‘I Felt Like My Own Community Turned On Me’: The Fallout When An Australian Game Became An NFT

‘I Felt Like My Own Community Turned On Me’: The Fallout When An Australian Game Became An NFT
Image: The Gardens Between (The Voxel Agents)

From all the Australian games of the past few years, The Gardens Between is one of the more successful. It’s a polished, critically acclaimed puzzler from a well-renowned team.

But then the studio announced The Gardens Between would be sold as an NFT (non-fungible token).

The past few weeks have been nothing short of a whirlwind for the two-person studio behind The Gardens Between. Released a few years ago, Melbourne developers The Voxel Agents announced The Gardens Between would be released on a new platform — Pavillion Hub, an Australian-made blockchain marketplace that allows developers to mint their game, or parts of their game, as NFTs.

What does that mean for The Gardens Between exactly? In practice, users pay $25 to get an NFT game license. That license allows you to play The Gardens Between, like you would on Steam, consoles or phones, but it also comes with the ability to share that license and game files with others. Users can also resell the license later on, if they like.

The core pitch for Pavillion Hub — founded by the same developers behind 22 Racing Series, a Wipeout-esque racer that’s done the rounds at PAX Australia for a few years — is that buying an NFT game license is like buying physical media. Traditional digital platforms give you access to a game, but not the right to resell or share what you’ve accessed.

“The Gardens Between bought as an NFT from Pavillion Hub works just like buying a physical disk copy of the game,” Simon Joslin, creative director at The Voxel Agents, told Kotaku Australia over email. “You and only you own the disk. You can play it whenever you want even if Pavillion Hub went down momentarily. You can lend it to a friend. You can sell it later.” Pavillion Hub also confirmed users could redistribute the game files outside of their platform.

Another core pitch, and something Joslin explained was a crucial factor for The Voxel Agents, was the supposed lack of an environmental impact. Cryptocurrencies and NFTs have had a horrific ecological cost, not to mention the exploitative way in which people’s work has been minted into NFTs without their consent. The entire value proposition has been non-existent for the most part, which is why fans and observers have reacted so strongly whenever companies venture into the space.

There wasn’t and hasn’t for the most part been a clear value proposition for NFTs beyond cashing in. And Joslin explained that was one of their chief concerns, too.

The difference between blockchains

pavillion hub
How Pavillion Hub positions its marketplace towards consumers. A key pitch is the utility around digital rights, as well as the capacity for a one-time feature to convert any Pavillion licenses into a Steam key, allowing users to leave the platform entirely.

We take the imminent environmental collapse extremely seriously,” Joslin said. “My wife returned home just now from kindergarten with my four-year-old brandishing a plastic bag full of rubbish they themselves collected from the streets on the way home. We recycle like crazy. I ride to work everyday. I make a multitude of choices in my life to minimise my footprint.”

Initially, Joslin and his partner, Matthew Clark, the other co-founder of The Voxel Agents, were completely sceptical of all blockchain and crypto technologies. And even now, Joslin said his views on Bitcoin and Ethereum and how the environmental impacts of both remained too great to ignore.

“It is well known that Ethereum and Bitcoin are terrible for the environment. Latest estimates for Ethereum is that it is about half to a quarter as bad as Bitcoin, and Ethereum racks up an eye watering $4.8 billion worth of electricity usage per year,” Joslin said.

Even when Ethereum transitions to a more power-efficient proof of stake model, it’ll still use a significant amount of power. (Right now, Ethereum transactions consume approximately 50 terawatts of power annually, more than what some countries, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore included, use in a year.)

On top of that, Ethereum’s proposed proof of stake model would still incentivise miners to use as much power as possible just to increase their chances of securing future batches of transactions.

So its understandable why other developers — many of whom are deeply progressive and understandably concerned about climate change — were immediately aghast. Some accused the Melbourne studio of exploiting the environment for profit, while others noted that Pavillion Hub still accepts payments from existing proof of work cryptocurrencies. The hub did respond to the latter, arguing that almost all of their transactions were in USD, and that customers had swapped “their environmentally unfriendly tokens for eco-friendly ones”.

“It’s nonsense because they’re also accepting cryptocurrencies that exacerbate the environmental issues they otherwise are claiming they’re sidestepping,” Dan Hindes, developer of Wildfire, told Kotaku Australia over Twitter.

The kicker is how much power the NFT process consumes. Earlier this year, French artist Joanie Lemercier abandoned plans to sell crypto art after doing an evaluation of the ecological impacts.

