The New Great Game
A literary introduction
In his novel Kim, Kipling describes the Great Game that Western powers are playing, vying for dominance in the steps of Central Asia, through means of secrecy, espionage, and occult alliances. No one knows for sure what is happening, and everything is cloaked in a veil of mystery. But the Great Game can also easily become a zero-sum game. Kipling himself admitted as much: “When everyone is dead the Great Game is finished. Not before”.
Both aspects could aptly describe the role of NFT in gaming today. Venerable, institutional players have announced with great fanfare some NFT projects – with Ubisoft the latest among them – although no one, including the developers themselves, knows exactly what lies behind them. And, at the same time, American VC funds shower inordinate amount of money on obscure games developed in South-East Asia, relying on sketchy economics, which sometimes look like a debt-fueled pyramid-scheme (latest development: VC fund a16z poured 152$ millions in pay-to-earn Axie). But not all forces are riding this wave. Playstores are not accepting most NFT games (such is the case of Axie) and Steam, the global store, has issued a blanket ban.
In those new, wild territories, great powers are thus fighting, but what is the prize? Is it really creating sustainable value? Because, at the end, this web of intrigue between Russia and England served little purpose. The English Raj, already internally fragile, had little means to project any durable influence in central Asia. And Russia, gripped with the modernization imperative, had little energy to waste expanding in central Asia. The European conflagration of the first war world war happened entirely in the West, not in the margins of Mongolia. The new exotic NFT theater captures the imagination of the public in a similar fashion than Kipling’s writing in Victorian times, but will it hold any durable importance?
To answer this question, we must consider that there is not a single use case of NFT in gaming. There are, in fact, four markedly different usages. Some of them seem doomed to failure, as they offer little more value than themselves, locked in an autotelic trap. Others, subordinate to a positive player experience, could be durably embedded in gaming, although they would seldom constitute a game in and of themselves.
P(l)ay-to-earn, or autotelic traps
The most exciting properties for investors those days are pay-to-earn games. Axie is the paroxysmic example. The game is played with a team of creatures. Each creature is, in fact, a blockchain-certified, unique item, which will be imbued with singular properties based on its defeat or victory record. Such creatures can then easily be traded on global exchanges (we are leaving here the complex creature breeding program, which will nonetheless fascinate those among our readers who enjoy horse breeding and follow with passion the latest service of Morning Glory).
Play-to-earn would be more aptly described as pay-to-play. Because, in order to constitute his original team, the player must buy it upfront, which would cost around $200 according to the latest estimates.
Now, this begs the question: Why is anyone playing this game? Certainly not for enjoyment. $200 is a steep upfront cost to play a hara simulator. The profile of those games’ main players, nearly entirely located in developing countries such as Vietnam or the Philippines, most of them having secured loans to cover the upfront cost, helps understand the primary motivation: speculation. In a way, the players are, in fact, mining a cryptocurrency, the NFT tokens. If more and more players join the game, or if more and more people think those NFT are going to become valuable, then their value will increase.
But, because no one plans to join the game for the game’ sake, this cycle is what Aristotle would describe as “autotelic”, i.e. that has no other goals than itself. Is it a pyramid scheme? Some voices in civil society have brought this critic forward. It is, in any case, primarily speculative.
The large, reputable, staid international studios and distributors have stayed away from the more sulfurous pay-to-earn games. Instead, they attempt to use NFT in a much more innocuous, unimaginative even, manner. Ubisoft has, for instance, announced that unique in-game items would be NFT tokens. And that such items could be exchanged in in-game stores.
This, in effect, does not change in any way the nature of videogames. In-game purchase and micro-transactions are a stapple of most games’ business models. Secondary markets are, however, usually rare. Auction houses had indeed been implemented a decade ago but had encountered limited traction – one can remember how an auction house was underpinning the Diablo III business model, before provoking a fans’ outcry.
