Chris Wang has done it all. As well as selling a business to Disney for hundreds of millions of dollars, he was one of Web3's earliest champions.
Here, he speaks to Cointelegraph about the hurdles that Web3 needs to overcome in order to reach billions of users, and how he thinks the industry will evolve in the years ahead.
Plus, Chris also tells us more about what ThunderCore, his latest venture, is doing to achieve a "mobile entertainment revolution."
1. Hi Chris! You were the quickest person to graduate with a PhD at Carnegie Mellon University. What was that like — and why did you become interested in computer science?
I spent two years and 10 months going from a bachelor's degree to a computer science PhD. When I was young, I was always interested in math. I really liked problem solving. I wanted to do something practical.
I played a lot of video games at that time too — Warcraft, Civilization, that kind of thing. I wasn't so much of a Counter-Strike guy… wasn't so quick with the mouse! I was much more into the strategy side, particularly turn-based games. So with my career, I thought it'd be very cool if I could focus on video games.
I also learned a lot about programming at a young age and participated in a lot of programming contests. I went to high school in California and graduated in three years. At that time, I participated in one nationwide programming contest and was ranked 14th in the U.S. Then I went to Berkeley for my undergrad – also three years – and then it was on to Carnegie Mellon for the PhD. With all this graduating quickly stuff, it was really just a challenge to see if I could pull it off. It gave me some measure of satisfaction to be able to do so.
2. You are one of the early adopters of Web2 — both as a builder and VC. Talk to us about Playdom and its journey.
After I graduated, I went to Google for two years (2006 to 2008,) where I worked on local search. Then I decided to start my own social gaming company called Playdom.
We had wanted to develop for Facebook after it opened up its API. First, I tried some e-commerce ideas where you recommend a product to a friend and then get a cut, but it turned out that people don't really like selling to their friends. Then I tried some dating app stuff, which grew to over one million daily active users in a month, but we had almost no retention. And that's when I started to get back to my roots with gaming.
The period when I built Playdom was from 2008 to 2010. It culminated when I sold it to Disney for over half a billion dollars. I was selected by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of the best young tech entrepreneurs too. At that time, we were the second-largest gaming company on Facebook. In the end, we brought Playdom to 42 million monthly active users.
A lot of Playdom's user base came from viral growth, where users would recommend games to their friends. We would reward players with in-game currency and special achievements for inviting people. We really focused on collaborating and incentivizing our users to become our ambassadors in Playdom.
After the acquisition, I stayed at Disney for two more years as a VP of technology, basically handling all the social and mobile gaming for them. This gave me a lot of insights into the adoption of Web3. I still believe strongly that mobile is going to be the way that we onboard most new users to Web3.
3. How did you evaluate projects to invest in? What played the main role in your decision? How is investing in Web3 different from investing in Web2?
The first thing I ask myself is: "Why right now?"
There are a lot of smart people out there, and if an idea was possible five or ten years ago, someone probably would have done it already. So I look for whatever recent shift may be enabling this potentially promising new idea.
The other main thing I look for is compatibility with my own understanding of what's likely to happen in the future. After I sold Playdom to Disney, I was of the view that much more in the way of daily activities would move online, and that's why I became an early investor in Alibaba as well.
Right now with Web3, I'm really convinced that the future is mobile and that we need to reach users who are not necessarily as tech savvy as your average crypto enthusiast. I think we are headed for several years of massively increased adoption, a lot of which will be in the form of Web2 companies integrating Web3 features like NFTs into existing apps. This is what people have begun referring to as Web2.5.
Incidentally, I don't think Web3 will entirely replace Web2. Blockchain technology has many terrific use cases — particularly with digital assets — but it's not the best solution for every problem.
4. Having such an experience with Web2, how do you (realistically) evaluate the current state of Web3? Is there any infrastructure ready to start building the new web?
I think Web3 is still in its earliest stages, only at the start of its journey. It's really only reached a fraction of the people using the internet. The key is who can capture mainstream users, most of whom are not in the blockchain space.
Right now a lot of people have heard of things like Bitcoin and NFTs, but they're not using them yet. And the interesting thing is that I think a lot of companies are not focusing on this. A lot of them are focused on the tiny group of Web3 users, when what they really should be focused on is how to get regular people involved.
