Skip to main content

What is video game ‘interoperability?’ An explanation using amiibo

Between NFTs, blockchain, and the Metaverse, players need a dictionary to understand all gaming’s trendy buzzwords right now. One of the central concepts that have sprung out of all that trendy tech talk is “interoperability.” While it’s not a difficult idea to grasp on paper, the practicality of it has sparked heated debates between crypto dreamers and the developers who know what goes into making a game.

Take, for instance, the Twitter discourse that arose when musician Mike Shinoda tried to sell his followers on interoperability. “Imagine taking your favorite skin from Valorant, and using it [in] Fortnite. And not paying extra, because you own it. Then using it in CoD, Minecraft, even Twitter, IG,” Shinoda tweeted. It’s a utopian concept, but one that’s easier said than done. Developers like Rami Ismail quickly took to Twitter to explain why that idea is an impractical pipe dream.

Any game that wants to support 'interoperability' would have to agree on a billion things: gravity, forces, sizes, scales, axis, lighting, rendering, everything. And you can't make a God of War in the same context as Mario – so that'd be bad.

— Rami Ismail (رامي) (@tha_rami) January 10, 2022

While Shinoda and many others’ vision of interoperability doesn’t reflect the complex reality of video game development, other implementations are comparatively down to Earth. In fact, NFT-like video game interoperability already exists: It’s called amiibo.

What is interoperability?

Before backing up that wild claim, let’s break down what interoperability actually means. It’s essentially a form of wide digital cooperation where different computers can share and use information, even if they’re created by totally different manufacturers.

NFT advocates want to apply the same idea to video game assets. They posit that when you buy an item in a video game, it should carry over into another game. Supporters of the tech are split on how exactly that’ll work, though.

Counter Strike skins appear on the DMarket NFT shop.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

In the Shinodaverse, interoperability means being able to use an NFT item in virtually any game. Bought a skin you really like in Fortnite? What if you could wear it in Call of Duty without having to pay extra? It’s like having one closet shared between every game. That pitch is what has game developers shaking their heads.

The second version of interoperability is a little more realistic. Rather than players being able to take a skin between every game, an asset acts as more of a key that can unlock content in supported games. Going back to the previous example, your favorite Fortnite skin might not carry over to Call of Duty, but it could perhaps give you a bonus item in Call of Duty (even if it’s not a unique one).

That’s where the amiibo example comes in.

Interoperability explained through amiibo

Amiibo are basically the second scenario of interoperability in action. Nintendo’s plastic figures are cute collectibles, but they have a function too. They can be scanned into different games to give players perks. Scan a Mario figure into Yoshi’s Crafted World and you’ll get a costume based on the plumber’s look.

That Mario amiibo doesn’t just work in one game though. Scan that same figure into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and you’ll get some materials. Then scan it into Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and you can store fighter data on it. That one $12 purchase becomes a VIP ticket that gives you free content in dozens of games.

Amiibo sit on top of a PowerA stand shaped like Mario blocks.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Interoperability advocates apply that same idea to NFTs. Instead of buying a physical figure, you’d purchase a digital asset. Any game developer could choose to grant a user some extra content if they “scan” their NFT into the game, so to speak. You might not get your Bored Ape as a skin when you connect it to Halo Infinite, but perhaps you’ll get some double XP boosts.

That’s been controversial in some instances, though. To unlock fast travel in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD, players had to buy a pricey and scarcely produced Loftwing amiibo. Locking exclusive features behind an additional purchase is nothing new for games, but doing so via a limited item that not everyone can buy creates potential problems. It encourages scalpers to buy up products and sell them back for exorbitant prices — and that part’s not so different from the NFT world.

Three Animal Crossing amiibo cards spread out.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

An amiibo isn’t exactly the same as an NFT. Obviously, the big difference is that they’re physical objects. Beyond that, they’re mass-produced items, so they lack the “unique” aspect of NFTs. Though, if any NFT would unlock the same content in a game, does that actually matter? That’s a big question that makes one wonder if NFT technology is actually necessary to implement interoperability at all.

Regardless of that answer, if you want to see the idea in action, pick up an amiibo and start scanning.

Is interoperability possible?

As evidenced by amiibo, gaming interoperability is possible … in some form. However, that current implementation involves developers adding a few extras into a game based on which amiibo players scan. No game gives a truly unique reward for scanning any amiibo (there are nearly 200 figures), with most games opting to give generic rewards for scanning a set of figures.

That would most likely be what happens with NFTs in gaming. When you consider that there could be potentially millions of unique NFTs, it’s impossible to imagine any game giving a unique reward for each without some imperfect automated process.

