I have just finished watching a video presentation at the JS Game Dev Summit, and it has left me 1/3 angry, 1/3 sad, and 1/3 plain old disappointed in the future of gaming. As you might assume from the title of this post, it was all about “Web3” or as sane people call it, “oh, this blockchain bullshit again”.
Now of course I need to say that I am not an expert on Web3. I know about as much as your average gamer does about it, which is exactly as much as needs be known because that’s the baseline market that Web3 hopes to appeal to. Like any new initiative, Web3 is seeking a significant buy-in not just from developers and investors but also from gamers.
Like “Web 2.0” before it, Web3 is basically a buzzword, this one co-opted by those who want to use blockchain to position themselves as the vanguard of a new age of democratized content. There’s no new paradigm shift here; it’s only hitching existing technology to someone else’s horse. It is an agreed-upon umbrella beneath which we find some of the most odious actors of this age: blockchain, cryptocurrency, and NFTs. You might also know it colloquially as “the metaverse” — the idea that gamers can purchase “unique” content using cryptocurrency, and they will then “own” that content which they can then port between products compliments of the decentralized blockchain.
This is supposed to benefit gamers…somehow? Honestly, I can actually get behind a single account source across multiple platforms; right now, my online footprint is gated by several email and password combos, usernames and passwords, or a mix of federated auth token assigned to me through Google, Twitter, Microsoft, GitHub (same diff), Facebook, or some other platform overlord. I use a secure password wallet to keep track of all of this which makes things difficult when every access method has a different entry in that wallet, and I cannot recall how to log into any given service without access to that wallet. In that light, a single tokenized login for all services would actually be a godsend. That’s where my ability to say good things ends, however.
Thing is, those who espouse the benefits of Web3 seem incapable or unwilling to explain the benefits of Web3, and that is a massive red flag to anyone who hasn’t already been blinded by the supposed “promise” of Web3. The one point that I do often hear Web3 boosters talk about is “play to earn”, and that’s the kind of talk that makes my skin crawl.
In current live-service contracts, the platform holder reaps the financial benefits through box or digital sales, expansions and DLC, subscriptions, or in-game marketplaces. Here, the money flows upward from consumers to producers in the traditional goods-for-services relationship. Web3 fans, though, seem to want to meet this tradition with violence by choking off the flow of capital to the producer and that seems to be their largest selling point for the kind of peer-to-peer marketplace that they believe Web3 provides. Because gamers would “own” their in-game items (NFTs), they would set the price and they would be the ones getting paid the lion’s share should they decide to sell. Platform owners would get a cut, but their cut could be on player terms: as a federated network built on the blockchain, it doesn’t matter if my NFT exists in “World of NFTCraft” or “EverCrypto”. If one of them folded for whatever reason, I don’t care because my inventory exists outside of any influence of any specific platform.
It seems that in true Internet fashion, the hype of Web3 isn’t born of “fulfilling a need” but is instead a repudiation of the injustices of capitalism. For Web3 pundits, the idea that money flows upward is abhorrent not because they believe capitalism is bad (capitalism will benefit them as they set up their own companies, natch), but because they themselves have missed the boat of Web 2.0 and want to set up their own marina under the Web3 flag, so what should happen, they believe, is that people should air-quote-own-air-quote currently ephemeral content that they can trade amongst themselves through private transactions. In many ways I am not averse to this in concept, but the breathless, unironic blather that accompanies any Polo-wearing venture capitalist or beanie-and-hoodie-wearing techbro’s attempt to explain the “benefits” to the average gamer just reeks of snake oil.
I have been gaming for 40 years and I have never stopped to wonder how I could be turning my free-time entertainment into a money-making opportunity. “Play to earn” is not a piece that’s missing from anyone‘s enjoyment of gaming, but we live in an age when up-and-coming generations feel that they have to always be earning (for reasons stemming from capitalism, unironically) and if there’s a way to merge entertainment with earning potential then dammit, the obligation is there to make that happen. We’re also in an age when literal nobodies assume that the only thing that separates them from millions of dollars is “exposure”. Although these situations are new to our always-connected culture, the fact that there’s always been someone nearby with promises to make dreams come true is as old as human history itself. Never mind the details; these glad handlers will promise whatever benefit you want. Of course, they’ll take their cut regardless, and I wouldn’t expect Web3 boosters to act any differently. Despite the federated promises they peddle, they will structure the playing field so that they themselves are the big winners.
I do not have confidence that Web3 is going to buckle under its own bullshit. We’ve seen many “bad ideas” floated in the past that have garnered massive community backlash, but which never went away thanks to the business community hammering on despite the negative feedback. In-game marketplaces is one. Always-connected products is another. Gamers have long memories but short attention spans and while we’re all railing against Web3 now I fear that the potential for profit in subverting the current consumer-to-producer financial pipeline is going to be thick enough to shield any Web3 pundit from criticism. They’re going to go ahead and build on that blockchain and mint those NFTs, and over time they’ll solidify the “benefits” that we should all desire, and little by little our games will move away from account silos and into crypto-funded metaverses.