I have a lot of respect for Brian Fargo. He was the brains behind some of the best RPGs of all time, including Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape Torment and, most notably, Fallout. He makes games I love, and he comes across as a chill veteran in the industry, which is increasingly rare these days.
That makes his latest project all the more frustrating because it’s one that epitomises something I’ve been feeling for ages. Robot Cache is a new games retailer whose gimmick is it relies on blockchains and cryptocurrency to drive a second-hand digital market. The site’s currency, IRON, can either be earned through trading in digital games (as seen with Green Man Gaming back when it launched), or through more traditional cryptocurrency mining methods.
It all sounds very interesting… except cryptocurrency is bollocks and will, if left unchecked, significantly damage PC gaming. It’s also got some nasty environmental consequences too.
It’s important to understand how cryptocurrency mining works to see why it’s so damaging to PC gaming. To ensure a steady amount of new currency is entering the market, users dedicate some (or a lot) of their PC’s processing power to solve equations. This means there is a finite amount of the currency up for grabs, but also allows for how often it’s successfully mined to be scaled to the overall userbase.
This method has encouraged cryptocurrency aficionados to invest in the best hardware possible – better hardware means more efficient mining, and so in theory a return on the initial hardware investment. With the recent boom in the leading currency Bitcoin’s (and also Ethereum’s) worth, the prices of hardware have also skyrocketed thanks to dedicated miners buying up all the stock and causing shortages. Graphics cards, in particular, have almost doubled in cost since the summer of 2017, and there are no signs of things returning to normal anytime soon.
Shortages and inflated hardware prices make combining cryptocurrency with a games retail site all the more baffling. It places Robot Cache users who don’t have the financial luxury of being able to afford these higher prices (which, judging by Steam hardware surveys is most people) in a very bad position: join in with mining IRON to buy games you can’t run all that well because the price of the hardware has been inflated thanks to other people mining IRON. It’s a circle of expensive hardware being worn out mining for a currency that, as far as we know, will only be usable on one site to buy something that hardware is needed to use.
There is another point of contention too: cryptocurrency has been trialled on digital distributors before, and it went incredibly wrong once it gained a level of popularity. Blockchains – the tech that drives both bitcoin and Robot Cache – work by distributing logging of transactions (and how much each user has of the currency) across numerous people. However, that means processing transactions can take quite a while, and so higher and higher transaction fees have to be applied. When Valve pulled Bitcoin payments from Steam in December, transaction fees were hitting $20, a ludicrous amount.
Naturally IRON will never hit the heights Bitcoin has, and so transaction fees will probably not be $20 a pop, but Valve’s foray into cryptocurrency showed the flaws such a system has on immediate transactions like digital goods. Whether Robot Cache has found a better way of organising transactions for its own IRON currency remains to be seen, but I’m dubious. Blockchains are a fad sparked by Bitcoin’s surge in popularity, and so all these new applications of the technology will inevitably copy Bitcoin, warts and all. If it didn’t work for Steam, why do people expect it to also work for IRON?
The final concern is more of a moral one. Cryptocurrency is horrific for the environment. Running top-of-the-line gaming hardware at full load for extended periods of time sucks up a huge amount of energy. Bitcoin mining alone uses approximately the same amount of energy as the entire country of New Zealand. One day of Bitcoin transactions uses enough energy to power an American household for 5.7 thousand years. Is mining for a currency used solely to buy video games (from, as PC Games Insider points out, a company based in a tax haven) worth the environmental cost? I don’t think so.
Cryptocurrency is a fad, a bubble waiting to burst and cost a lot of people a lot of money, time, and energy in the process. But until that happens, the cost to both PC gaming and the environment – two things that don’t see eye-to-eye at the best of times – is immense.
Call me cynical, but I think Fargo may be banking on the power of the “blockchain” buzzword to stand out without thinking of the bigger picture, and it may end up hurting everyone.