The Disappearance of Tencent’s Blockchain and the Gang of Web3 in the Goose Factory

Author: Jack, BlockBeats

“Tencent Gang” emerges in Web3.

As a leading Internet giant, Tencent was one of the first to enter the blockchain field in China. In 2021, the news that “Axie Infinity’s revenue surpasses King of Glory” became a turning point in Tencent’s internal sentiment. Since then, Tencent has actively explored and nurtured a large number of influential projects and teams in the field of metaverse and Web3, including projects like ZhiXinChain and Phantom Core.

However, in the past six months, most of the news about “big players entering the game” seen by practitioners in the cryptocurrency industry has come from AntChain and Alibaba Cloud. When BlockBeats inquired about it from Tencent, it was found that there were basically no Web3-related businesses internally.

On the other hand, Tencent employees are “group entrepreneurship” in Web3. They have close social and cooperative connections, and the organizational structure and product logic of their projects also have obvious stylistic features. Many projects have also made initial progress in the industry.

Rescuing GameFi

On Saturday, the 19th of last month, Meta SLianGuaice café in Beijing was particularly lively. A Web3 shooting game called Matr1x Fire held a community offline event here, with more than 100 people gathering to share their game experience, views on GameFi, and discuss the future roadmap of the project. There was also a 5V5 game competition organized on-site, which was very active.

In the cold winter of the cryptocurrency industry, few teams in even the popular field like ZK can organize such a community event on their own, let alone Matr1x Fire, a GameFi project from the “outdated track”.

Matr1x Fire event scene

Since StepN fell from grace in April last year, the sustainable development of GameFi seems to have become an unsolvable problem. Due to uneven game quality, lack of player demand, and deficiencies in economic model design, GameFi has left a deep impression of “scam” and “Ponzi scheme” on most Web3 practitioners.

According to Footprint Analytics data, the market value of the GameFi track has shrunk from $93.7 billion at the beginning of 2022 to $13.3 billion. In terms of the number of GameFi projects, there are currently less than 80 active projects, while the number of inactive projects exceeds 1,600, and the gap between the two continues to widen.

Data source: Footprint Analytics

As the track cools down, investors have started to shift their focus to new narratives, and discussions about full-chain games have gradually become frequent in the encrypted VC circle. The traditional GameFi relying on NFT transactions and token incentives no longer seems attractive under the new imagination of the full-chain game. Project financing difficulties and slow progress in product roadmaps make it seem like the era of GameFi is about to become a thing of the past.

The emergence of Matr1x Fire seems to have interrupted this seemingly irreversible trend.

This is an FPS shooting mobile game that focuses on PVP multiplayer competition and PVE casual gameplay. A few weeks ago, all 3,000 BattleLianGuaiss NFTs of this game were sold out in less than 5 hours. In the subsequent open test, Matr1x Fire achieved user data in the GameFi field that had not been seen for a long time. According to the Matr1x Fire team members interviewed by BlockBeats, the number of registered users on the test day exceeded 200,000, and the game app still maintains tens of thousands of active users.

Matr1x Fire completed a $10 million financing round in September last year, with participation from Korean financial giant Hana Financial Investments, HashKey, Amber, and other institutions. It was not until August of this year that the alpha testing and promotion work began. According to team members who revealed to BlockBeats, the team has spent nearly 100 million yuan on game development so far. During the year and a half of development process, a lot of time has been spent on polishing the product details.

Real FPS players or professional gamers value the overall hunting experience of the game. “For example, FPS involves issues such as time delay, synchronization of opponents’ shooting time, matchmaking of players from different regions, TTK (Time To Kill), shooting feel, etc. These are very complex problems. Many Matr1x players have given us feedback that they think the game’s recoil feel and other experiences are done very well,” said H, a founding member of Matr1x, to BlockBeats.

Matr1x Fire game screen

In addition to Matr1x Fire, another Web3 Mahjong game called Mahjong Meta has also attracted a lot of attention recently.

On August 3, this Ethereum-based game announced that it had completed a $12 million financing round in the cold winter of GameFi. Dragonfly, Folius Ventures, and the parent company of StepN, Find Satoshi Labs, are all on the list of investors. According to the data provided by the team, Mahjong launched its beta testing in May this year and attracted more than 15,000 players in the following two months, completing more than 490,000 matches. Its game NFT achieved a total trading volume of nearly 500 ETH on Opensea.

After the official launch in early August, the Mahjong team is still very busy. “There are still quite a few milestones recently, including some detailed functions and optimizations that we want to achieve in version 1.0, as well as apps and various new gameplay. We are a product-oriented team, so most of our time is spent on development,” said Brice, co-founder of Mahjong, to BlockBeats.

Mahjong, unlike shooting esports games like Matr1x, belongs to the category of poker entertainment and is more able to embrace long-term users. “For example, a player who starts playing cards at the age of 25 is likely to continue playing until the age of 60 or even 70. Combined with some esports mechanisms, it will be very suitable for long-term operation, improving the overall game experience through new seasons,”

The team has completed the CV recording with well-known Japanese voice actors such as Nao Kobayashi, and has also invited many artists from domestic and foreign countries to create and select scenes and BGM for the game. During the beta testing phase, many Japanese players have approached the team to inquire about the names and composers of the game’s background music. “It is the experience of these details that many players are very sensitive to, so many fragmented things are personally grasped by me. We hope that the game presented to players is a complete narrative loop that is self-consistent in all aspects.”

Against the backdrop of the booming blockchain gaming and the declining narrative of GameFi, Mahjong and Matr1x Fire have rekindled the industry’s attention and reflection on Web3 games. In addition to a deep understanding of game development, strict control over product details, and mature considerations of track selection, these two projects also share an important common point, that is, they are both created by former Tencent employees.

In September 2021, a series of articles titled “Axie Infinity’s Revenue Surpasses Honor of Kings” spread online. According to the game’s official data for that month, Axie Infinity had over 2 million players logging into the game daily, with a transaction volume exceeding $334 million in the past month, surpassing Honor of Kings’ $231 million. Although the actual revenue obtained by the project party from the 4.25% transaction fee is far less than $334 million, the phrase “revenue surpasses Honor of Kings” is enough to attract attention from within Tencent.

