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For game developers, GDC 2022 was a battle for reality

With this year’s Game Developers Conference returning to an in-person format for the first time since the pandemic began, there was a full house for this year’s Game Developers Choice Awards. Host Osama Dorias took the stage for an opening monologue filled with puns and nods to the biggest stories in the video game industry today. The audience warm-up work reached its peak when Dorias hit on one of gaming’s most controversial topics.

“I promise, there are no NFTs,” he quipped, eliciting loud applause and cheers from the crowd – the biggest pop of the evening.

If you watched that moment via livestream, you might have assumed that this year’s GDC was a haven from a storm of buzzwords that have swirled around the industry like a hurricane over the past year. That wasn’t the case. Between a myriad of panels, show floor booths, and even banners advertising “play-to-earn” games, Web3 advocates and blockchain-believers made their presence known this year — whether or not they fit in.

GDC 2022 acted as a perfect microcosm for the video game industry at large right now. It felt like two conferences in competition with one another. On one side, it was a space for traditional game makers to advocate for change and connect with one another after years of physical distance. On the other, it was a summit for tech idealists eager to chart a new course in a digital world. Both stressed the importance of community, though they couldn’t have been farther apart from one another.

What the fungible?

A quick glance through this year’s GDC presentation schedule turned up several talks about every modern tech trend, from NFTs to the metaverse. In between panels on games like Halo Infinite and Deathloop, attendees could pop into talks like “How Web 3.0 Can Transform Free-to-Play Games” and “What the Fungible? A Developers Discussion on NFTs.”

It was a popular point of discussion throughout the week, but likely not in the intended way. The mere presence of such chats drew eyerolls and ire from attendees. Some scolded the conference organizers, feeling that it was wasting precious stage time on speculative tech rather than the craft of video game creation. Others seemingly attended panels to grab unbelievable sound bites and slides to share with social media. I heard the word “crazy” used to describe a Tuesday night debate about play-to-earn gaming where one speaker discussed the virtues of renting out digital assets like property.

The biggest takeaway from GDC is that despite those articles about Web3 and NFT popularity declining, there is a new wave of blockchain games being developed through funding / collaboration with large gaming companies, with the aim to address initial criticisms.

Just a heads up https://t.co/4LlXbtWyN3

— Daniel Ahmad (@ZhugeEX) March 25, 2022

The NFT panel I attended early on a Wednesday morning was more civil. That chat didn’t play out to an empty room, as one might expect after hearing the topic’s reception at the awards ceremony. It was a fairly well-attended chat featuring four speakers (three of which had personal NFT projects to plug) and an audience full of curious listeners who lined up to ask sincere questions at the end.

Despite the perception that all crypto- and metaverse-adjacent projects are hollow scams, there are people who seem to genuinely believe in the tech’s potential beyond dollar signs (that, or they’re very convincing actors). In fact, “play-to-earn” was almost treated as a dirty term through the week, with proponents rebranding the concept as “play and earn.” Multiple people I spoke to echoed the term, treating the controversial “buy and sell” aspect of NFTs as secondary.

A Game Developers Conference 2022 booth advertises Smart NFTs.

Instead, proponents at the event laid out a loftier vision for gaming’s future — one where the rare gear players earned in a game can’t be forever lost by a random backend bug. In the panel I attended, speakers underlined the ownership aspect of NFTs and blockchain tech, laying out a utopian world where players own their items, not corporations. For anyone who walked into the conference with no prior knowledge of the heated debates around the tech, it’s easy to understand how the sales pitch could work.

Building from scratch

While the talk around the tech’s potential was ambitious through the show, the actual projects on display didn’t always match the hype. The show floor was filled with booths showcasing games with primitive concepts and visuals. That was especially true in “metaverse” spaces, which featured misshapen humans sitting in mundane virtual rooms.