“It turns out my release of 6 CryptoArt works consumed in 10 seconds more electricity than the entire studio over the past 2 years,” Lemercier wrote.

Image: Joanie Lemercier

Why was the impact so great? It’s because the entire NFT process, not just the cryptographical minting and verification but the sale, bidding, cancellation and transfer of NFTs, uses a ton of power. The nature of NFT art in particular meant that artists could issue multiple editions of the same piece of work: while Lemercier had only issued six pieces of actual art, WIRED reported 53 editions were released in total, all of which come with their own significant ecological impact.

It’s not as if others in the crypto space haven’t seen the impact of NFTs, blockchains, and currencies like Ethereum. But one of the problems is that the size of Ethereum, being the second-largest behind Bitcoin, is exactly why people are drawn to it. Size provides a certain amount of stability, as much as is possible in a world as volatile as crypto, and without that scale and support, it’s hard for newer technologies to get off the ground.

Pavillion Hub themselves acknowledged that the ecological damage, explaining that the blockchain’s implementation could either be vastly efficient, or incredibly harmful depending on how the network was designed.

“This comes down to how many nodes there are in the network and how the nodes decide on who gets to do the transaction. The result of this is that while one PoS chain transaction might use as little 700,000x less energy than it takes to boil water for a cup of tea, another PoS chain transaction might use 200,000x more energy,” Garth Midgley, co-creator of the Pavillion Hub and GOATi Entertainment managing director, explained to Kotaku Australia over email.

Artists continue to engage with NFTs nonetheless, which is understandable to a degree: being able to sell a single piece of art multiple times over for hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions, can provide literal life-changing security.

But that’s not what The Gardens Between is trying to accomplish: they’re fundamentally selling the same product that’s available on Steam, the App Store, Google Stadia or the eShop, and the price is about the same. Some of the digital rights are different, but the studio’s core call to action — buy our game for $X dollars — is unchanged.

The price for The Gardens Between perfectly matches the price of the game on Steam, Nintendo Switch, Xbox, Stadia and PlayStation,” Joslin told Kotaku Australia. “So it’s not arbitrary. That is the price. At least 80,000 people have bought The Gardens Between at the full retail price. Several hundred thousand more have bought it at discounted prices. The value is well established.”

So it’s not as if there’s an instant financial benefit. Pavillion Hub purchases aren’t liable to turn the Melbourne studio into millionaires overnight, especially when you’re charging full price for the game via something as contentious as NFTs. And it doesn’t help that even the Pavillion Hub creators acknowledge that NFTs are effectively associated with scams due to the way the market has unfolded.

“There are wonderful sections of community supporting artists with new income streams …  and there are people ‘selling’ NFTs containing links to artwork that they didn’t create,” they wrote in a blog post. “I’d like to get pedantic and point out that an NFT is just jargon for ‘a spreadsheet row with a permission system, in a community hosted database,’ and that this phenomenon is what the highest-profile use for these spreadsheets has been for the past year is … but it may be too late for that nuance.”

“If you take any discourse about NFTs and replace ‘NFT’ with ‘a spreadsheet row’, it all starts to sound rather silly,” they added.

So if all these problems existed, and even the principle of NFTs is so contentious, why did The Gardens Between engage with a blockchain-based platform at all?

The cost of the blockchain

blockchain nft
Image: The Gardens Between

Joslin explained that he’d met the founders of GOATi Entertainment, the team responsible for Pavillion Hub, back in 2014. “They are renowned in the local games industry as a powerhouse of technical achievement and prowess,” he said.

After not seeing each other due to COVID — both studios were Melbourne-based, so they suffered the impacts of last year’s rolling lockdowns equally — the developers caught up again in February of this year. Alongside the development of 22 Racing Series, GOATi had been working on a new blockchain platform based on the Phantasma Chain.

According to the creators of Phantasma, it only takes around 52,500kWh of power to maintain the entire Phantasma blockchain. On an individual level, the power usage requires around 0.1kWh for every NFT. That’s a vast improvement over current average consumption, where one Ethereum transaction can use as much power as a single person’s electricity usage over a few days.

“Instead of solving an arbitrarily hard problem, miners are chosen at random in a lottery mechanism, with the number of tickets equivalent to the amount of ‘money’ (Ethereum tokens) that each miner has placed into escrow (aka ‘staked’),” the creators of the Pavillion Hub explained. “Etherium 2.0 will supposedly require 1% of the energy that [Ethereum 1.0] currently uses, however, even that is still an almost unimaginable amount of energy! This is because there are still over 10k ‘miners’ running computers that are competing against each other in that lottery — and the act of mining is still siphoning ‘money’ from regular developers and users to these large capital holders.”

