Why P2E NFT Games Need to Double-Down on ‘Play’ Instead of ‘Earn’
When Brazilian game developer Mark Venturelli virtually took the stage at Brazil’s International Games (BIG) Festival on July 8, he was ostensibly set to give a talk on his vision for the future of game design.
Instead, Venturelli used his platform to deliver an impassioned speech to the festival’s attendees on why NFTs vis-à-vis play-to-earn (P2E) games are wholly incompatible with his personal vision for how game design should strive to progress in the coming years. A brave move, to say the least, considering that blockchain gaming platform Lakea was among the festival’s corporate partners.
A cynical view of Web3
Venturelli kicked off his presentation with a broad definition of what blockchain technology ultimately represents to society, calling it “a brilliant solution to the wrong problem.” According to the English version of his slides from that evening’s talk, Venturelli argued that blockchain tech enables users to “[keep] a secure ledger between a group of people that have absolutely zero trust between one another.” Pushing this point further, Venturelli claimed that these technologies encourage users to distrust central authorities, laws, institutions, and other people. Without this trust in place, Venturelli argued, society wouldn’t be able to function.
But is this actually the case in practice? Do Web3-first communities really not trust each other? Considering how NFT projects have consistently proven to be excellent channels for community-building efforts, this particular point rings somewhat hollow. For instance, collectors of VeeFriends NFTs shelled out a pretty penny for the digital collectibles when they launched back in 2021.
Why? Their overall utility. These NFTs didn’t just serve as tickets into internet mogul Gary Vaynerchuk’s exclusive community, they also serve as passes to events like VeeCon. Just this year at NFT.NYC, people even willingly (and happily) trotted around the streets of New York City in goblin masks, proudly repping the Goblintown community. None of this could happen without trust.
After this segment of his talk, Venturelli then proceeded to dive into his exact reasons why NFTs should not be a part of the future of gaming.
The purported ills of speculation
Venturelli argued that economic activity, let alone speculative economic activity, has no place in gaming. Part of Venturelli’s working definitions of crypto and NFTs is that, as a whole, they are essentially just speculative economic activities: high-risk, high-reward bets. Venturelli, like most other Web3 critics, then proceeded to liken investing in these digital assets to participating in a pyramid scheme.
Never mind the fact that not all NFTs exist as for-profit ventures for their prospective buyers. In fact, for non-profit organizations, the nature of these digital assets gives them the opportunity to grant donors unique value propositions not commonly found in traditional fundraising efforts.
But what of the people who do view NFTs as an avenue to make a quick buck? These types of people, Venturelli argued, pose the biggest threat to core gaming audiences should more games adopt a P2E model. These people, Venturelli suggested, would likely go on to form “dedicated groups operating in scale with ever-shrinking margins,” ensuring that players who lack either the time or resources to organize in such a way would only see minuscule financial returns for their time invested in a game.
Venturelli then pointed out that these types of people have already poisoned a fair share of online game communities in the past. Gold farmers, bots, and other bad actors have ruined the experience of MMO gamers as far back as the OG web-based Runescape from nearly two decades ago, bending the in-game economy to their will.
Play-to-earn’s roots in core gaming
Venturelli was also quick to point out that the concept of P2E gaming in itself is nothing new, with the exception of how today’s P2E-first experiences operate on the blockchain. When Valve’s Team Fortress 2 (TF2) first introduced hats into the game via in-game purchases in 2009, grey markets for these in-game cosmetics soon formed — with fraud being a huge problem. This prompted Valve to establish an official community marketplace on Steam where users could safely trade in-game items with each other — inadvertently laying the groundwork for NFTs as a result.
One of Venturelli’s strongest arguments against the presence of P2E elements in games was that, ultimately, there is no ‘play’ in ‘play-to-earn.’ But is this true in practice? Looking at Valve’s multi-player titles since TF2, namely Counter Strike: Global Offensive and DOTA 2 this doesn’t seem to be the case at all. You can make a lot of money from selling skins for these games — or even playing them at a high level, as evidenced by The International’s multi-million dollar prize pool — but is that why millions of people around the world play them day in and day out?
Ultimately, Venturelli’s talk got one thing right: games that primarily serve as P2E experiences have no place in the future of game design and development. Games should be fun, first and foremost. The portrait Venturelli paints of a gaming landscape dominated by games that prioritize financial rewards for its users over fun is bleak. But that doesn’t have to be the case.
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