How NFT video games crashed and burned

Less than 12 months ago, it felt as if 2022 would be the year NFTs took off in the video game world. Companies like EA, Ubisoft, Square Enix, Zynga, Niantic, and Take-Two Interactive all, at one point, said that they were brainstorming ways to add NFTs into their games. The idea being that non-fungible tokens would replace everything from loot boxes to character skins to even characters themselves. But none of that ended up happening.

Unfortunately for studios salivating at the idea of getting in on the crypto action, players largely revolted against it. Most plans for NFT integration were a disaster. And NFT controversies in the gaming world were so big this year that it even became a subplot of the Apple TV show Mythic Quest this season.

But it wasn’t just gamers who rejected crypto this year. The crypto market itself also went bust. The promised Web3 revolution that much of Silicon Valley was manically chattering about in 2022 not only never arrived, it actually collapsed into a speculative puff of smoke, thanks to a series of major economic crashes. And the world of blockchain technology, in general, is looking so grim that investors are, yet again, wondering if the entire space is over for good.

But those in the NFT gaming community — yes, there still is one — now believe that the somewhat humiliating reversal of the NFT’s mainstream adoption might ultimately allow the technology to find its own way to fit in the world of gaming. But without all the hype, the developers and players who still believe NFTs have value now have a much more complicated task ahead of them. They have to actually figure out what an NFT video game looks like and why anyone would want to play one.

By now you’ve probably heard what an NFT is and, if you still don’t get it, it’s probably because it sounds pretty nonsensical. But contrary to popular belief, most NFTs aren’t the images they represent. Instead, the simplest way of thinking about it is like a digital receipt.

You buy a monkey picture, and that transaction gets encoded onto the NFT permanently. When you sell an NFT again on a marketplace like OpenSea, the next owner is logged on a blockchain, and so forth. It allows traders and investors to bid on pieces of content for huge sums of money without any real regulation. But it also means that an NFT can represent anything. And that’s exactly why several big video game studios jumped at the chance to try and integrate NFTs into their upcoming releases. But there are a lot of problems with this technology.

The NFT market is rife with scams, pump-and-dumps, and a specific kind of crypto racket called a rug pull, where an NFT project is announced, investors buy in, and then the founders run away with the money. It’s also believed that certain NFT artists are anonymously bidding on their own work as a way to either launder money or, at the very least, artificially inflate the price. And we haven’t even mentioned the environmental impact of all of this, which requires pretty intense computing power.

Interest around meme finance exploded after last year’s GameStop pump and then the auction of Beeple’s $69 million NFT project two months later. It suddenly became a somewhat normal occurrence to see people like Elon Musk pushing dogecoin live on SNL or Jimmy Fallon and Paris Hilton discussing which million-dollar monkey JPEG they bought for their Twitter avatar.

But things have unquestionably soured. An entire year’s worth of gains for Ethereum, the cryptocurrency used most often for NFTs, has been wiped out, bringing its valuation back to where it was at the start of 2021. Celebrities like Fallon and Gwyneth Paltrow, who pushed NFTs last year, are currently being sued. And three recent massive market crashes have sunk the entire crypto landscape. And the NFTs that actually did manage to launch inside of video games this year did not go over well.

Ubisoft was the first AAA video game studio to announce an NFT integration. At the beginning of the year, the studio said that it would begin giving away blockchain-based in-game add-ons called “Digits” in the game Ghost Recon Breakpoint. The announcement ignited a massive uproar on Twitter, with players accusing it of being a shameless cash grab.

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Season 9. Paris Hilton is in the guest chair wearing a green dress and nude pumps. Fallon is at his desk, talking with her.
Jimmy Fallon and Paris Hilton talking about their BoredApe NFTs on The Tonight Show.
Photo by: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Laura Shortridge-Scott, a freelance games journalist from Scotland, has been particularly vocal about keeping blockchain technology out of gaming. She told Polygon that a lot of video game companies are using a false promise of ownership to convince people to buy into the concept of NFTs and it doesn’t actually make any sense.

“I think most gamers understand digital content enough to know [ownership is] never guaranteed,” she said. “Whether you buy a World of Warcraft mount or a World of Warcraft NFT, you know it’s only yours for as long as the game World of Warcraft exists.”

Which is close to what happened with Ubisoft. Ghost Recon Breakpoint stopped receiving updates in April. As for the NFTs, Ars Technica would go on to describe the whole thing as a “dumpster fire” months later. They found that fewer than 100 players ever sold their Digits NFTs in the first three months they were available.

But the Ghost Recon Breakpoint flop also exposed an interesting philosophical issue for modern gaming. Twenty years ago, you’d buy a console, buy some physical games for it, and, if you took care of them and your TV still supported it, you could play them forever. But we now live in a world of always-online multiplayer games with in-app purchases and downloadable content. So what’s the point of making an in-app purchase more complicated by forcing players to buy and sell cryptocurrency with confusing and often insecure crypto wallets?

“The idea of NFTs being useful for gaming in a way that buying items currently somehow isn’t already — that has never been explained to me in a way that makes any sense,” Molly White, crypto critic and writer of Web3 Is Going Just Great, told Polygon.

The typical pitch for gaming NFTs is that they would allow your digital goods to follow you from platform to platform, which White says currently isn’t possible and also doesn’t even sound appealing.

“Why would you want to have a Call of Duty rifle in Animal Crossing?” White said.

And it seems like the mainstream games industry has come to a similar conclusion. There are currently no plans from major video game publishers to create NFT products that work with a competitor’s game. So even if you could buy a Halo Infinite NFT and Halo Infinite shuts down, you’re not going to be able to use that NFT in a Final Fantasy game.