Back in the day with BlackBerry, their focus was on the business users, the early adopters. And then Apple came along with the iPhone and ate their lunch. For a lot of applications in Web3 now, you have to pay before you can even try it, like get some tokens or whatever. I mean, what is this?! It's almost unheard of in Web2. And let's not even mention the interfaces — the interfaces are just really not there yet.
Another issue is developer talent. Right now, there is really high demand for Web3 developers, and so it can be hard for projects to attract and retain the talent they need. Our solution is to pay higher salaries for engineers. We pay more than Google does in Taiwan.
When it comes to the infrastructure, we're getting there in terms of the technology. The chains are sufficiently fast and scalable. I think a lot of the pieces are in place and what we really need now is to bring in these droves of people for whom Web3 is really not on their minds now. And I think a lot of how this will happen is through mobile and gaming.
5. Is it true that you thought Web3 was going to be "a thing" in 2017? Why did you think that, and why do you think the trend didn't get as much attention back then?
Yes, it's true. It's mostly the idea of collaboration without prior trust, which is very powerful. Think about what it would be like a decade ago if you wanted to pool liquidity to start a credit market with a bunch of strangers. How would you even begin to go about something like this? But with DeFi platforms like Aave, this can happen on a massive scale, with over $16 billion in assets coming together. This is only possible because of smart contracts, which of course run on the blockchain. Back in 2017, the scalability of blockchain technology simply wasn't there yet. And I guess it wasn't obvious to everyone that this was going to become a reality so soon.
6. Tell us about your current venture, ThunderCore.
So what we're trying to do with ThunderCore is have a fast and secure, scalable public blockchain, with cheap gas fees. It's about 4,000 transactions per second, sub-second confirmation times, and also sub-second finalization. You could think of it as a lot of what Ethereum 2.0 is trying to do, but we're already there with the tech. We can achieve all of this because our consensus mechanism, PaLa, is very similar to Proof-of-Stake.
We started in 2017; our mainnet, cross-chain bridge, and wallet all launched in 2019; and by 2020, we had reached the top in blockchains in terms of daily active users. We have about as many users as Solana. We're also compatible with most things like MetaMask, Remix, Truffle, and so on. Developers can redeploy directly to ThunderCore by changing the RPC endpoint, too.
We were also one of the earliest EVM-compatible blockchains, which is essential because everything is in Solidity right now. In the blockchain world, I strongly encourage anyone who wants to write smart contracts to reuse as much existing code as possible for security reasons, and most of these are in Solidity. So among the EVM-compatible chains, we're probably one of the fastest and the cheapest. We're about 1,000 times cheaper than even BSC. We're comparable to Polygon in gas costs, but we're about 10 times faster. This is one of the reasons that we're one of the best blockchains for NFTs.
We've been focused on mobile and seamless integration for Web2 users for several years now, and it seems now that we may have been a little early, which has given us time to perfect our technology as developers slowly find us and we get ready for the moment of mass adoption.
On top of all this, we have a vibrant ecosystem that has many DEXs, bridges, NFT marketplaces, GameFi, and so on.
7. So what does the future of Web3 really look like?
So as I've been getting at, I think a lot of what we're likely to see happen is existing Web2 legacy platforms integrating Web3 features. Because Web3 is still so small, any major name brand entering the space is likely to become a massive player almost immediately.
The biggest apps in Web3 have about half a million daily active users at the moment — and this is tiny compared to Web2. So one of the first things that seems inevitable is just companies that have this kind of outsize influence taking advantage of it in Web3. And we're ideally suited to help them transition.
Even my mom is asking me about NFTs these days. What needs to happen is for mobile development in Web3 to reach the level where we can bring in these users and take it to the next level.
One of our contributions to these ease-of-use issues focuses on the developer side. We really want to make it easy not just for Web2 users but also for Web2 developers to make the transition to Web3. For this reason, we've developed the ThunderGene API tool.
ThunderGene makes it easy for developers to create wallets where the KYC has already been taken care of and it's possible to link up with DEXs and swap tokens very easily in and out of, for example, a GameFi app – or even issue tokens to users. On top of helping developers keep their users in a single app, we want to take the burden of worrying about compliance and cybersecurity away from developers to help really get things moving in this space.
We're all about helping users and developers get to a place where everything is seamless and integrated and free to try, the kind of solutions that will bring in the next billion people to Web3.
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