So rather than implementing the same proof of stake model underpinning Ethereum’s new iteration, Pavillion Hub implemented Phantasma instead for its power efficiency and processing speed. In theory, being able to process thousands of transactions a second means people won’t be encouraged to bid higher and higher amounts just to have their crypto transactions processed.

For a studio like The Voxel Agents, which already takes multiple actions to minimise their carbon footprint, a more efficient system was appealing. “We began offsetting our energy usage in 2010 when our first hit game Train Conductor made some money (side note: from memory that’s before we even took a wage),” Joslin said.

“We used Greenfleet to plant trees to offset our computer usage, which to be honest is extremely marginal since we ran mostly on laptops. But then we came across harder times and couldn’t afford the offsets. I do regret that we stopped for a long time but I think it shows we cared to do it at all 11 years ago.”

So the Phantasma blockchain had some understandable appeal. The entire system runs off 12 official nodes, which is the maximum limit under Phantasma, Joslin explained.

It costs $600 to run those 12 computers for the year,” he added, noting that the Pavillion Hub is only a small part of the Phantasma blockchain. “To put it into perspective: 24,000,000 transactions on Pavillion Hub are equivalent to one hour of Netflix! One hour. Your usage tonight on Netflix will be far, far greater than an entire lifetime of buying, achieving and trading transactions on Pavillion Hub.”

The limited amount of nodes is also designed to mitigate the massive carbon footprint generated when the network scales up. But a core criticism of Pavillion Hub’s model, outlined on their website, is a decision to allow users to pay for transactions with Bitcoin, Ethereum, and a host of other proof-of-work cryptocurrencies.

Even supporting Bitcoin transactions was something The Voxel Agents couldn’t get behind. “The original Bitcoin is an environmental travesty by design,” Joslin said. “I still cannot and will not support, interact or trade in Bitcoin. I never will. The utter disregard for the environment embedded in its design cannot be looked past as we rocket towards climate catastrophe. I cannot go near it on principle.”

Joslin even publicly acknowledged this criticism a few days later on Twitter, adding that much of the “gaming crypto” space was “distressing” and “mostly based on the worst kinds” of blockchain/crypto models.

Image: Twitter

While the acceptance of pay-to-work crypto is one of the strongest complaints from fellow developers, Pavillion Hub has had less than 20 transactions to date with pay-to-work crypto.

“Every time we manage to convince someone to divest their PoW token and enter a utility market with a clean PoS token, we’re moving liquidity out of an unclean network, and in turn, on-boarding a new user (along with their liquidity) into a clean one,” the creators wrote.

“There’s someone that’s holding onto, let’s say, Ethereum, they see our platform, they like the games on it, they like it more than the Ethereum that they’re holding onto, so they decide to offload it and exchange it for our energy efficient and environmentally friendly (carbon neutral) stable GOATi token, which can’t be speculated on, but can only be used to buy digital items that have a utility.”

‘NFT is triggering — in fact it is rigged with explosives’

The Pavillion Hub accepts payment from 34 cryptocurrencies, many of which — like Bitcoin, Dogecoin and Ethereum — come with great energy costs, although the creators argue their impact is offset when users’ more ecologically heavy crypto is converted into carbon neutral tokens. Image: Pavillion Hub

This is probably is where The Gardens Between has received the biggest criticism, engaging with the very thing it seeks to avoid. And Joslin left room for error, adding that he would always adapt his position to new information, criticisms of Pavillion Hub, and any proposed, more eco-friendly alternatives.

After being rinsed online, Joslin said he continued digging into the Phantasma blockchain and Pavillion Hub model. “What I’ve learnt has only bolstered the arguments that this is a fantastic approach and the Pavillion Hub team are onto something. After everything I’ve learnt about it, in my opinion, Pavilion Hub is an innovative, consumer friendly and environmentally thoughtful platform.

“Would I support my friends who have an innovative solution that improves the user experience in many ways, and is completely environmentally sound? Yes I would, and I did.”

From his perspective, the power usage of the Pavillion Hub is minuscule compared not just to other NFT implementations online, but the carbon footprint of other common online services. That hasn’t quelled the concerns of other developers, however, with critics arguing that an environmental-first ideology is incompatible with any platform that actively supports payments from eco-unfriendly cryptocurrencies.

But what took Joslin aback the most was the savagery of the response, particularly from fellow Australian developers. “I felt like my own game dev community had turned on me,” he said.

