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Play-to-Earn

Amongst the crypto/NFT/metaverse topics cycling around online, there is a quote from Reddit co-founder, Alexis Ohanian, that makes a bold prediction:

“90% of people will not play a game unless they are being properly valued for that time,” Ohanian, who runs venture capital firm Seven Seven Six, said in a recent episode of the “Where It Happens” podcast.

“In five years, you will actually value your time properly,” he said. “And instead of being harvested for advertisements, or being fleeced for dollars to buy stupid hammers you don’t actually own, you will be playing some on-chain equivalent game that will be just as fun, but you’ll actually earn value and you will be the harvester.”

On its face, the prediction is ridiculous. This Forbes article rips it apart. There’s a huge sense of revulsion from many corners of gamedom over this a priori push into NFTs and metaverse to begin with, let alone the notion that “Play-to-Earn” is going to catch on in some kind of major way.

The problem is that we have actually been Playing-to-Earn for years already.

For example, the WoW Token (NFT?!) already exists, and I spent considerable in-game time doing Auction House shenanigans in an attempt to pay for my subscription and purchase expansions. Same with Guild Wars 2, where everyone farms gold that they turn into gems into cash shop purchases, paid for by people spending real dollars to buy gems for said gold. EVE has had similar things in place for years and years. Almost every single mobile game has a way for you to “earn” a cash shop currency that you could otherwise purchase outright. All that is missing is a way to cash out of the ecosystem, which simply means no longer hiding values behind “gems” and “diamonds” and such.

And Diablo 3 did all this in front of the world in 2012.

I’m not saying all of this is a good idea. These companies are throwing around terms when they clearly have no idea what it even means. Game companies spend millions of dollars building custom game engines instead of leveraging existing products all the time, and yet they talk about NFTs and metaverses as if interpolation between games is a solved issue.

But do you know what IS nicely interpolated between radically different games and platforms? Cash. It doesn’t make sense to try and bring a Candy Hammer from Candy Crush into Clash Royale via blockchain or whatever. But if I can sell that same hammer to someone else in Candy Crush, I can bring those dollars over to Clash Royale and purchase something else. METAVERSE!

The elephant in the room, of course, is why any game company would actually want to do this. There is a proven track record that turning cash into funny money (tickets, gems, diamonds, etc) is a technique to obfuscate how much money someone is actually spending. Or playing to earn, for that matter. Earning 30g/hour in GW2? Amazing. Alternate Youtube title: Earn $1.88/hour in GW2. Less impressive. These companies also frequently give out free hits of crack game currency in almost-useful amounts to entice people to purchase more. Can’t quite do that with literal cash equivalents.

On the other hand, Diablo 3 is kind of an example of why companies would want to. Selling a powerful sword in the cash shop for $100 is clearly Pay-to-Win. Letting your customers sell the same sword for $100 to another customer and taking a cut? Totally OK! Nobody blamed Blizzard for introducing a sword worth $100, as that was just the benevolent invisible hand at work, as our lord Adam Smith intended. Nevermind that Blizzard has full control over all the levers that makes a given sword rare and useful enough to be sought-after in the first place. Capitalism, ho!

The Play-to-Earn economy being threatened in the headlines has been a call coming from inside the house this whole time. The “only” difference is that many of the most popular games that have the equivalent mechanisms already in place don’t let you cash out. They could, but they won’t, because why would they? Getting a cut of NFT sales into perpetuity sounds nice and all, but that will only work if your game is popular/successful, in which case you may as well keep all the money in-house. All the other apps will be engaging in a race to the bottom, gumming up the blockchain with NFT trash loot, collapsing whatever ecosystem may exist. Nevermind how all of it perverts the incentive structure for progression-based game mechanics anyway (see: Diablo 3).

Having a terrible idea that won’t work never stopped Blizzard before, so I don’t see why it should stop anyone else. And hey, if I’m wrong, hit me up in the crypto salt mines where we monetize every moment of our free time to afford luxuries like clean air while the planet boils around us.

Rio My Dinero

Well, the mystery of how Overwatch is going to make money in the future has been revealed:

The new skins, sprays, and so forth come from limited-time-only Summer Games loot crates. Players will receive a free crate upon logging in, but here’s the rub: Summer Games items cannot be purchased with your stockpile of credits, nor can Summer Games items be found in standard loot crates.

In other words, Blizzard has just created a set of new skins for all the characters, and are locking them behind limited-time paywall lootboxes. Specifically want the new Tracer skin? Good luck. You cannot specifically purchase a skin, nor can you craft one with in-game currency.

This particular pivot boggles my mind. Blizzard went from one of the most fair, egalitarian business models I have seen in videogames… to pretty much the worst possible one. Sure, they are just characters skins and “don’t matter.” At the same time, if any of these particular skins did matter to you, then, well, get fucked, I guess.

If this is indicative of Blizzard’s future direction with Overwatch, I just got a lot less interested.

[Fake Edit]: Jeff Kaplan has come out and specified that you can choose to receive a Summer Games lootbox when you earn a lootbox normally, e.g. when gaining levels. Good luck grinding that shit out in three weeks though. Making the in-game currency useless for these time-limited events is still a travesty.