides all that, you have to make realtime decisions in the game about how to upgrade your character and also just how to play.
So, what's really cool about games is they present you with these massive systems that you have to learn, and they're very complicated and you develop mastery overtime. You overcome challenges, and you have these great feelings of cooperation, and competition and achievement. And it's really meaningful for people that play these games.
Russ Roberts: So, when I'm playing on a team, am I playing with strangers? Or friends? Or I can choose either one?
Josh Williams: It can be both. Yeah. Often, you'll play with real world friends. Very often, you'll meet strangers online and they might become friends.
Russ Roberts: Sure.
Josh Williams: And that's a big part of what happens. For me, growing up playing games as a kid and with the introduction of multi-player games like World of Warcraft, that you mentioned, I developed friends that I had no idea who they were in real life, but we became actual friends over time.
Russ Roberts: And when we're playing this game--let's say you and I are on a team together. We're wearing a headset. We're communicating to each other through the headset. Are we speaking in English? Are we just using the keyboard to communicate? How are we communicating?
Josh Williams: Yeah: generally speaking in English, if there's voice. Often keyboard, and some games have pretty elaborate emote systems, so you can communicate even without words or text and, you know, point people in the right direction, or identify an objective or share goods with each other. So, yeah, there's these complex social systems that really evolve in these games that are really fascinating.
Russ Roberts: In League of Legends, for example, have you played it, Josh?
Russ Roberts: I have.
Josh Williams: and I'm not very good. I'm not very good.
Russ Roberts: Me, neither. What would I experience visually? Besides this cooperative element and the goal of achieving something in the game, I'm going to see myself in a virtual world and I'm going to explore that world looking for devices, tools, weapons. But, we have goals, as part of the game, that we're trying to achieve in competition, or adversarially with another team or other teams--plural, I assume? What am I seeing and how do I move through that world? I'm not talking about virtual reality. I'm not wearing a set of goggles that I'm walking and feeling myself going forward. How do I go forward in this game? How do I move?
Josh Williams: Yep. So, it depends, of course, on each game. But generally, yeah, it's on a screen, your phone, or your TV or your laptop, your desktop. In some games, you're in a fully immersive 3D-environment where you have a key or a controller input, or a swipe kind of gesture on your phone to move forward, move backward, jump up and down; and you really feel immersed. It's either first-person--so from the perspective of kind of your eyes as a camera, or third person.
League of Legends, in particular, is more of a top-down view. So, there's a camera that oversees your character, kind of from the top, and an area around you. And the world is just one map, and so players get to know the map really, really intimately and they know every little kind of trick and mechanic on the map to, like, really get competitive. It's kind of like playing on the same football field every time or a very similar football field every time you play a game of football or soccer.
Russ Roberts: Or more even maybe like a baseball stadium, where there's nooks and crannies in the way the outfield fence is configured. And, I've got to--I get used to it.
Russ Roberts: So, I know where I am after a while--not physically. I know where I'm located on the map. I recognize landmarks, and so on. What's the goal, typically? Sometimes? Whatever?
Josh Williams: So, yeah, the goal, again, varies from game to game. Sometimes, it's a competitive game like League of Legends, where the goal is to win a match. It's you and a few other people against another team that's banded together, and your goal is to win.
Sometimes, it's pretty self-directed, like in World of Warcraft, as you've mentioned: there are a multitude of goals and you really self-select into what you prefer to do.
So, it could be things like you want to become a really great dungeon battler and overcome the most, you know, extreme challenges in the game and be one of the first people maybe in the world to overcome these things. Some people just want to relax and have a good time playing with their friends, and maybe learn things like crafting in the game, which are ways to take resources from the world and craft goods that you can then sell to other players for the virtual currencies inside of the game and buy stuff that you want.
Russ Roberts: What would be the kind of things I would craft inside the game?
Josh Williams: So, again, varies a lot from game to game, but you can craft gear for other players--so, pieces of equipment that people can use to upgrade their statistics or their abilities in the game, kind of become more powerful. You can create tools, so that people can use to tend a farm that they might have.
You kind of start to get a picture that these virtual worlds are very rich. People spend a lot of time in them, they spend a lot of money in them. They connect with people. They really care about the achievements in the games. And, they have these really rich, you know, systems and actually economies that develop inside of these games today.
And what's really fascinating now is there's this kind of revolution in the works, I think, that players are starting to earn real income from these virtual worlds. Which is fascinating.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. We're going to talk about that.
Russ Roberts: So, what--obviously, there are many different ways to measure the size of this industry. The ways that I've heard from--they're mind-blowing. Because, again, it's kind of under the radar for a lot of us older folk. Give us measures of "how big this is" in monetary terms. It's three billion people. Of course, some of them might play once and not play again. But, the revenue is maybe a better measure of how big this industry is. What are some revenue measures?
Josh Williams: Yeah. Yeah. Just to be clear: There's about three billion people that play games every day. So, about three billion people a day that play games. It's really massive. And, revenue-wise, the industry is about $150 billion a year in direct revenue.
Russ Roberts: What does that mean, 'direct'?
Josh Williams: So, that generally takes the form of either purchasing a game upfront. Or, the majority of that revenue, about $100 billion of it is purchasing virtual goods inside of games: virtual goods and virtual currencies inside of games.
So, another massive game today is a game called Fornite.
Russ Roberts: Heard of it! Heard of it!
Josh Williams: Heard of it. Yeah. It's incredibly popular. A few hundred million people a month play just that, just that game. In the game, you can buy customizations: Skins for your character. So, you have a character in the game and you can just customize their outfits and the way they look. And the game does a couple billion dollars a year in revenue just from those cosmetic purchases. So it's virtual goods in the game.
Russ Roberts: So, $100 billion--it's $150 billion of money that's changing hands either from gamers to the makers of games, or $100- of that $150- are people exchanging with each other stuff they've built. And--are they buying it also from the game maker?
Josh Williams: That's a really--no. So, this is $150 billion in direct revenue, meaning it's from the developer. So, they're buying these goods from the developer, or they're purchasing the game from the developer.
Now, beyond that, there's this, today what's more amorphous, but in the future I think will be much bigger and much clearer, the secondary market, which is harder to get exact numbers around, but it's also really large.
There's a game called Counter-Strike GO, which is a competitive shooting game. You know, it's a tactical combat game. And in that game, the game itself does, depending on the year--it's been around for 10 or 15 years now; it's a really long-lived title like many of these games are. And, the game does about two to three hundred million dollars a year in direct revenue. So, players purchasing goods from the developer. And, it's free to play. Which is really cool. You don't have to pay anything to start to play the game. And it's really just you choose to purchase if you want different goods in the game. But, the second--
Russ Roberts: So, you can play totally naked, if you want, or wearing, like, dad shorts--something humiliating. But, if you really want to look decent, you've got to spend money from buying it.