“Actually, we have been exposed to Web3 for a long time, but we were still very surprised when we found out that Axie Infinity’s revenue exceeded that of Honor of Kings. So many people within Tencent have started paying attention to this direction.” Before founding Mahjong, Brice worked for Tencent’s game investment division for many years, leveraging Tencent’s comprehensive investment tools and resources in the game industry. He took the initiative to be responsible for the team’s exploration in the Web3 gaming field.

In just a few months, Brice talked to hundreds of GameFi teams and investors. “But within Tencent, you are more of an observer to discover and support other people’s dreams, which is completely different from the experience of focusing on developing a product yourself.” Therefore, in the autumn of 2022, Brice decided to “leave the factory” and start a Web3 startup with his partners.

Unlike Brice, H comes from Tencent Financial Technology, which is the business line within Tencent that first entered the blockchain and cryptocurrency field. The Tencent Blockchain team under it is the core engine driving blockchain technology exploration within the company and has incubated many well-known projects such as WeBankchain and TrustSQL. However, not long ago, the person in charge of the team also left Tencent and joined the Web3 startup.

The Disappearance of Tencent Blockchain

In May of this year, Cai Yige, the head of Tencent Blockchain, gave an interview to 36Kr, revealing for the first time the reason for his departure from Tencent and his venture into Web3.

Cai Yige is a true “Tencent veteran”. After graduating from university, he joined Tencent and, in his own words, spent the most precious ten years of his life growing with Tencent. After joining Tencent’s Financial Technology Business Unit in 2017, Cai Yige has been serving as the General Manager of Tencent Blockchain, responsible for exploring the commercial applications of blockchain technology.

When asked why he chose to venture into Web3, Cai Yige said that he and his partners had been pondering Web3 entrepreneurial opportunities for almost a year. After seeing the successive introduction of Web3 industry policies in Hong Kong, he made the firm decision to leave Tencent. “While I still have ideas and drive, I want to take the plunge. Otherwise, I might regret it in the future.”

After the interview article was published, Tencent employees forwarded it one after another and wrote in their circle of friends: “Go for it, Yige!”

“Brother Cai” is a key figure in Tencent Blockchain. Under his leadership, the team has successively incubated Weiqilian, a blockchain supply chain financial platform, and Zhixinlian, which is applied in the field of judicial evidence preservation. The latter has provided underlying technical support for multiple digital collectibles platforms such as Fantom Core from 2021 to 2022. When Tencent’s blockchain business first entered the public eye, Cai Yige often acted as the team’s “official spokesperson.”

In February of this year, Tencent announced its fourth consecutive year of being selected for Forbes’ Blockchain 50 list. However, the representative for Tencent’s blockchain business on the list was not “Brother Cai”, but Li Li, the head of Tencent Cloud Blockchain.

In fact, since Forbes launched its Global Blockchain 50 list in 2020, Cai Yige’s name has never appeared on it. In 2020, Hu Mingli, the current Vice President of Tencent Cloud, was listed as the “Head of the Blockchain Team” and represented the TrustSQL project developed by Tencent Blockchain; in 2021, both Li Li, the head of Tencent Cloud Blockchain, and Zheng Hao, the Vice President of Tencent Financial Technology, were selected, representing the FISCO BCOS (Golden Chain Alliance) launched by WeBank; from 2022 to 2023, Li Li was selected again, and Tencent Cloud’s incubated project, Chang’an Chain, was also included in the list in 2022.

Over the past four years, the technologies developed and incubated by Tencent Blockchain have only appeared on the list once, while Tencent’s most well-known blockchain project, Zhixinlian, has never been selected.

Forbes Global Top 50 Blockchain Companies from 2020 to 2023 (Comparison between Tencent and Alibaba)

Falling Behind Alibaba

Compared to Tencent, Alibaba’s blockchain is much more stable in terms of organizational structure and business. For the past four years, the Ant Chain and its leader, Jiang Guofei, have consistently made the list.

Many people familiar with the business of Ant Chain have told BlockBeats that Alibaba’s blockchain business is driven from top to bottom. In 2015, Ant Financial established a blockchain interest group and researched and validated the feasibility of blockchain in various application scenarios during an internal hackathon. That same year, Alipay, which had just been established, publicly stated its focus on blockchain and other technologies to solve trust issues. Subsequently, the group decided to find a leader to formally initiate the blockchain business.

At first, Ant brought in Xu Yiji, co-founder of NEO (later founder of Nebulas). Xu Yiji was originally a Google engineer and a passionate “public chain enthusiast.” After joining Alibaba and Alipay, he began to vigorously promote his idealistic vision of public chains and pushed the entire Alibaba blockchain business in that direction. He even proclaimed that blockchain would replace Alipay.

However, after the tightening of domestic policies in 2017, Alibaba no longer recognized Xu Yiji’s business ideas and replaced him with Jiang Guofei as the head of the blockchain business.

Jiang Guofei is also a technical expert who has developed numerous products and solutions in fields such as the Internet of Things, big data analysis, and artificial intelligence. He has won multiple innovation awards in the industry. Because his English name (Geoff) sounds similar, everyone in the company is used to calling him “brother-in-law.” But like Cai Yige, Jiang Guofei is also the “big brother” of Alibaba’s blockchain.

In February 2017, Jiang Guofei joined Ant Financial as Vice President and President of the Financial Technology Business Unit, in charge of Ant Blockchain. Insiders told BlockBeats that after Jiang Guofei joined Ant, there were more than 500 people within the Alibaba group working on blockchain-related businesses at one point. In September 2019, Jiang Guofei became the President of Ant Intelligent Technology Business Group, becoming the core person in charge of Ant Blockchain Platform.

At the end of 2019, news of Ant’s IPO came out. In December, Ant announced a comprehensive acceleration of its globalization, domestic demand, and technology strategies, starting to accelerate the process of “de-financialization” and transforming into a technology-based company. Shortly thereafter, Jiang Guofei led his team to launch the blockchain technology platform Trusple, stating that “blockchain technology allows Trusple to better meet the needs of solving trust issues in international trade.”

In June of the following year, Ant Financial officially changed its name to Ant Group Co., Ltd. In July, Ant Group upgraded its Ant Blockchain brand to “AntChain” and disclosed its daily active user data exceeding 100 million for the first time. In September, the first Global Fintech Conference, hosted by Alipay and Ant Group under the guidance of the Shanghai Municipal Government, was held on the Bund, where Ant Group fully demonstrated the technological overview of AntChain, announced the launch of an open consortium chain for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) by Ant Blockchain, and released the integrated hardware and software device for blockchain applications.

