The World’s Best TCG? An Interview with Michael Sanders, Co-Founder of Skyweaver

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The World’s Best TCG? An Interview with Michael Sanders, Co-Founder of Skyweaver

We caught up with the Chief Storyteller at Horizon Blockchain Games, developers of Skyweaver, to get the inside story on their game-first approach, the Web2 to Web3 bridge, and the reinvention of the TCG genre!

FEBRUARY 19, 2022. INTERVIEWS. WRITTEN BY HYDRO.

Ahhh, trading card games.

From Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! to Hearthstone and Gwent, they’ve played a huge part in my life, and I’m sure many of yours too.

The rise of Web3 brought with it a new dawn for the genre, as the collectability, rarity variants and PVP gameplay made TCGs a perfect fit for the fast-rising blockchain gaming space.

We’ve seen a variety of digital trading card games pop-up across multiple blockchains. One of them is aiming to stand head and shoulders above the rest, and is building the Web2 to Web3 bridge with their own hands – Skyweaver.

Developed by Horizon Blockchain Games, this free-to-play, Play-to-Own title hit Open Beta two weeks ago. I had the privilege of catching up with their Chief Storyteller, Michael Sanders, to discuss their development so far, the Open Beta launch, and what the future has in store for them and their rapidly-growing community.

Read to the end of the interview for the giveaway of an ultra-rare gold variant of the NFT Insider mascot, Timmy!

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Hydro: Hey! Could you tell me a bit about yourself, your background and how you got into NFTs?

Michael: Hi! I first fell in love with blockchain in 2010, and I had the fortune of meeting Ethereum’s inventor Vitalik Buterin in 2014, about 18 months before the launch of Ethereum. Hearing Vitalik speak, I was convinced he’s an alien from the future here to teach us about technology, economics and love 🙂

I dove deeper into the space and spent a lot of time thinking about “how can we usher in the mainstream adoption of crypto and blockchain, so that we can benefit as many people and entities as possible?”

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In 2017, I had the fortune of meeting Peter Kieltyka (CEO), who, to my knowledge, was the first person to conceptualize blockchain gaming in a compelling way. When he shared his idea for Skyweaver with me, I thought, “Holy shit! This is it – this is how we can welcome people to Web3, and we can do it in a really fun and loving way.”

It was Peter and Skyweaver that introduced me to the idea of NFTs, and in January 2018, Horizon Blockchain Games was born – founded by Peter, Ian Ha (COO), William Hua (Chief Scientist) and Daniel Racca (Chief Designer), and I officially joined as an additional founder a couple of months later.

Your role at Horizon is as “Chief Storyteller”. Could you tell us about what your role entails?

It’s about inviting everyone into the journey and the story of Skyweaver, and the other products we’re building at Horizon. My role is about welcoming everyone to Web3 – a new dimension where economies are fun, accessible, and for the benefit of all participants.

Skyweaver turns the traditional TCG formula up to 11, fully utilizing the digital medium it is a part of. How did the original concept for Skyweaver come about, and what new experiences will SW bring to fans of blockchain gaming?

The idea for Skyweaver was born during the summer of 2017 when Peter and Ian were planning their next startup. They knew it would be in crypto/Web3 and saw the intersection of gaming and crypto as the perfect fit, because digital assets have been core to video games for decades.

Peter had the epiphany that “the game items are the currencies”, to which Ian said, “just like in a trading card game” – and here we are four and a half years later! 🙂

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In terms of what Skyweaver delivers, it’s a free-to-play Web3 video game that stands on its own in terms of gameplay.

Even if there were no blockchain component, it’d be a great experience, and this is evidenced by the fact that we have world champions of Hearthstone and Pokemon, professional Magic: the Gathering players, and tons of casual gamers who started playing Skyweaver for its fun and strategic gameplay.

We’ve set out to build something that bridges the gap between Web2 gamers and Web3. Skyweaver is first and foremost a game, and it’s free-to-play with an unprecedented player-owned economy.

Skyweaver cards are generated by players through gameplay. You unlock non-tradable Base cards through free play. By ranking highly on the weekly leaderboards, you can win Silver NFT versions of the cards, and by entering the competitive Conquest mode, you can win both Silver and rare limited-supply Gold NFT cards. The more matches you win in a Conquest, the better your rewards.

Silvers and Golds don’t give players a gameplay advantage (this prevents any pay-to-win dynamics), and instead give players ownership, cosmetic status, and of course, the ability to trade those cards.

Players can trade their cards on the Skyweaver Market in-game, which is powered by the Niftyswap Protocol that we designed – the first peer-to-peer decentralized exchange/automated market maker for NFTs – for a seamless and intuitive trading experience. Of course, players can also trade their cards on third-party marketplaces as well.