Josh Williams: That's right. That's right. There's ways to earn, you know, cosmetics and skins in the games, but that does about two to three hundred million dollars a year in direct revenue. But, that's a game that enables a direct, a secondary market inside the game and in the game's periphery. And that does--again there's not exact figures for this, but depending on the year, anywhere from $2 to $5 billion dollars a year.
Russ Roberts: Whoa!
Josh Williams: In GMV [Gross Merchandise Value], so turnover of players trading goods with each other. And, there's other games that--
Russ Roberts: What's that term?
Josh Williams: Gross Merchandise Value. So, basically just the gross value of transactions across things. It's maybe similar to a concept like, you know, GDP [Gross Domestic Product]. It's the total measure of all of the goods in the game that it has.
Russ Roberts: So, that's kind of extraordinary.
Russ Roberts: Now, there are also people--and this is what really blew my mind, not knowing anything about it--there are also people who earn income playing the game. So, there are tournaments. You tell me. Talk about the different ways that players make money and that there are a lot of professionals--people making a living, full-time, in this world. Tell us what they do.
Josh Williams: Totally right. Yeah. So, there's a few different ways players are starting to make income from playing games. And it's all kind of on the fringes of games today, and that's certainly where it started, but now it's kind of getting folded more and more into the game world and being embraced more and more by game developers around the globe.
The first way is in what's called eSports--competitive teams and organizations that are put together entirely to field talent from within the games, from within these virtual worlds; find the best players, recruit them and form professional teams that compete in these big tournaments for games.
Today is the largest e-Sport titles, like League of Legends, like you mentioned, are massive events for gamers. The League of Legends World Championships last year had about 100 million viewers. One hundred million viewers. So, comparable to the Super Bowl. It's bigger than many sporting events and concerts, and big cultural events. That was just for the championship. That same game, League of Legends, they'll actually sell tickets to a physical arena. People will congregate and watch these players sit there on computers and play games.
But, it's actually really thrilling. You cheer for your team. Last year, they sold out the Staples Center in LA [Los Angeles]. They sold out the Bird's Nest, the Olympic arena in Beijing the previous year. So, it's massive.
Russ Roberts: For the people who are watching this in the physical world, what are they seeing? They're not just seeing people working away on keyboards, right? They're seeing something else.
Josh Williams: Right. Yeah. They're seeing the game world. So, they're seeing the players in the game world, on screen, playing with each other, competing with each other.
Russ Roberts: On the Staples Center big screen TV like they do for replays.
Josh Williams: That's exactly right, exactly right.
Russ Roberts: Do you know what they charge for a ticket, to sell that out?
Josh Williams: It varies and it's just like in concerts. You might have your primary sales, but then there's also a secondary market of scalpers and people on Craigslist, and StubHub and the like selling tickets for a lot of these things. In some of these games, like in Fortnite, which we talked about briefly, there's also an eSports team. Basically every major game today is starting to develop an eSports team, or business.
This really started on the perinephrial of games, where players just self-organized around forming these competitions, and self-funded tournaments. And, it was so compelling to gamers or to the audience that over the course of the last 10 or 15 years, it's really grown into a whole industry and to the point where the winner of the most recent Fortnite World Cup was a 16-year-old kid named Kyle Giersdorf, and he won $3 million for himself for winning that tournament. It was more than Tiger Woods won for his 15th, for his major title. So, it's just massive.
Russ Roberts: Where did that money come from? That $3 million. Is that entry fees?
Josh Williams: So, the money comes from a few different places. A lot of it's from sponsorships and endorsements. Some of it's from--the developers now of these virtual worlds, these games, have created entire leagues around their game. And so, they'll do, just like the MLB [Major League Baseball], or the NBA [National Basketball Association], or soccer franchises around the world, they'll cut individual team deals as well as league deals to sponsor prize pools, and the like.
Some of them are also player driven. So, there's another game called Defense of the Ancients that does an annual tournament which is called The International. And it's prize pool last year, or in 2017 I think, was $30 million dollars. So, the winners of The International, the top teams in the The International split a prize pool of $30 million, which was largely player-contributed. So, the game has millions and millions of fans and players. And, some of the purchases in the game go to this prize pool that then the esports teams split up: the winner takes $15 or $15.5 million dollars home, and the remainder gets split amongst the other entrants. [crosstalk 00:18:38]--
Russ Roberts: And, League of Legends, the League of Legends Championship, that was broadcasted on ESPN [Entertainment and Sports Programming Network], right?
Josh Williams: It was. Yes. It was broadcasted on ESPN.
Russ Roberts: So, this is kind of a real thing.
Josh Williams: That's right.
Russ Roberts: And, I'm going to--well, one more thing, because there's one other way that people make money in this area that is extraordinary. They sell subscriptions to let people watch them play games on YouTube. Correct?
Josh Williams: That's right.
Russ Roberts: So, talk about that.
Josh Williams: That's right. Yeah, so, another way people make money from games today is they stream their own gameplay, or as you said, they post videos to YouTube. And a lot of this started, again, just like with esports, it started on the very periphery and the fringes of the industry. It wasn't really sanctioned. Developers didn't know how to feel about it--players posting video of the gameplay, maybe giving away secrets of the game.
But, it's turned into this massive industry, where, if you're comfortable being out there online, and you're entertaining, basically these streamers, these gamers will turn on their video cameras on their computers, just like we are now to chat, but they'll also record their video gameplay and show, often in real time, what they're doing in the game, and provide tips and advice. And this is just a massive industry, too. There are--
Russ Roberts: How much money can you make at this? Rhetorical question. I know the answer, but go ahead. Because I did a little research, but go ahead.
Josh Williams: Yeah, the top streamers make millions of dollars a year.
Russ Roberts: What?!
Josh Williams: Yeah. There's a streamer named Ninja, who even a couple years ago disclosed he was making over $500,000 a month, half a million dollars a month, just from streaming.
Like any form of media, you attract sponsorships and the like here.
And the really interesting thing--there's a third way people make money from games, as well. The interesting thing with all three of these things is they start off kind of with self-directed player activities, kind of on the fringes of games, and they're not really sanctioned by the game developers. Developers don't know how to feel about it. But then it just grows and grows and grows on its own, and developers embrace it.
And the developers that embrace this stuff early on do exceedingly well with it. I think that's kind of the third area where it's possible to make money today but it's the newest kind of form and the most, kind of, open-ended for the future, is basically what we were talking about earlier, with players trading amongst themselves or maybe paying each other for services.
