Vague Patch Notes: Why play-to-earn is a garbage idea


Good afternoon, readers. Do you remember not so long ago when I talked about the fact that MMOs are perfectly fine as just games rather than being some sort of major skill box? Well, now’s the time when we come back to that in a way because we have to talk about play-to-earn. Specifically, we have to talk about how games that advertise this are terrible games, why the very idea is hot garbage, and why the whole thing deserves to be thrown from a great height until it splatters against the ground and ceases to be, Disney villain style.

This would, on face value, seem to be absolutely obvious. Unfortunately, thanks to hot nonsense like NFTs (which are still terrible) and cryptocurrencies, the brain slugs infesting far too many people with more money than sense have brought play-to-earn as a concept into vogue again. Never mind that at a core level, the concept doesn’t make sense because as soon as you even write it out you’re noticing the problem. Once you’re earning, it stops being play and starts being something else.

Let’s talk about Entropia.

We don’t talk a whole lot about Entropia on this particular site because, well… none of us play it, but there’s also not a whole lot there to actually play. The most notable element of the entire game is that it has a system wherein in-game currency has a fixed exchange rate to actual dollars, which means that you could, in theory, spend a lot of time playing and actually convert it back into money. At one point, this sounded very tempting to me because I was in my 20s and an idiot. I could get paid to play a game? Sign me up!

Except that I then did some research and swiftly discovered that what I could actually get paid to do was to do tedious farming other players didn’t want to do… theoretically. But if I spent enough time and probably real money on the game, I could theoretically eventually get enough pretend money to exchange for real money and then I would actually have a less-than-minimum-wage job in which I was playing a terrible game I didn’t like.

Of course, this is not by accident. The developers of Entropia don’t actually want you to make money on the game; they want you to pay money into the game in the hopes of making money by it. This is… well, let’s not mince words, it’s pretty scummy and grotesque. But it also at least doesn’t require you to convert your money into a slow and volatile stock market with a deflationary model.

You know, like cryptocurrency.

Hooray, the world is awful.

I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time explaining why cryptocurrency and NFTs and the like are bad because I already wrote that article and it summed things up quickly. If you want a longer summary, watch the excellent two-hour documentary by Dan Olson explaining why these things are intensely terrible, and pay particular attention to the section on Axie Infinity, which is an example of a game that actually does latch into the whole “play-to-earn” model and also sounds like an unmitigated, unpleasant hellscape.

Because here’s the thing that’s easy to forget. Even when you’re talking about play-to-earn as a real thing, what you’re talking about is not actually playing the game. What you’re talking about is grinding the most miserable parts of the game endlessly so people with more money than you have might, at some point, deign to throw you some currency. You are going to be endlessly grinding repetitive tasks for no reason other than scraping some coins together.

At best, you can defer this somewhat in terms of design by having money to burn going in and basically investing in options and the ability to pay in earlier. But you’re still fundamentally spending a lot of time earning in-game assets, then hoping that someone will buy those assets, then hoping that you can convert the currency used to buy back into an actual fungible currency of some kind.

You know what that sounds like? Gold farming. Congratulations, you’ve found a game where gold farming to sell currency is not only allowed but encouraged, and it’s not just a side activity that deforms the in-game economy in various ways – in fact, it’s actually the cornerstone of the game’s mechanics. You’ve found the part of the game considered disgusting by most players and you want to make it the core game mechanic. What a wonderful world we live in!

In Square-Enix CEO Matsuda’s ghoulishly terrible letter from the turn of the year, he mentions how primarily most current gamers are motivated by playing to have fun. This is almost certainly because that’s literally what games are supposed to be. They’re supposed to be fun. You can debate whether or not a given game is fun, and some of them may not be fun to you, but the core interaction and flow of incentives is not hard to understand. I invest money and time in your game; it rewards me with pleasure. I earn that money from doing a task I do not find pleasant in and of itself that needs to get done.

But play-to-earn breaks even that basic assumption. It’s not that the tasks you’re doing are unpleasant but necessary; they’re unpleasant but only made necessary by deliberate inclusion into the game. Picture the worst, most unpleasantly grindy mechanics in any game. Now imagine those being placed there intentionally, and that’s not just a part of the game but the whole game, top to bottom.

Does this sound like something you’re eager to play?

Pure garbage.

If a game starts to feel like work to you, that’s an indication that you need to stop playing that game. Making a game that’s a tedious, unengaging slog filled with repetitive and unfun tasks that only exist to provide you with something to do is replacing your leisure time with something less fun than even that.

We’ve all had games we’ve played that are not fun in and of themselves. Heck, some games are construction kits in various ways, and people are usually motivated because they find the act of construction fun. Play-to-earn turns the entire thing on its ear. You’re not doing it because it’s fun; you’re doing it to earn money, and you’re supposed to lose your mind for these tasks because you are technically playing a video game along the way. Not a fun game, not a game you want to play, not even a good one, but you’re performing repetitive parts of a game and hopefully getting paid.

Not to mention that the moment the game drops below a critical mass of people willing to pay in, you have instantly wasted all that time grinding away at it, as surely as a company selling in-game currency for a dead MMO.

At the end of the day, all of this is part of the same onerous and grinding incentive for financialization, turning every interaction into fungible criteria. If you want to picture the future of this line of thinking, picture a world where your time off is differentiated from your time at work only by the specific tasks and renumeration, where from birth to death you are repeating meaningless tasks for no enjoyment beyond minor financial incentive, slouching helplessly toward a never-realized ideal of being paid for fun… forever.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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