Now, NFT would facilitate this new model, and enable the release of limited items. It could even create unique items due to in-game activity: i.e. we could imagine a weapon that was used in the first successful raid of a major dungeon to fetch a higher value in the secondary market than its vanilla equivalent. This last point, however, would only make sense in games where players have some intense emotional, narrative investment, which are few and far between.
NFT, thus, would facilitate the establishment of secondary exchange, establishing a unique certificate of authenticity for in-game items. But is suitable for the producers? Informal secondary exchanges exist for most online games. It is an open secret that, for any competitive game, one can buy another’s player account. NFT would facilitate it and make it official. This is not, however, necessarily a good move.
Such transactions would indeed stand outside of the game’s ecosystem and would thus be worth nothing for the company. Of course, an internal exchange could be created, but then one hardly sees the benefit of NFT. If it is entirely managed in a closed-shop manner, the need for third-party authentication is limited.
NFT could serve to facilitate from a technical standpoint some game’s economics, it could even help set up internal or secondary exchanges, but none of those applications are groundbreaking in nature. They still need actual, engaging games to exist.
The magic of collectibles
So far, our depiction of the situation has been fairly bleak, more akin to a Caspar Friedrich’s painting than a postal card. And yet, there is one particular type of game that, in its essence, is well-suited to NFT. That was, in fact, very much a physical NFT game before the times.
What are, indeed, trading cards games, such as Magic: The Gathering and all its epigones (including the Pokemon cards of our youth)? Cards are issued, each with a certain rarity. The rarest cards have better properties and thus fetch a high value on the secondary market. For instance, a Black Lotus card (one of the rarest and more powerful one in Magic) is currently selling for $13 000. Like Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme, we were using NFT without even knowing it!
It is therefore a good news that, far from being a thing of the past, those games have experienced a recent surge in popularity. One needs just to look at the enduring success of Hearthstone to realize it. And, in the NFT world, the burgeoning success of Sorare, a fantasy football collectible game, is another testament of the natural fitness of such applications.
However, NFT are not everything. Certainly, enabling secondary markets – with the eternal question of whether to control the transactions in-game (and get a commission) or to stand aside from trading – would help bring a new dimension to the game and would help ride the NFT craze. But, even in such cases, it is the game itself that will, first and foremost, be the arbiter of success.
Magic: The Gathering was not popular because of trading. It became popular because of its creative drawings, its well-balanced game mechanics, the producer’s involvement in community building, etc. And this, in effect, created the conditions for a trading market to exist. The same goes with NFT.
A final use case of NFT is one that has not yet been tried, at least not to any large scale. It is the fusion of reality and NFT, in a manner reminiscent of what Pokemon Go, of 2016 summer fame, had achieved.
In effect, a game could create unique items based on environmental conditions. For instance, one could imagine, in this Pokemon Go example, that the creatures, instead of being all identical, would be imbued with unique properties based on the nature of the terrain where they appear (in the middle of a busy street or in the countryside, close to a famous monument or landscape, …) One could even imagine unique combinations, such as the Axie breeding program we described earlier, based on physical contacts between players (i.e. requiring a Bluetooth connection to breed two creatures).
However, as seductive as environmental NFT is, we should keep in mind that Alternate Reality has been the cemetery of many games. In effect, aside from Pokemon Go, no game has been truly successful in that regard. It probably takes a beautiful, carefree summer, something that is getting ever rarer in our dark times.
Neither Great Game nor game of chance
“If you can keep your head when all about you / are losing theirs and blaming it on you / […] you’ll be a Man, my son”. This advice from Kipling is an apt word of caution amid the NFT craze in gaming.
Certainly, fortunes can be made creating a play-to-earn game, getting the right influencers to make the token’s value rise, marketing it to VC funds, raising a few hundred millions – and, one assume, spending it all in lavish, decadent parties in a tropical island (at least, this is what this writer would do). But NFT itself is not the primary mechanic in gaming. It can enhance the player’s experience – although it could just as easily ruin it by making it overly mercantile or destroying the fairness’ balance – but not replace it. It is an adjuvant, not a primary material; a pinch of spice, not the main course; an exciting Victorian novel, not the geopolitics of the time.