So, I have an example of this from a few years ago. There was a game I was really into, I was playing a lot. It's called Destiny. But the game requires, like, a lot of time and dedication to get the best stuff or to be competitive. You have to play for hours and hours and hours a week. And I just didn't have the time. You're not supposed to do this, but I hired a high school kid basically to play my account for me, and he, like, would get all the good gear. And then I could just jump in and, like, have fun playing the game directly.
Russ Roberts: Because you'd have a better sword. When you say 'the gear,' it wasn't just the skin. It wasn't just you had a better costume. You had Thor's hammer instead of just, like, a hardware hammer.
Josh Williams: Correct. That's exactly right. You want to have the coolest-looking stuff and you want to have the best-performing stuff.
And so, you're starting to see these economies develop around these games, and people generating income from that.
I think the next big step in this revolution that's playing out year-by-year, and players earning more income from the game--organizing, performing services for each other--is basically the introduction of property rights inside of games.
Because, today, we talked about players spending $150 billion plus a year, $100 billion or more of that a year being on these virtual goods. But, players really don't own those goods at all. They care about them a lot. They invest a lot of time and effort in them. They invest money in them. But, they don't have any actual rights to the goods. They have, like, a limited license to use them. The developer could change the way that things work.
And so, kind of the next big change coming, I think, is the introduction of property rights in games, and the development basically of market economies inside of these games. And you just see it on the fringes today, and it's getting bigger and bigger.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. We're going to talk about that in a minute. Before we do it, I have one more example of this surreal world. And, just one more bit of cultural embarrassment. I had never heard of Marshmello. So, Marshmello is a music performer. I think his most popular YouTube video is his song "Alone." It's done pretty well: 1.7 billion views. It's probably just a few people watching it over and over again. But, it's done pretty well, 1.7 billion views.
But, he gave a concert inside Fortnite. What happened?
Josh Williams: Yeah. It's so cool to see this. So, in Fortnite, which is a game we mentioned earlier--it's a game that has nothing to do with music, but it's just really popular. And in this game, you're in a really vibrant, rich virtual world. And, again, hundreds of millions of people play this game every month, and they care deeply about their characters and the friends they meet online. They pull their real world friends into it. And so, what the developer of this game did, Epic Games, is they set up a concert where Marshmello performed--in the virtual world.
So, you had to log into the game, link up with your friends. And, it's kind of like going to a concert in the physical world. But, you all congregate together and watch Marshmello perform some songs. And, you can see the videos of the concert on YouTube. It was really cool. But, they got over 10 million people--it was about 10.5 million people--that showed up for the concert.
Russ Roberts: That's a big arena.
Josh Williams: A big arena. It's probably maybe the biggest concert ever. I don't know how big Woodstock is, or it was--
Russ Roberts: Not that big. Probably. It was close. But, of course, the further you got away from the stage at Woodstock, the harder it was to hear. But, here, no matter where you sat, you all felt like you were close, right?
Josh Williams: That's exactly right. Exactly right. And, it had a huge effect on Marshmello's career, and sales, too. His album sales increased by 3x's. His page streaming online increased like two orders of magnitude--like 24x or more. So, it was just tremendous. And they just did that again. That was about a year ago that that concert happened, but Fornite just hosted another concert with an artist named Travis Scott. He's a rapper--you know, makes some really good music. And that concert was even bigger: got about 12.5 million people that showed up for it. And it's actually really cool. Like, it's worth checking out, actually. Because, I went to the concert and went with my friend. So, he's a dad and he has two younger kids. They all three play Fortnite together, and I play with them sometimes. We all went to this concert together. It was a really fun experience. It was mind-blowing to see, actually, what they did with concert--it was so cool.
Russ Roberts: Just a technical question. Beside the artist before you, do you see any of the other people watching? How does that work?
Josh Williams: Yeah. You see a bunch of other people around you. You don't see all 12 million. You see maybe a selection of 100 people or so, kind of around you. And, what's really cool about these concerts, too, is you have agency in them, so you can move around in the world. You can jump up and down. They do these--in this most recent concert, they did these things where you transport into outer space, and the song changes. It was just a really cool experience.
Russ Roberts: So, we need an EconTalk episode, clearly, inside of--we probably wouldn't get into Fortnite. We'd have to pick something like Lastnite, or OverTheWeekend, or a different game.
Josh Williams: There you go.
Russ Roberts: Not as popular. That's just so extraordinary. Last question about this. When you're with your buddy and his kids, do you see them in their regular avatars? Are they recognizable to you in the crowd?
Josh Williams: They are. Yep. So, you see them. And you can all talk to each other, just like we are now. And, you see them. Actually, it's really cool. For those virtual goods that they sell they'll promote this kind of concert is coming up, and there's goods that are for sale. Like, you can have a cosmetic--a skin for your character that--maybe is a t-shirt for the artist coming up. Or there's these little dance emotes you can buy, so you can do the artist's dance moves.
Russ Roberts: And, you don't have to socially distance, which is fabulous, or wear a mask. You can go to a concert in the middle of the pandemic. I'd like you to invite me next time, okay?
Josh Williams: Yeah, let's do it.
Russ Roberts: Would you?
Russ Roberts: Or, get me into that EconTalk thing, but we'll talk about that.
Russ Roberts: So, let's turn to this property rights question, which is nominally the sweet spot of EconTalk--but there's so much to me that's so interesting about this. But, this property rights issue: So, let's say I'm in League of Legends. I'd need a costume. I need an avatar. I need what the avatar wears. By the way, can I ever take what the avatar wears in the game and get a real life version of it? Can you do that yet?
Josh Williams: Yeah, there are developers that do that. They'll sell a physical good that matches the virtual goods in the game. Yeah, sometimes.
Russ Roberts: So, I need that. But, then there are these tools, these resources. There's weapons, there's tools that help me unlock, open, climb, whatever they are. And, in the game, it sounds like you can either buy them or forge them. Not forge--that's the wrong world, unless it's made out of metal. I meant craft them.
Russ Roberts: So, you can craft them. When you craft them inside the game, you now have this device--hammer, phone, whatever it is--in the game. And, you get to use it the next time you play? any time you play? Sometimes, or always?
Josh Williams: Yeah, it depends on the--on the asset, basically. It depends on the good. Most of the time, once you acquire the item, the good in the game, you can use it for as long as you'd like.
Russ Roberts: So, if I upgrade, and I get better, and I win a better one or I make a better one, and now I've got this old one that I don't really want anymore, I could sell it to someone. I can sell it within the game in the marketplace that the game itself has set up, correct?
