GDC 2022: Blockchain, NFTs, and play-to-earn scams go mainstream

    
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It’s GDC again, guys, and it’s… woof, a rough-looking year. While we had some really interesting panels during COVID, the first in-person event (which we are attending virtually) features a lot of panels about the blockchain, NFTs, and play-to-earn games, none of which is new – we’ve been covering bitcoin MMOs since at least 2016 – but there’s so much noise about the tech now. Our readers know how aggressively it’s being pushed.

And that’s important, as game devs have loudly noted that among other things, the NFT carry-over content between games has zero infrastructure. It’s a lie that’s been fed to us for at least six years in my experience, possibly longer. So when GDC hosted a talk on whether or not the tech is “real or farce,” I thought the answer was obvious, or at least that there’d be a good defense of it during the panel.

I was very, very wrong.

A heap of lies

I don’t want to name too many names, as the bulk of the speakers were optimistic at best or woefully inept at worst, with one industry “expert” informing us there was no GDC held in 2021 when in fact we had two. I will heap praise on Lars Doucet of Level Up Labs, whom we’ve mentioned before, as he was the only panelist who not only had done his homework but could articulate how and why these technologies are, as he described them, a “less worst PayPal at best.”

But the other speakers make me fear for the future. “Opportunity” was a word that was often repeated by all the other speakers, but after all these years of nothing and one investor noting how nobody could mention a favorite game using this type of tech because “there are too few,” it should be clear that something is very wrong with the state of this tech that’s supposed to lead us all to “the metaverse.”

In the virtual audience, almost everything the blockchain promoters tried to talk about was countered with comments like, “But MMOs have been dealing with that for years.” Ownership’s been a big issue in MMOs for decades, and neither NFTs nor cryptocurrencies has moved us away from players selling items/accounts on eBay or other auction sites, to say nothing of legalized RMT. MMOs themselves enabled their own real-world play-to-earn as people in poorer countries are paid to farm virtual gold to put real food on their tables. There’s nothing about syncing a secondary currency that can ensure virtual landrushes aren’t dominated by speculators instead of creative players who actually want to develop the land, not hoard it as an investment to sell online. Just the opposite is true.

The in-person crowd, at best, seemed to be wrestling with the concepts still, and the virtual audience’s pointed questions were ignored, leading me to suspect Doucet was the only trustworthy panelist on stage. While one investor noted that transparency doesn’t necessarily lead to trust, it does allow us to make informed decisions, and based on that person’s performance and quote, I simply don’t trust them at all.

Doucet even answered my question when I tweeted it his way:

Not only did Doucet support the unpublished Bloomberg source (Senior 3D Character Artist Xavier Coelho-Kostolny), but he also pointed to the always-relevant Raph Koster, who’s likewise published on how hard it is just to get the metaverse to theoretically recreate a cube, a series we’ve covered ourselves at length already. All veteran developer sources suggest that blockchain tech will not be carrying our virtual weapons from game to game, that decentralizing anything will make things harder before they’re better, and that it’ll only be the biggest companies able to rein things in.

In ignoring what Doucet, Coelho-Kostolny, and Koster have articulated, the blockchain proponents on this panel and elsewhere argue that theoretical new developers could at best make games a bit more like the Pokemon TCG: something that’s fun and potentially financially rewarding to players who adopt it first. But even if that were to happen, why would we need blockchains to do what gamers have been doing on eBay since the ’90s?

Even worse, giving a third-party control over everyone else’s assets wouldn’t mean gamers have control over or ownership of our items; it just means there’s another layer between us and our virtual stuff. So instead of simply trying to sell your car and dealing with the DMV, it’s now the car the company “gave” you. You might need to check the fine print once before trying to sell it, and the DMV is still involved.

As someone who had been playing the Pokemon TCG right before leaving it for Asheron’s Call, I still haven’t sold a single Pokemon card, as I had bought them for fun, not as an investment. While they could be worth some cash, I’d be more interested in casually playing with my brother once in a while than looking up the cards’ values and trying to find a buyer, at least at this point in my life, 20-some years after the fact. The differences between my physical cards and digital goods are vast, but as Doucet noted, there are a lot of underlying issues that ensure NFTs wind up nothing more than a grift.

The P2E dev has no XP

Doucet, much like Coelho-Kostolny, basically says the gaming industry doesn’t have the right tools in place – but it also doesn’t have the right people. Many of these “developers,” he argues, have little to no experience, not only in game development but economics. They may know finance, but that’s not the same thing, and it shows.

For example, one investor/dev on this panel noted that gamers had been upset with rare items in F2P games, arguing that “people played those games and they were popular!” However, we all know that just because we keep playing a game doesn’t mean it’s fun; we just may be victims of psychological exploitation. In fact, Doucet mentioned that P2E games currently on the market and in-planning often will need to move from play-to-earn to play-and-earn to obtain and maintain high engagement. But at what point is the publisher who was making money now paying people to play? The publisher is looking to make money, not lose it, but most people will walk away either because the “fun” goes away or the time spent “making” money is outweighed by other options – such as a real job with better pay.

Going even further, Doucet notes that the only games that successfully get people to “play-to-earn” and still make money are aggressive pay-to-win games and literal gambling games because the players assume they will lose money. Some games in these genres are successful, but that doesn’t mean it’s right or even fun.

The virtual audience did include a few blockchain supporters, but few of them came off as gamers; for example, there seemed to be a lack of understanding among them that a developer having to account for monetization balance of rare items on top of balancing for fun isn’t appealing for many devs. Heck, true balance in games is rare, so having to also put a price tag on how much every virtual item may be worth at any point in time seems like asking far too much, especially if we’re talking about teams where, again, the “devs” are financers, not game developers or economists.

And that was the big issue with the panel. I listened to many of the speakers and found that either they repeated the same lies I’ve heard before, seemed overly optimistic about the future, or were simply ignorant about the games industry. When industry “thought leaders” are allowed on stage to push a grift they can’t defend when outnumbering a skeptic 4:1, you have to question not only how sturdy the thing they’re pushing is but why their talks are being hosted by the convention at all.

Unfortunately, a quick flip through the GDC panel lineup this year shows several dozen of these types of panels on deck, many of them sponsored by the very companies hoping to make inroads in gaming, so I’m afraid that question answers itself.

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