In June 2021, AntChain held its first developer conference, where Jiang Guofei elaborated on the development philosophy of AntChain. In January 2022, Jiang Guofei assumed the role of President of Ant Group’s Digital Technology Business Group and Head of Ant Group’s Technology Business Unit. Since taking charge of Ant Blockchain in 2017, the patents of the Alibaba Group’s blockchain in this field have consistently ranked first globally. Today, when you visit the official website of AntChain OpenLab, you will see solutions like smart contract security, multi-party computation, ZKP, FHE, and other cutting-edge technologies in the encryption industry, all of which AntChain has been researching.

In contrast, Tencent’s blockchain business has shown a significant and rapid decline. Since 2015, China has been the global engine for blockchain patent inventions, with major contributors including Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, and other internet giants. In terms of quantity, the number of global patent applications for blockchain inventions reached its peak in 2019 and has rapidly declined in the following two years. In the competition for patent applications, Tencent is the only major player in China that can compete with the Alibaba Group. However, since 2021, Tencent has started to collapse comprehensively, with the number of patent applications dropping from 1,006 in the previous year to 427, while the number of Alibaba Group’s patent applications has remained relatively stable.

The left image shows the global trend of patent applications for blockchain, and the right image shows the trends of Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu’s blockchain patent applications.

In terms of organizational structure, the Alibaba Group has also demonstrated a more clear division of business responsibilities. The blockchain business of the Alibaba Group is mainly undertaken by AntChain and Alibaba Cloud. AntChain provides underlying technology research and development, while Alibaba Cloud offers enterprise services through its BaaS (Blockchain as a Service) platform. Among them, AntChain is the main executor of the Alibaba Group’s blockchain strategy, and most of the Alibaba Group’s blockchain applications are based on AntChain.

The organizational structure of Tencent’s blockchain business appears to be disorganized. First, there is the Golden Chain Alliance led by WeBank, followed by Tencent Blockchain and Tencent Cloud Blockchain. Each business line has its own research and development in terms of underlying technology and top-level applications, fully demonstrating Tencent’s consistent “horse racing mechanism.” Since 2022, Tencent has made almost no major progress in the field of blockchain business. Interestingly, in June of this year, the first national standard for blockchain technology was issued, and both Tencent Blockchain and Tencent Cloud Blockchain promptly published articles on their official accounts, stating their participation in the drafting of this national standard.

Tencent Blockchain and Tencent Cloud Blockchain Official Account Articles

Between 2015 and 2022, Tencent and the Alibaba Group have had a highly competitive relationship in blockchain technology research and business development. Insiders told BlockBeats that Tencent had once conducted in-depth research on Alibaba’s strategies in the blockchain field, including accurate knowledge of its annual pricing, KPI completion, and the planning and situation of each business department.

However, Tencent Blockchain suddenly collapsed in the competition and disappeared from the domestic blockchain landscape.

The Rise and Fall of Tencent Blockchain

From the launch time of Tencent Blockchain White Paper, underlying technology platform TrustSQL, and Tencent Cloud Blockchain TBaaS business, Tencent’s blockchain business was on par with Alibaba in the early stages of competition, and even ahead at one point.

Tencent also started to layout the blockchain industry in 2015. At that time, Tencent had an important strategic goal in its business, which was to challenge Alipay and Alibaba’s financial business through WeChat Pay and its subsidiary TenPay (now Tencent Financial Technology). In terms of expansion, Tencent invested in WeBank, which took on the task of exploring blockchain finance.

In May 2016, WeBank and Tencent Enterprise initiated the Financial Blockchain Development Promotion Association of Shenzhen City, also known as Golden Chain Alliance. They began independent research and development of underlying blockchain technology and released the first financial consortium chain cloud service, BaaS, in June. In 2017, WeBank, together with Wanxiang Blockchain and Matrix Elements, launched the financial-grade blockchain underlying platform FISCO BCOS, which was applied in government affairs, finance, supply chain, and other fields. Insiders told BlockBeats that many technical members of WeBank came from Tencent, but there were also many members from Ping An Group. There were some internal turbulence, and many people left at different times.

However, WeBank is ultimately an extension of Tencent’s investment business. Within the Tencent system, it was the Financial Technology (FiT) business line that first explored the blockchain field.

Tencent FiT, under the Corporate Development Group (CDG), is the middle and back-end of financial products such as WeChat Pay and QQ Wallet. Around 2016, some experts in Silicon Valley sent a lot of research on the blockchain field to Tencent FiT. Coincidentally, Tencent was internally exploring technologies related to Bitcoin, so the team responsible for the backend of WeChat Red Packet started leading the research and building the Tencent Blockchain system.

In January 2017, Tencent launched Weihuangjin, the first application scenario based on Tencent’s blockchain technology. In April of the same year, Tencent FiT and Tencent Research Institute jointly released the “Tencent Blockchain Solution Whitepaper”, becoming the first domestic enterprise to release a blockchain whitepaper. The whitepaper disclosed Tencent’s independently developed underlying platform TrustSQL. At this time, it was still two years before Ant Financial launched its benchmark blockchain technology platform Trusple.

Also in 2017, Tencent Cloud, which was then under the Social Networking Group (SNG), began to explore blockchain business. Internal sources told BlockBeats that at that time, the Tencent Financial Cloud team was often asked by banks or financial institutions if there were BaaS services for blockchain. So they approached Tencent Blockchain to learn about the relevant technology. However, the team later decided to develop their own blockchain cloud service technology, thus Tencent Cloud Blockchain was born. In December of the same year, Tencent launched the blockchain infrastructure platform TBaaS and began to explore blockchain + solutions for various industries.

In March 2018, Pony Ma mentioned blockchain for the first time at the National People’s Congress, stating that Tencent was laying out electronic bill business and that blockchain invoices would be a major focus. In August, Tencent Blockchain and the Shenzhen Taxation Bureau of the State Administration of Taxation jointly launched the Tax Chain, and issued the first blockchain electronic invoice in China, which was regarded by many industry insiders as an important milestone in the blockchain industry.