Josh Williams: Mm-hmm. You can, often. Yeah, not always, but often you can. And so, you'll get the virtual currency in the game. Maybe it's gold, or whatever it is, for it.
But, what happens, again, is in every popular game, you end up with outside of the game these gray markets or black markets where players basically want to trade for real money for the goods, so that they can--take World of Warcraft, which you mentioned earlier. You might invest a lot of time in one character. And in World of Warcraft, you choose what your character is going to be good at. It's called your class. So, it might be a character who is really good at helping your teammates avoid damage or protect them from damage. It's called a 'take' in World of Warcraft. You take--you take all of the damage. Or, you might have a character who is a healer. So, you don't do very much damage and you don't take very much damage, but you buff people up and heal people when they take damage in the game.
Well, you might spend a year playing one of those characters, and invest maybe hundreds of dollars buying items for the character in the game, and eventually get tired of it and want to switch to a new character. But, to do that, generally, you've got to start from scratch. So, you're used to playing with a group of friends, and playing a role, and competing in some of the top content of the game, and now you're back to square one. It's a jarring and kind of--it's not a fun experience for a lot of people. So, what they want to do is maybe buy a leveled-up character that is equivalent to their palette and their take, and that is now a healer.
And so, this happens mostly on the outside of games today, but it's starting to come into games more and more, with examples like Counter-Strike GO that we talked about earlier, where you're starting to get the beginnings of secondary markets, and trading economies, and eventually full-fledged market economies in these games.
Russ Roberts: This is like Ringo Star saying, 'I want to be a bass player,' but he's really good at the drums. But, in this world, you could become a really good bass player if you have the right stuff.
So, my question is--I'm sure it varies by games, but isn't--in the real world, the physical world, if you have a really good drill, and I've got this cheap hardware thing, and here's this construction level, and fabulous, I can buy it. I can buy the drill. I see your drill and I go like, 'Whoa. I wish I had that drill.' I can go out and buy it myself. I can buy it from you. I can buy a new one. I can swap you with my old one. I could sell my old one, buy the new one. So, we have all these property rights in physical items. But, in the game--how do I get the thing that I need to be a really good healer out in the real world? How do I get it into the game? Don't I have to get it inside the game?
Josh Williams: That's right. And that's the issue, is that it's really hard to do this stuff today. There's not a way, generally, to trade. This is starting to change inside the game. So, what would happen is, you go to a third-party website, if you wanted to do this, to buy that great drill. You would go to a third-party website, outside of the game. With no guarantees. You have a lot of counter-party risk. You have identity theft risk, credit card information risk. And you basically just make a payment to someone, you have no idea who it is, and hope that you will be delivered the good in the game.
And so, most games will enable a way to trade with each other, but there's no real property rights or money involved with the transaction. So, you make a payment kind of outside of the game, and then do a trade inside of the game. And so often players are defrauded in those types of transactions.
Russ Roberts: But, the idea would be that if I came to your website, third-party website, bought the hammer there or the drill, and then I go inside the game, you're kind of promising you'll meet me in the game and give it to me?
Russ Roberts: Is that what's going on?
Josh Williams: That's right. That's right. And so, you can easily be defrauded. I could just take the payment and deliver nothing. I could deliver the wrong item. There's the counter-party risk on both sides.
And, there's other examples of stuff like this working, too. There's a new game called Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It's a really popular game. Nintendo makes it. It's on the Switch, the Nintendo Switch, so a little hand-held console. And it's really kind of a cutesy game, really adorable characters. And it's a virtual world. Each player in the game has a little island. The purpose of the game is--it's pretty self-directed. You can do all kinds of different activities in the game.
But, one of the things you can do is farm goods and then sell goods inside the game. But, you have to maintain your island. So, weeds can grow on the island. That's part of the system of the game. And it's kind of a tedious task to go weed your island. But, you have to weed it in order to get the best output, the best production from your island.
And then, you can sell the goods from your island to get the other stuff that you want. And so, there's this wonderful, fascinating example of exactly what we're talking about here where, on Reddit, which is a big social networking site, social media site, this person created a business, an actual business to de-weed your virtual island. So, they advertise. They say, 'Hey, we will'--it started off just one person--'I will come to your island. You give me your ID, your little ID so I can navigate to your island. And I'll just pluck all your weeds for you.'
And they take payment and goods in the games. They ended up hiring people, and having hiring standards. It's just fascinating to see all this unfolding.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. But, a lot of times inside the game, the exchanges that take place are done either as barter, presumably, or within the coin of the realm--the coin that that game uses to buy stuff. You can't become an entrepreneur. You can enhance your game playing, but you can't become a real full-fledged entrepreneur and earn a living from it. But, that's going to change, perhaps.
Russ Roberts: So, let's talk about what Forte, your company, is doing. And this is--for those who are still listening, and I'm sure there actually, unlike other times I say this, I'm sure there are many of you. But, for those of you who are still listening, as surprising as some of this may have been for you before, this is going to take it up a notch. Because, like: What does the blockchain--which people associate with Bitcoin--what does blockchain have to do with markets inside games? So, what is--before we talk about what Forte is doing, which is a little more complicated, because it's a platform--what's the idea? What would be the outcome? If Forte did what it did well, what would players be able to do inside games that they can't do now?
Josh Williams: Yeah. The outcome would be, if we could wave a magic wand and fast forward three years, five years, 10 years, what would happen is players would have property rights inside of games. Those virtual goods that we talked about them purchasing, they could trade with each other as they like. They could perform services for each other as they would like. There would basically be a market economy just like we see in the physical world in these virtual worlds.
It all kind of starts with the introduction of property rights, which is basically what blockchain enables.
Blockchain gives you a way to have an asset--generally a digital asset, a virtual asset--and to have self-sovereignty over that asset and to control the transfer of that asset. And no one can take it away from you. It would be wonderful to talk about it in more detail some time. It might be too much detail for today--
Russ Roberts: Well, we should talk about it a little bit now. Because I've done a bunch of episodes on Bitcoin and blockchain. There were, long ago, I have a large group of listeners, they probably are gone: they're not even starting this episode. But, a lot of my listeners love Bitcoin. So, we did a bunch, and I was fascinated by it in the early days. We don't know where it's going to go still. But blockchain, let's give a little bit of background on blockchain. Blockchain is a virtual ledger that keeps track of the provenance of assets--virtual assets, right? It just says, 'This asset was sold at this time.' It's like a list of transactions, and it's verified by the activity of the participants, correct?
Josh Williams: Correct. Yeah. That's exactly right.
Russ Roberts: So, how would that work in this case? Let's say I make a really good hammer inside League of Legends, and I sell it to you. And, that would enter the ledger: that Russ sold Joe a hammer. Correct?
