Mario Kart 8
On barest surface level, NFTs and video games seem like a good match. The idea that you can own, truly own, a digital item in a game, has some sort of base appeal, so much so that an entire industry is springing up around the concept.
And yet, digging into this even two inches, it unravels quickly, with the concept of NFTs antithetical to everything that makes gaming, gaming, and many of the actual good elements of the idea already having existed in games for years now.
NFTs, or Non-Fungible Tokens, are hard to parse for most people, but the basics are as follows. Computing is used to make a unique token. That token is used to be a link to something, in the case of most NFTs, an image. Then that token is sold, with the person who owns it, owning the “original” of that image in a verifiable way. Then it can be resold for more, and so on, and so forth. A barebones explanation, perhaps, but that’s the base framework.
The problem, with both NFTs and cryptocurrency, is that it takes a tremendous amount of energy to make these tokens. So on the production side, this creates a massive environmental impact the vast majority of the time. And then on the supply side, the entire market often feels together like it’s held together with scotch tape, and based on wild speculation to make prices soar or crash.
Inserting all of this into video games is a road to chaos. It’s already started, and though blockchain gaming is still very, very new, battle lines are being drawn. Ubisoft has indicated they are interested in pursuing NFT opportunities (Ubisoft has never met a video game concept they wouldn’t try). Steam has banned blockchain games and NFTs, while the Epic Game Store hasn’t ruled them out yet.
An attempt to describe how NFTs might work in mainstream video game was laid out recently in a Bloomberg article covering the phenomenon. And the description of an NFT-based Mario Kart instantly went viral as everyone tried to figure out just what the hell they were reading. You really just have to see it in its entirety:
Mario Kart 8
“Imagine being able to earn money by playing Mario Kart, that indefatigable Nintendo spinoff series from the pre-internet Super Mario. You wouldn’t have to be all that good at it. You wouldn’t have to play it 24/7. Because, in this mind experiment, you get to be Mario for as long as you like. You get to be him because you own him.
Because your Mario is an NFT, he’s impossible to duplicate. You and you alone own him. And because you own Mario, your go-kart is always better and faster than the ones piloted by other familiar faces in the Mushroom Kingdom like Luigi, Toad and Princess Peach. So off you go, earning the kingdom’s digital money – Mariocoins, let’s call them.
Given market economics, you might have to pay more for NFT Mario than for, say, NFT Peach. But then you’d also earn more, because here in the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario is the fastest player. When you step out of the game and back into your day job, you still own Mario. When you start playing again, Mario is there, waiting for you. Waiting to earn you Mariocoins.
You can sell Mario to another player if you like. If you’ve played Mario right, he might be worth more now than when you bought him. Maybe you’ve demonstrated how lucrative Mario can be. Maybe more people want to play Mario Kart. Maybe Mariocoin has soared in value because everybody is talking about it on social media.”
This is what could most accurately be described as a gamer’s vision of hell, a purely pay-to-win system that butchers anything approaching balance or fun in favor of a race to push up the value of your owned characters. The central game described in the Bloomberg piece, Axie, is a bit Pokemon-ish, but with NFTs, and it turns gaming into an attempt to generate revenue based on a speculative currency (”Smooth Love Potion”). It costs $300 to even start to play, and the ongoing value of your collection is something you yourself have little bearing in determining.
While this may work for this subsection of crypo-speculators, it’s impossible to see how this would function in mainstream games. And the interesting elements that NFTs allege to provide, true scarcity of digital items for one, is something that has already existed in games for decades, yet blockchain gaming is acting like Columbus discovering an America that had been settled for a millennia.
There’s a great thread that describes a lot of this from Bungie developer Max Nichols, which is now inaccessible because he was forced to lock his account due to NFT devotees mobbing him. In it, he describes how these concepts have always existed in gaming, and how we have seen digital items bought and sold for ages. The scarcity is created on the developer side, making rare items worth real life money, and we’ve seen this in countless titles over the years.
We have also seen games leaning too far into the idea of selling digital items, like we did with Diablo 3’s Real-Money Auction House. That wasn’t NFT-based, and yet even the idea of selling that many items for real money tanked the economy of the game and nearly destroyed it, and Blizzard was forced to delete the entire thing. To this day, any mainstream game that starts selling powerful items outright is raked over the coals by its playerbase, and being “pay-to-win” is the worst thing most games can be accused of. And all of this exists now without NFTs and the ownership issues and environmental impacts that can arise from that format specifically.
NFTs can be gamified, that much is clear. But games cannot be NFT-ified, at least not in any way that won’t fundamentally destroy their entire core and the reason anyone wants to play them, as per the ludicrous Mario Kart example. This is not the way forward for gaming, and I’d argue it’s even dangerous as a detour. The industry would be wise to follow Steam’s example, and not head down this path.
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