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Skyweaver has tons of novel gameplay strategies and mechanics, an intuitive deck builder in-game, and beautiful art and graphics. It’s super accessible too: the game can be played in-browser or on the Skyweaver iOS, Android and desktop apps.

I have to mention our wonderful community. We have players from all around the world, and with more than 99,000 members in Skyweaver’s Discord, it’s already bigger than the biggest Web2 TCG Discords – and we’re just entering Open Beta now! The community is really special, inclusive and supportive, and we want to nurture that loving energy and support our community for decades to come.

We’ve already had 11 community-run tournaments during the code-gated Private Beta, with the most recent one reaching Twitch’s front page, so players can expect more awesome tournaments during Open Beta.

Speaking of the Open Beta, at the time of asking this question, Skyweaver entered its Open Beta phase today! How has the day gone for yourself and the team?

Open Beta has been incredibly exciting for our team so far 🙂

After four years of building, and more than three years of rigorous play testing, it’s wonderful to open Skyweaver up so that anyone can play!

It’s awesome to see the community’s response and players around the world enjoying the game and streaming. Nice to see all the wonderful reviews from different media outlets too.

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What are your plans for 2022?

For 2022, and throughout our entire journey for that matter, we’re focused on making Skyweaver even better for our players.

We’re working on match replays, observer mode, in-game guilds, new cards and expansion sets, “Lethal Puzzle Games”, customization of private matches, and cosmetics to personalize player experiences.

We’re also anticipating more community-run tournaments. Of course, we’re always balancing the game, looking at the data and listening to player feedback – we have an amazing community on Discord and love hearing your thoughts!

We have some interesting plans for a token we’ve been ideating for some time as well.

Our strategy from the beginning has been to ensure the game is awesome, fun, and that players love it, and from there, we can add more blockchain-oriented components.

In your opinion, what are the biggest obstacles preventing mainstream adoption of Web3 today, and how does the industry go about solving them?

Up until now, one of the biggest obstacles preventing mainstream adoption has been the wallet and onboarding experience to Web3.

We’ve actually solved this with the Sequence Wallet, which makes Web3 easy and secure for everyone.

When we started building Skyweaver back in January 2018, we knew we also needed to create the wallet and infrastructure to make sure the gaming experience would be seamless and accessible, and so we’ve been building Sequence – alongside Skyweaver – since the early days of Horizon.

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Sequence is an EVM multi-chain smart contract wallet that users can login to using social or email. With two clicks of a button, a user has a secure non-custodial smart contract wallet.

You can think of Sequence like your wallet, browser, backpack, passport and gateway to Web3, the next generation of the Internet.

Sequence has awesome NFT support, simplifies gas fees and payments, multi-key security, and has fiat-to-crypto onboarding built in. Users can even pay for gas fees in various tokens, which helps those who might not own (or just want to HODL their) ETH or MATIC.

Sequence really lets users do more on Web3, Ethereum and other EVM chains and Layer-2s than previously possible. You’ll notice the Sequence Wallet seamlessly integrated into Skyweaver, and you can expect to see it seamlessly integrated into a lot more dapps in the near future.

Another one of the biggest obstacles to the mainstream adoption of Web3 has been content. There hasn’t been a huge number of dApps that resonate with the mainstream audience, but this is changing.

With Skyweaver, for example, we see folks outside of Web3 loving the game. In fact, the majority of our user base is brand-new to Web3 and hasn’t experienced a dApp or crypto before – of course, there are many other awesome dApps out there as well.

With Skyweaver, more awesome content around Web3, and by providing seamless access to these dapps with a wallet like Sequence, we’re excited to welcome everyone into this amazing new dimension.

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Where would you like to see the Web3 gaming industry by the end of this year?

Well, of course, we’re excited about the evolution and growth of both Skyweaver the game and the community.

In terms of Web3 gaming as a whole, I’d love to see more game-first experiences. I believe we’ll see an evolution in terms of Web3 game design, economy design, and how Web3 games are marketed.

Tying a game to “Play-2-Earn” is problematic because it sets the expectation that you play a game to make money, so if you play the game and don’t make money, it’s disappointing. Or, if the primary reason for the game is to make money, and then another game comes out where there’s a higher yield, you just leave the original game to go play the new one.

We believe games that focus on the gameplay, strategy and fun first will build and foster more sustainable communities that thrive for a long time, and with thoughtful economy design, we’ll enable a symbiotic ecosystem for all participants – players, creators, and more.