Josh Williams: Yep. That's exactly right. That's exactly right. A blockchain in general, which Bitcoin is one example of and really the original example of, is a way to have a shared ledger amongst people and ensure that there are no fraudulent transactions amongst people.
And that's a really difficult thing to achieve without having one or a cabal of operators that controls the ledger, and you have to trust to verify it. The central--
Russ Roberts: Like a title company. If you buy a house in the United States, you've got to make sure that the person who's selling it to you owns it. Just because they live there doesn't mean they own it, obviously. They could be fraudulent. And you might not have bought it. So, there's a very complicated, incredibly expensive formal mechanism in the United States for the transfer of houses and physical property that's attached to land.
Josh Williams: That's right. And, it's cumbersome, and it's somewhat fragile. And it works, obviously. But, blockchains are basically a way to automate all that. To let computers do the work for you, where no one can change it.
So, if we apply that to games--that hammer that we were talking about--today, it lives inside, solely inside the database of the game developer. And, they can just change a bit in the database, and you lose your hammer.
When those goods exist and they become property that exists on a blockchain that the developer themselves or any little cabal of players can't control, then no one can take it away from you. You control the transfer of the value or the goods that are in your account or under your control. So, that's sort of the central thing that's starting to change today.
Russ Roberts: But, behind the blockchain that underlies Bitcoin is the idea that people are earning bitcoin by verifying the transactions using a very complex cryptography algorithm. But, they're basically--people have a monetary incentive, where the monetary incentive is denoted in Bitcoin--they have a monetary incentive to verify that indeed the hammer was mine, and now it's yours. And I don't have it any more, so I can't sell it again, even though it's virtual. In theory, I can't use it again. I guess there could be different variations. But, if we think of it as close to a physical good, by selling it to you I give up my access to it.
And in Bitcoin, when I transfer a bitcoin to you, bitcoin miners around the world verify that transaction and earn bitcoin--an ever-diminishing amount of it available as from the way it was set up.
How would that work inside the game world? What's the incentive to verify transactions and ensure the property rights that you're talking about?
Josh Williams: Yeah. So, what's really cool about the blockchain space today is there's much more functionality than what existed just a few years ago. So, Bitcoin is one system in a really powerful, kind of secure system for storing value and transferring bitcoins specifically. But, there are other systems today like Ethereum, which basically just have generic computing capabilities.
So, what the miners do, what the people that have the incentives to verify transactions in those blockchains do as an example--and there's a version of this in Bitcoin as well--is they verify not only the transfer of goods, but the logic that governs the transfer of those goods. And that logic can be just arbitrary computer code, essentially. There are some limitations on it, of course, for safety and security. But, the idea is you can have these complex rules that define assets or goods, and that govern the incentive mechanisms and the transfer of those assets and goods between and amongst players.
And, each of those computations is verified by, you know, this system that's distributed around the world and no single entity controls. So, it's a really powerful concept, and that's part of what, you know, games are starting to leverage and will leverage more and more. Not just Ethereum, necessarily, but this general concept of the compute: the code that executes to define an item and to govern the transfer of value between and amongst the owners of the items can be verified, and done so trustlessly, so you don't have to know anything about the system other than that it's verified by this group.
Russ Roberts: But, the people that are doing the verifying in Bitcoin are making bitcoin.
Russ Roberts: Which has not taken off. It still may, but has limited usefulness out in the real world. Is that what's going to happen inside game economies? Are the people going to earn Bitcoin, or are they going to earn--what?
Josh Williams: So, they mi ght earn a variety of incentive.
There might be in-game incentives. So, there'll be multiple layers of this. So, a game might reward people for contributing to its economy. So, maybe you're a really great crafter, and by, you know, gathering resources in the game, and creating these unique items that only characters of your type and level can create, you can not only, you know, acquire the goods and sell those goods inside the game, but also receive a reward from the game for doing that.
Down beneath that layer is the kind of a compute layer, which would be something like a public, a global blockchain, like Ethereum as an example, that, whose task is really just, it's a protocol to verify the compute steps. The steps in code that would govern the thing that happens to be inside of the game. This virtual good that you crafted as the crafter. And the people that verify that have a different set of incentives. Their incentive is to ensure that the code executes properly, and that all of the transactions that are governed by that code were, you know, were not fraudulent: there were no double spends, there were no faulty transactions in the system.
And they are rewarded, in this case Ethereum, they're awarded ETH [Ethereum's private digitual currency] for performing those transactions--or for performing those verifications.
Russ Roberts: But, there's not--yeah, go ahead.
Josh Williams: I was going to say: So, there's different layers of--you know, which is what we see with other computing systems, too. There's different layers of computing technology. The Internet's a great, you know, example of this. It's a protocol, which is what they blockchains are. It's shared and distributed globally. It's decentralized. No individual entity controls it. And it's just a protocol that people adhere to. And the difference here is that you're introducing an incentive mechanism inside of the protocol itself, so it becomes kind of an economic protocol.
And you can layer these things together just like you do on the Internet. There's the IP [Internet Protocol] layer, kind of in the middle of the stack. Then you might have TCP [Transmission Control Protocol)], a transport layer on top of it, all the way up to applications like Zoom that we're using today, and that all kind of use these underlying protocol layers. It's very similar to a game, ko at the top of the stack leveraging the protocols underneath it to enable property rights inside it.
Russ Roberts: So, let's take--while we're on Zoom for a minute. I'm sitting her in my office at home in suburban Maryland outside of Washington D.C. And we've all been doing a lot of Zoom work since the pandemic. And you notice, after a while, that some people have different things in their background besides their cookbooks and poetry section, and whatever else is in the background of mine. They put up images. And Zoom allows you to put up an image. After a while, you see some of them don't work so well. The people look kind of weird. If you have an actual, what's called a green screen, which allows--it's a neutral background that doesn't do weird funky things when you move, as some of the pictures do. So, let's say I create this really incredible digital image for what's behind me, and I want to sell it. So, right now, I just get online. I can sell as many copies as I want to you via Venmo, PayPal, cash. All kinds of ways to do that. Why can't there be something that's simple?
Wouldn't the makers of games want there to be non-Ethereum, non-points inside the game? Like wouldn't we want a real economy inside the game, where there's just people who just specialize in skins, or costumes, and other types of things, so it'd make the game more beautiful? Why isn't that, isn't that what they want to do? Are there people working on that?
Josh Williams: Absolutely. And that's basically all the game developers or the players inside of the games that craft these goods or trade with each other would have to worry about. The participants in the system, including the developer, really don't have to know all of the substrates underneath it. Just like today, in order for us to connect in that concert that we talked about earlier in Fornite, my friend and I and his kids don't have to know anything about, you know, internet protocol or the substrates underneath it, but that technology underneath the hood enables this functionality that was impossible previously. For us to connect from different parts of the world and talk to each other really with no one in the way.
