A $32 million seed round for Chris DeWolfe's next gaming biz defies 2023 trends

A $32 million seed round may seem like a throwback to frothier times, like ... 2021. But that's how much PLAI Labs just raised in a deal led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z).

It's a lot of moolah in a volatile market, even coming as it does from two separate a16z funds: the firm's $600 million debut games vehicle and its $4.5 billion crypto fund, both of which were announced last May.

Then again, PLAI Labs checks all the boxes on VCs' wish lists.

First and foremost, the LA-based outfit was founded by veteran tech entrepreneurs Chris DeWolfe and Aber Whitcomb. The pair previously co-founded the once-hot social media platform Myspace (which originally sold to News Corp. for $580 million in 2005) and the mobile game studio Jam City.

The latter remains privately held, but after scrapping plans to go public through a special purpose acquisition company, it managed to snag $350 million in funding in 2021 from Netmarble, Kabam and affiliates of funds managed by Fortress Investment Group, which suggests it's doing just fine. (Indeed, Jam City, which claims to have 30 million monthly active users, announced this morning that a third co-founder, Josh Yguado, is now running the show after serving as the company's COO and president previously.)

Beyond being launched by seasoned founders, PLAI (pronounced /plā/) is also apparently weaving every buzzy trend into one offering, describing its own mission as leveraging "web3 and generative AI technology to offer the ultimate online social experience."

Crypto? Check. Generative AI? Check. A new social platform? Where do I write the check, is the question the a16z team must have been asking.

For what it's worth, PLAI's first offering sounds compelling. We're talking to DeWolfe in the next couple of days for more information, but in a blog post, a16z's team describes that project, "Champions Ascension," as a "massively multiplayer online role playing game where players can port in their existing non-fungible token (NFTs) characters, go on quests, trade items, fight in the colosseum, build their own custom dungeons, and more."

PLAI, the post continues, is also "building an AI protocol platform," one that aims to help users generate their own content and assets with the help of generative art protocols that the outfit says it has been developing.

Again, more details are coming.

In the meantime, the bet is just the latest by investor Andrew Chen, who currently leads the gaming practice at Andreessen Horowitz. Just two days ago, Carry1st, a publisher of social games and interactive content across Africa, said that it had raised $27 million in "pre-Series B" funding from investors, including a16z.

Andreessen Horowitz also recently led an $8 million round in Gym Class, a VR-based basketball app that passed through the famed accelerator Y Combinator.

In the fall of 2021, before a16z’s gaming practice existed, its crypto team bet big on another NFT game, "Axie Infinity," which invites users to "play to earn" crypto tokens that enable them to create and play with breedable characters called "Axies."

Though the game was big and growing at the time of that investment, the Ronin blockchain on which "Axie Infinity" is based was hacked last July and $620 million worth of crypto stolen.

The company, which is still trying to recover users' funds, re-opened for business shortly afterward.