It's been an entertaining month for crypto and NFT dunks.
(I promise not to turn this into a crypto-dunking blog, but I do want to comment sometimes. I'll try to keep it to game-relevant topics.)
I'm writing in the middle(?) of a serious crypto price crash. I don't want to read too much into that. For all I know prices will recover next week. But the smart commentary condemning this stuff continues to pile up.
We had this Moxie Marlinspike piece on why "web3" and NFTs will never do what their proponents say. (NFTs can be stolen; they can be confiscated; they cannot confer ownership. The value that they do confer -- as witness the big centralized NFT platforms -- would work better and be more profitable if they ditched blockchain entirely. Etc.)
This week, we had this long and furious economics essay from Yanis Varoufakis, which draws together everything from old-style digital economies (the Valve marketplace) to China's digital currency to what do to about capitalism. (He has ideas. Blockchain doesn't figure in.) Way too much to summarize, but I must quote the quotable line about play-to-earn games:
[...] the idea that people must now play like robots to earn a living so as to be human in their spare time is, indeed, the apotheosis of misanthropy.
I'm leaving out the bit about armies of UBI robots -- I'm in favor, but I said I'd stick to the game-relevant.
The complete bankruptcy of Axie Infinity as a play-to-earn ideal is well-reported. (See the Olson talk.) (To be clear, the company behind Axie Infinity isn't financially bankrupt. I'm talking ethically. The initial gold rush is a lure that must and will and already has dried up.)
But play-to-earn won't just victimize its late-arriving players. It'll burn us all, and I'm not talking about climate change.
The crypto boom relies on its evangelists. It's been successful because, essentially, it pays its evangelists. In fact it penalizes them for not evangelizing. The value of your stake goes up if you convince more people to buy in. If your bitcoin is going down, you're not boosting bitcoin hard enough -- go bother someone! This is how all pyramid schemes work, but crypto/NFT schemes have a particularly strong feedback loop.
Remember this every time you see a pro-crypto take, by the way. Any pro-crypto take.
The loop applies at every level. One asshole shouting at you on Twitter; a dozen libertarian thinkpieces; crypto VCs pushing "web3 is the future". A bitcoin exchange loaning itself millions of dollars to stay liquid and avoid a bitcoin price crash. (Bitfinex in 2018, if you don't remember that story.)
Now apply this to gamers.
Say the prophets are correct and a bunch of big play-to-earn games start up. (Buxie Infinity, Coxie Infinity, Dixie Infinity...) Each has a base of players invested in it. They're all still growing and paying out big NFTs -- they haven't hit the Axie Limit where it all turns to sweatshops and "scholarships".
Now say I post some reviews. I write that Buxie is pretty fun but Dixie is dull and kind of laggy. What happens next?
It's pretty clear that the Dixie players go absolutely bored-ape-shit on my ass. (If you'll pardon.) I am directly attacking their income stream. They have to silence me. If Dixie falls behind in growth, the payouts drop; and then growth stalls, payouts plummet further, etc. It's a vicious cycle waiting to happen. And the players are actively motivated, financially motivated, to prevent their bubble from bursting.
Expect doxxing; expect swatting; expect brigading and screaming social media mobs and death threats. Web sites will be destroyed over this. People's lives will be destroyed over this.
It's already the case that game developers are motivated to solicit good reviews and prevent bad ones. (The whole "metacritic bonus" from a few years back.) But they're more or less limited to polite tactics like "send free review copies to favorable reviewers". Companies don't want lawsuits. Gamers are, um, not always so restrained.
Gamers aren't always restrained today, of course. But in today's market, they don't have to pay attention to bad reviews. A niche game can putter along for years with a loyal fanbase. How many people really play Dwarf Fortress? Enough to keep it going! They love the game; they don't care how many newcomers bounce off the UI.
But NFT games cannot rely on loyalty. Players are there for the payouts. If the payouts drop, nobody will keep playing for love or old times' sake. Nobody cares about the game. It's not like it's fun anyhow; all the design work went into the financials.
So players will do whatever it takes to keep their profit margins up. That's the "sweatshops and scholarships" stage, and I think it will include brutal online harassment. It's ruthless recruitment of suckers and character assassination of anyone who stands in the way. Maybe literal assassination; it's not like the crypto world is short of organized crime connections.
Because everyone knows that when the profit margins drop far enough, everyone bolts. Bubble burst, game over. Pull whatever rug you've got and hope you cash out in time.
That's the play-to-earn future. It's ugly and it will get uglier.