EXCLUSIVE: An Interview with Alex Connolly, CTO & Co-Founder at ImmutableX
The CTO of Immutable sits down to share his thoughts on gamer onboarding, creator royalties, and ImmutableX’s plans for 2023.
Gaming is what will bring blockchain to the masses.
The concept of digital items that you can freely buy, sell and trade with others is the sorely-needed antithesis to the siloed experiences that have dominated the games industry for over 30 years.
One company is leading the way in bringing blockchain-powered games to the masses – Immutable.
With their GameStop partnership in full-swing, numerous top-tier current and upcoming web3 games under their wing, and AtomicHub‘s forthcoming ImmutableX integration, I caught up with Immutable’s CTO Alex Connolly to learn more about their goals, ethos, and IMX’s plans for 2023.
John: Gm Alex! Could you tell me a bit about yourself, your background, and how you entered the blockchain space?
Alex: Gm! I got into the blockchain space relatively early on. I was particularly interested in voting systems at the time, and one of the technologies people were suggesting around early 2016 was this new technology called Ethereum. I delved into the theory, but at that stage, there wasn’t much you could do at the application layer. Most of the stuff you could do was under the hood, like setting up your nodes or working on some sort of a programming language.
When I saw the first NFT projects emerge, I was reminded of my video game training many years earlier. The story of Immutable is the story of combining that blockchain passion with the use case of trading items in video games; it was something that immediately captured my imagination.
It’s been five years since yourself, James and Robbie launched Immutable. What is your overarching goal, what progress do you feel you’ve made towards that, and how has the journey been so far?
I’ve been a big player of games like RuneScape, and a participant in the Steam item trading ecosystem; in Counter-Strike, in Dota, in Team Fortress 2, and so on. I wanted to build a trading system that was substantially better.
The trading systems in those games used gray markets or black markets, and it was very common for people to get scammed. People were generally trading in unsophisticated ways. The Steam marketplace was also taking a 15% fee from players and, obviously, you couldn’t withdraw and sell items for real money. It surprised me that an economy existed for an asset class that people clearly demanded but was being restrained.
The overarching goal of Immutable is to take those digital assets and look at what we can do to a) make those assets actually tradable, and b) make the standard of digital ownership more like the ownership of buying a t-shirt at Target. You expect to own that shirt – the same should be true for video game items.
2022 saw significant growth at IMX, with Gods Unchained hitting its stride, Illuvium entering its first Alpha, and a slew of third-party launches and announcements. What can we expect in 2023?
You can expect more of the same! I think the blockchain space is realizing that games take a little bit longer to build than people originally thought. Building great games is a very creative endeavor and it’s challenging to create something that stands out in the market. I think you can expect more games to come online as more people complete that build phase. We’re super excited about that.
The second thing to be excited about is the progress that we’re making on the platform side. We’re solving a lot of the pain points that Web3 game developers have when building their products. Everyone is very cognizant of the fact that the experience is still not up to the standards that Web2 users generally expect when trading items in video games.
The good news is we’ve made enormous progress in both across the last few years, and more generally over the lifetime of Immutable. I think some of those investments are really going to come to fruition in 2023, so we’re extremely excited.
ImmutableX and Polygon are the two leading Ethereum Layer 2 solutions, no question. What are your thoughts on Polygon in general, and why should both developers and gamers consider IMX?
Rather than talking about Polygon in particular here, I’ll talk about what Immutable brings to the table compared to most other Layer-1s or sidechains.
Essentially, a lot of the benefit that Immutable is trying to bring is a focus on gameplay. We’re game developers, we’re a platform for game developers – we really care about building the best possible experience.
We think a lot of chains are marketing themselves towards games, but are actually building fairly agnostic infrastructure products. The trade-off there is that it’s going to be much harder for those chains or platforms to actually support the types of user experiences players demand. Gamers expect different things to financial users, and have different requirements and expectations.
Generally, developers and gamers should consider using Immutable products because we genuinely care about them and we’re really targeted at solving their problems.
You recently announced Immutable Passport, an all-in-one Web3 wallet, coming April 2023. What was the impetus for developing Passport, and how does it fit in alongside other IMX wallet solutions, such as the GameStop Wallet?
We were extremely excited to announce Immutable Passport. What we’re trying to solve with Immutable Passport is that, at the moment, all wallets – no matter which chain you’re on – have to make a really unfortunate choice; either they choose to be fully self-custodial and isolate users’ keys, impacting the user experience, or skew towards a custodial approach where keys are stored on someone’s backend.
