Leyline: "We don't care about the money -- we want to make the world better"
Blizzard veteran Jeremy Dela Rosa on building a platform that harnesses the wealth and influence of the games industry to change the world
After 17 years in the tech industry, Jeremy Dela Rosa was in the kind of position that many strive for, but few ever reach.
He was a senior employee at Blizzard Entertainment, the company he called home for a decade, where he worked with some of the most admired IPs in the history of video games. He had a good salary, a stable career, and great prospects for professional growth. From the outside, Jeremy Dela Rosa seemingly had every reason to be content -- but it wasn't that simple.
"The root is I've been genuinely concerned with what's happening in the world for a long time," he says in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz. "Some of the major causes I've tried to stay active on are extreme poverty, climate change.
"I was so fortunate to have all this opportunity, to be working in this amazing company with talented people, and seeing things from the inside... There is such tremendous wealth and power being generated by these big companies. I realised there's opportunity here; we can make people's lives better by entertaining them and letting them have fun, and we can have a positive impact on the world at the same time.
"I spent a lot of time inside the industry trying to adjust the way we develop our products, so that it's not just about entertainment and -- essentially -- extracting money from people."
"I spent some time reflecting... I looked at my life, and I'm sitting in an office, making money for big CEOs"
Throughout his career, Dela Rosa had used his free time to help good causes: volunteering with charities, donating to food and blood banks, and visiting impoverished areas of Cambodia, the Philippines and Mexico. However, while he tried to leverage the power and profits of the companies he worked for and with to make a difference, it was "a long journey" that ultimately left him frustrated.
"I get it -- there's not enough money to be made doing altruistic and philanthropic activities," he continues. "In fact, all [big] companies really are just doing it to fulfill their corporate social responsibility goals -- it's viewed as a PR activity as much as anything else, and a tax write-off."
That sense of frustration peaked in 2020, with the spread of COVID-19. In addition to its personal impact -- Dela Rosa's mother died in April, isolated from her family on the other side of the US, in a moment that he describes as "a tipping point" -- the pandemic also exacerbated larger issues about which Dela Rosa deeply cared, such as poverty and unemployment. And all the while, spending on video games soared to greater and greater heights.
"The amount of money going into these companies is hitting record highs, and at the same time, when you listen to the philosophy of their decision-making, it essentially boils down to: 'What is the least amount of money we can spend to check this box that we are doing something.' I was shocked that we didn't feel a sense of responsibility to do more.
"I spent some time reflecting. What could I have done to make things better? I looked at my life, and I'm sitting in an office, making money for big CEOs."
In his career in tech, and his time at Blizzard in particular, Dela Rosa had worked in a broad range of areas: building platforms, data analysis and data science, digital marketing, business development and operations, all for huge franchises like Overwatch, Diablo and Starcraft. He had become an expert on how to engage large groups of people to achieve a variety of desired results.
"I got to see so much of how this machine works, from every single angle. I was lucky -- most people tend to have a very thin slice that does very deep into how the business runs, but I saw the entire thing. At the same time, I had built up this giant network of really talented and hyper-connected people. And in that moment I realised, okay, this is possible, we can make something happen.
"I could kick start something because I had a very comfortable job that allowed me to save enough money. So I just cashed it all out, sold everything -- my house, my retirement, all of my fiscal possessions... If I do nothing then, great, I watch the world burn around me and I see my children's futures disintegrate. I [only] had two options, so I might as well do something."
At its most basic level, the issue was economic. Companies with the kind of scale and reach to really make a difference to big issues were driven by one motive above all: profit, from quarter to quarter, under the watchful eyes of shareholders and investors. In his experience, altruistic actions still needed some kind of "return on investment" to be approved by management, and when the returns were "second-degree" -- greater employee satisfaction, for example, or improved customer loyalty -- there was only so far a large company was likely to commit.
"I just cashed it all out, sold everything -- my house, my retirement, all of my fiscal possessions"
In simple terms, altruism tended to be a "zero sum" proposition financially, so Dela Rosa created a foundation that would turn it into a "positive sum game": Leyline, a non-profit platform unveiled in December last year, which acts as a central point between users, game publishers, and charities and causes that need all the help they can get.
Users can, for example, give blood with one of Leyline's charity partners, or simply donate the power of their idle computers to help scientific research into viruses and climate change. These altruistic deeds are logged on that user's profile, earning points which can be exchanged for rewards donated by Leyline's partners in the games industry. At present, these rewards are largely digital: gift cards and exclusive in-game items, which have value to players and little impact on a company's bottom line.
