In the wake of Ubisoft, EA, Square Enix, Sega, and Zynga announcing their interest in or direct support of blockchain tech and NFTs, things are looking pretty bleak for anyone who enjoys living on a hospitable planet. But for most of us, even if we find the notion distasteful, the possibility of NFTs becoming widespread in gaming doesn’t immediately threaten our livelihoods (even if they threaten our climate). For some game developers, however, NFT projects are attached to real money that could put food on the table, and turning them down comes at a real cost. Here are some developers who took a personal risk in saying “thanks, but no thanks” to NFT gigs.
The CEO of a game development studio
One developer who has refused opportunities to work on NFT games is the CEO of a studio that has provided engineering support for a number of well-known games, and also co-developed a few games of their own. As CEO, he has personally handled a lot of business requests about NFTs. While he says that he’s open to the idea of blockchain gaming being a viable gaming technology, he remains skeptical that they could offer any design benefits that would make up for the environmental cost. He also wants his studio to go carbon-neutral, a desire which runs counter to the CPU-intensive processes of crypto technology.
“A lot of the technology seems like it could probably be solved by other, less destructive means,” he told Kotaku. “I can’t speak for all game developers, but I think the stance of a lot of game devs is: if there’s a really interesting thing that can be done with NFTs and blockchain that makes better, or more interesting, or creative, or new user experiences… then probably a lot more people would be more open to that. But right now, it just doesn’t seem like most of the companies that are putting money into the space are actually solving any problems or creating any new experiences that couldn’t just be done with other means.”
The cryptocurrency proponents he’s interacted with also don’t inspire a ton of confidence in this studio lead. He felt that potential NFT clients didn’t understand gaming, and their proposals felt a little “sketchy.”
“I think a lot of [investors] don’t have any clue what [metaverse] means either. And so they’re all just dumping money into these companies of people who have developed blockchain- or NFT-related technologies. And then those [blockchain] companies realize, Oh, we don’t actually even know how to make video games… They just get the investment because it’s got the word NFT on it. And then they’re like, oh, shit, we have to actually go and make this game now. And then they go out and find studios that can build it for them.”
He also rejected certain NFT proposals because some clients had unreasonable expectations with little basis in development reality.
“There was one time, we had a group asking us for professional consulting on how to build a blockchain marketplace for people to buy and sell items across all of the different games they play. And I’m like, that’s not how it works. You can’t just make a sword from World of Warcraft work in Final Fantasy.”
At one point in our interview, the discussion turned to how the excitement and investor confidence in virtual reality produced mixed results. VR never hit widespread adaptation, and it tends to have very specific applications. I asked him if he saw a similar path for blockchain and NFTs. He said he wants his studio to make “traditional” premium games, and the excitement around blockchain appears to be a transient trend.
“There are all these technologies that people get excited about. Sometimes they do something cool, sometimes they solve a problem, and sometimes they’re just bullshit. You don’t really know until you have a certain amount of time that passes and it sticks or it doesn’t. I don’t know if NFTs are gonna stick.”
A game designer
One game designer who currently works full-time at a games studio spoke on the condition of anonymity. He independently corroborated that there was a lot of money for NFT projects floating around in the investment space. Despite his studio’s interest in NFT games, he has been vocal in his opposition to these projects at the company. He said that he would reevaluate his current employment if the studio started working on a blockchain project.
While he was previously aware of the environmental consequences and saw NFTs as a “ponzi scheme,” he has become increasingly concerned about whether the livelihoods of developers might become casualties of NFT enthusiasm.
“It’s a bunch of studios who have no experience with blockchain technology, no experience with cryptocurrency, no experience with non-fungible tokens all of a sudden being like: ‘Hey, there’s a lot of money in this. A lot of big players are getting into this.’ There’s the fear of missing out. And so a lot of studios are pivoting to NFTs. And they’re not prepared to do that. It’s incredibly intensive to create and maintain an NFT blockchain system, as opposed to just storing that all on your own server.”
Despite all of his misgivings, the game designer is also open to the idea that blockchain might be able to benefit game design in some way. He just hasn’t seen it yet. In fact, he feels that the fundamental premise of NFTs would likely worsen the experience of playing video games.
“[Scarcity is] what gives [NFTs] value in a video game. That just runs counter to all of my design principles. Why would I put something in a game that I think is cool and I worked on as a designer and want someone to play with and say: No, only one player can play with this? […] That just runs counter to everything interesting or fun about making games and playing games.”
We also discussed the fundamental volatility of an online-based game with a marketplace attached to it. He brought up the example of how Cyberpunk 2077 was removed from PlayStation’s storefront, and what would happen if platforms decided to take an NFT game offline.
“There are other issues designers have to factor in so that you don’t crash your market. Just look at the seven-day average of any crypto. That’s what your endgame market is going to look like. And if a famous person like Elon Musk tweets about it, as soon as a famous indie dev tweets, “Oh, this game kind of sucks,” all your items tank… As soon as anyone finds an exploit, it’s over. In Neopets, it’s Neopet money. But in an NFT game, it’s someone’s life savings.”
An independent pixel artist
Not all NFT gigs come from shady cryptobros whose Twitter accounts are just a couple months old. Some come from prominent professional acquaintances. Castpixel is a pixel artist who has worked on independent games such as Up In Smoke and Detective Case and Clown Bot in: The Express Killer. She was approached by a former professional League of Legends player, to whom she “holds no ill will.”
Before he went full-in on NFT avatars, Yoon-seop “Locodoco” Choi was a professional esports player for teams such as Team Liquid and TSM. In 2018, he was fired as the head coach of the Golden Guardians for making inappropriate comments toward a female Riot employee while off-camera. Now, he leads the Folktales of Lunaria project, which produces NFT avatars of mutated moon creatures.
On August 27, Choi reached out to Castpixel over Twitter private messages and asked if she would be interested in working on an NFT project. He ended up offering her either a 20% share out of an estimated $5 million in sales ($1 million), or a flat cash payout of $50,000 for four weeks of NFT work. It was a significantly higher offer than what Castpixel would be paid by gaming companies. When she was asked if she believed that the unusually generous business deal was legitimate, Castpixel told Kotaku:
“Nothing felt weird. That’s the most distressing part. That was the scariest part. The guy was well-respected.”
Castpixel said that she was willing to work with Choi, provided that it wasn’t on an NFT project. Unfortunately, he was determined to mint these avatars. On September 5, Castpixel turned down the NFT gig. She tweeted about declining a $1 million offer because “NFTs hurt the planet and create artificial scarcity.” Soon, members of the crypto community harassed her for her decision. Several of them claimed that she was ignorant about NFTs, or argued that the money could have been used to fund social issues that she cares about.
Despite the backlash, Castpixel held firm on her stance:
“I know [big artists] do NFTs because it’s money on the side. But it’s really guaranteed for people who have a big following already. The smaller artists, I don’t really get it because they have to pay for the privilege [of minting NFTs]. There is no guarantee they’re going to make that money back. So they keep spamming other artists and all of their followers. They keep getting on Discords and it seems like it consumes their whole internet persona. When I tweeted about how I didn’t want to do NFTs, some people pointed out to me that if I had done NFTs, I would have to constantly be talking about and engaging with them. And these people would basically be my new audience. Seeing how toxic the communities are, I wouldn’t like that.”
Folktales of Lunaria ended up proceeding with their NFT sales, and the first run broke $1 million in sales. While it fell short of Choi’s initial estimates, Castpixel’s stake would have been worth $200,000.