Video Games, Marketing, and Manipulation: An Update

I am somewhat giddy about some news that occurred this week.

To begin, back in December I did an essay on NFT’s in video games. The essay was spurred by a then-recent news announcement that Ubisoft was rolling out an NFT project called Ubisoft Quartz. The program was going to given its first run in Ghost Recon Breakpoint, a game which at that point had already been out for two years and was struggling to maintain an active playerbase. So introducing NFTs was a way to draw in players – make a big announcement about a limited-time offer, and watch as players suddenly flock to join in on the hot trend.

The point of that essay was to point out how the inclusion of NFTs were being used as a form of manipulation. Ubisoft was not actually interested in NFTs because of some belief that they were valuable or that cryptocurrencies were the future of money. They were interested in NFTs because they saw NFTs as a trend to jump on and make money from. It was a tactic to manipulate players into spending money and/or time on Ubisoft games.

The nature of the manipulation was as follows: Hey, NFTs are the Hot New Thing! And know what you can do with them? Make money by selling them! So if you join in and play our games, you too might have the chance to make thousands of dollars by collecting this rare item and selling it to someone else!

Of course, this logic wouldn’t really hold. For a variety of reasons. Again, I explained the problems in the earlier essay.

So why am I bringing all this up? Well, after four whole months, Ubisoft has announced that they’re discontinuing additional support for Breakpoint. The game will still be available to be played online, but Ubisoft won’t be producing any additional content. Which is fairly normal in the life cycle of a game like this: after two and a half years, players start to fall off more and more, and most won’t come back until you release a big addition, or just come out with a new game.

What happens to the NFTs? Well, they still exist. They’ll just be…there. Players can still trade them, but there’s an important question to be posed: why would anyone buy them? The value of these items is going to rest on one of three things: an expected monetary benefit, an innate value for the item, or its usability. And none of these possibilities really exist for the remaining “digits” in Breakpoint, especially now that Ubisoft is just moving on.

If you’ve been following the markets for these items, then you know that they’re not exactly a way to make good money. Listings on Objkt have barely made any movement, with the last sale occurring roughly two months ago, and most sales hovering in the area of about $40-60USD. Listings on Rarible have tended to sell for more and more recently…but the number of listings absolutely dwarfs the number of sales. Because the people actually interested in buying these things is significantly fewer than the people interested in selling them. You could get incredibly luck and sell your item for a couple hundred dollars…but it’s not likely (and that’s assuming that the sales we’re seeing are even legitimate).

But by pulling the plug on additional support for Breakpoint, the value of these items is even less. Because why buy an item for a game that will have no use beyond trying to sell it to some other sucker?

Like I said, it’s in no way surprising that Ubisoft made this call. It’s what we’d expect. But the fact that so many players are being left out to dry on this whole NFT thing helps to show that the entire ploy was just manipulation from the start – Ubisoft isn’t implementing these items for the benefit of players, but to benefit themselves. If you manage to get anything out of these NFTs – and that’s a big “if” – it is purely by happenstance.

I wanted to revisit this topic because for a while there was a huge push within the crypto community for incorporating NFTs into video games more broadly. The idea of a “digitally owned” item that would be unique, be yours, and that you could potentially sell for profit (maybe even massive profit), was then layered upon the idea that it could be transferable across games, and people were absolutely salivating over this concept.

Of course, all of these requests were basically coming from people within the crypto community approaching the ideas from a financial side, or from the player side. People who saw further implementation of NFTs and crypto as a way to spike the value of cryptocurrencies so that earlier adopters could get their big paydays. Or people who wanted to feel incredibly special by having an item that only they could have, and take from game to game. Actual game designers came out of the woodwork to help explain that these were terrible ideas for a lot of reasons.

The ideal version of these items is basically unworkable, since the “transfer” problem creates all sorts of hazards among developers and incentivizes plenty of bad behavior. Removing transferal entirely removes a significant portion of the appeal of NFTs within the video game space…and also introduces what is effectively a complex system to accomplish things that video games already do.

So the more realistic version of these items is what we’ve seen so far – developers just tossing in items available to a minority of players that have the term “NFT” attached. The items are no different from your everyday cosmetics, with the exception that you can’t have one, unless you either A) got lucky enough to nab it when it came out, or B) decide to shell out the money to pay for someone else’s.

And it’s when we realize that this is what NFTs are going to actually look like – rather than fixating on what they could look like in a fantasy world – that we should all be repulsed by the concept. Frankly, we should be repulsed by the whole thing – incorporating crypto and NFTs into video games, and the “play-to-earn” concept more generally (whether forged upon crytpo & blockchain technology or not).

It is hard to overstress how horrible these concepts are for video games. That the intrusion of NFTs into this space at the behest of major publishers is not a victory for an emerging technology, but a way to try and monetize every moment of joy that you wish to have with a game. When a company like Ubisoft introduces a NFT into its games, the company is trying to manipulate you, to find some way to keep you stuck so that they can keep making money off of you. This is more than mere advertising, this is about trying to get you to fundamentally change how you see your gameplay experience so that you’re always playing on the company’s terms: by thinking about money.

And so this news delights me because it is in some sense a small victory against NFTs. It is not a nail in the coffin. Ubisoft will keep trying. Other companies will continue to develop NFTs as long as there is sufficient interest in them more generally and as long as players allow them to (and it is a technology we should absolutely push back against). So in some sense, this is the bleak future for us – major publishers or developers including NFTs in their games as a way to drum up enthusiasm and interest, which then go defunct after a couple years, leaving players out to dry. It is by no means a good future. The silver lining is that at least we won’t have to put up with NFTs in every game.

You have to find happiness in little things when you can.

Additional Viewing

Folding Ideas: Line Goes Up – Just…just watch it. All of it. It’s all good and it’s all worth it.

2 thoughts on “Video Games, Marketing, and Manipulation: An Update

  1. I’m worried about how many people it’ll take getting burned before the majority of folks are entirely turned off these things. The NFT craze seems to have died down a bit, but I’m sure the crypto chuds are just waiting for another opportunity to advertise their pump and dump schemes. :/

    At the very least, as you stated: this is a small victory. Hopefully there will be more to come.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I worry just as much that we may never truly be rid of them to that extent…that we’re just doomed to deal with this stuff for as long as we have money and technology. Complete with all the scams and overhyped promises and manipulation and everything else that goes along with it.

      But maybe I’m just in a pessimistic mood this morning.

      Liked by 1 person

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