And so, similar here. There's just an underlying enabling technology, that, really people that use the system don't have to understand at all. They just have to realize that as this, you know, develops, that you really can own these virtual goods, just like you do in the real world, with your example of a drill. Like today, the way our legal and property rights are structured, when you purchase that good, unless you waive the rights in some way, you own it and you can do as you'd like with it, you know, generally.
With digital goods, not just in games but in other forms of media, you actually have generally like a very limited license to use the good. And, in particular what's difficult about virtual goods is they're ephemeral. They just live somewhere in a database.
All the blockchain really does is provide a way to ensure that the goods can persist, that you can prove that they are the goods that are claimed. That's the provenance, as you mentioned. And, that the transfer of those goods can be under the control of the individuals that own them in the same way that physical goods are or are supposed to be.
Russ Roberts: So, let's make the--let me try a different analogy for thinking about this. So, I want to give a different example of Zoom. Let's say when we're talking, I don't want to look like Russ Roberts. I want to look like The Hulk.
Russ Roberts: Zoom could develop that. They could develop a way for me to be a Hulk, have a Hulk avatar when I interact with certain people on Zoom. And I could choose to be my physical self, or the Hulk, or a beautiful woman, a long wizard with a beard. I could choose anything I wanted.
And, alternatively, Zoom could create the equivalent of what Apple did and create the equivalent of an app store--a place where I could acquire different looks that would work on Zoom. And, of course Zoom would have to create that whole back end that would allow me to be able to transfer that thing.
But Zoom doesn't want to be in the avatar business. But they know people like it, so they create this marketplace. In that world, in the app-store world, I pay 99 cents. I don't--and, Apple, in the App Store for Apple or the Android store for Android phones, the Google Play--they're the gatekeeper. If somebody's defrauding people, they throw them off. If the avatar is vulgar, they might decide not to allow it. If it's got hate aspects to it, they might decide not to allow it.
Why isn't that happening inside games? And then, it would just be cash and avoid all this complication of blockchain and all this other stuff?
Josh Williams: Yeah. So, it is starting to happen in games, and that's actually the drive for blockchain. Because, you want a couple things to happen. When you start to have these marketplaces, just like you described theoretically could happen with Zoom or other applications, it kind of would all gravitate towards a system--you could call it a blockchain--that would enable people to actually know they have ownership of the property rights, and that the owner, the gatekeeper, can't just take away their property at any time, without trusting it, without trusting the developer, or the owner, the gatekeeper to do that. The reason you want that to happen is so that, it's like safety and soundness in the real economy--that you need this sense that you really do own these things.
And, here, we can, because of the underlying protocols and the mathematics, cryptographically prove--we can mathematically have certainty--that you do own it and that no one can take it away from you. It's like a greater degree of safety and soundness than we have in the real, the physical economy.
And so that drives more possible ascription of value. People, if you start to care about these things, which players do in games and would in other applications and marketplaces like you described, you would want increasing assurances that as your business grows or your income grows that no one can take it away from you.
Or maybe you start to do this full time. You make these great backgrounds or your skins for Zoom, full-time. Well, you would really want to have assurance that you truly do own it, and that you understand or that there is an understanding of how the market actually works.
And then you would want to be able to do increasingly complex things, just like we see historically with the introduction of the beginnings of property rights and the beginnings of market economies. Sort of the same set of, same evolution of agency will need to play out.
Russ Roberts: But, the footnote to all of that, of course, is that if I get really good at making Zoom avatars, or I was just thinking about houses in Second Life, or architecture in Second Life or whatever. Nice patios. It's true that I might be comfortable knowing that I own the patio that I can sell to, and that when you buy it you get to install it in your house or wear the skin that I create, but it is subject to the existence of Second Life. If Second Life dies, if World of Warcraft or League of Legends disappears, all the--unlike the physical world, the digital capital I've created in that world disappears. Correct?
Josh Williams: Correct. Correct. And, here, it would still exist and you could transfer it elsewhere, you could sell it for other value.
Russ Roberts: When you say here, what do you mean?
Josh Williams: In this world, where these marketplaces leverage blockchains to govern the transactions between and amongst players or the people using the applications, creating the economic value and conducting the transactions. Here--
Russ Roberts: You're saying that if I created a hammer inside of League of Legends and League of Legends disappears, I'd still have the hammer?
Josh Williams: Yeah. You would still have the hammer, or the value of the hammer. Maybe as the game starts to decline, you could sell the value of the hammer. But, these are also protocols. So, the good does exist outside. And, another game could say, 'Hey, we saw you had this hammer.'
Russ Roberts: 'We accept that.'
Josh Williams: Yeah. There might not be the exact same hammer, but you would earn some form of credit for having that hammer, and you couldn't defraud that game, because it's on this open, shared ledger that no one can control, including you. So, they could verify that you actually did have that hammer, and therefore you gained this benefit.
So, what it does is create all these new market opportunities, essentially. And, it creates a market economy that just has the potential to be far larger, because you have all these new types of transactions that become possible.
Russ Roberts: But, what I didn't understand is that why does this have to have say cryptocurrency as the payoff rather than the U.S. dollar? The way that the App Store--the App Store lets you transact in dollars. The--iTunes uses American dollars.
Josh Williams: It will. Yeah. It will be dollars.
Russ Roberts: It will?
Josh Williams: Generally. It will, generally. Yeah. The blockchain is really just the means to the end. It's the underlying technology. There are cryptocurrencies under the hood that some people care about--those miners that we talked about in Bitcoin. But, the end users won't necessarily use Bitcoin, or ETH or any particular currency. They'll just be transacting in fiat dollars, U.S. dollars, or euros or what have you. Under the hood, that would be converted into the incentives and currencies that are native to the blockchain themselves.
Russ Roberts: So--naive question. I'm confused. So, you could have the blockchain verified, the providence of these physical goods verified by decentralized users who would be compensated for that verification in actual dollars? Not in cryptocurrency?
Josh Williams: Well, they would be compensated in cryptocurrency, because they're adhering to that protocol. That's what they care about getting paid in. That's why they're contributing their work to validate the transactions. But, you, Russ, could come in as a player in one of these games and just pay with dollars.
Russ Roberts: I understand. Okay.
Josh Williams: Yeah, someone can accept those dollars--
Russ Roberts: But, at the root of the blockchain, there is a cryptocurrency that is--
Russ Roberts: being doled out for people doing the computations that verify the accuracy of the ledger. Correct?