In addition to seeing more game-first Web3 games with symbiotic economies, I’d love to see better onboarding and accessibility for these games, and we believe the Sequence Wallet will enable this 🙂

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The art style of Skyweaver has attracted a lot of praise – I’m certainly a huge fan! What inspired the art direction, and, as an example, how long does each card take to create, from idea generation to finished asset?

Daniel Racca, our wonderful Co-Founder and Chief Designer, is the best person to answer this question.

Daniel: The cell-shade anime-style inspired the art, and that was because of a time/speed constraint.

When we started Skyweaver, we knew we had to create many assets. Doing realistically-rendered artworks would be nearly impossible, so I decided to go with the cell-shade style that doesn’t require much rendering effort on the illustration but still looks great.

This constraint ended up giving the game a whole new style, differentiating itself from other bigger games. The cell-shade anime approach gave us the consistency to make all cards look like they belong within the same visual universe.

Before a card is “designed by an artist,” the card must be “designed for Skyweaver”. The art direction ensures that each art has the same aesthetic feel. Each artist has their own personal style, and the artwork creation process – which involves the original artist, our Lead Artist Renato Giacomini, and myself – ensures the style remains cohesive across all cards.

It’s a highly collaborative process involving multiple people. Over the years, we’ve worked with more than 50 artists worldwide from China to Brazil, and we have a core team of 10 artists who’ve worked with us since the beginning.

To make our process smoother, we developed a comprehensive Skyweaver art guideline that articulates the restraints and approaches artists needs to follow to make the artwork fit our style – from rendering techniques to the most suitable character gestures that fit nicely within the card frame.

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Creating a character or spell artwork takes two to three weeks. It usually starts with Coulter Baker, our Lead Game Designer, and I creating the initial brief that’s tied to the game’s lore and mechanics to make the character unique and fitting.

Then, I send the briefing to some of our freelance artists. It’s important to know which artist best fits the prompt, since everyone is different; some artists are more comfortable designing robots, whereas others prefer to design monsters and creatures. Knowing which artist is a better fit requires knowing their skills and being in constant communication to know what excites them as an artist.

After the briefing is sent, we have a session during which the artist, Renato, and I discuss, do paint-overs, and share ideas to make the artwork more exciting and creative.

When the artist delivers the final artwork, Renato does a final pass to make sure the colours and style are cohesive with all the other cards. Then, when the asset is finalized and ready for the game, it doesn’t go directly into a card but rather into a pool of available artworks.

From there, the Game Designers decide when and where to best use that artwork; it’s expected that some artworks will move around during the card-designing phase until it makes it into the game with the final mechanics and card name.

Even after an artwork makes it into Skyweaver, we still might make some adjustments and enhancements later on. Art direction is a never-ending process, and we’re always working to make our game look more creative and enjoyable than before.

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Speaking of the art team, how many people are actively working on Skyweaver? I see you have a number of open positions – with the Open Beta now live, are you looking to ramp up operations? What do you look for in prospective candidates?

At Horizon as a company, we have 43 full-time people distributed across 14 countries. Some folks are exclusively dedicated to Skyweaver, others exclusively dedicated to Sequence, and some team members work across both products.

On top of that, we’ve had 70+ part-time artists, musicians, designers, developers, and other creators contribute to Skyweaver over the years. Working with everyone has been a true honour, and it’s a really special feeling.

We’re always seeking more brilliant team members who align with our culture, values, and vision for building this new dimension where economies are fun, accessible, and for the benefit of all participants. Readers can learn more about Horizon and the open roles at our Careers page.

Skyweaver has regular patch updates every two weeks. What influenced this speedy approach, and how does this impact your approach to balancing the game?

Coulter Baker, our awesome Lead Game Designer, is the best person to answer this question.

Coulter: The balance patch schedule was driven by a desire to offer consistent and frequent windows for iteration.

We’ve seen the frustration that inconsistent or slow balance patches can create for the communities of other games, so ensuring we had a regular and frequent cadence for balance patches was important as a means of creating consistency for our players.

There’s no feeling of “when are they going to fix this?” as the community knows exactly when we will roll out our balance patch, and having a biweekly cadence helps minimize any frustrations that may arise from a sub-par metagame.

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On a related note, one unique aspect of your approach is that cards will never be banned, nor rotated out of play. How does this factor into your approach to card design and balancing?

Coulter: It definitely creates a need to think further ahead with regards to how we design cards. In particular, I’m always wary of how designs could limit future design space.

As an example, a card that supports Summon effects too effectively could jeopardize design space for all future Summon effects.

When it comes to balancing, the non-rotating format is supported by our more frequent and consistent balancing cadence, as even though we don’t rotate cards, we can make adjustments to any outliers more quickly, and have built up a patching schedule that regularly features small adjustments to our over and underperforming cards.

