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Niantic and a crypto debit card company made an AR game where you earn Bitcoin

Have you ever played Pokémon Go and thought, “I wish this game let you earn small amounts of Bitcoin by engaging with internet finance memes and a cryptocurrency debit card system?” If so, I don’t believe you, but I have good news.

Fold AR is a new augmented reality game from Pokémon Go developer Niantic and the financial company Fold. The game — which a press release dubs part of the metaverse — is very loosely modeled on Pokémon Go but themed around cryptocurrency. As explained by Fold CEO Will Reeves, it runs with the metaphor of “mining” Bitcoin. So instead of capturing cute monsters, the central mechanic involves finding cubes of binary code and tapping them like Minecraft blocks until they reveal a prize.

The prizes include Bitcoin in the denomination of Satoshis, a very small unit currently worth around 1/20th of a penny. They also include power-ups for Fold, which already gamifies card purchases through an app that lets you spin a wheel and win Bitcoin rewards.

Unlike Pokémon Go and other Niantic games, though, Fold AR (which is launched from inside the Fold app) is not currently set in a world full of virtual places that correspond to real-world locations. Instead, the game spawns a block between 1 and 50 feet away from the player every 10 minutes, mirroring the rate of real Bitcoin mining. The team hopes to launch other features beginning early next year, potentially including a geocaching-like multiplayer system that lets you hide Bitcoin for friends to find, as well as some form of non-fungible token, or NFT, system based on Bitcoin.

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Reeves says the goal is partly to make a virtual currency feel real by creating an AR setting for it. The game is filled with cryptocurrency and meme stock in-jokes, featuring mechanics with names like “Diamond Hands.” But it’s supposed to appeal to both cryptocurrency newcomers and existing fans — “This is a wonderful experience to share with people,” says Reeves. It’s also reminiscent of the financial gamification found in non-crypto investing app Robinhood.

More broadly, Fold AR is part of a trend called “play to earn” that gives players cryptocurrency rewards instead of purely in-game currency. The NFT-based play-to-earn game Axie Infinity has spawned a complicated economy over the past few years, although that seems far less likely here.

Reeves suggested that Niantic might look at Fold AR features — including the play-to-earn system — for inspiration. However, he said that there was no official roadmap for anything like adding financial features to any existing Niantic game. He also didn’t disclose precisely what parts of the game Niantic developed.

In a statement, Niantic’s Megan Hughes said that “games always help us push the boundaries of technology and allow us to incubate some of our most audacious thinking, but we see incredible opportunity in multiple categories, including payments.” It’s not a totally new turn for the studio — Ingress featured advertising partnerships with Duane Reade and JambaJuice, among other companies. But with Niantic also increasingly focused on AR glasses, it could offer a sign about what kind of experiences that might involve.

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