On November 28, 2017, amidst the continuing rise in value and popularity of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, the tech-based Vancouver venture studio Axiom Zen launched their latest project, CryptoKitties — a game in which users can buy, sell, trade and even breed cute virtual cats using the cryptocurrency Ethereum.
Among the team of Axiom Zen employees who developed the game is a UBC student: fifth-year computer engineering student Jordan Schalm, who worked as a software engineer on the project.
Given the internet’s love of cats, the game’s popularity exploded fast. Within a week, CryptoKitties became the most popular application on the Ethereum network, and the high amount of transactions over the app caused all Ethereum-based transactions on the network to slow down. By the end of December, 180,000 users had spent around $20 million worth of ether on CryptoKitties, with some cats having sold for over $100,000.
Even WikiLeaks joined in on the fun, cheekily gifting two CryptoKitties to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as well as selling other cats with names such as “Iraq War Kitty” and “NSA Spying Kitty.”
“This was one of the crazier ideas we decided to try,” said Schalm.
Before working at Axiom Zen, Schalm was The Ubyssey’s web developer for four months in 2015. He’s also the current co-president of UBC Launch Pad, a software engineering club where students build projects together throughout the term. He got hired at Axiom Zen this summer, where he worked on an extension for Google Chrome called Toby that helps users organize their tabs.
“In Google Chrome, you have a bunch of tabs at the top, and that’s it,” he said. “Toby allows you to organize them into lists and quickly open and close sets of tabs at once.”
The Axiom Zen team developed CryptoKitties in order to introduce more people to Ethereum. Schalm began working on the game in early August, and he continued on a part-time basis when his classes resumed in September. Along with one other software engineer, Schalm was tasked with working on the game’s smart contracts.
Within cryptocurrency lingo — which is not exactly lucid for beginners — smart contracts are sets of code that organize the terms of a cryptomarket transaction. Once said terms are met, smart contracts automatically carry out the transaction. When working on CryptoKitties, Schalm was tasked with organizing the buying, selling and auctioning system in the game’s smart contracts.
As Schalm explained, the sale of the cats occur entirely within an open market where users determine their value.
“We don’t say ‘this cat is worth this amount of money,’ it’s completely up to the open market,” he said. “So if somebody puts a cat up for sale for this price and somebody buys it, then that’s how much it’s worth.”
Likewise, smart contracts also organize the game’s breeding system, which determines what the offspring of two different cats will look like. Although the other software engineer primarily worked on this aspect of the smart contracts, Schalm helped out on it as well.
The breeding system in CryptoKitties is perhaps its most striking feature. Each cat has a genetic pattern that determines its “cattributes,” such as the colour of their fur or the shape of their ears. The cats also don’t have fixed genders, but can be assigned the roles of either sire or matron when they breed. When two cats breed together, an algorithm takes the two cats’ genetic patterns and coordinates what cattributes the offspring will have.
A CryptoKitty’s specific cattributes can also play a role in how much a user can sell it for.
“When a new attribute is discovered that maybe only one or two or three [cats] in the world have, that scarcity increases the value,” said Schalm. “So that’s one way which cats can be more or less desirable to people.”
And then there are “fancy cats,” which are rare CryptoKitties that have special artwork designs. Examples of fancy cats include Kitty Perry, Chairman Meow and Feline Musk.
“There’s a certain kind of trigger that happens with a genetic code, and that will — rather than just showing what cattributes that cat has — trigger a fancy cat,” he said, “and you’ll see a fancy cat with a unique artwork rather than the summation of all the attributes of the cat.”
But besides trading and breeding, CryptoKitties are mostly just fun, silly digital collectibles.
“They’re like Beanie Babies or trading cards,” said Schalm.
And just like Beanie Babies, baseball cards or Pokémon cards back in the day, these collectibles are enormously popular.
“It took off more than I was suspecting, and we’ve got tons of good feedback from people who’ve enjoyed the game and bought their first twenty dollars of ether to try it out and learn about new technology,” he said.