Josh Williams: Correct. Correct. And, the same thing in the game worlds. You might input into the system a dollar or a euro, but if you perform services in the game, you might get paid in the virtual currency inside the game, which is what we were talking about earlier.
Russ Roberts: Right. Gold.
Josh Williams: That's right. Gold. But, you would have the ability to then sell the gold for dollars or euros and use it to pay your rent or buy a coffee.
Russ Roberts: So, now we come to the punchline of this episode. What do you have to do about--what's your role in this, Josh? What is Forte's--what are you doing? What's your daily life like?
Josh Williams: Well, what we're doing and others in the space are trying to do is just make this easier. Everything we talked about is complicated. There's the development of all these market mechanics. The ideas of property rights, and kind of getting game developers to think about it and embrace it. And then, implementing all the technology so that they don't have to think through everything we just talked about every time they think about a new game, or a new good, or a new system inside of a game.
So, we basically create a set of tools that make it much easier for people to leverage an underlying blockchain, make sure they have these market places where players have real agency, and property rights, and ownership in these virtual worlds that they care about, spend a lot of time and money in. And, get the benefits of these market economies where you get positive sum exchanges between game developers and players, and between players.
Like today, game developers are generally--you know, they're just merchants. They're just selling goods to players. The idea would be, going forward, you create this virtual world. You introduce a market economy into that virtual world; and just as we saw, kind of historically, the transitions from serfdom or command and control economies to market economies, there's just massive positive sums that emerge. And everyone that participates in that economy can have more ownership and access[?] rewards.
Russ Roberts: But, there would be a lot of inequality. I'm just kidding. But, there would be, and of course there could be taxation and redistribution inside the economy.
Josh Williams: That will happen. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, it could. Or people could say--maybe they'd have a different perspective.
But, is Forte's goal to create tools that existing games could add to their experience, or is it to create a platform where new games that were created on it would have this capability in a way that was different from current existing games? Or both?
Josh Williams: Yeah, both. New games can be built kind of from the ground up to embrace these market economies, and enable player property rights and just design their whole system, their whole game, around that from scratch.
But, also, we're working with a bunch of developers that have popular titles today with tens of millions and hundreds of millions of players in them to introduce property rights into their virtual worlds right now, so that when you purchase an asset in a game, you really own it. You can transfer it to another player. You can move real money, fiat money, in and out of the system seamlessly and create a great gameplay experience that operates, as you said, just like the App Store or in-game purchases today.
And, to your previous point--I think this is a really important one; it's one that motivates me personally for this stuff--is, one thing that blockchains enable is the introduction of ownership: of equity and of incentive systems in technologies involving virtual goods and services, and value. Which is increasingly a larger and larger share of our economy. It's increasingly information economy.
And so, you could imagine these systems, like in games, where players have more access to the opportunity to earn income. They spend hours playing games today. And, instead of today, where you have to be either one of the top fraction of a percentage, the best players in the world to compete in esports, or one of the most entertaining personalities that play games and comfortable putting yourself out there, you could actually just play the game the way you like to play it, and buy some things, and sell some things, and potentially earn income the way that person that created the weeding business, the de-weeding business in Animal Crossing can do.
And, in a world of--like we face today with the lockdown--the ability for people to earn even a little bit of extra income, from home, would be great.
And, if you think about it, the numbers get pretty mind boggling pretty quickly. We talked about Fortnite, which has hundreds of millions of players that play it every month. It does a couple billion dollars a year in direct revenue. Which is massive. It's, like, one of the biggest games ever. It's huge. And, the game industry as a whole grows. But, you can imagine a market economy developing in these games in the future where maybe just a million players start to earn, you know, a livable wage, basically, by playing the game and conducting services and trading with people.
If you had a million people earning , say, $15 an hour, you know, playing the game a lot, maybe they're earning $30,000 a year. They're basically full-time in the game. They have a job every day--
Russ Roberts: No, they'd earn a lot more than that. They'd earn a lot more than that--
Josh Williams: I'm sure they would--
Russ Roberts: because they'd be playing more than 40 hours a week.
Josh Williams: All the time. That's right. And, probably having fun.
But, you know: Just that--$15 an hour, $30,000 a year, a million people. That's a $30-billion dollar game economy. And that's just the GDP [Gross Domestic Product], the turnover. And so that would be by far the biggest game that's created. That alone, that relatively small game of just a million people doing that, that's bigger than the global music industry today.
Russ Roberts: And, it creates the opportunity, obviously, for a niche game to thrive in a way that you wouldn't have to become the next Fortnite--
Russ Roberts: You could appeal to a much smaller group, and still those people could have a very powerful experience.
Russ Roberts: Um, I just have to say this, because the only thing I really play online is chess, which is--I just started because of the pandemic. A couple of my sons are into chess, because the pandemic. So, I really like this idea that I can get an extra rook if I wanted to buy one in the middle of the game. Like, 'I lost my rook. Can I get another one of those?' And then the other thing that you could do on--this is at chess.com--I mention it because I think it's such an incredibly well-designed website. But, I'm stuck right now, I think--maybe not--I'm stuck right now with their pieces. Their look and feel of the pieces.
And I was telling my sons about Bobby Fischer, who was a very peculiar, strange man. But in Reykjavik, in his famous tournament against Spassky--I think it was that one; it may have been a different one that came after. But, he insisted that the chess pieces that were used in the tournament were fashioned by a particular craftsman in London, and a particular style. I think it's Stanton or Staunton. But, why can't I have that set when I play on chess.com? I could be able to, right?
Josh Williams: Yeah. Absolutely.
Russ Roberts: And so, what I was thinking is: Is it the right way to think about what you're doing, this metaphor for the app store--is it to make it easier for--because what an app store does, and it's not a trivial achievement, and I think people now just sort of take it for granted. 'Oh, yeah, it's an app store.' But, it's an incredible achievement. It's really this virtual marketplace where a bunch of creative people, instead of Apple or Android trying to figure out what's the best weather app to put on a phone--it comes with a weather app--but you can have 50 more to choose from.
Russ Roberts: Creative people can make money and get access to the users of the device.
And so, what I see--correct me if I'm wrong--what I see Forte as doing is giving the next game makers, as well as the existing ones, the opportunity to effectively create that kind of marketplace inside their game to unleash the creative potential of people to do these kind of transactions. Is that accurate?
Josh Williams: Yep. That's exactly right. And, kind of carry it forward from there to create these rich economies. You kind of move from being a merchant to you have this virtual world, and so now you can have, like, an economy in this virtual world. It's kind of like you're managing a little country. And, you already want to create a great game as a developer that players love and is fun for them. Now you can create a system where the better you make the economy for your players, the more income they make, maybe the more they recruit their friends into it. The bigger the economy gets, the better it is for you as a developer, because you have a stake in that economy as well.
