Game developer Mark Venturelli received a spirited ovation at Brazil's International Games Festival on Friday after he surprised the audience for his "Future of Game Design" talk with a new title: "Why NFTs are a nightmare." It was a loud statement against blockchain's push into gaming, one of the most divisive trends this year. The festival's list of 2022 sponsors include several NFT and blockchain companies, including Lakea and Ripio, and the festival's programming included panels from those sponsors, such as "Web3 and the New Generation of Games."
Venturelli, who is best known for the game Chroma Squad, didn't just push back against those talks by calling NFTs a nightmare: He argued in detail that they're bad for gaming and run directly counter to his vision for the future of game design.
In a follow-up interview with PC Gamer, Venturelli said the event's blockchain sponsors needed "to buy their relevance, because they're not relevant."
"These people are outsiders here, they're not important," says Venturelli. "They're just trying to buy their relevance, because they have no actual influence over the future of our industry. If you just give them this space uncontested, you're just giving them exactly what they want, and buying their narrative that they're relevant."
Before a recording was even available, Venturelli's talk went viral thanks to a tweet describing the moment he announced its real name and the applause that followed his talk. "It was a bit of a gimmick," Venturelli admits. "I start, 'Hey, this talk is about the future of gaming'. And then I start talking about it, and I say, 'Well, actually, fooled you!' This talk is not about the future of game design, because I start talking about all the trends that I've seen in my 15 years in the industry, and now we have new trends, let's talk about them. That's when I scratch the name of the talk and say, 'Why NFTs are a nightmare.'"
The cheeky title reveal may have been a surprise for the audience, but Venturelli made sure to clear it with the festival's organizers beforehand. Controversial as his talk was clearly going to be, the BIG organizers made no moves to censor the talk or prevent him from having his say, although that doesn't mean it was popular with some of BIG's 'Web3' sponsors. BIG had not yet provided an official statement on the talk as of press time, though PC Gamer was told one will be provided on Monday.
"I've heard that the sponsors got really mad," Venturelli says. "They tried to break into the talk while I was talking, but the organization would not let them. That doesn't surprise me, because the organization, not at a single point did they censor me, did they stop me from putting what I wanted on the slides. I gave them access to the slides before the talk. There was never any kind of intention on their side to shut me up or anything like that."
Tô vendo muitas mensagens falando que o BiG "cortou a transmissão" e outras teorias conspiratórias.Não rolou nada disso. O auditório que eu estava nem tinha equipamento pra transmitir.Ninguém da organização em momento algum falou nada do meu conteúdo, tive liberdade total.July 8, 2022
When Ubisoft announced it was making a foray into the world of NFTs and play-to-earn videogames, selling NFTs in the form of helmets players can wear in Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, the video racked up an extraordinary number of dislikes. Even French trade union Solidaires Informatique criticized the scheme. Nicolas Pouard, VP of Ubisoft's Strategic Innovations Lab, defended it, saying, "The end game is about giving players the opportunity to resell their items once they're finished with them or they're finished playing the game itself."
"This is such a naive proposition," Venturelli counters in our follow-up interview. "The expectation versus reality here is so bizarrely far apart, because what's actually going to happen is that organized groups are going to operate and scale with ever-diminishing margins, and just push out everybody else. Because that's what happens. If you play EVE Online or Runescape, or any other game that simulates economy, that's what happens. Organized groups are going to fucking crush you. What actually is going to happen is that if you just naively play a game and have fun—imagine that—then you want to sell your stuff, your stuff is not going to be worth anything. It's gonna be worth fractions of a cent, but what you give in return for that fraction of a cent is that you're completely powerless now. Your fantasy, your ability to be impactful in the world as an individual is gone, because now it is controlled by these guys."
One early criticism of NFTs and other uses of the blockchain was the environmental cost of their energy inefficiency. In its critique of Ubisoft's plan, Solidaires Informatique called the blockchain "a useless, costly, ecologically mortifying technology." NFT projects in particular quickly became savvy enough to use phrases like "environment-friendly technology" in their press releases, but none of them grapple with the deeper criticisms of their ideas. That's what Venturelli zeroed in on in his talk and in our follow-up interview.
