Utility is Exploring Trust and Programmable Utility

From a Soho 3D printing shop to an adventure game in the metaverse, is stretching the limit of how collectibles can function

Text Zine
Published 15 Dec 2021

From a preliminary glance, fits comfortably within a pantheon of digital/internet art pioneers and wunderkinds who’ve scrutinized anthropomorphic characters and bots: Hito Steyerl’s video installation, “Factory of the Sun”, which premiered at the German Pavilion in the 2015 Venice Biennale, featured hordes of anonymous workers, described as “machines”, in a critique of exploitation and an increasingly materialized world; Trevor McFedries’ Lil Miquela project questioned reality with a character lodged in the depths of the uncanny valley; Ed Atkins’ “Ribbons” from 2014 focused in on Dave, a musing avatar whose incessant drinking and smoking is as brash as his tattooed face.

In many of net artists’ practices, the avatar, the human proxy, is intended to evoke a sense of dread or malaise, a figure whose humanity has been sucked out due to modernity’s profiteering or surveillance: we may feel disembodied, averse to engaging with this “person”. However, with, avoiding the variety of avatars isn’t part of the equation; in fact, actively searching for Manny avatars is how one wins the blockchain video game.

In September this year, engineer and digital artist manny404 assumed another role: gamemaster. He developed the genesis NFT, a custom ERC-721 token smart contract. The video game’s objective is to collect the assortment of Mannys, with the hope of finding the Golden Manny, in which case the person would mint the token and win the game. Here, the rarity is the avatars themselves. Needless to say, yielded a curious result, where user nasjaq—who found the Golden Manny, but was unable to mint because he hadn’t obtained the other necessary Mannys—collaborated with two other players who gave him the other tokens, and the winning was split. Needless to say, is a rich example of the collaborative spirit embedded in Web3’s infrastructure.

Liam Casey (ZORA): Share your experience first discovering Web3 and your journey getting to where you are now.

manny404: I've been doing digital art for 10 plus years now. I went to art school for graphic design in Miami called New World School of the Arts. When I got there [I] just started doing conceptual art and new media art—that was really new and exciting at the time to me. I just dropped out, moved to New York, and chased the whole scene that was here with Rhizome and Eyebeam and all these new media galleries that really didn't exist in Miami at the time.

So I started making digital art, little clients here and there. Then I started working professionally as a software engineer. I always had a full time job at different companies or clients just doing software work to pay the bills, [it’s] nice that I end up using a lot of those techniques in my work anyway. Most of the stuff I build is web apps and browser-based projects, so it all meshes; I'll even be using code that I wrote for a side project at work and vice-versa.

2017-18 is when I got into crypto, bought some Ethereum, some shit coins, and some other stuff, that whole ICO craziness. I was up a lot at some point, and then it crashed…So I ended up more or less breaking even; not selling at a loss, but not really selling at a great gain, either. And looking back, yeah, it's painful. In 2018, the first thing I did [was] a project at Ethereal Summit—a consensus conference for Ethereum—and they had a little art grant that we applied for, just me and some friends of mine.

LC: What was that collective called?

M: It was ART404, which we're not as active making projects together anymore, but all still tight and working together when we can. But really my first journey into digital art was forming this collective, making work together, putting out projects, and art shows. We did this weird coin market cap for artists, kind of a website; we were doing sentiment analysis on the tweets and feedback, taking in social media metrics—stats, likes, follows, all that kind of stuff—and then crunching them into these charts and bars. It was all a very conceptual gesture, it wasn't meant to be super analytical or serious, but it was very much more about crypto culture than about actual blockchain mechanics. I didn't really delve into Solidity or anything like that around that time. We showed work from Rhea Myers, who's like a super, blockchain crypto OG. I was mostly just a fan and observer of these artists, but I wasn't making crypto art at that time, per se.

LC: Right, and surely they all informed your work and provided a foundation.

M: Oh yeah. We also showed Jonas Lund who did a Jonas Lund token all the way back then, before everyone was tokenizing themselves or making NFTs. This last year I joined the Friends with Benefits Discord that my boss, Trevor McFedries, started, and just started lurking. [It’s] very crypto/NFT-focused, and then I just got curious about writing my own smart contract and learning Solidity. I had already been doing my Manny avatar project for the last three years; I'd had that scan since 2018.

My biggest project with that was my GIPHY account, which became verified. Any app that integrated with GIPHY, you could search ‘Manny Not Found’, and get all these little stickers, GIFs of my avatar doing different things: expressing emotions, et cetera. It was a fun way to spread myself in the metaverse. That was one outlet of the project, but of course, there was no real monetization of that. I still get millions of views sometimes with stickers; friends still actually message me like, ‘Wait, is this you in my GIF app? What is this’?

