New York Times: The expansion of chain games is facing resistance from traditional gamers

For years, Christian Lantz has been playing STALKER, a first-person shooter set in post-apocalyptic Ukraine that became a hit for its immersive role-playing. So when the 18-year-old high schooler heard there was going to be a sequel to the game this year, he knew he had to buy it.

Until GSC Game World, the Ukrainian company behind the gaming software, announced last month that the new STALKER would contain crypto-based assets called non-fungible tokens or NFTs. In the new game, players can buy and sell NFTs for items such as clothing for in-game characters, GSC said. The company touted the move as a “transformative step” towards a virtual world known as the Metaverse.

Lantz was incensed. He has joined thousands of followers on Twitter and Reddit who oppose NFTs in STALKER’s sequel.They say the game maker just wants to squeeze more money out of players. The backlash caused GSC to quickly turn things around and abandon the NFT plan.

“The studio abused its popularity,” said Mr. Lantz, who lives in Ontario. “Obviously this is for profit, not just to create a nice game.”

A still from

The picture comes from the stills of “STALKER 2”

The crypto industry has been in a frenzy for over a year now. The value of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum skyrocketed. Crypto-based assets such as NFTs have taken off. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey recently renamed one of his companies Block in honor of blockchain, the distributed ledger system that powers digital currencies. Melania Trump auctioned off her own NFTs. Proponents hope that blockchain will revolutionize industries from finance to social media to art.

But for some, the crypto craze has gone too far, too fast. Skeptics argue that cryptocurrencies and related assets such as NFTs are digital versions of Ponzi schemes, with prices artificially inflated beyond their true value. Some have questioned whether the vague concepts of cryptocurrencies and blockchain have any long-term utility.

Nothing is more unpleasant than the gaming community, where users are increasingly clashing over encryption with major game studios like Ubisoft, Square Enix, and Zynga. In many encounters, gamers have the upper hand—at least for now.

“People are embracing buzzwords,” said Mutahar Anas, a gamer and YouTuber with 3 million subscribers. Those pushing NFTs in the game “try to sell you the panacea,” he said.

In recent months, at least six game studios have revealed plans to add NFTs to their games, or say they are considering doing so, providing proof of authenticity and ownership of digital assets verified by blockchain technology. Game makers say this provides gamers with unique digital items that can enrich those selling NFTs on online marketplaces. The game publisher said it’s also possible that NFTs could be transferred between games in the future, meaning that items from one game franchise could affect the gameplay of another.

But players said they viewed the moves as blatant cash grabs.

“I just hate how they keep trying to trick us in any way possible,” said 22-year-old gamer Matt Kee. Kingdom Hearts says it is advancing NFTs. “I don’t see any mention of how this is good for gamers, how to improve gameplay. It’s always about ‘how can I make money out of this?'”

A still from "Kingdom Hearts III," produced by Square Enix. The company recently said it planned to push into NFTs.

Kingdom Hearts III game image courtesy of Square Enix

Much of their dissatisfaction stems from the encroachment of in-game microtransactions. Over the years, game makers have found more ways to monetize users by making them pay to level up characters or level up in-game play. Even though people had prepaid $60 or more for the game, they were being asked to pay more for digital items, such as clothing or a character’s weapon.

In a famous incident in 2006, the role-playing game “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” charged users $2.50 to purchase a suit of armor for their character’s horse.

“‘It was only a few bucks, but I remember thinking, ‘Why don’t they give us horse armor?'” said Eric Hild, a 31-year-old brewer from Decola, Iowa. “‘Why make us pay for this?'”

Gamers’ hostility toward these companies has increased over the past decade, in part because of the growing number of microtransactions, said Merritt K, a game anchor and editor at gaming industry website Fanbyte. So when game makers introduce NFTs as an add-on to buying and selling, she said, players are “ready to blast these things out.”

This has led to outrage among gamers, which has rattled game companies. In December, Sega Sammy, the developer of the Sonic the Hedgehog game, expressed reservations about its NFT and crypto plans after a “negative reaction” from users. Ubisoft, which makes games like Assassin’s Creed, said it misjudged the level of customer dissatisfaction after announcing its NFT plans last month. Over 90% of viewers disliked YouTube videos of the move.

