A lot of justifiable fuss has been made about Ubisoft’s decision to start producing NFTs for Ghost Recon Breakpoint in the form of cosmetic items, like guns and armor, with unique serial numbers attached. There’s a tremendous amount of money tied up in NFTs right now, but the whole thing reeks of a cash-in, with every video game executive praising the potential of NFTs in video games, presumably because it might make investors come running with bags of money.
The actual potential of NFTs in video games and the notion that you’d actually be able to take your digital gun in one game and bring it into another remains very much up for debate.
Ubisoft started distributing its Breakpoint NFTs (“Digits”) for free in December, and Objkt, one of the crypto sites Ubisoft partnered with, says there are roughly 2,400 NFT owners of Breakpoint NFTs. There’s evidence people haven’t been doing very much with the items after obtaining them, and nobody is becoming a millionaire. You can track the sluggish activity of secondary sales on sites like Objkt and Rarible, where the vast majority of what’s happening seems to be people “liking” a listing someone else made. Slow sales doesn’t mean selling zero, however, and so the question for me, then, became pretty obvious: who is buying these NFTs, anyway?
“Actually I didn’t buy the NFT, I claimed it on the Ubisoft Quartz’s website the day it launched,” said 20-year-old French player Lucas Guiot to Waypoint in a recent interview.
The item Guiot claimed was a gun, the M4A1 Tactical with said unique number: 236.
As part of this push into NFTs, Ubisoft initially minted thousands of NFTs but did not sell them to people. Instead, players claimed them, and then they can trade or sell them. In one case, Ubisoft required playing Breakpoint for 600 hours (!!) to claim a specific NFT.
If you work at a video game company and your company is getting into NFTs, or thinking about getting NFTs, I want to hear what those conversations are like. My secure email is firstname.lastname@example.org and my Signal number is 224-707-1561.
The process of creating an NFT is called minting, which assigns the digital item its unique identity on a blockchain. Minting, buying, and selling on a blockchain like Ethereum is one of the primary criticisms of NFTs, because finalizing a batch of transactions requires an extraordinary amount of electricity. Exactly how much of an environmental footprint that process has depends; some blockchains use more electricity than others. Tezos, the blockchain Ubisoft has chosen, uses a "proof-of-stake" model that doesn't rely on computers running 24/7 around the world to finalize a single block of data, and so likely uses much less energy than Ethereum.
“Personally, I'm new to the NFTs world and when I saw that I could earn a free NFT on a game that I really love,” said Guiot, “I genuinely thought it was a good introduction to NFTs.”
Guiot has not sold the gun, but has played 10 hours or so with it online. No one noticed it, though Guiot mentioned he mostly plays the game offline in story mode. In other words, Guiot is running around with a unique gun in a game mode where no one can even see it, but they’re holding onto it because, well, it was free and maybe it’ll also become free money.
At first, Guiot intended to keep the NFT. Then, they wanted to sell it. A few days ago, Guiot managed to sell M4A1 Tactical #236 for 5 XTZ, roughly the equivalent of $20. (XTZ is the symbol for the cryptocurrency tez, which is attached to the Tezos blockchain. It’s confusing.)
M4A1 Tactical #55 is owned by podcaster and music producer ToyBlackHat, who told Waypoint they bought it to describe “the process to our listeners.” They bought it for 9 XTZ, roughly the equivalent of $37, and believe NFTs will allow players to become “true owners of the items purchased in the game and/or minimize the amount of fraud in in-game trading.”
Questions about whether anyone noticed them using the gun while playing the game or what their ultimate intentions are with the NFT went unanswered, as of this writing.
“In these early days it's still really hard to convert gamers to blockchain and easier to convert blockchain to gamers.”
A common theme among people who own these seems to be curiosity and novelty, rather than true evangelism. But that’s not always the case. M4A1 Tactical #1436 is owned by Eric Westbrook, a director of technology at a bullion (aka gold and silver) delivery company called West Hills Capital and co-founder of Devil’s Delegate, a company developing an NFT project called Witchez where you… well, the website doesn’t really say? Witchez is also being built on the Tezos blockchain, where Ubisoft’s NFTs are located.
“I wanted to see firsthand how a seasoned game studio is leveraging NFTs for their hit titles,” said Westbrook. “Being this was the first NFT drop from a major studio I presume that the NFT will gain in value as the space grows and I see that as an essential piece to hold in my collection.”
M4A1 Tactical #1436 was bought by Westbrook for 15 XTZ, roughly the equivalent of $62.
Westbrook has also used his NFT gun while playing Breakpoint but noted “it didn’t feel different from using any other cosmetic but the custom serial and ability to view it outside of the Ghost Recon experience really added a level of ownership that I appreciate.” No one seemed to notice the skin while they were playing, a common refrain from people I talked to.
Though it’s possible Westbrook’s NFT will gain value, Westbrook admitted the desire to have one was primarily motivated by “sentimental value in owning this first gaming NFT drop.”
“The major studios have really accelerated utilization of microtransactions and cosmetics over the years and there's some fatigue and vocal push-back from a large number of gamers,” said Westbrook. “A lot of people who play video games, especially those uninvolved with blockchain technology, see the introduction of cryptocurrencies as a slippery slope for these issues to get worse.”
Motherboard’s Gita Jackson touched on this recently, noting how the initial hostility to things like microtransactions was well-earned and “adding ‘web3’ jargon words into the mix doesn’t fundamentally add anything new to that debate, or make it any less impossible to resolve.”
I noted to Westbrook that in every single gaming NFT pitch that drifts past my inbox—and there’s a few every morning—there’s a much bigger emphasis on the amount of money so-and-so company has raised or when NFTs are dropping, without detail about the, you know, game part. This is even true about his own game, Witchez. I tried reading the website a few times to figure out what Witchez was even about, before giving up and emailing Westbrook for an explanation. The website is very clear about the next mint, however.
“We are currently somewhat guilty of it being difficult to find information about our game lol,” said Westbrook.
The “game” part is a card game called The Cult & The Coven, apparently, and details about how the game works have been, to date, exclusively shared in Witchez’s Discord server. It doesn’t sound like the game part of Witchez is all that far along, though, which is typical.
“I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that in these early days it's still really hard to convert gamers to blockchain and easier to convert blockchain to gamers,” said Westbrook.
Since Ubisoft launched their experiment, Square Enix announced it would experiment with the tech, designer Peter Molyneux said he’s making an NFT game where the goal is to build a company town, the developers of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 revealed and then cancelled plans for NFTs after fan backlash, Sega expressed an interest in NFTs but noted the general hostility to them and could abandon plans based on public feedback, and the head of Take-Two Interactive, publishers of Grand Theft Auto, admitted to being a “big believer” in NFTs.