NFTs and the future of digitally native art
I originally wrote a draft of this post what feels like an eternity ago on August 14th. In crypto, that might as well have been the dark ages. My thinking has evolved since then but I still believe a lot of what I’ve written here so I’ve decided to press publish anyway. It assumes some basic understanding of what NFTs are - here is a good primer.
There is a nervous energy in the NFT world lately. People are printing money, new projects are launching every day, and everyone is wondering when the music will stop. From the outside it looks crazy, and honestly it is a little bit crazy. People are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on jpegs trading them back and forth on marketplaces like OpenSea. Why?
Besides the obvious answer of “it’s a speculative mania”, there is more going on here. To understand it, let’s talk about video games.
In A Guide to the Future of Gaming I wrote:
Historically, most winners on new platforms aren’t the old winners from the previous platforms (at least not at first). Arcade cabinet manufacturers lost to Nintendo on consoles. EA lost to Zynga on Facebook. Zynga lost (initially) to mobile-first game companies on mobile platforms. This is because the old games are not built for those new platforms. How could they be… they’re games purpose-built for the previous platform.
Creators jumping onto a new platform aren’t idiots. They don’t know what will end up being the “killer app” on a new platform. It’s easier to start by replicating existing experiences from other platforms instead of inventing something new. Eventually though, someone figures it out, and then the market follows.
We’re seeing this play out in NFTs as well. There is a lot of digital art being sold on places like SuperRare and Nifty Gateway. These pieces are analogous to early mobile game developers making paid, premium games before the development of games-as-a-service and microtransactions. They're still NFTs that are provably scarce, but in every other way, they might as well just be traditional art. Even many of the players are the same – Beeple’s monster sale was auctioned through Christie’s.
There’s nothing wrong with that, and it isn’t going to go away. But this is still stage one. What is exciting is what comes next.
The recent (in August) run-up in NFTs was driven by a buyout in CryptoPunks, one of the early experiments in generative art on Ethereum. While each punk itself is a simple pixel image, the set of 10,000 was procedurally generated according to a defined rarity distribution (e.g., zombies are rarer than humans; beanies are rarer than top hats). The algorithm mashes up all these traits and produces a set of 10,000 unique punks, where the final exact set of punks isn’t known in advance.
Though the output is still “just a jpeg”, the creation is now digitally native! I guess you could hand-generate them all (similar to Damien Hirst hand-painting 10,000 dots paintings), but at some point it stops being feasible. You can take this further: ArtBlocks are fully generative art. Where someone still had to draw the pixel top hat that is used in CryptoPunks, ArtBlocks are generated entirely from the underlying code. The artist is creating the machine that generates the output, not the output directly.
Again there are parallels to gaming: Hearthstone obviously draws a lot from Magic: The Gathering, but because it is digitally native, it can do things that would be impossible or clunky in a paper game like Magic. The core mechanic of persistent damage on creatures would be tedious to track in a physical game, let alone some of the more complicated cards like Yogg-Saron that have a chance to fill your board with completely random minions, or fill your hand with random spells.
The point is that you can do things with digital objects that are impossible with physical ones. We are seeing the real-time evolution of art as it begins to push up against these boundaries, and I think the future of generative / procedural art and experiments like Framergence and Pulsquares are much more exciting than traditional artists minting their art like on SuperRare or NiftyGateway, because generative art is digitally native. [This isn't a knock on NFT photography, or 1/1 digital art - I own my fair share of those too!]
In gaming the games that ultimately win are ones that are native to the platform and take advantage of what makes the platform unique, vs replicating old games – and generative art vs "traditional digital art" gives me those same vibes. History may not repeat, but it does often rhyme.
I’m still a fan of what NFTs enable in terms of digital scarcity, regardless of whether we’re talking about an in-game item, a digital painting, or generative art. Yes there is rampant speculation, and the current hype is certainly bubbly, but collectible digital goods existed long before NFTs (I paid $300 for an unusual hat in TF2 a decade ago...) and they aren’t disappearing anytime soon. I'm excited about everything going on in NFT-land, but particularly excited to see how the digitally native medium evolves. We're still early!