“It hurt terribly to see game developers I revere openly trashing what we’re doing. I took it to heart. I took it far too personally. I’m sure many were just having a bit of a laugh. But when those really negative takes are mixed in with extremely toxic posts from the wider community, it’s hard to disentangle in your head. I’ve heard of how social media can foment hate. I’ve heard how the enraging content gets the most engagement, but I’ve never been on the other side of that before,” he added. 

“Blockchain is really complex though. NFTs on top of that are even more complex. Non-techies don’t understand how TCP/IP undergirds the internet and they don’t feel bad about it, but many non-techies seem to feel like they should understand blockchain for some reason? Pavillion Hub’s system is not what people assume it is, it’s almost the opposite of what people assume.”

Midgley was similarly dismayed at how other developers responded.

“The few developers that did post on there that I do know well were the few that came in with actual discussion on the topic, but they received a similar response to us, and so as you’d expect, our developer conversations moved from Twitter to Discord, so that we could have an actual discussion,” he said.

“The thing about this that was surprising was just how many people were so quick to cast everyone into the same pot with other projects/people/technologies that they don’t like, and blatantly neglect, and reject a notion of, first finding out more about what we’ve done, and actually listen to any responses.”

Can an ethical NFT even exist?

nft
Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang during a post-Computex keynote briefing, where NFTs, metaverses and digital economies were discussed. Image: NVIDIA

For the developers that railed The Voxel Agents, a core problem of Pavillion Hub, NFTs and the entire thought process is not just the ethicality of the blockchain, but what platforms like Pavillion Hub are actually trying to solve. And in spaces that are highly progressive, as many game developers are, there’s also a strong belief in publicly advocating for solutions that create better communities.

And as Damon Reece, an Adelaide developer known for their work on Necrobarista and Hacknet, argues, non-fungible tokens don’t contribute to that world.

“I spoke up on The Voxel Agents’ adoption of NFTs because the adoption of blockchain technology into games supports an ecologically devastating, hyper-capitalistic, completely unregulated techno-hell ecosystem that further drives the commodification of games and player time,” Reece explained.

For Reece, a more ecologically-friendly approach to NFTs isn’t the point. They see the entire concept of NFTs as ecologically flawed, and the decentralised nature of the blockchain makes it impossible to force platforms to adopt more eco-friendly mechanisms, especially with the current lack of regulation.

“It still normalises and popularises the concept, and that concept is fundamentally broken,” Reece said. “In my eight years in games I’ve often come across the idea that game devs in our local industry can’t publicly criticise each other because it’ll lead to some kind of unspecified ruinous consequence for us all. That is, quite frankly, ridiculous. We need to be accountable to each other, and to the environment. And we need to learn to give and receive criticism gracefully and gratefully.”

Jon Tree, another Australian composer and developer who joined the chorus of criticism recently, said NFTs were “ultimately solutions in search of problems”. Having been required to keep across blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies as part of their engineering background, Tree questioned whether NFTs and blockchain technology generally had delivered any of the social benefits many advocates promised they would.

“We’ve seen them touted as being revolutionary for over 10 years now and absolutely nothing has come of it other than millions in funding funnelled to blockchain startups, millions to crypto evangelists who manipulate public perception through social media, and millions in ransom sent to ransomware groups,” Tree told Kotaku Australia over Twitter. “The idea that NFTs provide a solution to any of the problems that developers face today is, I feel, a form of tech utopianism that has yet to bear any fruit.

“Blockchain tech has had ample time to prove its worth and has given us ransomware, GPU shortages, and the tools to speedrun wealth inequality and our climate crisis.”

From Joslin’s perspective, blockchain is a “world-changing technology” if used the right way. You would never describe them as an evangelist for the technology — they specifically warned that the lack of a centralised authority poses very real risks — but Joslin believes their utility in solving digital scarcity would be valuable in the future, if used wisely.

“[Blockchains are] a very flexible tool with huge possible implications and implementations,” he said. “They might even reorder society as much as the internet — maybe. But they need to be done right.”

nft
The Pavillion Hub offers developers the opportunity to sell not just game licenses, but cosmetics, achievements and consumable items as NFTs, as well as auctions for said items. Image: Pavillion Hub

Joslin, and the Pavillion Hub’s creators, aren’t alone in that view. Earlier this week, NVIDIA CEO Jensen Huang — someone with an understandable interest in cryptocurrencies and NFTs, given their products are the primary drivers of that ecosystem — was asked about metaverses and what steps needed to be taken for those to become a reality.