On September 30, 2018, Tencent underwent a major transformation and established the Content and Gaming Group (PCG) and the Cloud and Smart Industries Group (CSIG). Tencent Cloud, which serves the B2B business, was elevated to a higher strategic position within Tencent. In October, the Trusted Blockchain Summit hosted by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology was held in Beijing. More than 20 companies that had passed the first round of functional testing and performance testing were selected and announced at the conference. Tencent Technology Co., Ltd. and Tencent Cloud Computing Co., Ltd., both affiliated with Tencent, were selected at the same time.

In April 2019, the blockchain game “Let’s Hunt Monsters” spanning across the Integrated Entertainment Group (IEG), Technology and Engineering Group (TEG), and Cloud and Smart Industries Group (CSIG) officially started its open beta test without data deletion. On the first day, more than 12 million users registered, and the game topped the free list of the App Store within hours of its release. However, the market response to the game was not as expected in the following period.

Scene of the release of “Let’s Hunt Monsters”

In August 2019, Tencent officially launched the notarization service platform ZhiXinChain. ZhiXinChain was initially initiated by Tencent’s Smart Legal Affairs team to solve judicial notarization issues. At the beginning, ZhiXinChain aimed to upgrade the technology in the copyright protection scenario, and later expanded to the financial notarization scenario. It successively connected to several domestic internet court evidence notarization platforms. At the same time, AntChain undertook the judicial chain for the internal circulation of the Supreme People’s Court, and Internet courts in Guangzhou began to establish the “Internet Court + Legal Chain” system. The Beijing Internet Court also fully implemented the connection with the judicial chain and judicial notarization scenarios.

In January 2021, Tencent Cloud, Beijing Weixin Research Institute, China Construction Bank, and the Digital Currency Research Institute of the People’s Bank of China jointly established the Chang’an Chain Ecosystem Alliance. As a result, the underlying technology of ZhiXin Chain was upgraded from Tencent Cloud Blockchain to Chang’an Chain.

In August, under the trend of the metaverse, PCG incubated the digital collectibles platform called “Huanhe”. Once it went online, it quickly ignited the domestic digital collectibles market. At the same time, Tencent Cloud revealed that ZhiXin Chain has supported the implementation of more than ten digital collectibles platform projects, including QQ Music, Kugou, Yuewen Group, and Xiaohongshu.

At the end of the year, there was a rumor that WXG President Zhang Xiaolong gave a speech at the Tencent Employee Conference, saying, “Web3 may be a false carnival, but the Chinese Web2 has left a real disappointment.” Although it was confirmed to be a rumor, three months after the rumor appeared, Tencent’s strategic investment participated in the $200 million financing of the NFT gaming company Immutable, completing the “first investment in Web3”.

Tencent’s blockchain business reached its peak. However, this momentum quickly diminished and plummeted to its lowest point.

In May 2022, Wang Shimu, the former General Manager of Tencent News, suddenly transferred to PCG’s social platform and application business line, responsible for innovative businesses such as Huanhe. Then in August, Huanhe announced the suspension of digital collectibles issuance and reminded users to apply for refunds. In September, Wang Shimu resigned. In March of the following year, Huanhe officially announced its shutdown.

The shutdown of Huanhe is not only a significant event marking the end of the domestic digital collectibles boom but also a key turning point in the rise and fall of Tencent’s blockchain business.

Since August 2022, Tencent’s internal blockchain-related businesses have basically stagnated. The official WeChat account of Tencent Blockchain has almost stopped updating content, and Tencent Cloud Blockchain’s official account only has news updates related to Chang’an Chain business. ZhiXin Chain, which was in the limelight before the new year, has been put on hold. When BlockBeats inquired about the current ongoing business of ZhiXin Chain, the reply received was only four simple words – electronic invoices.

Updates of Tencent Blockchain and Tencent Cloud Blockchain official accounts after the shutdown of Huanhe

Tencent Can’t Afford Dreams

Whether it is in the field of blockchain, metaverse, or Web3, there is a strong interest and active exploration within the Tencent ecosystem, including involvement from senior management. During the cryptocurrency booms in 2017 and 2021, Tencent’s blockchain business also experienced rapid growth. In 2022, TF Securities stated that Tencent has the “most comprehensive metaverse layout” after reviewing Tencent’s investments in related fields.

However, Tencent’s exploration in the field of blockchain and Web3 is not driven from top to bottom. The organizational structure is too chaotic and loose, lacking a true strategic backbone. Under the dual pressure of cost reduction and top-level decision-making, Tencent’s blockchain business was eventually cut. Now, in the new Web3 and virtual asset field, Tencent has completely retreated and lost its ability to compete with the Alibaba system.

Rabbit Hole Adventure

Matr1x Fire founding member H came into contact with Bitcoin during the cryptocurrency bull market from 2016 to 2017. During that time, he read the white papers of Bitcoin and other blockchain projects day and night, often studying until three or four in the morning. “At that time, there was no concept of ‘Web3’, but once you enter this rabbit hole, you can’t get out.” At that time, there were also many ideas about blockchain within Tencent, especially in the financial technology business line, which is closest to the financial circle within Tencent. Many of these ideas came directly from its responsible person.

In addition to WeBank, Tencent also has a small presence in Hong Kong exploring blockchain and virtual assets, namely Fusion Bank. The president of Fusion Bank is Lai Zhiming, who also holds a more well-known title – former Vice President of Tencent.

The official evaluation of Lai Zhiming by Tencent is: Lai Zhiming has made significant strategic contributions to Tencent in building payment infrastructure and financial open ecosystem… He has laid a solid foundation for overtaking in mobile payments and capturing the industry’s commanding heights, and successfully established a financial ecosystem covering multiple areas such as finance, securities, banking, and blockchain with payment as the entry point.”

Lai Zhiming is a Hong Kong native who graduated from MIT in 1995 and returned to the mainland. He joined Tencent in 2009. In September 2012, Lai Zhiming became the General Manager of Tenpay. Three years later, Tenpay was upgraded to Tencent’s Financial Technology Business Line, and Lai Zhiming became the head. During his tenure, he showed a particularly strong interest in blockchain.

