Early Career Awards 2023
A glimpse into the future of Metaverses with one of the industry’s pioneers.
Sébastien Borget is the Co-founder and COO of The Sandbox decentralized Metaverse, a virtual world where players can create, play, own, govern and monetize their experiences using NFTs & SAND, the main utility token of the platform. Sébastien also became the President of the Blockchain Game Alliance in 2020, a non-profit organization of 300 key members of the industry. He was recently named #4 in the Top #100 2022 most influential people in crypto by CoinTelegraph. The Sandbox has been featured in TIME100 Top 100 most influential companies of 2022 by Time magazine.
Considering The Sandbox was one of the very first Metaverses the first and easy question is: can you tell us what brought you to create this? What was the vision behind it?
We do not really consider ourselves among the first metaverses, all the ingredients have been there for almost 25 years. In terms of virtual world gaming, we've seen Second Life, even before le Second Monde de Canal +, various MMORPGs, etc., but all of them were lacking one thing. That one thing is the very definition of what we believe a metaverse is and should be. A myriad of virtual worlds users can navigate through with an avatar, which is the representation of themselves, and which becomes their new digital identity. With it, they can access all sorts of experiences that are more immersive, more creative, more fun with more social interactions and more gaming. In the metaverse they can take this identity, their belongings, their digital assets, their wearable, their equipment, their gaming assets, their virtual land, their virtual houses, and even their currency from one world to another without having to ask for permission to any of the platforms where the content may be first acquired, earned or created. That's really the true metaverse.
The Sandbox franchise started about ten years ago, originally as a mobile game, always with the idea of empowering players and users to become creators, to let their imagination come to life through technology, making it as accessible as possible. It was a huge success back then. Just by the touch of your finger, you could already create 2D worlds. It was however also frustrating: despite the 40 million downloads and 70 million creations, we were not able to keep our best creators engaged overtime. Social recognition was not motivating enough for them, we needed more than that to keep them engaged. That is when we thought about revenue sharing but it was not possible on the platforms back then (iOS and Android). We then started exploring blockchain technology at the end of 2017 and we discovered the first blockchain game – Crypto Kitties – that brought virtual cards as NFTs. Nothing exciting except the idea that you were buying those digital assets outside of the game from the other players directly. That's where we found that, if we were to combine NFTs with user generated content, we could solve our problem. Allowing anyone to make their own NFTs and use them in the game would thus be the next move.
It’s only towards 2018 that the idea came through to turn The Sandbox into a platform. We decided to make it a 3D multiplayer world, use blockchain technology and NFTs, build a free digital marketplace along with no-code game maker, and provide avatars. We then gradually built that decentralized gaming world, which would turn into an open metaverse progressively over time.
Metaverse gameplay is diversified: third-person (eg. The Sandbox), virtual reality (eg. Meta Horizon),  business oriented, etc. Where do you see this metaverse gameplay growing and maturing in the next couple of years in terms of adoption and usage?
We already are in the middle of it and we are going to have to talk about experiences: mostly entertainment such as virtual concerts, virtual shows, art galleries, museums and games of course. But progressively we are going to see a greater diversity of experiences. I believe that within 2 or 3 years, a large part of real world activities will come into the metaverse and will be augmented through technology. It could take shape into multiple devices as well: some virtual worlds or platforms are more focused on VR (Virtual Reality), some are more focused on AR (Augmented Reality), some others on mobile. And some – like The Sandbox – are more focused on PC for now with a rather gaming-oriented client. Some will focus on the web, some will be niches, some others will focus on entertainment, some on user-generated content (like The Sandbox), others will only be work related… You will nonetheless be able to take your avatar and your belongings from one world and use them in another. What is interesting is we're already seeing a certain number of real-world brands coming to the metaverse, such as financial institutions: banks like Goldman Sachs, shopping and retail related brands, even insurances or regulators. This will create a greater diversity of content, of experiences and even of derived products and services around digital assets. Since those are already a part of the digital economy in the metaverse, it will help this economy grow and serve the users spending time and evolving within those metaverses.
You mentioned different types of companies joining The Sandbox. Could you give us a few examples of what they are doing in it? What tools do you offer them to create a different experience? How do they use them?
As a platform, we first and foremost provide tools for creators. The first one is a 3D editor called Vox Edit, which allows anyone to make any 3D object, content, or animation in a very accessible manner, like digital Lego. This tool is essential because there are very few contents at the beginning of a metaverse. One needs to build the content and the experience rapidly and at a large scale. That is why I am working to facilitate content creation. That is also why I believe most of the metaverses will be based on user-generated content.
With the same idea of accessibility in mind, we came up with the second tool: the Game Maker. It is a no-code tool you can use to create experiences. ‘No-code’ means that you can use this tool and build without any programming experience; you can just drag and drop content and/or assets in order to create the experience you want and publish it quickly. With those tools, anyone can become a creator and we already see in The Sandbox that users are not your typical gamer or your typical game studio. They are a broader audience that are seizing those opportunities and already becoming the next entrepreneurs, the next builders that are serving some of the 21,500 landowners or 300 brands that we brought in.
You mentioned that a lot of companies were joining The Sandbox. Can you share some concrete examples of what exciting objects or experiences they've been building?
The most interesting use case for now is the attempt to answer the following question: how can one create new kinds of experiences, new forms of entertainment where users get value for their time? It could be rewards, currency, NFTs, digital assets, collectibles or avatars. We do not dictate the solution; we do not want to focus on commerce and transactions because it's way too early. We are still building the first audience and trying to make people come back into the game multiple times (not only once), engage and spend increasingly more time on the platform. Trying to sell them things will definitely not drive the kind of design pattern we aspire to. Currently users are coming to engage with our favourite celebrities, communities, to spend time, socialize with others, have fun, create, learn. This is really what you can do in the Metaverse right now.