There's the uncanny resemblance between these profit-driven grifts and pyramid schemes, but there's also the philosophical concern that things like cryptocurrency represent a libertarian ideal founded in paranoia about institutions, and about other human beings. That, Venturelli says, is in part why they're so inefficient in the first place.
"Computationally, like in real life, if you don't trust the people that you're working with, you have to spend a lot more energy to achieve the same things," he says. "If I'm living with you in the same house and we don't trust each other, I have to, every time before I leave my house, hide my valuables. I have to make inventory of the things that I own, and maybe put cameras or locks inside of things. When I come back home I need to check everything and see if you messed with any of my stuff, and make sure that you don't get into my room when I'm sleeping and all that shit.
"It's so much energy that I have to use just to exist in a room with you, because I don't trust you. That, I feel, is a very good metaphor about how computationally blockchain works, and what is the underlying philosophical idea behind it, which is, 'We want a world without any sort of centralized authority because we cannot trust any of them ever.' And that is the opposite of what we want as a society, in my opinion."
Second Life creator Philip Rosedale had similar things to say about blockchain gaming projects when he spoke to PC Gamer earlier this year.
The BIG festival's sponsorship by NFT and blockchain companies was brought to light before the event in an article by Rique Sampaio, the journalist whose tweet about Venturelli's talk went viral. Venturelli relates that indie designers in Brazil's scene were in favor of boycotting BIG in response. Venturelli obviously disagreed, so strongly that he delivered his talk even though he had Covid (via videoconference).
"If we boycott it and we don't go to it, we're conceding defeat pretty much. We're just saying we forfeit. We cannot do this. We need to do the opposite. In fact, I do not think that the event organization is pro-crypto, pro-NFT. I know them personally, I serve as an advisor on the board of Abragames [the Association of Brazilian Game Developers Companies]. My opinion against crypto and NFT is not the majority at Abragames, but it's important that I represent this opinion over there. In the same way it's important that we go and we take up the space that is offered to us. Not only to me, but to many people in the indie scene in Brazil. I was on the side of, 'Hey, let's contest this, let's use the space, let's voice our opinion against it. Otherwise, the [blockchain companies] are going to be monologuing over there.'"
That was largely the case with BIG's sponsored talks. "They were spouting their shit basically on the main stage, just saying, 'Hey, crypto games are super cool, they're gonna be awesome. Just people don't understand, or the previous generation of crypto games gave it a bad reputation, but a new generation that is coming up is going to be awesome!'"
By contesting the space, Venturelli and everyone else who publicly speak out about NFTs and the boilerplate blockchain hype that has muscled its way into gaming spaces turns that monologue into a dialogue. And Venturelli doesn't think that upsetting a few of the show's sponsors will hurt it in the end.
"I don't feel like I have hurt BIG by talking shit about NFTs," Venturelli says, "because BIG does not need these guys. It's the other way around."
Investors see potential value in South America right now due to exploitable political and economic instabilities, which for Venturelli means that presenting his counterargument is more important than ever.
"If we don't take up some spaces, and we let these kinds of people take these spaces, suddenly they're dictating what's the future, suddenly they're taking the investments so that they are building our next big projects," he said. "That's when it starts to get really dangerous, because it can jeopardize our future as an industry, in my opinion. Because I don't feel like these things have long legs. I feel like they might be successful in the short term, but they are going to fall on the long term for sure."
Venturelli did eventually bring his talk back to the future of game design, adding that he'd fooled everyone again—he wasn't there just to rag on Web3. Venturelli's indie studio Rogue Snail is working on a looter-shooter called Relic Hunters Legend that's putting into practice some of his ideals, attempting to build trust and community between players with "more human" F2P monetization and a looking-for-group system built around helping others.
"Right now we are living in a crisis of trust in Western society—trust in each other, in institutions, and even in our future together is in decline," Venturelli says. "We should be building systems that help connect people and build trust, build sustainable solutions, and build infinitely scalable human solutions. We should not be shifting away from culture, entertainment, and storytelling towards economic activity. We should not just be eliminating the final hiding places that we have to run away from the oppression of capitalist society."
You can find The Future of Game Design talk on YouTube.