In January 2019, Lai Zhiming, as a member of the Guangdong Provincial Political Consultative Conference, proposed to further promote the pilot application scope of blockchain electronic invoices in Guangdong Province. In the book “Blockchain and Asset Securitization” published in October 2020 by Yao Qian, former director of the Technology Supervision Bureau of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, Lai Zhiming appeared as a participating author together with Xiao Feng, executive director of Wanxiang Holdings. According to insiders disclosed to BlockBeats, around 2016, Cai Yige was doing entrepreneurship in the field of financial technology, and it was Lai Zhiming who invited him back to Tencent to be in charge of Tencent’s blockchain.

In 2019, Ethereum founder Vitalik visited Tencent. At that time, the cryptocurrency market was chaotic, and Cai Yige did not want his team to touch these gray areas, but focused on thinking about the scenario-based value of blockchain technology. After communicating with Vitalik, Cai Yige felt that Ethereum, as a “world machine that provides trust,” was an interesting and exciting direction.

Vitalik and Cai Yige

In June 2019, Lai Zhiming stepped down as the head of Tencent FiT and became the chairman of Tencent Virtual Bank (Infinium Limited). In November, Cai Yige officially became the general manager of Tencent Virtual Bank’s blockchain division and participated in the preparation of Infinium Bank, starting to explore blockchain finance, digital assets, and other scenarios.

Regarding the specific business exploration at Infinium Bank, Cai Yige said, “The requirements in Hong Kong are very strict, and it takes a long time to launch new businesses.” Internal sources told BlockBeats that Infinium Bank proposed many concepts in the early stages, but most of them did not materialize. For example, Infinium Bank considered issuing its own STO tokens and digital gold. During the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the team also attempted blockchain cross-border remittance settlement with Japanese banks. However, these businesses were halted due to Hong Kong’s regulatory policies and other reasons.

In 2022, the operating data showed that eight banks in Hong Kong collectively lost over 3.7 billion Hong Kong dollars, with Infinium Bank losing over 533 million Hong Kong dollars. In June, Tencent announced that Lai Zhiming would no longer serve as Tencent’s vice president and would focus on being the chairman of Infinium Bank. The “behind-the-scenes leader” of Tencent’s blockchain business was officially expelled. The following year, Cai Yige also left Tencent.

Within Tencent, there is a more intense exploration of the metaverse and Web3.

In April 2021, Tencent announced a new round of organizational restructuring to save QQ, with Yao Xiaoguang, the president of TiMi Studios and Tencent’s vice president, taking over as the head of the PCG social platform business.

During his time at IEG (Interactive Entertainment Group), Yao Xiaoguang’s “Honor of Kings” was Tencent’s “cash cow.” After taking on the role of head of the social platform business, Yao Xiaoguang immediately started a series of business explorations combining “social + gaming.” In August 2021, PCG internally tested a game social product called NokNok, which aimed to compete with Discord. In September, TiMi Studios released a recruitment poster to form the ZPLAN project, with a team size exceeding a thousand people. A few months later, Super QQ Show was launched, which many people regarded as Tencent’s metaverse project demonstrating its determination to explore.

As part of the QQ anniversary celebration in November 2021, Tencent issued a 23rd anniversary commemorative edition NFT for its employees.

This NFT series was created by the Fantom Core team incubated by PCG, based on the QQ penguin image for IP derivation. It consists of a total of 72,000 pieces and includes 58 elements, divided into three levels: high-quality, rare, and epic, based on their occurrence probabilities. There are also 1,000 special egg-shaped NFTs. After the release of the NFT series, it quickly sparked a “trading frenzy” within the company, with some even creating a rudimentary “trading market” using spreadsheet software. The popular hidden version of “Chang’e” once sold for a high price of 50,000 RMB, making “buying and selling penguins” a new social trend within Tencent.

QQ Penguin NFT and its “trading market”

“During that time, the atmosphere within Tencent was particularly good. We had our own ‘exchange U group’ to facilitate transactions. Since we were all colleagues and could see each other’s real names on the corporate WeChat platform, everyone felt very reassured,” a former Tencent employee told BlockBeats. The internal WeChat group for deposits and withdrawals was established after a Tencent-TXChain conference.

In the first half of 2021, the popularity of NFTs soared, and there were many people within the company who wanted to understand, learn, and participate in this trend. At that time, TXChain happened to be the earliest team within Tencent that focused on and researched this field. Taking this opportunity, the leader of TXChain organized a conference within Tencent with the purpose of promoting the on-chain assets of internal business units. According to Tencent employees’ recollections, this conference was particularly lively. “Normally, if Tencent organizes a public event, the participation is not particularly high. Several dozen people would already be considered impressive. However, nearly 500 people participated in that conference, and afterwards, we formed Discord and WeChat groups to discuss these topics,” they said.

After this TXChain conference, many Tencent internal teams, including QQ Music and China Literature Group, began to establish business relationships with TXChain, including PCG’s Fantom Core team.

The Fantom Core team is part of a product innovation incubator under PCG, and Xiao’e Pinpin was incubated here. At that time, the team also developed a domestic alternative to Discord, but after QQ launched the Nao Nao community platform, they began to shift their focus to exploring the Web3 and metaverse domains.

Former members of the Fantom Core team told BlockBeats that the main considerations for the project were twofold: first, there were many IPs within PCG that did not have good commercialization methods, and second, NFTs could serve as an economic system that connects Tencent’s gaming and entertainment content businesses in the future.

At that time, QQ Music had already been cooperating with TXChain for some time. However, the incubation speed of Fantom Core was very fast, and it went live just over a month after the project was initiated. With the concept of “Tencent’s first NFT platform,” Fantom Core gained popularity overnight, and many of the team’s subsequent actions had a significant impact on similar domestic products such as Whalescan and iBox.

At first, Phantom Core was benchmarking against overseas NFT trading platform OpenSea, but later switched to platforms like Nifty Gateway that attempted to 3D-ify the experience. Interestingly, the concept of “digital collectibles” was also first proposed by Phantom Core. Prior to this, most domestic platforms used the term “non-fungible tokens” (NFTs). “Initially, this was just a temporary concept for transition, but after we finished our product, all the competitors changed their names to this and we never changed it again,” said a former member of Phantom Core.

In addition to NFTs, the department where Phantom Core was located also worked on many other projects in the Web3 field. “We also made attempts in GameFi. The product was already completed at the time, but it was not launched because Tencent has high requirements for compliance. If you want to launch overseas, you need to isolate it from the company,” a former member of Phantom Core told BlockBeats.