Games usually have unilateral control over those keys, so they can just sign any transaction. Generally, they don’t try to steal funds from users – but they could, and that’s an issue.
The trouble with the second option is that while you get a really great user experience, you can’t share that type of custodial wallet between games without substantial security risks. Players have to choose between picking a wallet that can be used across multiple games – which is generally what users expect – and a great experience that is limited to one wallet per user per game.
Having different bank accounts for every app you use is not very realistic. At the same time, we want to reduce some of the friction that comes with self-custodial Web3 worlds at the moment, such as seed phrases, browser extensions, installations, and so on.
Immutable Passport is the middle ground here. You can still have that non-custodial experience and strong protections with regards to what games can do with your assets, plus onboarding that doesn’t require you to remember a seed phrase whilst still offering decent recovery properties. This allows you to have really smooth transactions that feel more like Apple Pay than blockchain, and we’re super excited about it.
Immutable has partnered with numerous NFT marketplaces, with the world’s busiest NFT marketplace, AtomicHub, integrating IMX later this year. What is your primary goal when working with these external partners, and how do they help in creating a healthy, sustainable, long-term IMX ecosystem?
We’re big believers in the openness of Web3 infrastructure.
We want as many marketplaces as possible to be venues where users can trade assets. We envisage an ecosystem where there will be some websites that are fully customized for the trading of a particular NFT collection, or even a subset of a particular NFT collection. By leveraging Immutable’s products like our order book and payment solutions, our goal is to make sure that you don’t have to isolate liquidity in each NFT marketplace.
By enabling marketplaces on the protocol, such as AtomicHub, Wearable, GameStop, TokenTrove, even the default Immutable marketplace, we want all these platforms to be sharing orders between eachother, and to make sure they can create amazing experiences for all users who want to trade these assets.
Creator royalties have been an ongoing debate since mid-2022. What are your thoughts on the matter, and on the topic of marketplace and protocol fees? What can IMX users expect fee-wise, in comparison to other chains?
Firstly, I’m supportive of creator royalties where they can be enforced in a way that doesn’t destroy the end user’s blockchain experience – not because I want them to be used by every project, but because I think that creators who want to enforce them should have the option to. Once you give them the option, then purchases of NFTs and their communities can vote with their feet.
If you don’t think your collection should have that royalty or you’re not supportive of that, then you shouldn’t participate in the collection and you can vote with your wallet. We think that opening up a design space where there’s an opportunity to provide games with enforceable royalties is the most powerful choice a platform can make, so we’re committed to finding ways to be able to enforce royalties on ImmutableX.
Regarding what users can expect fee-wise, one differentiating aspect of the Immutable platform is that we don’t require gas fees. We think this is a fundamentally more aligned way of doing business as a platform because it means that you’re only paying those fees on the upside of your transactions. If you’re making money, you’re paying gas fees – if you’re a gamer just minting assets and no one’s purchasing them, then that’s going to be a waste of resources for both of us.
In short, why should gamers and game developers – whether Web3-native or otherwise – take a look at ImmutableX?
Immutable is the platform that is operating both at a rollup/chain layer and also at a platform layer, offering various products like wallets, order books, and so on. The fact that Immutable is operating at both layers of that stack means that we’re uniquely well-positioned to offer the best possible vertically-integrated experiences for gamers.
We have really professional teams. We’re building a company in the best spirit of Web3 and traditional Silicon Valley tech startups. We’re someone who’s able to offer the quality of service and partnership that really strong game studios require.
My advice to game studios is to make sure you’re talking to the Immutable team. We have lots of thoughts on how to build the best possible Web3 games, and we really care about making them successful.
Speaking to Alex was an absolute joy. His passion to make the benefits of blockchain gaming a reality for millions of players around the world is palpable, and it’s clear that the Immutable team have a clear understanding of the needs and wants of gamers, game developers and the web3 community alike.
Alex and the rest of the team have the best interests of the blockchain gaming community at heart, and in 2023, with AtomicHub’s IMX integration on the way, they’re taking big strides towards making web3 games accessible for the masses.
We’ve covered ImmutableX-related updates, announcements and launches at length over the past year, and after speaking with Alex, one thing is abundantly clear – Immutable are on the path to take blockchain gaming not just to the moon, but far, far beyond.