Perhaps we underestimated the strength of the backlash,” said Nicolas Pouard, Ubisoft’s vice president in charge of the French company’s new blockchain initiative.

Gaming companies say their NFT initiatives are not motivated by profit. Instead, they say, NFTs provide fans with some interesting collectibles and a new way to make money by selling their assets.

“It’s really about the community,” said Matt Wolf, an executive at mobile game maker Zynga, who is leading a foray into blockchain gaming. “We believe in giving people the opportunity to play and make money.”

The craze for embracing crypto in gaming has intensified over the past few years. Some developers are starting to build games on the blockchain, allowing players to easily collect digital assets and prove they own them. One such game is CryptoKitties, a hit game of 2017 in which players collect digital cats, some of which sell for over $100,000. Blockchain-based games like Axie Infinity, where players make money by earning and selling NFTs, have also become popular amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Larger game studios are now trying to get in on the action, although some of their crypto plans remain vague.

Ubisoft is the first major game publisher to venture into the crypto space. In December, it announced an initiative called Ubisoft Quartz to roll out three sets of NFTs in the form of digital devices like helmets and guns. NFTs in the shooter game Ghost Recon Breakpoint are offered for free to players who reach a certain level in the game. Gamers can keep the items or sell them on third-party marketplaces, the company said.

A Ghost Recon Breakpoint game station at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles in 2019.

Ghost Recon Breakpoint Gaming Station at Electronic Entertainment Expo 2019

So far, 10,000 digital wallets have been connected to the Quartz platform, although Ubisoft has only minted 3,000 NFTs in the first batch, Mr. Pouard said. This, he said, shows interest in more NFTs in the future.

Pouard added that Ubisoft ultimately plans to take a cut of future NFT sales. “We’re moving from a business model focused on games to a business model focused on ecosystems where every player can be a stakeholder,” he said.

Zynga, which will be acquired by Take-Two, hired gaming industry veteran Mr. Wolf in November to lead a crypto effort.Mr Wolf said the goal is to create new games on the blockchain that make it easier for players to acquire, own and sell NFTs. He provided few details about how the work would work, including whether NFTs could be transferred between Zynga games.

“We’re still developing all this,” he said.

Other gaming companies have also dabbled in NFTs, echoing how cryptocurrencies can create new wealth for users. This month, Square Enix president Yosuke Matsuda wrote in an open letter that creating blockchain games could allow players to make money. This will be the company’s “major strategic theme,” he said.

But with the increasing number of NFT announcements from game studios, players are getting more and more annoyed.After users objected to Sega Sammy’s crypto plans, one of its executives said at a management meeting last month, “If this is seen as simple money making, I would like to decide not to proceed.”

Other gaming companies have come out against cryptocurrencies. Microsoft’s head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, told Axios in November that some games centered on making money through NFTs seemed “exploitative” and that he would avoid putting them on the Xbox Store. Microsoft declined to comment.

Valve, which owns the online game store Steam, also updated its rules last fall to ban blockchain games that allow the exchange of cryptocurrencies or NFTs. Valve did not respond to a request for comment.

Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, the maker of the game Fortnite, said his company will avoid using NFTs in its own games because the industry is riddled with “tricky scams of all kinds.” (Epic will still allow developers to sell blockchain games on its online store.)

This backlash affects more than just game studios. Discord, a social platform popular with gamers, backed down in November after users threatened to cancel their paid subscriptions through crypto plans. Discord’s CEO, Jason Citron, teased the project on Twitter, sparking a rebellion.

“While I am optimistic that a lot of cool things are happening in the blockchain space, there are also a lot of problems,” Mr. Citron said in an interview.

Gamer Mr. Kee said he will continue to fight the game company’s encryption efforts. He said the shift in NFTs by STALKER developers makes him wish other companies could be influenced by public opinion.

“It gave me a good feeling that everyone was against that,” he said. “We’ve seen all kinds of programs like this over the past 10 years, and we’re tired of it.”

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