That disconnect was perhaps best typified from the panel I attended. One speaker gave a strong aspirational pitch for NFTs and how they can completely reinvent games. The project she was working on, though, was one that would simply let people own fictional pets that could theoretically (a word that was an asterisk on most project pitches) be taken between metaverse spaces. Neopets 2.0 isn’t exactly a groundbreaking idea, though there’s a little more complexity to the project.

Petaverse Network - Coming Soon

The running theme throughout GDC was that companies and developers wanted to be in on the ground floor of emerging tech however they could. Execution played second fiddle to speculation. Some speakers likened the current play-to-earn trend to the free-to-play boom and were determined not to miss out on gaming’s next big moment. While some claimed it wasn’t about the money, it’s hard to fully buy that when it’s compared to gaming’s most lucrative strategy.

The rush to capitalize created some general confusion on the show floor. Multiple booths were pushing the idea of NFT 2.0 in some form, throwing shade at the current iteration of the tech in their sales pitches. The word “metaverse” became meaningless on day one. The most comically absurd moment of the show came when I passed a booth that featured the tagline “The #1 metaverse blockchain for gaming and NFT” — a buzzword bingo.

A Game Developers Conference booth advertises NFT 2.0 tech.

That headache was made more confounding by mixed messaging from advocates. Speakers at the NFT panel spent a chunk of time stressing how the tech enables ownership, taking power away from companies like EA. At the end, someone asked how that would work when it comes to IP and copyright, which led to a speaker doing a sudden 180 to clarify that buying an NFT doesn’t inherently mean you own anything — the companies making them still set the terms of what ownership means.

It’s easy to see why skepticism was rampant among attendees. It wasn’t totally clear what future was being created, as some supporters tried to build the hull while others went straight to the smokestacks.

The most tone deaf moment of my panel came when a speaker expressed confidence in the future acceptance of NFTs, noting that you don’t see players complaining about Overwatch’s loot boxes anymore. It was a statement disconnected from reality considering that Overwatch’s loot boxes spurred a massive legal debate about gambling that saw the practice banned in Belgium. Minimalizing legitimate player concerns only pokes the coals further, justifying the sense of distrust.

The one skeptic on the panel put it best, positing that the tech wasn’t solving anything, just replacing one form of hyper-capitalism with another.

Creating community

All the talk about making our lives more digital especially stood out because a large part of this year’s conference was focused on the human side of the industry. The show featured panels on topics like inclusive hiring, four-day work weeks, and neurodivergence in game development. CODE-CWA had a major booth on the show floor, putting the unionization discussion front and center. Feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian gave a retrospective on her 10-year-old Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series, which confronted what work still needed to be done in terms of ingrained industry sexism and racism — a talk that literally ended in tears and hugs with attendees.

Despite the massive presence, the metaverse, NFTs, and web3 weren’t the central trend at GDC. Instead, it was how developers could make the industry a safer place for everyone. It was an essential topic this year, especially considering the continued wave of misconduct allegations at studios of every size.

CODE-CWA's booth at Game Developers Conference 2022.

Both sides of the conference saw the importance of nurturing communities, but in entirely different ways. One wanted to create new digital spaces that would connect players, while the other wanted to fix the broken system that creates such worlds. There’s no reason both can’t happen at once — this isn’t a new dynamic for GDC by any means — but seeing them side-by-side emphasized how much work still needs to be done in reality before we can start herding players into a blockchain-enabled metaverse that’s sure to mirror the problems outside of it if left unchecked.

A speaker at the NFT panel I attended put it best when she firmly noted that introducing the tech to gamers first was a mistake. Her rationale was that hardcore players are historically prickly and that the energy would be better spent courting tech enthusiasts, though it doesn’t quite feel like the main reason proponents might want to back off the space for a bit. Rather, tech like NFTs are creating noise in an industry that desperately needs focus right now. For many, it was a distraction at GDC 2022 that diluted the real community repairing that needed to happen at the first in-person conference in three years.

Perhaps there should be a satellite MDC (Metaverse Developers Conference) next year where tech idealists can meet in virtual rooms and leave the physical ones open for those who are eager to change the real world.

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