Multiple phone screens showing the NFT-focused service called Ubisoft Quartz.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Similarly, the idea of a skin traveling from game to game and automatically mapping onto any character is laughable at present. Publishers are already having trouble implementing that idea into their own games. Ubisoft’s current NFT experiment has players earning items that only work in Ghost Recon: Breakpoint. Activision also reportedly explored adding NFTs to Call of Duty but ditched the idea after realizing how much work it would entail. If a publisher can’t make an asset work across annualized games in the same series, there’s little hope that the Shinoda future happens anytime soon.

Though other studios may be farther along. Before GSC Game World canceled its NFT plans for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chernobyl, it was planning to have assets carry over between its games. The architect behind the project confirmed that assets were going to work in at least one other title, though it’s unclear if the item would fully carry over or simply unlock content. That would have been a significant first step for the tech.

Ultimately, NFTs and blockchain aren’t actually necessary for interoperability. The main thing they bring to the table is the idea of decentralized ownership so no single game studio owns your asset. However, one could argue that something like an amiibo solves that problem by being a physical object.

For large-scale interoperability to work, the only thing that’s actually required is for disparate studios to come together for a common goal. And that’s about as realistic as a Battlefield gun coming to Madden.

Editors' Recommendations

Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
Xbox Games Showcase and Starfield Direct: how to watch and what to expect
xbox june showcases announced starfield direct hero image 37faabd65d647fb77b68

The Xbox Games Showcase and Starfield Direct Double Feature are shaping up to be the most important video game showcases to watch this month. Across these two back-to-back showcases today, Microsoft will give us a comprehensive look at what's coming to PC, Xbox Series X/S, and Xbox Game Pass from its first-party studios and then finally give us the deep dive into Starfield that we've been waiting for since it was announced in 2018.
Because Sony has already held its PlayStation Showcase and Nintendo hasn't revealed any plans for a Nintendo Direct this month, it looks like this will be the big first-party showcase of June. With the presentation happening later today, we're laying out how you can watch the Xbox Games Showcase and Starfield Direct Double Feature and explaining what you can expect from it. 
When is the Xbox Games Showcase

The Xbox Games Showcase will begin at 10 a.m. PT today, June 11. Microsoft has not said how long the Xbox Games Showcase will be this year, but previous presentations have typically been between an hour and an hour-and-a-half long. 
When is the Starfield Direct
Microsoft has stated that the Starfield Direct will begin "immediately following the Xbox Games Showcase." Because we don't know how long the Xbox Games Showcase is, though, we don't know exactly when this portion of the livestream will begin. We also don't know quite how long the Starfield Direct will last. To be safe, we recommend you set aside two or three hours to watch the Xbox Games Showcase and Starfield Direct Double Feature. 
How to watch the Xbox Games Showcase and Starfield Direct
Microsoft is promoting and live-streaming this pair of showcases across most of its gaming-focused social media platforms. As such, you can tune into the shows on Xbox's official YouTube, Twitch, and Facebook pages as well as Bethesda's YouTube and Twitch channels. Deaf fans can even experience the show thanks to a version of the show on YouTube with audio descriptions and stream on the XboxASL Twitch page.

Read more
How fitness video games can help improve your mental well-being
A character holds the Ring Fit as they run down a path surrounded by green fields. Their hair is almost like fire.

Fitness as a standalone concept -- whether someone is running on their own, going to the gym, or just even walking on a daily basis -- has overall net positives for each person. The World Health Organization notes that “some physical activity is better than doing none” at all. People see visible, physical benefits from physical activity, including improved health, muscle growth, and improved coordination and balance. And when it comes to fitness video games, those same benefits hold true.

Fitness games have been around since the 1980s in some capacity when early iterations like the Joyboard for the Atari 2600 were first rolled out. But some of the most notable early fitness games that truly saw success come in the form of the arcade hit Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) and Wii Fit. Both games have been positively received and effectively worked in getting players up and moving, be that through dance or more traditional workout methods like yoga and strength training.

Read more
Summer Game Fest Kickoff 2023: how to watch and what to expect
The official artwork confirming Summer Game Fest's return on June 8, 2023.

With no E3 happening this year, there's a massive void to fill. Developers have tons of video games to reveal, but nowhere to show them. That's where Summer Game Fest comes in.

Organized by Game Awards creator Geoff Keighley, Summer Game Fest essentially acts as a modern replacement for E3. It's a series of live streams and in-person events that loosely mimic the idea of a standard E3 season, giving gaming fans plenty of news to chew on. It all starts with the Summer Game Fest Kickoff stream today, where Keighley will showcase tons of new games from most of gaming's biggest players.

Read more