Russ Roberts: Can you tax it?
Josh Williams: Yep. You can tax it. That's the beauty of these systems is you can--
Russ Roberts: You can take a cut, as the--
Josh Williams: You can create rich incentives for systems. So, you could tax it. You could have transaction fees. You can have inflationary mechanisms. You could basically get the equivalent of monetary policy, fiscal policy. All the things that we see in real-world market economies or physical market economies.
Russ Roberts: So, the one thing, as if there isn't enough that's perplexing, but the last perplexing part of this is that: What's Forte's business model? How is Forte going to--obviously you could sell this to game makers. But, my understanding, I think, is that that's not what the plan is, is it?
Josh Williams: Yeah. So, our idea is basically we want to make it easier to create these economies inside of games. Real market economies inside of games, with property rights for players and for developers, and these market mechanisms between them.
And then, us as the people that create these technologies, there's several ways we can benefit from that. One could be direct fees for some of the technologies.
Another could be: you'll need to provide liquidity in these marketplaces. An individual game could have thousands of types of assets in it, all these virtual goods we've discussed throughout this talk. An individual game like World of Warcraft has tens of thousands of different types of assets, and then billions of instances of those types of assets. How do you create liquidity for the long tail of those assets? How do you overcome cold-start market problems in a system? What you end up needing is sort of market makers and that sort of thing.
And so, there's a bunch of ways that Forte, and really other people--we're creating an open network where anyone can kind of jump in and provide liquidity into a system and other services inside of these networks.
So, our idea is basically we want to help make it easier to create these market economies. There'll be a lot of opportunities to do things like market-make or provide liquidity into a system. And, the bigger these economies get, the more lucrative that sort of thing could become. But, it's an open network. It's a protocol no one controls. So, we're not the only people or the only group that would be doing that sort of stuff. We just think we'll be there early and hopefully be good at it.
Russ Roberts: And, can you tell me roughly how many employees you have? It's just you, isn't it, Josh?
Josh Williams: That's right. No, we have a great team. I mean, that's one thing that's really cool about Forte, too, is: we ourselves are decentralizing, too. And it's one thing I love about these economic protocols, which again you can think about the Internet as a protocol, an economic protocol, which is what blockchains are: just introduce an incentive mechanism into the protocol itself.
What it allows you to do is create new forms of economic organization where you don't need to be a corporation. That's our primary form of economic--a limited liability company or corporation today. Which--as you know very well, obviously is your background--the idea of a corporation, or a market economy and property rights, and currency and banking did not come to us from on high, fully-formed. This has been this iterative, controversial, you know, ongoing development over the course of time. And so, what we're doing at Forte is actually creating a protocol that many people can contribute to.
So, we have about 90 people today that work on this protocol, and this system. But, it's increasingly an open protocol where, you know, we'll have developers, the game developers come to us and want to contribute to the core protocol or platform, and earn rewards from doing so.
And so, it's this self-organizing protocol that really, you don't need a corporation, or me, or someone in my role to direct all the activities there that are happening. It's really just : You define a standard, and then people adhere to it.
Russ Roberts: You're trying to create a landscape that people can play in.
Josh Williams: That's right.
Russ Roberts: It's a park. It's really a beautiful and interesting idea.
Closing question. How's it going? Are we close? Are you done? Where are we in the--a lot of this, it's taken me a long time, Josh, but I've finally figured out that sometimes something that people are really excited about doesn't always happen.
Josh Williams: Sure. All the time.
Russ Roberts: Driverless cars. Four years ago I thought , 'By 2020 they're going to be here for sure. AI [Artificial Intelligence], 'Yeah, soon they won't even--,' you fill in the blank. A lot of these things turn out to be harder than they were thought to be. And of course, part of the reason for that is that the people who've spent the money to take the chances on it have an incentive to overstate the hype. It's just part of the natural human experience.
Russ Roberts: So, blockchain is one of those things. Bitcoin was going to replace the dollar. It was going to do this, that, and the other. It's amazing it's still here. It's an incredible achievement that it exists; and blockchain--people keep trying to make it happen. Give me your prognosis, as best you can, as to--well, we'll start with Forte. Just, where are you in the process? How far along are you? 80% there? 100% there? And, where do you think this is going to go in the future?
Josh Williams: Yeah. We try to be very soberly realistic about this. We think we're at the very, very beginning stages. We've been at it for , you know, for a while now.
Russ Roberts: When did you start?
Josh Williams: Forte started initially about two years ago, and there's just a great deal of technology development that needs to happen under the hood. We're at the very beginnings of this, and we have a very, very long -term, kind of patient horizon for it. We think this is a change that will happen slowly at first, and then all of a sudden. That's how the games industry typically evolves, too. So, we're very patient and long-term oriented.
That said, I'm very happy with the progress so far. We've been exceedingly happy with our conversations with developers. We're working with over a dozen developers already. Today, they have audiences that approach 100 million monthly active users, so 100 million players every month that are incorporating Forte today. And, basically, introducing these market economies that we just make it easier to enable.
So, I'm actually--we're much further along than I thought we would be at this point. But, that said, we've got a long way to go, and there's no guarantees in any new technology or system.
Russ Roberts: And, you have competitors, you're saying, as well?
Josh Williams: Yeah. I think in this space there's actually just a lot of really smart people. I think really ardent people that care about trying to create new economic systems that can be more equitable, and aligned, and provide more self-sovereignty for individuals.
So, there's really just great people contributing to this space. I don't think we have, like, a direct competitor or anything, but there are other people thinking about blockchain and gaming. And, we use some of their standards. We're all creating these open standards. So, we use some of their standards. They, hopefully, use some of our stuff, in the future. It's this really pretty cool system that exists.
And that's not to hand-wave faster. I'm sure there will be competition. But, I and the people involved with Forte are happy to see that. Because, the more people that work on this sort of stuff and start to pull the future forward a little bit, the better. And we'll just all learn from each other's protocols and create a system that emerges--again, much like the internet did. Where there were competing standards over time, but eventually one emerges, and you don't have to be the one that created the dominant system. You really just can help contribute to the thinking, and then see the system emerge, and then, you know, create all kinds of opportunities around that, like we see with a large portion of the economy today that gets created around the internet, and that sort of thing. So, that's kind of what we're all working toward.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Josh Williams. He is the CEO of Forte. Josh, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Josh Williams: Russ, thanks so much for having me. It was really an honor. I love the podcast, so thank you.
Russ Roberts: Thank you so much.