Xai, the layer-3 gaming network built on Ethereum scaler Arbitrum, kicked off 2024 with a bang, launching its XAI token to early supporters and then announcing that noted NFT game studio Laguna Games will bring Crypto Unicorns and related titles to the network.

So what’s next? More games, of course.

Ex Populus, which co-founder and CEO Tobias Batton described to Decrypt’s GG as the “labs company that serves the Xai Foundation,” is a game studio—and its games are set to be the first out the gate in the coming months as the Xai ecosystem takes shape.

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The first, called Final Form, is a card-battler game with NFTs. According to its official website, the game will support NFT cards previously released on Solana via a bridge to Arbitrum. Batton said that the game is “penciled in for April,” but that the ETA could change. He said the game is playable and “moving into a polish phase,” so it can’t be far off.

LAMOverse is the other game from Ex Populus, and it’s a long-in-development online action game with colorful, cartoonish environments. Tied into physical LAMO toys based on gaming influencers like Ninja and Dr. Disrespect, LAMOverse is set to debut sometime after Final Form, and the game studio says it’s likewise playable and nearing a proper launch on Xai.

Batton recounted that Ex Populus spent substantial time seeking an ideal gaming chain for its projects and said that it explored building on other Ethereum scaling networks like Polygon or Immutable X. But, he said, each chain the studio tried had trade-offs that made the team “not enthusiastic” about committing to those ecosystems.

Ultimately, Arbitrum creator Offchain Labs proposed building a custom gaming chain that would suit the needs of Ex Populus while also providing a home for other studios in the future. Thus Xai was born.

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In this team-up, Batton said, Ex Populus built the software that powers the Sentry Nodes that early users have purchased to support the Xai network. It also makes games and works in a publisher-like role to help other studios onboard to Xai and get their games in front of players.

That’s the kind of role that Ex Populus will serve for Laguna Games as it migrates its Crypto Unicorns games and associated NFTs from Polygon to Xai this year. And Batton said that he’s seen a “massive influx” of other studios reaching out since the airdrop to get involved with Xai, whether they’re building new games or migrating from existing chains.

In this dual role of game developer and distribution partner, Batton said that Ex Populus is attempting to be the Web3 version of Valve. That gaming powerhouse is known not only for operating the popular Steam PC gaming store, but also developing iconic games like Half-Life, Portal, and Counter-Strike. Fortnite maker Epic Games has charted a similar path.

Ex Populus doesn’t yet have the storied gaming legacy of those long-running giants, of course, but it also faces the immense challenge of trying to convince traditional gamers that user-owned NFT assets and crypto-driven economies are beneficial. And gamers have broadly not been too receptive to such overtures in the past.

What could make that easier is the way that the Xai network abstracts away the complexities of wallet use and asset handling for users who don’t want to get deep into the “crypto” of it all. Your average player doesn’t have to worry about self-custody of NFTs or tokens, plus Xai provides a gas-free experience for players.

“We had this crazy idea that if you remove wallets and remove gas from everything, that you can experience large growth,” Batton explained. “Really, the benefits of blockchain are the ability to trade items and own items—all the stuff we always hear about—but there's a tremendous amount of friction that stands in the way of that.”

There still are wallets, but for traditional gamers, they’re managed in the back end by the Xai team. And if you’d rather bring in your own wallet and self-custody your assets, that option is certainly available for veteran crypto users.

“As a traditional gamer who maybe isn't familiar with crypto or is a little averse to it, these games just seem like a normal game,” said Batton, who added that there would be wallet management features in the settings. “And then you're like, ‘Oh, I have a wallet. I didn't even know it.’ So it sort of breadcrumbs people into this experience in a way that doesn't seem so obtuse.”

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It’s been a busy couple of months for Xai. The Sentry Node sale, which let users invest in supporting the network and receive an allocation of XAI tokens, was a sizable success with about $30 million in sales. And the XAI airdrop that followed certainly made waves, putting over $150 million worth of tokens (at peak value) into users’ wallets.

But as Batton described, the journey dates back to 2022. It’s been a steady rise in prominence and buzz, in his view—and the biggest moves are still yet to come as games start going live on the network.

“It’s a grassroots approach—it didn't happen overnight,” he affirmed. “It took months and months and months of building this hype and this community and excitement.”

“Having Laguna agree to deploy their games is a big deal, because before this news, it was just hype. It's just an empty chain,” Batton added. “But now it's not an empty chain. It's got real games coming.”

Edited by Ryan Ozawa.

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