It wasn't really a sustainable thing. And then once this whole NFT boom thing happened this year, it just piqued my interest in using the avatars in that way. I'm also just very curious about NFTs that have programmed utility, that it isn't just, ‘Okay, you buy this NFT and it represents a media asset’, it's like, ‘You buy this NFT and it can actually do something’. That was the main impetus: I want to do an NFT project using my 3D avatar and it does something. So I landed on this idea of this collectible, this almost action-figure thing, and it's just my 3D model. It's like a little Manny, like a little Manny pet. Frontpage

LC: When you went for the scan, did you specifically have the game in mind, or was that an amorphous idea? ‘Oh, I'm going to just do this and then see what branches out from that'?

M: The scan was a funny story, it was this company called Doob 3D. They had a store in Soho and their business really was doing 3D scans of people, and then making 3D-printed figurines of them. So there were a lot of families going in, getting a family portrait, and then having a little sculpture of themselves—it was really sentimental sculpture stuff. And I was like, ‘Wait, I don't want a sculpture, can I just get the raw files you guys are creating’? And they were like, ‘Actually, yeah, we have an avatar creation service’.

So I got it, and at the time, I was really into VR and Unity 3D, Unreal Engine, as well as Three.js, because I was just always using [it] in my browser-based 3D experiences. I knew that having this model would enable me to cross over into all those metaverses. I was really inspired by Solvency from Ezra Miller, because he made his own website to view the NFTs, which I thought was genius; if you're a programmer and a creative programmer like we are, you can create your own NFT viewing experience, which I think is really crucial. Like, I look at my NFTs on OpenSea, but it's really cool that it has a dedicated viewing mechanism, and then you can imbue more functionality into that viewing mechanism, which is what I've done with

There's a little place where you can go to your token, see your Manny, but then there are [also] buttons you can click to interact with your Manny and do things; there's a scoring system and I want to add more rich functionality to that and people are now building games upon it. So the answer is no, I didn't go into the scan to make an NFT video game, but I definitely did the scan because I knew that it would unlock the potential of making the games.

LC: It sounds like a good example of what the metaverse can create: endless personalization and building on top of each other. That's what really draws people towards it.

M: I mean, I'm not trying to sniff my own farts here, but it does feel kind of nice that I was doing this three years ago and now there's all this Facebook Meta, Microsoft, 3D avatars coming out where everyone has a little 3D avatar scan of them. Even iPhone apps have richer photogrammetry options; I see just people walking around with an iPhone and scanning a person and it looks pretty damn good.

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LC: What were some of the biggest challenges you might have had when developing the game?

M: I had a pivot in concept, which ended up kind of working for me: it simplified the work flow on the project and allowed me to launch quicker; it also allowed me to launch a more cohesive, understandable idea. Basically, the original premise was really to be more like a Fortnite or a World of Warcraft, where the idea was to have a Manny, but then collect rare accessories. I really wanted to make it so that you would have to get a special hat, and then a sword, or maybe robes. Then the combination of all those things would be what had you win the game.

So it was really going to be more about accessories and trading accessories on your Manny. The issue that I ran into was [that] I'm not really a good 3D modeler, this is my biggest secret. I do a lot of 3D work, but I'm not really a good modeler, I'm more of a programmer just putting things together and hacking things together in Blender. So I was buying assets from 3D marketplaces, but they all have this restriction where you can't resell that asset in another virtual marketplace, which is exactly what I would be doing essentially. I didn't want to be another one of those NFT artists that's like, ‘This NFT artist took this copyrighted material and just resold it as an NFT’. I wanted to avoid that whole thing. So, I ended up pivoting and was like, ‘Okay, well we won't make it about accessories, we'll just make it about rare Mannys themselves’. The Mannys themselves would be the thing that you have to collect, and that would be where the rarity is.

I think that [was the] challenge: not being able to create my own custom 3D assets because it's just not really in my tool set, and it really is a whole specialized field. So I work with 3D modelers now, now that I've raised some funds from I can actually pay 3D modelers to create assets.

LC: Other than nasjaq, who was able to mint the Golden Manny? Have there been any other winners?

M: So, it's interesting. I knew from day one—and I think it was very clear in the initial launch of the game—there would be more losers than winners. It was pretty much the trading card game ethos: you buy a pack of trading cards, and most of the time, you open up a bunch of commons and it's not worth what you spent, right? But every now and then you hit a Charizard and you can resell it for a lot of money, right? That was the general concept, and I thought people would be more competitive, but it actually seems like the Web3 crypto community is super trusting.

I don't think it's a huge secret, but nasjaq colluded with two other people who gave him Mannys and then he split them; he cut them off a piece of the final pop. This all happened unbeknownst to me. It was just literally in Twitter notifications, because he minted the first Zombie. Then people kind started reaching out to him being like, ‘Hey, I have this one, I have this one’. Then they came together and spent a considerable amount on the secondary market to complete the collection, and they're racing against everyone else. So yes, there were people who minted a rare Manny and then flipped it on the secondary market for a couple ETH. They didn't win the game, but they definitely came out winning.

