Image Source: Blizzard
Over the weekend, Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park made a few tweets about adding NFTs to video games and learned very quickly that many, many gamers are violently against the idea. It’s because they’ve seen these kinds of schemes come and go, leaving their favorite games much worse.When I played The Sims 3 when it came out in 2009 and throughout the 2010s, microtransactions were the bane of my existence. Every time I played the game, I’d get a little reminder of my SimsPoints, a currency I could buy with real money, and all the new items for my Sims that I could spend it on. When I opened Create A Sim, I’d see all the hairstyles I could buy with my SimsPoints on the Sims 3 Store, and for a time the best and most attractive curly hair options were exclusive to that store. When I built a house, I’d see furniture items that I could buy with my SimPoints as well. Some of these items you could only get on the Sims 3 Store, meaning that even if you bought all the expansions, there would still be more things to buy.
This didn’t have a positive impact on my gameplay experience. I resented being advertised to every time I wanted to play with my Edward and Alphonse Elric Sims. I wasn’t the only person experiencing this additional revenue stream being added to their favorite game, either. Look no farther than the Diablo III “real money auction house,” which allowed players to buy high level materials that normally could only be earned through grinding difficult dungeons. Being able to just buy those weapons ruined the game for many players, and eventually it was removed.Sports games in particular have been plagued by microtransactions. Players of the popular NBA 2K series have said that more and more it’s impossible to be good at the game without spending money. The game is now as much a vehicle to advertise expensive sneakers as much as it is a video game, to the ire of players who just want to shoot hoops. The slow march towards the concept of the “live service” game, best exemplified by Fortnite, was a huge aspect of games from the 2010s. Along with Diablo III and The Sims 3, there were games like Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, where microtransactions and loot boxes were a prominent and controversial aspect of their designs. Like Diablo III, the microtransactions were eventually removed. But the idea of encouraging players to spend more on their games after they’ve already bought them has lived on. Now, live service games like Fortnite have battle passes and loot boxes that you can buy with real money—but they exist in an ecosystem where players are primed to calculate the amount of money it will cost to get the most out of a game.
Controversies over loot boxes and microtransactions throughout the 2010s have put video game enthusiasts in a particularly hostile place when it comes to using real money for things in games. My experience with The Sims 3’s microtransactions didn’t even affect my gameplay—I can only imagine the frustration for Diablo III players who discovered you could own powerful endgame weapons if you have enough money. Yet, the people who want to add NFTs into games often only end up suggesting these things that have already been tried—and overwhelmingly hated—by gamers.
What it would even mean to add NFTs into games is still barely understood. Some people, like Shinoda, are enamored of the idea of being able to pay real money for an item and using it across multiple games, even though video game developers are skeptical that that’s even possible. Others, like the developers at EA and Ubisoft, see NFTs as a way for players to earn money. Neither of these things address the recent history of gaming that still stings for gamers. They want to play games, and over the past decade, adding additional revenue streams to games have only made it harder for them to do that. Coincidentally, EA was the developer for The Sims 3 and Ubisoft was the developer for Shadow of War.This isn’t to say that gamers aren’t okay with occasionally buying something in a video game. Live service games depend on that model. Games like Fortnite and Apex Legends have organized themselves around limited time “seasons,” and offer a free and paid battle pass that gives players rewards when they rank up. The key here is that while some of these rewards are paid, there is at least the illusion that if you’re not able to buy the paid battle pass, you’re still able to get something out of it. In the early days of Apex Legends, despite otherwise liking the game, players would debate over whether or not the battle pass was “worth it,” especially when it came to the rarer cosmetic items. All of this amounts to a long-running debate over what gamers want their games to be, and how the companies that market to them can make those sorts of games while making lots of money. Adding “web3” jargon words into the mix doesn’t fundamentally add anything new to that debate, or make it any less impossible to resolve.