After suggesting Fortnite, and potentially World of Warcraft, as the most likely candidate to morph into a metaverse, Huang outlined a vision of a virtual future and ecosystem that would naturally be powered by its own economy, which included NFTs:

I think Fortnite will eventually evolve into a form of metaverse or some derivative of it. World of Warcraft, you could imagine, will someday evolve into a form of metaverse and there’ll be video game versions. There will be augmented reality versions where the art that you have is a digital art, and you own it using NFT.

You’ll display that beautiful art and it’s one of a kind. You’ll display this art and it’s beautiful and it’s completely digital. If you have your glasses on or if you have your phone, you could see that it’s sitting right there and it’s perfectly lit and it’s beautiful and it belongs to you. We’re going to see this overlay and a metaverse overlay, if you will, into our physical world.

The discourse around NFTs, digital ownership, and the problems and potential is wildly different depending on what internet rabbit hole you dive into. In some spaces, NFTs are the opening to a future where everything will be tokenised, one where digital currencies are headed for an eventual clash against sovereign standards.

For Joslin, The Gardens Between as an NFT opens the door to a digital economy that’s more consumer friendly than the world ruled by the likes of Steam, Xbox and Sony.

This is in stark contrast to the incumbent digital storefronts that have far less consumer friendly practices,” he told Kotaku Australia. “You can’t resell. You are tethered to the marketplace and cannot play without their approval. You can’t even share your digital copy. Don’t even get me started how digital copies cost more than disk copies with the status quo situation we’re in.”

Pavillion Hub’s Midgley said it was also incumbent on developers to create new solutions — and platforms — to solve current problems. And not just the environmental challenges, but also the economic sustainability of future creators and adjacent industries like esports.

“I like to also use the example of the Counter-Strike map Dust. A fantastic, and arguably one of the most popular, maps in a FPS game ever. Imagine if the creator of that map was able to continue to make a royalty on that map whenever it’s sold with a game and used in an esports event. To my mind, that would be the fairest deal ever, and that’s what we want to deliver,” Midgley said.

But is a modern blockchain and NFTs the best solution to the problems facing esports and the lack of digital rights? Like many other creators and developers, Tree disagrees.

“I think the team at Pavillion Hub believes what they’re doing is valuable, but for me it’s quite telling that the idea has only really come to the fore in the middle of this NFT hype,” they explained. “I’ve no doubt that someone like Steam could reach out to a number of developers, work out licensing, and implement a license resale option relatively quickly.

“The primary goal of an NFT is to create a mechanism to commodify something, assigning value and being able to transfer that value easily. I think the concept of a digital ‘something’ that only one person has the claim to in this case is a red herring, as are many of the other ‘benefits’ to blockchain and NFTs. It’s not something that they’re actually capable of doing in any meaningful way.”

Comments

  • The attacks on fellow developers over a NFT is flat out unprofessional and almost worthy of a blacklist in and of itself. They can have an opinion without dragging other people in their industry publicly through the dirt on Twitter. How are they meant to attend networking events after this sort of behaviour? “Hi man, I was just showing off for my Twitter friends, no hard feelings?” Good luck with that.

    That being said, all of these “progressive”, environmentally minded people have absolutely no issue with China being a toxic waste dump of epic proportions well beyond simply burning coal for power, so I’ll sit in my corner and scoff some more at the genuineness of their cause.

  • Partly NFT burnout I’d imagine. It’s difficult to do anything on the internet at the moment without seeing the word FUNGIBLE everywhere.

  • “an NFT is just jargon for ‘a spreadsheet row with a permission system, in a community hosted database,’”

    This is exactly the point! What does an NFT do that a spreadsheet row can’t, to justify its environmental cost? Even Pavillion’s supposedly small network is using orders of magnitude more power than a normal old database (and if the whole thing runs on 12 computers that are all owned by Pavillion, in what sense is it even community hosted?)

    • From a read of the article, there are 12 nodes running the Phantasma blockchain, of which Pavillion Hub is one user. It’s not clear how many of those nodes are run by Pavillion (if there are in fact any).

      You are right to question what the blockchain actually adds to the system. How does the game validate that your license to the game is valid?

      * Does it need to download the entire public ledger to determine which wallet owns the token corresponding to the game license?
      * How does it verify that you own the wallet that owns the token?
      * If it makes a call out to some API provided by Pavillion Hub to validate the license, then that service is effectively the source of truth. So what’s the benefit of the blockchain nonsense?

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