Phantom Core once planned to launch an overseas version, but it ultimately failed to do so due to unfavorable timing and trading volume. “Tencent values the self-revenue capability of a project, not just user growth, but whether the project can sustain itself. It may not have been a big deal in the past, but in the past two years, revenue has become the key metric,” said the former member.

Cost Reduction and Efficiency Improvement

At Tencent’s end-of-year staff meeting in 2021, Pony Ma mentioned “winter is coming” for the first time. He emphasized that Tencent now needs to strengthen internal collaboration and reduce costs while improving efficiency.

In March of the following year, Tencent released its 2021 annual financial report, with a net profit of 123.788 billion yuan, a year-on-year increase of 1%, marking the lowest net profit growth in nearly a decade. The net profit for the fourth quarter was 24.88 billion yuan, a 25% decrease compared to the third quarter. As a result, Tencent’s stock price fell below HK$300, with a decrease of more than 12% for the year.

Pony Ma at Tencent’s staff meeting

Tencent’s revenue has been greatly affected by the tightening of capital market access and the “dual reduction” policies squeezing the online education industry. According to 36Kr, starting from the end of 2021, Tencent has been reducing personnel in multiple business groups, with the largest actions taken in the PCG and CSIG business groups, where the layoff rate exceeded 20%, while the IEG, which Tencent Games belongs to, had basically no action.

As one of the business groups most affected, nearly half of the 9 products halted by Tencent in the previous months came from PCG. Tencent’s products such as Tencent News and Tencent Sports also faced tremendous pressure. According to internal Tencent employees, the turning point of this round of layoffs was the organizational restructuring across PCG and IEG in April 2021.

After nearly a year of contraction, Tencent reduced its sales expenses by 20% in the first three quarters of 2022. At the year-end staff meeting, Pony Ma continued to emphasize the theme of cost reduction and efficiency improvement, stating that it should become a habit and that the cut-off businesses should not be missed. One strong signal at the meeting is that there is not much time left for the PCG part of the business, with Tencent News being the first to bear the brunt. Pony Ma mentioned that if the team does not undergo strong changes, “the entire Tencent News can be cut off.”

Phantom Core (幻核) is also part of PCG, but the project has always had good liquidity and revenue. However, these numbers cannot be compared with the scale of the gaming and live streaming businesses. Therefore, in reality, the closure or not of Phantom Core does not have much impact on Tencent’s revenue. “Because the overall scale and budget for product deployment are not large, and the revenue needs to be turned over to the company, whether this innovative business can survive does not depend on ROI or cost, but mainly on the company’s level of attention to it,” a former member of the Phantom Core team told BlockBeats.

The signal of changes in the Phantom Core business started from a personnel change in PCG in May 2022.

In August 2021, Wang Shimu, the former vice president of Netease Cloud Music, joined Tencent News as the new head. However, in May of the following year, Wang Shimu was transferred to the PCG Social Platform and Application Line, responsible for innovative businesses such as Phantom Core. Then in August, Phantom Core announced its suspension of operations, and one month later, Wang Shimu left the company.

Insiders told BlockBeats that the decision to close Phantom Core and other businesses directly came from the top of Tencent. “At that time, Pony (Ma Huateng) made the decision that these consumer-oriented businesses would gradually be discontinued.” Multiple Tencent employees confirmed the rumors that “Ma Huateng does not like Wang Shimu,” but they also believe that the reasons for the closure of Phantom Core are not only limited to this. Tencent has always been very cautious about financial innovation, and the strong speculative sentiment of digital collectibles in the secondary market also means that this business faces regulatory risks far greater than its income.

<p"Tencent is a very conservative and 'well-behaved' company. It will not test the bottom line and boundaries like Alibaba, and it rarely tries to make risky money, which is not much for Tencent." A former member of the Phantom Core team told BlockBeats that issuing digital collectibles in Phantom Core would be shared with the cooperating IP party, and the entire project would be loss-making after refunding users. After the closure of Phantom Core, Tencent was required to shut down all of its digital collectibles businesses, including QQ Music and Tencent News.

The situation is also not optimistic for CSIG.

In the fourth quarter of 2021, the revenue of the financial technology and enterprise services segment grew by 25% year-on-year, reaching 47.958 billion yuan, surpassing online games for the first time to become the largest revenue-contributing business segment for Tencent. However, despite the revenue volume surpassing the gaming business, the financial technology and enterprise services segment is also the fastest-growing segment in terms of cost investment for Tencent, and there is still a significant gap in net profit compared to the gaming business.

In March 2022, Tencent’s President Liu Chiping stated in a conference call that in the future, Tencent will continue to focus on investing in international games and SaaS businesses, while strengthening cost control for cloud and long video businesses to maintain healthier growth.

In the layoffs that began at the end of 2021, CSIG also suffered heavily. In addition to the 20% reduction in staff, the remaining employees were informed that CSIG would focus on profitability as a key indicator of business development, which directly affected Tencent Cloud’s previous business model. In the cloud service market where growth has encountered bottlenecks, Tencent Cloud often engages in loss-making sales through methods such as “one yuan bid” and “total package subcontracting” in order to compete with Alibaba Cloud and Huawei Cloud for market share.

However, this shift towards profitability will render these sales tactics ineffective. A middle-level employee in CSIG said in an interview with 36Kr, “The bosses don’t have so much patience anymore. They hope that CSIG can run faster and stop losing money all the time.”

Tencent Cloud’s blockchain business, which is under the Tencent Cloud business, has also been greatly affected by this wave of layoffs. Insiders told BlockBeats that over the past two years, Tencent Cloud has held weekly salons related to Web3 themes internally, discussing how to replicate new technologies in the Web3 field to consortium chains and innovate in combination with the domestic environment. “But Tencent’s internal Web3 hasn’t been doing well, and they haven’t produced anything. When it came to layoffs, many of these departments were also cut.”

Tencent Cloud’s online salon related to blockchain

However, not all of Tencent Cloud’s blockchain business has been shut down.

In February of this year, Tencent Cloud hosted the first Web3 Global Summit “Tencent Cloud Web3 Developer Day” in Singapore. Well-known native encryption projects such as Scroll, Avalanche, and Sui attended the event. The theme of the conference was “Accelerating Web3 Success.” Yang Baoshu, Senior Vice President of Tencent Cloud International, stated at the meeting that Web3 is the new iteration of the Internet, and Tencent Cloud sees its future. They have already established partnerships with Ankr, Avalanche, Scroll, Sui, and others.

