It looks like we have indeed lived long enough to see the heroes become the villains: Little Orbit, which we once lionized for saving APB Reloaded and bringing out an entirely free version of Fallen Earth to the masses, is now trying to make a blockchain game happen with its upcoming title Ships That Fight Underground. And aside from having a terrible acronym that sounds clever once and then dumb forever after, it also has a whole manifesto for design that just reads like textbook “if we reframe the problem, we can solve it more easily.”
This is, unfortunately, timeless, and not the good kind of timeless. We even saw the same problem in the absolutely ghoulish letter from Square-Enix’s Yosuke Matsuda at the start of the year. It’s very clear that people on the management end of gaming are at best clueless and at worst willfully misrepresenting the opposition people have to NFTs in gaming. Because let’s be real here, nothing in this manifesto in any way addresses or ameliorates the central issues that make NFTs a bad idea for games and everything else.
Let’s just start with one of the core parts of this article. According to Little Orbit, the following are the two reasons that people dislike NFTs: Either people don’t want to buy into another monetization scheme for a game or they don’t want to have their game mechanics infiltrated by gimmicky NFT implementation. Both of these things are technically true, but it’s framing the problem as disliking symptoms instead of disliking the disease, like saying that people dislike having a cold because blowing your nose is annoying and you can’t work instead of because having a cold is miserable.
The central problem with NFTs in gaming is that NFTs add nothing to a game. They do not contribute anything that game design cannot already accomplish without NFTs or a blockchain configuration. The only reason to add them in any capacity is to make the studio more money from a particularly gullible new market, and you know this is the case because any company that goes all-in on this scheme cannot wait to sell you some.
But let’s take another step back, even, because the article also amplifies one of the most persistent distortions of the whole blockchain NFT crypto nonsense with the appellation of “web3,” like this is some new bold evolution of the very concept of the internet instead of just a new twist on rent-seeking.
Let’s be honest: Crypto and blockchain do not, in any meaningful way, alter the fundamental interactions or structure of the internet as it exists now. The whole thing about “web 2.0” was about the shift of websites from being largely static things run by a collection of people managing things as individuals to community-sourced sites with content driven by users. We’ve gone from having Ted’s Transformers Site and Mike’s World of Transformers and Kylie’s Transformer Fanfic Repository to having Ted and Mike both editing on the Transformers Wiki and Kylie dutifully tagging her Transformers fanfics on AO3 and managing a small group of like-minded writers.
What does blockchain change about all of this? Well, it might give you a digital receipt for something else that you own hosted on a totally separate server. Or it might insert malicious code onto your machine and thus make getting a computer virus even more efficient than ever. The possibilities are endless, if by “endless” you mean “have a very short and clear ending.” This is not really so much “a change from web 2.0” as it is “using all of the tools and structure of web 2.0 to now add a greater fool scam on top like frosting.”
But you all know this. You have heard this song and dance before, and specifically you’ve heard it from me before. Let’s look at what Little Orbit is actually promising, though. Is it something novel? Something new? A genuinely new take on how to use these tools in a way that isn’t just rent seeking?
No. The company’s pitch is the same as other blockchain companies pitches, the old “we’re going to share profits with the community” and “we’re going to offer you two tracks to play” and “everybody wins.”
The internet is, and sadly always has been, lousy with people who are going to do their best to convince you to empty your pockets on the basis of “we’re all just pals here” and “we’re going to share the load” and so forth. Make no mistake, it isn’t some kind of hidden fact that every single play-to-earn game has almost immediately descended into a kleptocratic mess wherein people exploit others for minimal financial gain. Axie Infinity is still unraveling right before our eyes.
Nothing Little Orbit describes is any different from any other play-to-earn game’s general trajectory. The core mechanics are designed by people who know a thing or two about game design, and then on top of that you layer a nice bit of play-to-earn while promising players that they can totally play the game without that, it’s just an option, we’re all just pals and we’re on the same side, really, don’t you trust us?
Remember when Legends of Aria was going to have a no-blockchain option and then suddenly decided not to because of community feedback? What do you want to bet that community feedback was almost entirely non-supportive of the crypto ambitions? Because it seems like a pretty well given to me.
Or heck, look at the Ubisoft Quartz debacle. We are not looking around desperately for some information for how people are going to respond to this; the examples are already abundant. No one is “melting down” over it. People aren’t just unreasonably upset about NFTs for some totally mysterious reason. The vast majority of gamers usually can tell when they’re being bamboozled, especially when a whole lot of people in our industry have taken the time to explain exactly how the bamboozle works.
So Little Orbit trying to reframe the discussion as if gamers hate NFTs for some mysterious and unknowable reason and trying to imply the problem can be addressed via game design is at best disingenuous. It’s ignoring the actual problems with the very structure of blockchain and play-to-earn games as a concept while acting as if people are just opposed for the heck of it, rather than acknowledging the very real and unaddressed structural problems with the concept.
Moreover, it’s a bad look because it further incentivizes players not to trust what the company has to say, now or in the future, about this or anything else, which is frustrating. As I noted at the start, this is an indie company that was well-regarded thanks to its stewardship of abandoned MMORPGs. Nobody is enjoying watching any of this happen – or having to be the people calling it out.
Last December, Little Orbit asked its existing MMO players whether they would support this, and they already said no. The fact that management is going ahead with implementation in its new game with nary a break in stride should indicate all you need to know about what’s motivating the situation.