Video Game publishing, NFTs, And New Delusions of Value

How Nice for Them.

Publishers and a New Valuation of Value

While there are no certainties when it comes to artistic judgement, I struggle to imagine that anyone bought those monkey NFTs for their aesthetic beauty. I believe the entire collection is cumulatively measured in the billions as of January 2022 (I don’t want to give the source clicks. It’s findable with a good google). Surely this valuation is not a matter of taste.

An assortment of six "bored ape" NFT. They are all iterations of the same template. All have large, exposed teeth and large heads atop slender necks. The first wears a red and plaid shirt and a black motorcycle cap. The second wears a bright yellow and black flannel plaid shirt with a yellow and black motorcycle cap. And so forth. All are, given their perceived value, surprisingly ugly.
Ugly nonsense = billions.

This is low-hanging rhetorical fruit. Many others have authored and tweeted about this incredible (I use the word in its literal, dictionary-derived sense) new perception of value.

“Value” is a belief, after all. Money has value because enough people believe that it does. It is common to pay workers in the United States based on perceptions of market condition that have no real linkage to the amount or intensity of work performed. To do so reflects beliefs about value, community, and arbitrarily delineated margins of profit. The stock market, which of course considers many factual sources, considers them in order to inform a belief about the future. It is obviously belief–no one can predict the future.

A worthwhile point of comparison is this blog’s interest in the physicality of old Infocom games: their packaging, their documents, and their fellies. As a quick scan of Ebay will show, these collectibles are valuable due in large part to their physical nature. Widely available digital scans and photographs of these items are free and considered a service to the community. It is not at all clear that the gaming industry can offer digital goods that effectively marry utility and value.

This isn’t an awkward and out-of-my-depth attempt to instruct you about economics, or, perhaps, my beliefs regarding economics. Instead, I hope to direct your attention toward a pernicious development in something that interests Gold Machine: video game publishing. In recent months, executives of varied AAA game publishers have spoken breathlessly about integrating Blockchain and NFTs with their current and future product portfolios (for example, Square Enix and Take Two Interactive). These large publishers are mostly publicly traded companies, and many of their stockholders view games as just another widget.

Their excitement is understandable. For years now, they have pushed preorder bonuses and “digital deluxe” editions with hopes of instilling within their customers a belief in their value. I would call these efforts a mixed success. From a customer perspective, a key problem with their offerings is that any belief in their value is tenuous. Take last year’s Resident Evil VIII: Village digital deluxe edition. Besides the game, it offered the following “goodies” at launch.

  • Samurai Edge: a nostalgic family of pistols used by the original members of S.T.A.R.S. A non-upgradable gun that is only slightly better than the default at the beginning of the game. Because it can’t be modded or upgraded, it soon becomes useless.
  • Resident Evil VII Found Footage filter: play the game with grainy, black and white visuals. A niche offering with limited appeal.
  • Resident Evil VII tape recorder save point: replace the save game typewriter with a tape recorder. Inconsequential and something few people would pay money for.
  • Saferoom Music “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” Change music in saferooms to a song from Resident Evil VII.
  • Mr. Everywhere Weapon Charm: Dangle a knickknack from your gun that occasionally blocks your field of vision.
  • Unlock “Village of Shadows” Difficulty. Yes, a difficulty level was locked behind a paywall at launch.
  • The Tragedy of Ethan Winters artwork: a collection of admittedly cool concept art and commentary from the art director of Resident Evil VIII. Its contents are posted publicly on the internet, which adversely affects its value.
  • The Baker Incident Report: While this is arguably the most interesting extra (a presumably canon summary of the events of Resident Evil VII), its text is also widely available on the internet.

Is this worth ten dollars? A buyer must decide for themselves, but on paper it is a collection of inconsequential bric a brac. Under this current model, corporations must struggle to foment a widespread belief in the value of digital deluxe releases. Meanwhile, they have clearly done their best to minimize labor costs. The concept art already exists, the Resident Evil VII items either exist or at least have an existing model. The art director had to pen less than a thousand words to accompany “The Tragedy of Ethan Winters.” The author of the “Baker Incident Report” presumably spent the most time researching and checking against franchise canon. Such packages, which nearly all large publishers offer, primarily capitalize a customer’s Fear of Missing Out. The value of allaying such impulses is tenuous at best.

A promotional picture for the Resident Evil VII pre-order bonus: A "Mr. Racoon" Weapon charm--an anthropomorphized racoon figure that dangles from the barrel of a gun. Additionally provided is a "survival resources pack" that includes items already available in the game: a lockpick, a box of pistol ammuniction, shotgun shells, and a bottle of healing fluid. All items are of limited value.
The pre-order value proposition

It is obvious that publishers would be better off if they could tap into an already existing belief in value. This is where NFTs come in: they can simply welcome customers aboard an already-chugging hype machine. Why throw developers and marketing people at a technology that seems to promote itself (with some help from its fervent believers)? Why invest in products that require creative labor and ongoing maintenance when there are profitable alternatives?

What would it cost, I wonder, for players to experience the majesty of Chris Redfield in a monkey hat? Or a collectible “card” of Jill Valentine eating a sandwich? What would these things cost Capcom? The sticking point is whether or not customers are willing to believe in the value of these items. Executives, excited at the prospects of a widespread customer valuation far above and beyond production costs, have the serial number of a JPEG of bridge to sell you.

Note: I haven’t mentioned the environmental implications of these technologies. This isn’t because I don’t care. It’s because these companies don’t care. The fact that large corporations are more concerned with profit than ecological preservation should surprise no one at this late date.

Coming Soon:

Callie’s schedule permitting, we will release a new episode of Gold Microphone on Friday, January 21, 2022. We will be discussing Enchanter.

On Monday, January 24, the Enchanter bonanza continues with the first of three essays about it right here on Gold Machine.

Since you can’t YOMIN us, you’ll have to check them out for yourself!

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