During the event, Tencent Cloud announced its support for the global Web3 ecosystem development and launched the Web3 one-stop solution “Metaverse-in-a-Box,” which is mainly aimed at the development of on-chain metaverse. However, according to insiders familiar with Tencent Cloud’s Web3.0 business who spoke to BlockBeats, Tencent Cloud also struggles to compete with Alibaba Cloud in the Web3 field. “The so-called ‘Metaverse-in-a-Box’ is just a set of Web2 tools provided by Tencent Cloud. You need to build everything else yourself. In addition, it also lags behind in terms of performance and usable enterprise scenarios.”

Although facing growth bottlenecks, Alibaba Cloud still holds a very important strategic position within the Alibaba ecosystem. In March of this year, Alibaba Group Chairman and CEO Zhang Yong took on the role of Chairman and CEO of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence Group. Having the group chairman also serve as the business CEO is not only rare for Alibaba, but also extremely rare in the development history of major internet companies.

By comparison, Tencent Cloud’s strategic position within the entire Tencent architecture is far less significant than Tencent Games, which can be seen from the significant gap in market share between Tencent Cloud and Alibaba Cloud. “Most Web3 projects are willing to cooperate with Tencent, but they are actually interested in Tencent Games, and there is a huge difference between Tencent Cloud and the gaming division. However, Alibaba is much better off, as it has the largest number of enterprises in Asia and offers a more diverse range of services and products.”

Take Avalanche as an example. Although they announced a partnership with Tencent Cloud in February, most of their activities in the following months were carried out in collaboration with Alibaba Cloud. In May, Avalanche also collaborated with Alibaba Cloud to launch a competing product called “Metaverse-in-a-Box”.

It is worth noting that major domestic cloud service providers entering the Web3 space has become a new trend. This year, Huawei Cloud held Web3-related summits in February and August, announcing the provision of technical services to Web3 projects. Insiders told BlockBeats that the main consideration of these major players is still to “use minimal resources to leverage the huge returns of overseas markets”.

Cloudverse promotional poster

In addition to PCG and CSIG, Tencent’s investments are also shrinking.

“Around 2020, when Wu Jihan’s Bitmain went public on the US stock market, Tencent approached me hoping to help me go public,” a senior practitioner in the mining industry told BlockBeats. Around 2020, “mining stocks” were very popular, and Tencent’s investments were often seen in the mining industry. “This includes the later investment in Shanda Games by Tencent, where one of its data centers is primarily used for mining.”

However, Tencent’s venture capital layout in the Web3 space began to shrink last year. Apart from the $200 million financing of Immutable in March, Tencent’s venture capital division has not announced any further investments in the Web3 field. BlockBeats has learned from multiple sources that Tencent Games and Tencent Cloud’s venture capital teams still look at some Web3 projects, but rarely make a move. The same goes for investment entities associated with Tencent.

Insiders told BlockBeats that there are many investment companies of Tencent executives in Nanshan, Shenzhen. In the past, they actively sought out projects, but recently they have rarely discussed Web3 and have shifted their focus to the AI field. “These companies are funded by Pony (Ma Huateng) and controlled by Tencent executives.” Against the backdrop of tightening global liquidity, many US dollar funds are having a hard time, and not just in the Web3 and AI sectors, but in all industries. “Of course, it cannot be said that they don’t invest in Web3 at all, because for compliance reasons, sometimes even if they invest, it won’t be announced.”

In addition to Tencent Cloud, Photon Web3 Research is also one of the few departments within Tencent that still focuses on Web3. Insiders told BlockBeats that the department mainly focuses on infrastructure, but its business is mostly in the research stage, waiting to gradually expand once allowed by the company and policies.

Many former employees believe that Tencent’s current investment in Web3 is not cost-effective for several reasons: the market is not large enough, the regulatory direction is unclear, and the industry’s labor costs are not low enough. “Big companies usually do not proactively innovate, they only follow and then enter together using their resources. When this industry has a benchmark product, I believe many traditional enterprises and big companies will enter the market.”

“Tencent is very conservative when it comes to Web3, and this conservatism is mainly reflected in the top decision-makers’ qualitative assessment and alignment with domestic policies. Tencent is content to be a follower in this matter.” At the 2021 Tencent Employee Conference, Ma Huateng mentioned the need to “lose weight and build muscle, use bullets in key battles,” and is brewing the next trend or battle.

In Ma Huateng’s view, Web3 will not be Tencent’s next trend.

Goose Factory employees don’t want to wait

In June of this year, SLianGuairkle announced the completion of a pre-seed round of financing led by Folius Ventures, and was later selected for the sixth batch of the Binance accelerator. This is a Web3 astrology application with built-in GameFi and SocialFi elements. In August, the project released the first batch of free Genesis NFTs using the ERC-6551 standard, and on the first day, its trading volume reached second place on the OpenSea trading leaderboard.

The founding members of SLianGuairkle were former Tencent employees who participated in the incubation of Phantom Core from scratch. “After the closure of the Phantom Core business, everyone gradually started their own ventures. Just among the people I know, there are already 5 teams doing projects related to Phantom Core, including virtual characters, SocialFi, and fundraising.” Insiders told BlockBeats that Wang Shimu, the former head of the department where Phantom Core was located, also started a Web3 venture.

Along with the layoffs at Tencent PCG, CSIG, and many other internet giants, Web3 has attracted many Web2 teams from the end of last year to the beginning of this year. During the Hong Kong Web3 event in April of this year, many former Tencent employees found that there were more Tencent employees they knew in the Web3 entrepreneurship circle. In the whitepapers of many projects, the presence of Tencent employees can be seen. “During that time, projects from big companies were more easily funded, and some projects that shouldn’t have received investment based on normal logic also received money. Investors are also betting that they can produce the next product like StepN.”

“Goose Factory Gang”

BlockBeats found that many projects with a “Tencent bloodline” are combining “financial technology + gaming” to venture into Web3.

For example, as mentioned earlier, Matr1x Fire, one of the founding members, H, comes from Tencent Financial Technology, while the co-founders and many development members come from Tencent Games. The same combination can also be seen in PunkCode, the “number one” project of Tencent Blockchain. Cai Yige, who previously explored the blockchain field at Tencent Financial Technology, and his co-founder Guan Zhiyuan, who was formerly responsible for the communication of the Tencent eSports market and a founding member of the King Glory market team, are both involved.