"The value proposition is very straightforward," Dela Rosa says, noting an understanding of what companies need to hear in pitches from years of being on the other side of the table. "It's corporate social responsibility, PR, brand engagement, and it's a tax write-off. They don't even have to do anything -- just give me a bunch of key codes for unique items, we'll market it, and that's it. Super easy, and you get all of these benefits.
"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. These paradigms exist. In World of Warcraft we'd post up a pet, or post up a skin in Overwatch, and boom, $10 million donated to charity -- just like that."
Leyline had a core team of around 15 full-time staff in December last year, with another 20 people working on a part time basis, and no shortage of eager volunteers. As a non-profit, Dela Rosa says, Leyline benefits greatly from people willing to give up a bit of their time and skill, and he estimates that two or three new people offer to do just that every single week.
The full-time team is focused on communications, project management, production and programming -- disciplines that allow its many partners and rotating group of workers to use their time effectively. According to Dela Rosa, who was integral to building online platforms at Blizzard, Leyline's underlying technology is also geared around flexibility and efficiency, allowing people to access it and be productive from anywhere in the world.
"Any number of pods or teams can plug right in, do their job, and then not have to worry about disrupting 100 other teams," he says. "That's beautiful, because now it scales infinitely. We can have students and graduates and other people to build products like crazy. We are set to explode. We've done all the investment now to make that work."
"These paradigms exist. In World of Warcraft we'd post up a pet, and boom, $10 million donated to charity -- just like that"
With the foundations in place and a noble goal at its core, the emphasis now is on spreading the word. Dela Rosa has invested a great deal of his personal wealth getting Leyline this far, and its non-profit status gives it access to grants, public funding and sponsorships that will carry it further still. In the longer term, Dela Rosa wants to implement a "transaction fee" on the commerce between users in Leyline's marketplace -- enough to sustain the core team, support the platform, and allow steady growth.
"The target is that, within two years, we will be fully sustainable, just off the transaction fees alone," he says. "We just need to hit between one million and 1.5 million [users], in our most conservative estimate. Within two years, we will stay afloat through donations, grants and sponsorships, but eventually the transaction fees will supersede all of that, and we won't need any of it."
Leyline is taking donations through a GoFundMe page, which Dela Rosa admits is off to a slower start than he imagined. This speaks to one of the biggest challenges that the organisation currently faces; explaining the concept to the public, and convincing them that Leyline's goals truly are what they appear. People who engage with technology are used to being asked to sign up and download an app by too-good-to-be-true tech companies, only to discover some hidden cost or compromise after the fact.
"It's a very complicated proposal, what we're putting out into the world. The normal reaction is: what is it? Because there's so many moving pieces. And then, what's going to happen to my computer? Where does the data go? Can I trust this? Is it mining Bitcoin? We're running into a lot of those questions, and we're trying to make sure we get the clarity on what this actually is. We're still trying to tune it, honestly -- it's very difficult.
"I see a sense of urgency -- we are really on the precipice, and we do not have a minute to waste"
"But if we're to dumb it down, it's quite simple: sign up, install an app, run it while you're sleeping, earn Leyline points, and you're helping the world and you earn digital items, gift cards and rewards.
"Some of the reactions are: that sounds too good to be true, what's the catch? Our answer to that is, here's everything. We're going to lay it all out -- open-source, open-knowledge, non-profit. We're going to broadcast our all-hands meetings, we're going to show our KPIs, show our budget. That way, if people doubt us and want to look into it, they are absolutely welcome.
"The private sector has become quite predatory, and there's a lot of damaged psychology out there. There's a lot of work to be done to win that trust back. What I've learned, as a manager and a leader in different organisations, is that an easy way to win trust back is to be transparent, hold yourself accountable, and be humble... When you expose that transparency and that humility, there's nothing left to doubt any more."
That is perhaps the biggest of several hills that Leyline has to climb to become the force for good Dela Rosa believes it can be. He admits to having doubts at how the concept would be received at first, all too easy to dismiss as "just some hippy bullshit." Happily, the opposite has been true so far, and Dela Rosa has put everything on the line to make it work.
"Half-assing it would not lead to success," says. "And the other thing I see is a sense of urgency -- we are really on the precipice, and we do not have a minute to waste.
"But I am so, so grateful that it's playing out now as we thought... We're not a bunch of people trying to be millionaires by creating an altruistic product. We're a bunch of people that don't care about the money. We want to make the world better, and we want other people to help us make the world better."