Square Enix is kicking off 2022 in the most hellish way possible by issuing a New Year’s Letter dedicated to the metaverse, NFTs, blockchain-based games, and people who “play to contribute.” While the publisher struggles with its infrastructure problems exacerbated by some of the same technology they’re lauding, Square Enix president Yosuke Matsuda explained how they’re considering future projects incentivizing players through their own token-driven economies.
In that letter, which insists “metaverse” is absolutely not a buzzword (but is most definitely a buzzword), Square Enix echos companies like Sega, EA, and Ubisoft in expressing interest over NFTs and blockchain-based gaming. While Matsuda acknowledges there’s risk in how we overvalue some of these digital goods, he sees them as becoming more commonplace with their value corrected over time and envisions a future where NFTs “become as familiar as dealings in physical goods.”
You can read his full letter on Square’s site, but I have to highlight the most bizarre, hollow paragraph suggesting that blockchain-based tokens provide any meaningful solutions to problems surrounding user-generated content or compensation:
I realize that some people who “play to have fun” and who currently form the majority of players have voiced their reservations toward these new trends, and understandably so. However, I believe that there will be a certain number of people whose motivation is to “play to contribute,” by which I mean to help make the game more exciting. Traditional gaming has offered no explicit incentive to this latter group of people, who were motivated strictly by such inconsistent personal feelings as goodwill and volunteer spirit. This fact is not unrelated to the limitations of existing UGC (user-generated content). UGC has been brought into being solely because of individuals’ desire for self-expression and not because any explicit incentive existed to reward them for their creative efforts. I see this as one reason that there haven’t been as many major game-changing content that were user generated as one would expect.
Square Enix seems awfully concerned about compensating players with a “tangible upside to their creative efforts.” And absolutely, there are plenty of instances in which we should pay creatives for their contributions towards these big triple-A projects. Off the top of my head, I think of Ubisoft’s call for unpaid fan work in Beyond Good and Evil 2, and that one time when fans fixed the atrocious font choice in the Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster collection, then the years I relied on not-Square Enix for a NieR Automata PC fix—I’ll stop there. There’s tremendous value in fan work, but there’s not even a small part of me that believes any of these companies have an earnest desire to create equitable returns for creatives or players in any context.
Matsuda goes on to explain he’s hopeful these different motivations, like playing to have fun or playing to earn, will inspire creativity. He suggests there’s growing acceptance around crypto assets, and that Square Enix may create its own tokens somewhere down the line.
It’s not lost on me that the same company behind Final Fantasy VII, a game begging you not to destroy the earth, is thinking about peddling their own game where you’re “incentivized” to participate in systems that do more harm than good. I’ve heard a million lectures on how the implementation of blockchain technology doesn’t have to be a climate-destroying disaster, except it is. When we look at how inefficient the dominant systems are and how the process can be deliberately energy-gobbling, it seems pretty disingenuous to argue you’re working towards a global good.
The whole thing reads as an ambiguous mess, with ultimately no real suggestions on how Square Enix would implement anything from Matsuda’s letter. It’s a deeply uncomfortable feeling to be so enchanted by something like Endwalker, which offers a resounding message of hope for the future, while the game’s publisher throws its weight behind NFTs. That semiconductor shortage Square Enix keeps citing as a reason for FFXIV’s server obstacles isn’t from just one supply chain woe, but scrambling to embrace some of the same technology making the problem worse sure seems like a bad look.