What do you think about the scaling of the underlying technology, especially roll-ups and the upcoming sharding for Ethereum?
It's interesting, especially since we just migrated to Polygon. I think the challenge is to have a reliable blockchain that is already well developed and reliable in production. Hence the migration of most of the gaming industry to Polygon or another side chain or layer 2 to accommodate the need for faster transactions for users, smaller transaction fees and where users can interact without having to pay. I think ultimately users will not care about the underlying infrastructure. They will probably have multiple wallets over multiple blockchains. We don't even need to bridge assets as long as we can prove ownership for the sake of interoperability. Rather than the choice of an infrastructure or a protocol layer, it is more about focusing on building a great experience that will keep users engaging and trust that the technology choices we've made so far are going to keep scaling and supporting the grand vision we share. For the time being, it seems that we are going in the right direction.
Do you think you will plan to have your own dedicated roll-up like with StarkNet,  which is a kind of layer three blockchain on top of Ethereum? And why did you choose Polygon instead of layer 2 blockchain like Arbitrum? 
Arbitrum and others were simply not production ready by the time we chose to migrate to Polygon last year. Our choice was based on the readiness of the blockchain for production, NFT support, all the smart contracts and custom code very specific to The Sandbox (virtual lands, ERC 1155, etc.). Back then, Arbitrum, Optimism and others were not production ready and only Polygon was. Keep in mind that we are not developing the protocol or blockchain layer. We're really focusing on the higher level of the Dapp (Decentralized Application) and all the tooling (like creation tools), which is already intense. If we were to develop the blockchain from the office, we would largely need to split our efforts. It's already a lot of work on the construction of The Sandbox’s multiplayer tools, marketplace, game maker, content, production, blockchain code, etc. Imagine if we also had to worry about building the protocol... Luckily there is a reliable ecosystem where a lot of smart people develop and contribute to the blockchain, and that can help us all move forward rather than try to reinvent the wheel.
You spoke about retaining creators and finding a way to give them value for their time. In this spirit you integrated NFTs and plot purchasing from 2019 onwards. How did the integration for The Sandbox go from a technical standpoint?
We launched the first NFT in December 2019 with Virtual Land. So far, I believe we've always been leading the charge. We have contributed to developing the ERC 1155 standard to reduce gas fees and optimize the transfer of multiple assets and/or multiple copies of the same assets. I think we chose Ethereum because it was also the blockchain with the largest developer ecosystem with services such as DEXs (Decentralized Exchanges, such as Uniswap and OpenSea) and exchanges of course. This has been very important and helped bring distribution and liquidity for SAND and LANDs.
How did you feel players and users of The Sandbox welcomed this upgrade and addition of NFTs in the game?
I think The Sandbox audience is not just your typical gamer. We haven't brought traditional gamers into the space yet, but we have broadened the spectrum of users, redefined what it meant to be a player and who we consider as players. Fans are becoming players. People who never created games are now becoming players. Artists are becoming players and are engaging in the game. Users from all around the world have started to play and discover a new form of entertainment, whereas they were not playing console or mobile games before. In a way, I believe that the metaverse, to become that $3 to $8 trillion opportunity, will need to enlarge the spectrum of audiences that we consider right now as the “gaming market” towards something much larger. And that's what The Sandbox is contributing to so far.
Metaverses are booming and are becoming increasingly popular, do you therefore plan to make The Sandbox interoperable with other metaverses?
Yes, we already did it in fact. We are part of something that's not yet been announced [at the time of the interview], but it's called the Open Metaverse Alliance, which is like an association gathering a lot of Web3 companies, decentralized metaverses focusing on interoperability of assets, format, avatars and identity. We also have demonstrated already that users can take external content in the form of NFT and play with them in The Sandbox with a different representation. Not just showing an image as an image – as a lot of metaverses can do – but taking an image and turning it into an avatar/3D representation and playing around, interacting with it. This is important because that's really what we consider true interoperability. We also have an increasing number of collections. We started with World of Women, we're continuing with Cool Cats, with Bored Apes and a few more. In fact we're going to launch those in the beginning of July and we're continuing to look at what more we can do to keep achieving that.
Do you think one day there will be only one big metaverse to which you can connect as a user and access all the metaverses in the world?
It will be a myriad of them. The entry point is not just one platform from which you can access all of them. It can start anywhere on any metaverse by connecting your wallet – which is connected to a blockchain – and then, once they can read that you own that avatar (which is your NFT) you can start playing and through that same wallet, that decentralized identity that you own, you are connected. The goal is to have a growing number of supported, decentralized metaverses that will indeed enable you to play with that single wallet of yours and all your digital content.
Your wallet is your way of interacting between metaverses, and you can switch your wallet to another if you want to. What you cannot do for the moment is for instance switch to Meta since it does not yet read or support wallets. You also cannot simply wander in one world grouping different metaverses without having some discontinuities, since there is a lot of platform fragmentation: some run on VR, others on the web, others on mobile devices, etc. There can thus be additional steps when changing metaverses: install a game client, download an app, log in, etc. But the common part across all is always the same wallet where your identity or avatar is represented.
Currently, it is not that easy to go from Decentraland to The Sandbox and it is still not possible to use Decentraland outfits in The Sandbox and vice versa. What is your vision on this?
Yes indeed you are right, this is still the early days. That means that we have to interpret all the outfits of Decentraland and give them a similar representation in The Sandbox. We are working on it, but it is a real challenge from a technological standpoint. This explains why the user experience is still at the beginning of what it will be in the near future. I believe we will see a lot of progress in the coming years, some start-ups are already working on interoperability. We have seen Crypto Avatars, for example, where avatars were available across multiple metaverses.