There are other people who bought Mannys who just wanted to support the project or wanted to play and have fun, they didn't win and they're really happy with it. I was happy, too, because the nature of the first launch was very gambly, and I didn't want anybody to feel like they were taken advantage of. Luckily, for the most part, that's been the case: no one has felt that way. I'm just trying to keep building upon it and making it more interesting and cool, so the people who do have Mannys feel like it is going somewhere, it's not just a dead-end project. So I just want to keep building on it, keep adding value. Even this week, Manny holders have been getting a lot of advantages: I took them all out to lunch, and I've been getting them into all these NFT events and connecting them with people.

LC: The trust aspect is really paramount to the project itself. It's amazing that the Web3 community is interconnected, supportive of each other, and genuinely wants to watch out for each other. Do you feel trust may, as more people come into the space, disintegrate over time, and maybe would evolve in a way you didn’t necessarily envision?

M: Yeah. There's definitely going to be a culture shift when more and more people come in, especially people who are not “crypto native”, but I also think there's always going to be a space for projects like this amongst early adopters or hardcore fans, because there's a lot of speculation, even with the Coinbase NFT marketplace that's launching soon, that they're like, ‘Oh, there's going to be a bunch of new people in the NFT space and new customers and whatever’. I think that's partially true, but I don't know if they're going to be the same people who are traversing Hic et Nunc, and trying to buy new media art, or bidding on Foundation pieces. I think that's still a little bit more niche community, but I like to think that those kind of communities will always be there and there will always be a space for projects like this that are more experimental, weird, and about trust. I don't have a crystal ball, but I'm optimistic that there will be space for projects like this.

LC: You've integrated with Loot, Rug Weaver, and CrypToadz. Do you envision developing other sorts of contract-based games with more collaborators?

M: Oh man, I was literally just thinking about this: how I want to make another integration soon, because I've been busy with other stuff, but I definitely want to add another one. My process is, I go through the list of Manny holders, find the other NFTs that Manny holders own, and then sort them by unique popularity. So if there's 50 Manny holders that have CrypToadz, then that's one of the most popular NFTs amongst Manny holders. And then that's the next integration that I build.

I want to continue using that process to make more integrations, and yes, the next phase of is going to be contract-based that—not to spoil too much—will use funds raised from the initial game into a collective pool that owners will be competing for; it's going to be a mix of contract and off-chain stuff too, because I really love the scavenger hunt that Spencer [Obsitnik]—the guy who made the Mannyverse Unity Game—hid in there, where it was clues within the game that then unlocked other clues, which led to a wallet. I don't want to make it too much of a rabbit hole, but I do like the concept of rewarding people who inspect further or who go deeper.

LC: Without disclosing too much, what other kinds of projects might you have in the metaverse? What else is on your agenda?

M: Right. I definitely see the possibility for Layer-2 integration to do richer stuff; I have a friend who's building a thing right now that will be a little bit more time-based and involved, and I think he's doing it on Layer-1, doing a lot of the actions off-chain with signing. Even the Tattoo Shop thing I did, it's pretty much all off-chain. It's Web2. It's like you signed a message to prove that you own the Manny, but then all the data that I'm storing is on S3, very Web2 solutions, because to do all of that on-chain would be too expensive.

So if that doesn't improve, I do see more integrations with Layer-2 to make things cheaper. I really do want to explore the Mannyverse that Spencer started, he's made the source code available to me, so we're going to soon be collaborating on that and just build out richer functionality: you just log in to this game and you can be connected in real time with other Mannys, there's a chat room, there's going to be games, events, and concerts. I just want to beat Zuckerberg to the chase. Tokens

LC: It’s interesting having to play this weird back-and-forth ping pong ball from Web2 to Web3. Gas certainly is a serious concern for a lot of folks. Despite the endless possibilities in Web3, what do you think might be hindering the movement? Or what do you think is still lacking in the space?

M: Security. I like to think of myself as savvy, but even I'm sometimes scared of being compromised, being phished. Luckily I'm really bad at checking emails and messages, so security through ignorance I guess. But yeah, it's really easy to get scammed in this space. Even with Layer-2 stuff, when gas becomes cheap, more projects proliferate and more scam projects proliferate because they're cheap to deploy and easy to scam people. Then there's the act of botting: a lot of drops on these cheaper blockchains are botted because it's cheaper, so it's not as expensive to run a bot and buy up all the supply of something.

I also think it's really hard to learn all the NFT culture stuff. I had to really watch the space for many months before I felt comfortable buying an NFT. And then even when I did, most of the ones that I bought speculatively did not perform well, and that's fine. Again, I knew what I was getting into, and some of them I bought just because I liked them and I'm going to collect them, even if they go to zero, I don't mind.

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