As the two business lines within Tencent that have the most frequent contact with blockchain and Metaverse, there are also the most people who venture into Web3. Among them, most of the people from Tencent Games are driven by interest and exploration of the industry, while most of the people from Tencent Financial Technology are more due to the internal space compression of the business department.

BlockBeats has learned from multiple informed sources that many people from the Zhenxin Chain team have also entered the Web3 venture. The most well-known one is a Web3 equity aggregation platform called VIP3. In August, VIP3 announced the completion of a $2 million seed round of financing, with participation from institutions such as IOBC Capital and Ankr. Currently, VIP3 has established equity partnerships with mainstream cryptocurrency platforms such as Binance, HashKey Exchange, and OKX.

Interestingly, among the projects that cooperate with VIP3, there is a Web3 game called Mahjong founded by Brice. “At that time, the Founder of Mahjong, the Founder of VIP3, and we had ideas for some projects during our time at Tencent, and we have been in contact ever since,” a Web3 entrepreneur told BlockBeats.

Some Web3 Tencent entrepreneurial projects refer to each other as “brother teams” and often organize meetings and exchanges to find feasible cooperation opportunities. There is more than one “Tencent Web3 Entrepreneurship Group,” which not only solves deposit and withdrawal issues but also frequently shares recruitment and job-seeking information. “Now it feels like a small alliance, and some friends even joke that we should bring out a Tencent to do a Web3 DAO.”

Tencent Web3 Entrepreneurship Group

In terms of “forming DAO by leaving the factory,” Alibaba’s projects don’t seem to be falling behind either. During the upcoming Token2049 event, the Side-Event (A3 Summit) of A3DAO has attracted the participation of many entrepreneurs from large companies and VC from both domestic and foreign markets. The initiator of this DAO organization is several entrepreneurial projects that came out of AntChain, including ZAN, a technology brand that supports compliant Web3 products and services.

According to BlockBeats, many of the Web3 entrepreneurs in the Alibaba system are former Ant executives, many of whom are P10 or above. However, in terms of the number of people, the “Alibaba Web3” is not as large as the “Tencent Web3.” BlockBeats has learned that the current number of members in A3DAO is about 50 to 60, while Tencent’s Web3 Entrepreneurship Group already has over 500 members.

Tencent Curse?

It is worth mentioning that many Tencent entrepreneurs in Web3 often mention a concept called “Tencent Curse” when talking about their entrepreneurial experiences. It refers to the situation where some teams may have difficulty adapting to the Web3 environment. “Some teams that transition from Web2 to Web3 are initially clueless about how to establish connections with users and end up working in isolation.”

According to BlockBeats, the group of people who left Tencent and entered the Web3 field can be divided into three categories. The first category includes those born in the 1980s and 1990s who were early adopters of Bitcoin and the blockchain industry. They have more technical expertise and mainly focus on infrastructure development. The second category includes younger individuals born in the 2000s or even 2005, most of whom entered the industry during the bull market in 2021. Although they may lack professional experience, they are active in various Discord communities and have a good understanding of industry trends. The third category consists of teams transitioning from Web2 to Web3. They tend to have stronger product capabilities and a sense of ethics and bottom line. They all strive to do their projects well but may not have a strong awareness of Crypto Native matters. The group transitioning from Web2 to Web3 is the most susceptible to the “Tencent Curse.”

For Tencent, 2015 was an interesting time. During this period, Alibaba’s Alipay, Tenpay, and other major players were just beginning to explore many new businesses, including blockchain. However, those who joined Tencent before and after 2015 had significant differences in product thinking and methodology.

During this period, major tech companies were in a phase of expansion, and many new businesses needed people to explore and develop. New employees quickly accumulated a mature set of product methodologies. “For example, at that time, Pony Ma often said that if you are a product manager, you should collect 1,000 user feedbacks, follow 100 user blogs, and conduct 10 user surveys every month. Through digging into user pain points and collecting feedback, you can enrich the entire product design.”

Insiders told BlockBeats that product managers who joined Tencent before 2015 had solid foundational skills, and many hidden champions in the Web3 field came from these experienced product managers.

However, after 2020, Tencent’s various platform products had already grown to a massive scale, with user bases in the tens of millions or even billions. During the Web3 entrepreneurial phase, product managers who joined Tencent during this period were prone to falling into the trap of platform thinking.

Due to many scenarios relying on Tencent’s high-traffic platform-level products such as WeChat and QQ Music, most of Tencent’s product managers tend to choose a large entry point and a high-ceiling market direction when starting a business. They aim for markets with the highest revenue potential. “But Web3 is different from Tencent’s traditional business model. Tencent’s model is more like earning one yuan from 100 million users, while Web3 is a high-value product model that may only require 1,000 users, each paying 100 yuan,” explained an industry practitioner to BlockBeats.

Of course, having a big company perspective is not without its benefits. “It means that when you start a business, you won’t be like a pure startup. You will have a framework and be able to avoid many pitfalls. This is a very good advantage because Web3 products themselves lack user experience and design rationality.” It is precisely because of this that many teams are able to make adjustments quickly and get through the adaptation period.

In addition to product methodology, Tencent employees’ advantages in product detail control and crisis response capabilities are gradually becoming apparent. This can be seen from the Matr1x Fire and Mahjong Meta teams mentioned at the beginning of the article. “You can see and not see every detail and micro-operation, and a lot of effort has been put into it. If you don’t have these product capabilities, even with great potential, you may not be able to catch it,” H told BlockBeats. On the day of the Matr1x open test, the number of registered users exceeded the team’s expectations, and there were server crashes. However, the team resolved the issue in just over an hour and immediately restarted the server. “If the repair time that day exceeded three hours, all the new users might have been lost.”

In the current Web3, users’ requirements for product details do not seem to be high, but this is mainly because Web3 is still in a stage where it requires a focus on product experience and logic. In the early stages of the industry, the market is more oriented towards operations. A senior observer told BlockBeats, “Tencent is not an operations-oriented company, it is a product-oriented company. Web3 is mainly filled with investment, but what is scarce is consumption. And the construction of consumption scenarios must first have good projects.”

Perhaps the era of the “Tencent Gang” in Web3 is about to come.

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