Third-party NFTs in games are the latest unethical twist...

Third-party NFTs in games are the latest unethical twist from Web3 | Opinion

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Say what you like about NFTs — and with the market around most of them currently in what might charitably be described as a catastrophic collapse, everyone else is certainly saying what they like — but the technology has, in its short and sordid time in the limelight, achieved at least one quite remarkable thing.

Never before have I seen a technology inspire game companies to scramble to announce that they will absolutely not be using it; this industry is usually relentlessly neophiliac and willing to give a shot to just about every idea that comes down the technological pike, be it good, bad, or indifferent, which makes the growing roster of companies who have made statements publicly distancing themselves from NFTs into an especially unusual occurrence.

At a glance, the statement from Minecraft creator and Microsoft subsidiary Mojang this week belongs broadly in that category. It is, however, a bit more firmly-worded than many other companies’ statements, taking the time to make specific arguments against the use of NFTs in Minecraft rather than just briefly reassuring players that there are no plans to implement them, as other companies have done.

Never before have I seen a technology inspire game companies to scramble to announce that they will absolutely not be using it

Mojang’s statement refers repeatedly to NFTs creating “scarcity and exclusion”, which clashes with the company’s vision for Minecraft, and decries the shift in focus to speculation and investment as something which detracts from the joy of actually playing the game.

These aren’t new arguments — they’re precisely the criticisms that have been made widely of NFT business models and of the “pay-to-earn” concept more broadly since they first started being talked about in video game circles.

Mojang’s concern that NFTs introduce a “haves and have-nots” paradigm that’s antithetical to their core gameplay and community principles is well-founded and applies equally to games far beyond Minecraft.

Indeed, the “haves and have-nots” paradigm is really the central promise of NFTs, whose proponents often breathlessly describe rent-seeking, profiteering behaviours in a way that makes it very clear that they view this as a desirable feature, and not as the entertainment and pleasure black hole that it actually would be.

There’s a very good reason behind Mojang’s decision to make such a strong statement and outline the core arguments against NFT integration so clearly, where other companies have generally shied away from such direct engagement with the debate. That’s because Mojang’s statement isn’t really about their own plans for Minecraft: it’s about the company’s intention to crack down on third-parties who have been building NFTs and NFT marketplaces on top of the Minecraft platform. This activity has left Mojang in something of a nightmare situation in this regard, with NFTs being created and integrated into its game despite the company having no intention of doing so itself.

If a company chooses of its own free will to create NFTs based on their IP or connected to their games, that’s one thing. Most game companies seem to have either sworn off this entirely, or to have lost interest in the idea after a failed early experiment — the obvious exception at the moment being Square Enix, which this week decided to launch some half-baked NFTs months after most of the rest of the world decided they were a crap idea. But hey, if a company decides to dip their foot in these stagnant, polluted waters of their own free will, that’s entirely up to them.

That’s an entirely different situation to waking up one morning to discover that a third party has created NFT items and an NFT marketplace that’s built on top of your game, leveraging the openness of the game which had been designed to encourage modders and content creators, not to serve as a breeding ground for self-styled Web3 entrepreneurs.

Mojang's concern that NFTs introduce a 'haves and have-nots' paradigm that's antithetical to their core gameplay and community principles is well-founded and applies equally to games far beyond Minecraft

Mojang’s concern that NFTs introduce a ‘haves and have-nots’ paradigm that’s antithetical to their core gameplay and community principles is well-founded and applies equally to games far beyond Minecraft

The question here is one of responsibility. If a company decides to get involved in NFTs for its games, it implicitly takes responsibility for the idea — if the venture flops, if fans hate the idea, or if NFT purchasers feel they’ve been ripped off for whatever reason down the line, the blame rests solely and squarely with the company who built the game, integrated NFTs into it, and minted and sold the tokens.

If a third party builds an unauthorised NFT system based on modding a game to support NFT skins or models — or even to use the platform as a springboard for more ambitious efforts, as some Minecraft NFT entrepreneurs have been hinting at — then both the control and the responsibility have been taken away from the game’s creators.

Most players and observers, however, won’t make this crucial distinction between Minecraft and third-party, unauthorised Minecraft NFTs; Mojang would be left with no control, no input, no direct responsibility, and damned near 100% of the blame if anything went wrong.

If a company chooses to create NFTs, that’s one thing. That’s an entirely different situation to a third party creating an NFT marketplace on top of your game

The incentive for NFT creators to latch onto a platform like Minecraft is obvious — in fact, the main NFT platform for Minecraft, an effort called NFT Worlds, has a whole page on its website explaining why it piggy-backed its ideas onto Minecraft rather than building its own NFT game, all of which boils down to Minecraft being popular, familiar, and open, while building new games is expensive, risky, and difficult.

Given the enormous problems most other attempts to build NFT games have encountered, it’s perhaps unsurprising that someone would come up with the notion of just sticking NFTs in someone else’s popular game; given the Wild West nature of the NFT space, it’s certainly no shock that nobody involved seems to have questioned whether this was a remotely ethical thing to do.

Minecraft is arguably the perfect storm for this kind of effort — it’s a wildly popular game whose openness in terms of being easy to mod or add content to is a major part of its appeal for some segments of its audience. No other game with comparable popularity has comparable openness — but that doesn’t mean that other games out there won’t face similar challenges from over-enthusiastic or simply unscrupulous would-be NFT entrepreneurs.

Building an NFT ecosystem on top of the bones of an existing, easily moddable game is relatively low-hanging fruit for those convinced that there are fortunes to be made in video game NFTs, especially now that the difficulty of building a half-decent game from scratch has become clear to most of them (odd, isn’t it, how that minor fact escaped the notice of so many evangelists who presented themselves as video game experts when explaining how NFTs would be the holy grail for all manner of imaginary problems with existing games).

With Minecraft now likely to aggressively police such behaviour, attention will turn elsewhere, and other game companies may find themselves forced to take a strong line on this problem rather than just staying above the NFT fray entirely.

Any company with an open-source or modder-friendly game out there — even an old game, given the recent boom in popularity for new mods built on classic games — will want to revisit the question of its terms and whether they permit this kind of activity; lest you find yourself held responsible for an NFT business you never wanted any part of in the first place.

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