But even though none of the impulses behind NFTs in video games made any sense, it doesn’t mean the burgeoning NFT video game market beyond AAA studios slowed down. At this point, there is a blockchain-based version of every genre of game you can imagine — fighting games, RPGs, card games, brawlers. That said, looking through any top list of NFT games, you’ll find basically three genres that seem to actually be catching on with players.

Two blocky looking people in Decentraland holding their hands up at a glowing cube.
A promotional image from Decentraland.
Image: Decentraland

Far and away, the most popular genre of NFT game involves collectible cards or monster catching. Behind that, a few fantasy sports-based projects seem to be resonating with people, and then, lastly, there are Minecraft-esque platforms like Decentraland, The Sandbox, and Evolution Land.

The sandbox games have performed particularly badly in 2022. As of October, both Dencentraland and The Sandbox reportedly had fewer than 1,000 users. Also, to give you a glimpse of what these platforms are currently like, The Sandbox is holding an especially grim “69th Birthday Party” for Playboy this month that will last for 6.9 days.

The top NFT game this year, however, and the one that got the most attention, is called Axie Infinity. It’s a Pokémon-esque collectible monster game where NFTs are used to represent breedable creatures called Axies. You fight your way through the game, earning crypto tokens that allow you to create more rare and powerful Axies, which you can sell on the game’s marketplace. The game has an entire economy it supports and some players in countries like The Philippines have been able to make thousands of dollars a month playing it.

A group of small, round monsters playing together in a field, in an illustrative art style.
Some of the collectible NFT Axies from Axie Infinity.
Image: Sky Mavis

And, in November of this year, Yuga Labs, the company behind the massively popular Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT line, was declared the Disney of Web3 during a panel at the Web Summit tech conference in Portugal. On stage, then-CEO Nicole Muniz unveiled the company’s still-upcoming metaverse platform, which is called Otherside. The plan is to combine an open-world multiplayer game with player-owned NFT characters and NFT plots of land.

Which begs the question: Who is actually playing NFT games right now? NFT games are still unpopular enough that for the second year in a row, trade publication GamesIndustry.biz has reiterated that they will not accept any pitches about blockchain-based games. Meanwhile, the NFT video game industry continues to evolve quietly away from the mainstream, not unlike the similarly niche world of mobile gaming. In fact, one of the more active YouTubers covering NFT gaming used to run a mobile gaming channel before pivoting into the world of crypto.

Go Shiny Hunter has over 50,000 subscribers on YouTube, and his channel is one of the bigger ones focusing exclusively on NFT gaming. He spoke to Polygon during an interview in January and did not respond to requests for a follow-up. He said that he’s most interested in games that use NFTs as a way to crowdsource projects in development. A concept for a game is announced, prospective players buy in via NFTs, and in exchange they get rare characters or exclusive loot when — or if — the game ever launches.

“Sometimes there will be scams,” he said. “There will be projects that say they’re going to deliver on something and then might take off with the funds. I haven’t had anyone that has actually ever done that and not developed the game, just because I do a lot of research and tend to speak to people directly linked to the project.”

And he’s right; scams do happen. In December 2021, hackers used an NFT gaming platform to steal players’ money. And earlier this month, a PvP NFT game built on top of Minecraft called Blockverse was accused of being a rug pull. Even the network that powers Axie Infinity, which is called Ronin, suffered a catastrophic hack in March, resulting in over $600 million being wiped from the game’s economy.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, scammers set up a fake announcement that let players buy NFTs for a game that doesn’t even use them. This means even if your game isn’t offering NFTs, just their very existence makes things a lot more confusing than they used to be. In fact, the existence of NFTs also means that trusting a YouTuber’s video game recommendations is a lot more complicated.

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On the surface, Go Shiny Hunter’s channel feels like any other gaming YouTube channel, but every video also has an undeniable aspirational element to it. In a video from last year, titled “DID I JUST MAKE $100K? – THETAN ARENA PUBLIC LAUNCH!!!,” Go Shiny Hunter plays through a new NFT-based mobile battle arena game called Thetan Arena and spends a considerable chunk of the video showing his viewers how much money he made by investing in exclusive legendary characters. It’s another common setup for an NFT game: free to play, but also pay to earn. To make things even more confusing, NFT gamers generally consider strictly free-to-play NFT games scams.

But the deeper you go into the world of NFT gaming, the more any attempt at separating out the scammers shilling pump-and-dumps from actual players who just enjoy the games becomes largely pointless. The nature of these games means that players are investors, and the more popular the game is, the bigger its in-game economy is. So what’s good for the adoption of the game you play is, quite literally, also good for your crypto wallet.

One regular NFT gamer who goes by Starl3xx told Polygon that while interoperability between NFTs never materialized with AAA games, it actually is happening within smaller NFT games. Starl3xx said that he’s a big fan of an NFT-based role-playing game called DeFi Kingdoms.

“I just kind of got sucked into the, I don’t know, the aesthetic of it,” he said. “And the idea of the trading card game and gathering resources and doing all that. It’s the only one that I’ve really stuck with.”

DeFi Kingdoms actually allows you to use your NFTs on another game built by the community called DFK Fight Club. Even more interestingly, Starl3xx said that if DeFi Kingdoms went offline for whatever reason, because the game was using NFTs, it would actually be fairly easy for players to spin up a new game that supported them.

“If the marketplace somehow crashed,” he said, “my guess would be that someone would try to fill that void, like, immediately. Because all these people would be freaking out trying to figure out what to do.”