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Gaming veteran Rahul Sood is returning with a new startup today dubbed Irreverent Labs, which has raised $5 million to build games with AI characters.

The Seattle-based company is working on an accessible “play-to-earn” game with a veteran gaming team and artificially intelligent characters living on the blockchain as nonfungible tokens (NFTs).

Sood, a former Microsoft Ventures executive, wants the game to tap the power of NFTs, which can use the transparency and security of the digital ledger of blockchain to uniquely authenticate digital items, such as AI characters. And he said the game is designed to evolve over time with machine learning and decentralized player ownership via NFTs.

The ambitious new startup, which has a team with vast experience in gaming, blockchain, and machine learning, took less than a week to close a $5 million round of funding led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z Crypto), and additional investment from The Chainsmokers’ Mantis Fund, Keen Crypto, Unlock Ventures, and AdvancIt Capital.

Irreverent Labs said its mission is to create artificially intelligent, 100-year entertainment experiences on blockchain. The first project is a game, set in a fun and engaging metaverse, that transcends any one player and is designed to remain fresh for multiple generations, the company said.

Microsoft Ventures GM Rahul Sood

Above: Microsoft Ventures GM Rahul Sood

Image Credit: John Koetsier

The game developers want it to be easy-to-learn with simple onboarding for players of any level of blockchain experience. It features artificially intelligent non-player characters (NPCs) which live and breathe on the blockchain as NFTs, thereby enabling decentralized private ownership. This vast framework will be underpinned by a feature-complex economy with play-and-earn experiences.

Other companies, like Alithea AI, share the ambition of creating NPCs that can have intelligent conversations with human players not just for a matter of minutes — as is common today in games such as massively multiplayer online games — but for hours, thanks to emerging AI technologies such as Open AI’s GPT-3 tech.

“Our first game is hilarious, and I’ve never had as much fun as I’ve had with the Irreverent Labs team,” Sood said, in a statement. “I speak often about gaming and blockchain’s inevitable convergence. Players should own their gaming assets the same way they own physical games, and blockchain lets us give control back to players to own, trade, sell, use and build new metaverse experiences using components from our games.”

The play-to-earn genre, which I’ve been calling the Leisure Economy since 2017, exploded this year with NFT games such as Axie Infinity and Zed Run, which reward players as they are able to resell their NFT-based collectibles earned as rewards for playing games.

Sood was an early investor in Zed Run, which was recently valued at more than $200 million.

Irreverent Labs’ ambition is to go even further, creating multi-generational, ever-evolving worlds where players and AI mingle to create an altogether new experience: the 100-year game.

Each game will feature artificially intelligent NPCs which can be bought, sold and utilized as NFTs, giving players the ability to earn and own all the core components with decentralized blockchain technology.

Irreverent Labs will focus its initial efforts on a game to be announced in late December 2021, though the ambition is to create a fan-powered game environment, adding ownership back in players hands, in stark contrast to cloud gaming services which offer a future where players increasingly lose ownership of their gaming experiences.

“Irreverent Labs’ first game is so delightfully eccentric and simple to play, it’s easy to overlook the technical achievement of shaping truly original NFT characters with advanced machine learning,” said Arianna Simpson, General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, in a statement. “Rahul and team have a long track record of innovation in gaming and blockchain technologies, and we’re looking forward to having fun with their creations.”

By investing in new technology, Irreverent Labs will create a futuristic ever-changing game world with deeply engaging AI, real market economies, unlimited modification potential for player-created gaming experiences, and real-world crossover featuring augmented reality play options.

“This team — and the impact their games and technology could have on the world — excites all of us,” said Alex Pall of The Chainsmokers’ Mantis VC fund, in a statement. “As entertainers, we recognize entertainment vision when we see it. We anticipate Irreverent Labs will transform gaming and blockchain by merging their new technology with a truly uproarious world in the first of what we expect to be many amazing games.”

Sood’s background

Rahul Sood's Unikrn was backed by celebrity investor Mark Cuban.

Above: Rahul Sood’s Unikrn was backed by celebrity investor Mark Cuban.

Image Credit: Unikrn

Sood made his name as an enthusiast gamer and the cofounder of VoodooPC, a maker of custom gaming PCs that he started in 1991. He sold that business to HP in 2006, and he headed HP’s efforts in gaming computers through 2010.

He moved to Microsoft and started Microsoft Ventures in 2013. In 2014, he left to start Unikrn with cofounder Karl Flores. Unikrn enabled betting on esports events. The company focused on regulated esports betting on blockchain technology, but it ran into trouble with regulators over an initial coin offering (ICO) in 2017, at a time when the legal ramifications weren’t so clear.

In 2020, the Securities and Exchange Commission fined Unikrn a total of $6.1 million for selling its Unikrn Gold tokens as unregulated investment contracts, which the SEC decided amounted to unlicensed securities. It said Unikrn should have obtained a securities license.

After that happened, British-owned gambling company Ladbrokes acquired Unikrn for an undisclosed price. That experience will be important to Sood as he navigates the emerging markets of NFT games, which are also operating in a regulatory gray area. Valve recently decided to ban all NFT games, partly out of a concern that the NFTs may have “real-world value” and could constitute illegal gambling under the state of Washington’s strict gambling laws. Critics of Valve’s move say companies have plenty of ways to design games with NFTs that have no chance of violating securities or gambling laws.

Sood was also the first investor in Vrvana, Sood actively helped the AR/VR metaverse company as it got acquired by Apple in 2017. He’s also the chairman of Maingear, creators of gaming PCs.

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