Life (and Minecraft) aren’t fair or safe

The more I think about that press release from Microsoft, announcing that NFTs are banned from Minecraft, the more I think it stinks. The miasma of hypocrisy emanating from it is like my teenage son in his unwashed t-shirt: you don’t notice the smell at first, but after a while you just can’t help thinking about it, and nothing else.

For those of you who missed the memo: here it is. In short, Mojang (owned by Microsoft) states that:

“NFTs … can create models of scarcity and exclusion that conflict with our Guidelines and the spirit of Minecraft.

To ensure that Minecraft players have a safe and inclusive experience, blockchain technologies are not permitted to be integrated inside our client and server applications, nor may Minecraft in-game content such as worlds, skins, persona items, or other mods, be utilized by blockchain technology to create a scarce digital asset.”

On the surface of it all, that sounds very reasonable. Minecraft has been a surprisingly open ecosystem, supportive of creators and programmers as long as they’re doing “reasonable stuff”, namely enhancing the game experience rather than producing hacks to exploit the system.

But there is something you have to remember — American corporations have evolved to the point that their primary purpose is to maximize shareholder value, and they ensure their executives are aligned with this mission by awarding them handsomely with share options.

Companies are not altruistic. And so, when a company says that it’s doing something “for the kids”, to make sure they have an inclusive experience and are safe, their motivation is not the same as a kindly primary school teacher with a big heart and a small salary.

Games aren’t written out of charity. They’re a product, and the product producer wants to extract as much value from the players over the long term as they can. That means they have to pay attention to potential bad publicity from naked greed cash-grabs, and thus walk a thin line between maximizing profit and turning off their customer base.

As a result “reasonable stuff” is also going to exclude “stuff that doesn’t enhance the Minecraft brand or that might siphon revenue from Microsoft into independent developers’ pockets”…

Measure once, cut twice

Microsoft launched a Minecraft Marketplace five years ago, where creators of mods and skins can sell their creations. I couldn’t find exact figures, but this article suggests that Microsoft takes a 50% commission from any sales.

That’s right — if you come up with a fantastic skin pack (typically priced at about $3) that is downloaded a million times, you’ll make one and a half million dollars. And so will Microsoft.

Ask anyone in the NFT space what they think of a 50% resale royalty, and they’ll laugh in your face (if they don’t punch it first).

But the big platforms are fighting a battle against a serious shift in what kind of “take” is acceptable — a massive encroachment into their cut. Record labels and traditional publishers have historically expected 90%, Amazon pockets 65% on e-book sales unless you go exclusive with them (then they only take 30%). Meta has talked about a 47.5% fee for sales from their upcoming avatar marketplace, and Apple pockets 30% from every apps sold in their app store.

The 2.5% or 5% commissions and resale royalties that have become standard in the blockchain space must look terrifying to the web2 incumbents. And it should — why would they want to give up all that free money?

These companies aim to make a few people very rich (yeah, I’m looking at you, Farmer Bill) at the expense of the rest. Which I suppose is fine — that’s how capitalism works, and it’s the system we find ourselves in. But it’s not inclusive or safe by any means.

Centralized control

One of the inspirations behind Ethereum, the number one platform for NFTs, was an experience by Vitalik Buterin in which Blizzard arbitrarily hobbled his character in World of Warcraft. My similar experience involved Roblox and Supercell cancelling my son’s gaming accounts after he accidentally spent 500€ on in-game items (don’t worry — we got a €1.98 refund though).

When I read about gamers reacting badly to NFTs, I suspect that they’ve not had the kinds of negative experiences that Vitalik and I have. I also suspect they’re reading the mainstream gaming press.

After putting days or even months of effort and time into your gaming, you build up a sense of ownership. That’s an illusion, in the same way that job security in permanent employment is an illusion. It’s comforting, but it’s not real. You don’t own your gaming account and you don’t own your job. They’re controlled by the company.

I can’t imagine the size of the lobbying and media marketing budgets of major games studios and tech companies, but what I can imagine is the effort and resources they put into continuing to spin the story in their favor. Anything new that seems like a threat is going to be ridiculed, then attacked. We’ve seen this behaviour from the powers that be in the traditional finance world when cryptocurrency reared its head, and now it’s moving into other areas.

At this point, most of the real challengers are actually just developers and visionaries in their pandemic-created home offices, tinkering and exploring. Which I find funny, because all the tech giants started off in the same way, and claim to be proud of their humble beginnings, while doing what they can to prevent the next generation of garage and dorm-room revolutionaries.

Doesn’t seem very safe or inclusive, does it?

My agenda

Of course, I have an agenda too. I’ve been working in blockchain full-time for the last seven years, and it’s how I make my living. And half of my attention has been on NFTs for the last two of those, so of course it is beneficial to me if they succeed.

But there is one big difference between Microsoft and me — I’m not a sociopathic corporation (all of them are — they can’t help it), so there is a small but real chance that I have ethics and morals beyond minimizing revenue losses by avoiding legal transgressions.

The other thing I do have is an NFT project with a voxel world that allows you to walk around in those NFTs, namely the Orthoverse. And yes, there are exclusive benefits to owning a token, so it’s not inclusive and probably not safe. But at $3 a token it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than a Minecraft license at $26.95.

And do you know what?

Life isn’t inclusive, and it’s not safe. Some of us are working towards that goal, but we’re not there yet, and we probably won’t ever get there. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try though.

And tech companies claiming that they are working towards that goal too? Well … they’re lying.

Coda

If the Orthoverse has piqued your interest:

To the best of my knowledge, no Orthovert has suffered psychological or physical harm while engaging with it, and we’re a friendly (if somewhat cynical and surrealist) community.

About the author

Keir Finlow-Bates is a blockchain researcher, smart contract developer, inventor, and writer. He lives in Finland with his wife and eight children.

If you found this article insightful or educational, you’ll love his book, Move Over Brokers Here Comes The Blockchain, which explains blockchain through the use of analogies without oversimplifying the topic.

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Keir Finlow-Bates

Keir Finlow-Bates

CEO and co-founder of Chainfrog Oy, a Finnish startup researching and developing advanced blockchain technologies.