Future Tense

The Cryptocurrency Game With a $9 Million Prize

Is Fomo3D an incisive critique, a scam, or a little of both?

A pot of gold pieces bearing the Ethereum logo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

On its face, Fomo3D is a straightforward game of chance: Players have 24 hours to buy in to a pot, the lion’s share of which goes to the last buyer to get in under the buzzer. Every time a player buys in, 30 seconds is added to the clock, which caps at 24 hours, and the next buy-in becomes more expensive. Players can buy in as many times as they want, either all at once to bump up the clock or at the last possible moment, thus winning the pot.

The very first round of Fomo3D began July 8 with no money in the pot. As of this writing, there are two hours left on the clock. Buy-in has risen from less than 49 cents to $2.22, and with more than 34 million buy-ins, the pot is worth almost $9 million. How this ends, no one is really sure.

Far from just gambling, Fomo3D is an incisive critique of cryptocurrency and the hype surrounding it. All of the game’s transactions are conducted in and built on top of Ethereum, a decentralized computing system that has its own cryptocurrency and contract functions. The idea is that players can feel confident that Fomo3D will play out honestly because Ethereum is based on open-source, distributed ledgers and contracts through which everyone can see where the money is, when it should be paid out, and to whom. But that isn’t true of every cryptocurrency venture.

“Cryptocurrency as a whole is 99.9 percent get-rich-quick schemes from projects that will never deliver,” says “Justo,” one of the four pseudonymous developers of Fomo3D, who are collectively known as Team JUST. Reached via the online messaging platform Discord, Justo declined to reveal any other personal information (including their gender) or their collaborators, whom they say they have never met in real life.

“Cryptocurrency itself isn’t a real investment as much as it’s a speculative toy,” Justo continues. “Our game takes that to the next level.”

From form to functionality, Team JUST designed Fomo3D to both entice and caution. The entire game is intentionally framed around the concept of an “exit scam” (the game’s URL is exitscam.me; playing it is described as “exit scamming”; its tagline is “All the Fun of an Exit Scam,” with “Fun” flashing as “Fear”), in which a con artist collects payment for goods and skips town before delivery is due. More recently, the term has been used to describe cryptocurrency companies that raised hundreds of millions of dollars in initial coin offerings, only to disappear.

Fomo3D evokes the mad rush for cryptocurrency by investors who hardly understand the technology or its risks. The game’s language and imagery simultaneously cultivate players’ greed and undercut their hopes. The button to purchase a key (a game ticket, essentially) updates with the handle of the most recent buyer, incorporated into messages like “X is trying to take everything, stop them!”; “Getting out of wage slavery is within your grasp, just beat Y, you can do it”; and “Z would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for those pesky kids and your key purchase.” At the same time, the game’s symbol is an upside-down pyramid, and even its name is a joke, playing on the slang acronym for “fear of missing out.” Fomo3D beckons you to play, then ridicules you for trying, blinding you with dollar signs along the way.

Team JUST is also using Fomo3D to ask a few probing philosophical questions. On a webpage introducing the game, the designers call it “a psychological social experiment in greed” and “some form of evil super-science,” and Justo describes it as “just a trick of human psyche” on Discord.

What they mean is clear upon considering the full implications of Fomo3D’s design. Because more time is added to the clock each time a player buys a key, the only way for the game to end is when players stop trying to win, which is unlikely, considering how much money is at stake. And because each key purchased raises the price of the next one, more and more money is going to be at stake, incentivizing players to invest even more in hopes of winning. Furthermore, as the game runs on Ethereum, which is decentralized, Team JUST claims that it cannot be tampered with by anyone, including the designers—nor can it be stopped, short of all 10,000-plus Ethereum nodes around the world going down simultaneously. That would not only make the nearly $9 million worth of cryptocurrency that is indeed tied up in Fomo3D inaccessible, but it would also jeopardize all of Ethereum, which Justo estimates is valued at $42 billion. In other words, Ethereum is not going down.

While Team JUST is steadfast in their claims that Fomo3D’s mechanics cannot be altered and that the pot cannot be usurped by anyone but the game’s winner, others are not so sure. Developers familiar with blockchain technology have examined the game’s programming and found issues. Péter Szilágyi, an Ethereum developer, published one vulnerability, which allows exploiters to siphon “airdrops,” or minipots that are randomly awarded with the purchase of each key. (Justo attributes this to “the lack of consistent and understandable documentation” for Ethereum’s security requirements; Szilágyi declined to comment.) The members of Team JUST say there’s nothing they can do to patch it. Other unintentional exploits may come up, but critics are also looking at backdoors by which the designers could run away with the pot. For its part, the Ethereum Foundation, which supports the research and development of the platform, declined to discuss Fomo3D. Ethereum external relations lead Joseph Schweitzer says, “We don’t comment on individual applications being built on top of the platform.”

When asked directly if Fomo3D really is a scam, Justo answers, “I mean, if it was an actual exit scam, it would be great too, right?”

And they’ve got a point. Because, at the end of the day, if they ran away with everything, could you really blame them? In so many ways, they were telling you that this was a scam all along.