Ever since its executives had their first whiff of the sweet smell of microtransactions, there has been a clear contrast between the games Ubisoft is interested in making and those that longtime Ubisoft fans have been asking it to make. The publisher has come a long way from delivering classics like Assassin’s Creed 2 and Far Cry 3, and in the time since, it seems that pleasing shareholders has become their top priority. While this isn’t anything new in the games space, the trend has recently culminated in what very well might turn out to be the breaking point for both Ubisoft and its fans: NFTs.
When it comes to unspoken business philosophy, Ubisoft has a long history of looking around at the economic landscape and scooping up ideas that appear to be making a lot of money elsewhere. This first began with open world games, a genre that some might argue Ubisoft helped perfect before eventually grinding into a monotonous list of chores to complete. Granted that the open world genre was never the company’s sole focus, there’s a pretty clear difference between the innovation of Assassin’s Creed Black Flag, with its streamlined naval combat and exploration, and the gorgeous yet unapologetically oversaturated map of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Sure, raiding a village with your viking pals is a lot of fun the first time, but it begins to wear on the dozenth.
After seeing the money being poured into titles like Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto Online, Ubisoft — like many in the industry — decided to try its hand at live service games. According to Bloomberg reporter Jason Schreier on his Triple Click podcast, the next Far Cry game is going to be developed with a completely different direction in mind — and you wouldn’t be going out on a limb to assume what that direction might be. Schreier also reported that the Assassin’s Creed franchise is being reworked into Assassin’s Creed Infinity, a live service platform in the same vein as other massive financial successes like Call of Duty: Warzone.
The most painful example of this financially-incentivized transition of beloved IP is the upcoming Tom Clancy’s XDefiant, a free-to-play shooter that, like so many other games of the same nature, is banking on profit through in-game cosmetic purchases. Many have criticized XDefiant for slapping the Tom Clancy name on a generic sci-fi shooter, and a great deal of gamers have called the title out as a soulless cash grab with little to differentiate itself from everything else on the market. As YouTuber BigfryTV put it, “XDefiant looks absolutely terrible and is a slap in the face of Clancy and his original fanbase.”
Modern Day Fool’s Gold
That brings us to Ubisoft’s latest and most shamelessly hopped-on bandwagon, non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Following the massive hype pushing NFTs in 2021, name-dropping the blockchain-enforced concept seems to get shareholders sweating with excitement. Even if it doesn’t make any logistical sense and nobody asked for it, the idea of NFTs in video games sounds so trendy and cutting edge that it seems to be the next big thing for investors.
Environmental and ethical issues aside, there are plenty of reasons why gamers have no interest in seeing NFTs come to their favorite games. It’s already taken players long enough to accept cosmetic microtransactions as an unavoidable capitalist evolution of the industry, and the push for “games as as service” still rankles many. From Oblivion’s infamous $2.50 horse armor back in 2006, to Far Cry 6’s offer of a $20 pirate outfit that ambushes you before you even get past the main menu, games are more aggressive in asking for money in-game than ever.
A few voices in the undersized pro-NFT gaming crowd have presented ideas like purchasing a cosmetic item in one game and being able to use it in another. For example, Mike Shinoda, a Twitch streamer who also happens to be a founding member of the band Linkin Park, tweeted, “Imagine taking your favorite skin from Valorant, and using it in Fortnite. And not paying extra, because you own it. Then using it in [Call of Duty], Minecraft, even Twitter, [Instagram].”
Shinoda and others throwing this idea around are seemingly unaware that the challenge of transferring digital goods across titles isn’t primarily about determining ownership but coding and game balance. If cosmetic items are sold as NFTs to gamers, they’re either going to be no different than the cosmetics that already exist, or they’re going to be so exclusive that the game will undoubtedly form some sort of dystopian classist structure that will turn the everyday gamer off as a whole. Sure, being the only person who gets to play as the titular plumber in Mario Kart sounds good for that one rich player, but why would most gamers be interested?
Plenty of Supply, No Demand
Simply put, nobody asked for this, and aside from the small number of gamers that have enough money to blow on anything and everything that might catch their eye, nobody wants it either. A recent Reddit thread calling for the boycott of games that incorporate NFTs has received over 26,000 upvotes. The trailer for Ubisoft’s NFT platform, Quartz, received a 23 to 1 dislike to like ratio before YouTube conveniently removed dislikes from its platform. According to the third party NFT marketplace Rarible, Ubisoft Quartz has sold a grand total of 24 NFTs thus far, with only six of those transactions taking place in the new year.
To make matters worse, consumers are not the only ones who are unhappy with Ubisoft’s push to incorporate NFTs — the company’s creative workforce doesn’t seem to be on board either. According to a report from Axios, so many employees have resigned in the past 18 months that those who are still there are calling it “the great exodus.” A large portion of the departures are likely due to Ubisoft’s mismanagement of recent abuse allegations, but the NFT decision has likely turned employees off as well. As any creative professional will tell you, it’s very difficult to work on something you don’t believe in.
It’s admittedly unlikely that NFTs lead to something as dramatic as Ubisoft going out of business. People will still buy Assassin’s Creed games no matter what they might include, and while Ubisoft may see a financial loss stemming from this decision, the name recognition of its top franchises will probably be enough to keep the company afloat.
Overall though, this is simply the direction Ubisoft has been trending over the last decade. You can certainly make the argument that the publisher has reached a new low, but any idea that has shareholders seeing dollar signs is a good one as far as executives are concerned, and NFTs are nothing new in that respect. The lack of logistical reasoning and support from both the company’s consumers and its creative workforce no longer seems to matter.