When a friend of mine recently linked me to an article detailing a game designer's conversion from NFT skeptic to (I quote) “full blown crypto-bro,” my first reaction was to roll my eyes. “You have to at least take a look at their arguments if you want to counter them,” my friend said, and so I reluctantly did go through the whole thing. You can do so as well here, should you wish to, but I'm not going to ask you to and I would certainly forgive you if you gave up on it halfway through; it was physically taxing for me to get to the end. So I'll sum up each of the author's points here before I address them.
5 Reasons Why You've Just Spewed Bullshit on Blockchain Gaming
1. Using NFTs creates scarcity, and scarcity means new content drops in a live game can be attractive to players without having to resort to power creep.
It's unclear how NFTs help with this. Developers can create artificial scarcity by simply only enabling a few players to gain assets. Plenty of games have had rare items, long before we started talking about NFTs.
2. Ownership of game assets means you can also resell them; players are more likely to spend a lot of money in a game if they know they'll be able to sell the things they bought.
Again, NFTs themselves don't really enable any of this. And again, plenty of games have official or unofficial markets for assets.
Actually, because we've already dealt with games that do have artificial scarcity, and do enable players to resell assets, we know all the problems that come with those ideas; the appeal of in-game items becomes inextricably tied to their monetary value, and we start to face issues of social inequality and vulnerability, and addiction mechanisms creep into designs. But the article's author doesn't talk about any of that, for reasons that I'll expand on later.
3. If players can own (and therefore collect) in-game assets, that in itself can become their goal in the game instead of accruing power or getting high scores, so NFTs enable games to reach different audiences.
How sad is it for a game designer to think that we haven't yet found ways to speak to audiences who are more attracted to collection rather than power? Besides, once again, even if ‘ownership’ was a brand new thing, it doesn't require NFTs.
4. (Rehash of point 2)
I'm not kidding, this is just literally a rephrasing of the second argument. I read both sections several times to try to identify the nuance, but there isn't one.
5. NFTs enable the community to have governance over the game's evolution.
Now this is interesting! Oh— not because it's a valid point, sorry— just because it's about something I deeply care about. And which, you guessed it, games are already exploring without the need for any crypto bullshit. The author doesn't even try to link his argument to NFTs here, he simply says that it would be cool if players could, for instance, vote on the next feature to be added to the game. I agree! But I suppose he is also saying that players who own more assets should get more votes. I... do not agree. And regardless: enabling ownership of in-game things does not imply or require the reliance on NFTs.
“Robin you keep saying NFTs are not needed and bad. Please explain.”
Ok. The crux of NFTs is that ownership of one is inscribed on the blockchain, ie. decentralized – not controlled nor maintained by a single entity. That's the entire point of them, and it's also why they're terrible; I encourage you to read this seminal article on them if you still need convincing.
In a game, who owns what is traditionally controlled by the studio behind the game. Developers ‘give’ you in-game items, either indirectly – as you unlock them via the game's systems, as designed – or directly – if a dev actually goes into the database and manually adds the item to your account or save.
This works fine! There is absolutely no need to rely on the blockchain, unless a studio, for whatever reason, wanted other studios to determine whether you owned specific items so that you could use them in their game. Even then, an easier and more efficient way to do that would be via some sort of database sharing, account linking, etc. (This is also not a new concept.)
There isn't a single idea around the notion of ownership of game assets that fundamentally requires the use of NFTs. And I'd argue that, given the insignificance of what NFTs bring to the table, there can't be.
There's more to this.
Look, there are few topics about which it is worse to be wrong than NFTs and cryptocurrencies, but ultimately I'm not the best person to explain how or why that is (see the previously linked article). I am, however, the best person to explain why the author's approach to game design is so offensive to me.
As a game designer, you often end up asking yourself: why am I doing this? What's the end goal? Why am I out here designing games when, well, everything is going to shit?
And the only answer I can find that still lets me look at my reflection in the mirror and be ok with the person I see is: I make games for players. So that they can find a community they feel safe in, or a different perspective to help them make sense of the world, or maybe a little bit of wonder and escapism. At the very least, so that they can find some harmless comfort, some respite.
If you're a game designer toying with the idea of NFTs – and, don't get me wrong, NFTs are just the latest, worst-est version of what I'm talking about here – you're not making games for players. You're making games that exploit players, for the profit of your company. You're dehumanizing your players into little bags of cash, and you see your job as being in charge of fine-tuning the game so that each bag of cash will drop as many coins as possible into the big gaping mouth of the company you work for, or worse, own. That's how we ended up with terms like engagement, acquisition, retention, and so on. The author of the piece I am writing this in response to says at one point that he wants to “make players feel awesome”, but it's actually not quite right; he wants to make players feel awesome, because when a player feels awesome she's particularly receptive to other elements of the game designed to get her to spend money.
I know I'm not saying anything particularly revolutionary here. The thing that gets me is how many designers lose sight of why they're in this field in the first place. I get it – it's easy to just get lulled to sleep by the metrics, the KPIs, etc. And maybe the author does genuinely believe that he's just making players feel awesome, with no ulterior motive! But look, man, you're writing a thinkpiece in which you readily admit that the games you help create make you miserable, and that one big reason you're excited for NFTs is that they'll help “fight existential dread”. Surely you realize there's a bigger problem here?
In a way, it makes sense. If you've become fully numbed to the practice of designing games mainly for profit, to the extent that you don't realize that's what you're doing, then maybe it makes sense that the notion of “ownership” is so exciting to you. Maybe you have, by choice or out of resignation, come to accept a capitalist framework for envisioning the world, and therefore you get truly hyped up when thinking about how a new technology will allow you to own more of something. Or, to own something more. (Doesn't matter what, the important part is that you can own it.) “I didn't just unlock a gun in the new Call of Duty; I now own the gun.” Amazing, even if it doesn't make any difference!
And well, if that's the case, what can I say? It's pretty sad. Such is the unassailable might of money, I guess. But I beg you, do try to believe in something else.