What does the Skyweaver community mean to you?

The Skyweaver community is special beyond words.

We have players from hundreds of countries around the world, some of whom have been alpha and private beta testing with us since December 2018. We have streamers and content creators from all parts of the globe and from all different walks of life.

The community consists of players ranging from casual gamers and TCG beginners all the way to Magic: the Gathering professionals and world champions of Pokémon and Hearthstone.

The community is diverse in so many ways, and they really care about the game. They’re organizing tournaments with third-party sponsors, operating leagues, creating tools to expand the Skyweaver economy, and running fan sites, lore sites, and stats sites.

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Throughout our journey, the community has played an integral role and has made a big impact on the Skyweaver game and our internal processes. Their passionate feedback has influenced everything ranging from the game’s visuals to certain gameplay features and card balancing.

We’re deeply honoured and grateful for the love and passion the community pours into Skyweaver to make it the wonderful ecosystem it is. And, we’re committed to nurturing and growing this community, supporting our creators, and making it easier for them to achieve their goals.

Since Day One, we’ve been very intentional about nurturing a community that’s inclusive, welcoming, loving and healthy. I tip my hat to our Director of Community Marcelo and Community Manager Ashavari, alongside our many team members and developers who support the community and our values.

And, I bow to our incredible community, with members from around the world, who’ve embraced and evolved our values into something that hundreds of thousands of players, and eventually millions and millions of players will enjoy.

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Is there anything you’d like to add? Anything you’d like to say directly to the reader?

Everything we create, we create with love, and we hope you love the Skyweaver experience 🙂

Play at our website. Join our Discord to share your feedback – we’d love to hear it. If you’re a creator, join our Creators Program – we’d love to support you.

Thank you for reading and being part of the journey.

It’s time for our quick-fire questions!

What fuels you?

Love.

One unusual fact about you?

I love dancing, doing handstands, and exploring other dimensions 🙂

If you could give one piece of advice, what would it be?

Play more 🙂 Play expresses gratitude for life itself and makes everything more wonderful.

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You can invite three people, real or fictional, to dinner. Who do you choose and why?

  • My fiancé Pandora because she’s the most brilliant, wonderful, fascinating, and infinite being, and I’m the most fortunate person to know her <3
  • Every one of our team members at Horizon because every single one is brilliant, a genius in their domain, and a special person.
  • All my best friends, because they’re such profound and special people.

In terms of people I haven’t met or enjoyed much time with:

  • Brit Marling, creator of The OA, because she’s a miraculous storyteller and creator of worlds, with an ability to connect with other dimensions and render them immersive for her audience.
  • Christopher Nolan and/or James Cameron because of their ability to execute on deeply profound visions to create experiences that hundreds of millions of people adore and are touched by.
  • Liu Cixin, author of The Three-Body Problem trilogy, because his imagination and storytelling abilities are otherworldly and astounding.
  • Vitalik Buterin because he invented one of the most beautiful technologies/platforms of all time.
  • Jiddu Krishnamurti for his deep philosophical and spiritual wisdom.

I could list many more, but I’ll leave it at those for now 🙂

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What is your purpose in life?

To embody unconditional love and treat each and every thing and everyone as a sovereign being that’s free to make its own choices.

This New Dimension we’re building at Horizon is part of that purpose, and I’m committed to infusing Web3 with values like love, openness, and play, and making it as fun, accessible, and beneficial as possible, so that everyone has the ability to participate and enjoy.

How can we follow all things Skyweaver and Horizon Blockchain Games?

Speaking to Michael, Daniel and Coulter was nothing short of an absolute joy. Their passion for what they are creating at Horizon Blockchain Games emanates from them like a dawn sunrise over a calm sea, and with their approach, their backing and their focus on providing the player with the best gaming experience they can, I have an intense faith that they can deliver a truly next-level Web3 experience.

When I covered the launch of the Open Beta two weeks ago, I remarked that Skyweaver is having an impact on trading card games on a level comparable to the launch of Hearthstone in 2014. After speaking with the team, and playing more of the game since then, I can confirm this with absolute certainty.

Head over to the Skyweaver website and see for yourself. You won’t regret it.

In lieu of an Interview Card, we have 1 of 10 Ultra Rare Golden Timmy’s to give away. These are a max mint of 10 – first minted in April 2021, only 4 have been minted so far!

To enter:
1) Follow @NFTInsider_io and @SkyweaverGame on Twitter
2) Like & RT the interview announcement tweet: click here!
3) Tag two friends
4) Comment with your WAX wallet address

Entries close at 23:59 UTC on Saturday 26th Feb.
Winners will be announced shortly afterwards!