Ubisoft Quartz, Digits NFTs, and why gamers should be excited
Ubisoft has been exploring blockchain and NFT games for years, and with Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, it's going public on Quartz with Digits.
I'm a gamer, not a cryptocurrency guy. I understand cryptocurrency, the blockchain and NFTs, but primarily I want an enjoyable gaming experience. And I want to see a video games ecosystem that puts ownership with the people paying: the gamers.
It's important to make that distinction at the top, unfortunately. I say "unfortunately" because while the NFT games space is absolutely booming through the end of 2021 and into 2022, that enthusiasm is primarily coming from investors and artists (in all their various forms).
Amongst the general gaming public, the commentary at the bottom of articles like this has been negative at best. More commonly, it's as if the writer has channelled the pure hatred of the devil. Ubisoft went as far as to apologise, without backing down. Is this due to genuine fears and concerns? Or is it more from a lack of understanding and education?
Either way, stick with me as I explain Ubisoft Quartz and why it's not just exciting news for NFT game aficionados, but for everyone who loves gaming – and also how it can be done in an environmentally friendlier way. If you first need a refresher course on what a non-fungible token is, we have an NFT guide for you.
Understanding Ubisoft's link to blockchain
Ubisoft is a behemoth in the gaming world. Top tier. As good as it gets. For over 3 decades, the company has established itself as an industry pioneer, consistently delivering AAA game experiences that simultaneously push back the boundaries on what's possible in tech.
Rayman, Prince of Persia, Assassin's Creed, Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, Rabbids, Just Dance, Splinter Cell, Watch Dogs, Far Cry, TrackMania, The Division – these franchises and many more are from Ubisoft. But the company also likes to be first to the next big thing. I've covered every console launch since the N64, and the initial games lists are always riddled with Ubisoft titles.
As such, Ubisoft has been experimenting with the blockchain for over 4 years. Many years before Ubisoft Quartz. In fact, I will embed a video below that I did back in 2018 talking about how engaged it was with the concept of NFTs well before they were a thing.
Strategic Innovations Lab
The company had formed the Strategic Innovations Lab around that time, a studio set up to explore future tech opportunities. It also started using the blockchain – or at least, licensing Microsoft's blockchain system – to handle royalty payments. There were even experiments with a free-to-play fantasy football game called One Shot League, as well as the secret HashCraft project.
I remember interviewing the team behind Tom Clancy's EndWar in 2008, and even that far back they were talking about a desire to get elements from the various Clancy games to transcend the titles – a Tom Clancy metaverse.
I've since conducted another lengthy interview about Quartz and Digits with the Lab's VP.
What is Ubisoft Quartz?
Ubisoft Quartz is not a game. It's a platform. In cryptocurrency parlance, you might call it a wallet with benefits. Accessed via an app on your iOS or Android device, Ubisoft Quartz is the place at which Ubisoft items you own can be seen and stored. It's also from this platform that you will one day be able to trade, rent, sell and buy items with other players, as well as bring items between compatible games.
You don't need a new login to access Ubisoft Quartz, as your current details will work. While in beta form now, that confirms Ubisoft's intent to integrate Quartz into the grander Ubisoft Connect – formerly Uplay – ecosystem.
What are Ubisoft Digits?
The idea of skins, bling, equipment and weapons in video games should be no stranger to you. They've been a part of our gaming lives for 3 generations now. Fortnite has made a gazillion v-buckeroos out of them. Your inventories are packed with them. Fragged bodies vomit them up before they've even hit the ground.
A Ubisoft Digit is what the company is calling these items when they become an NFT. You could call them NFTs or you could call them Digits. Digits can be all of the above collectables and more. Plus, this is the first genuine path for an NFT game to land on consoles like the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5.
How do Ubisoft Digits work?
It's important to not assume that a Digit, as an NFT, is therefore something that is more expensive than the DLC you already buy, or a token that can be inflated in cost by external market pressures. That is not what Ubisoft is doing here.
By being an NFT and not just a normal game item, it is a uniquely identifiable digital asset. There aren't a million versions of your skin in a Ubisoft game, there is 1 and you own it. It's associated with your account, whether you earned it in-game, or it's something you bought as DLC, as you've been doing now for the best part of 2 decades.
When you go to play a Ubisoft game, the Ubisoft Quartz platform will look to see what items you have that are compatible, and then give you the option to use them. Basically, no different to what you do now. Go to the character customisation screen, choose the skin you want and play. Go to your loadout, select the weapons you want and play.
What is really exciting about a Digit is that it's not locked to the 1 game. It sits in Ubisoft Quartz. So, the killer skin or weapon you love in Ghost Recon may also become useable in The Division. Or Rainbow Six. Or For Honor… well, maybe not your assault shotgun. Plus, your particular item and character will continually diverge from all others in the ecosystem as you level it up, customise it and use it in your own unique way.
Ghost Recon: Breakpoint and the Ubisoft Quartz beta
Ubisoft's first foray into the NFT gaming space is tentative to say the least. The company has called it a beta, but rarely has a toe been dipped so slightly in. Through early December, adult players of the PC version of Ghost Recon: Breakpoint with a rank higher than level 5 have the opportunity to access a limited quantity of Digits. However, other in-game requirements will need to be met as well.
Said Digits are hardly evolutionary. Just simple stuff for those helping Ubisoft test the waters. They're simple skins for a helmet, pair of pants and a gun (the M4A1 Tactical). However, they are unique skins, each marked by a textured serial number that can be visible to other players. There's no buffs or stat impact; just a new look.
It's a far cry – spot the pun – from what is possible and where Ubisoft will ultimately want to take Digits. A future where the deeds and experience of any given item is recorded into it for all time, adding to its rarity and value. We suspect the Ubisoft Quartz beta will last a very long time. And gradually we should see other games beyond Ghost Recon: Breakpoint get added.
Is Ubisoft Quartz bad for the environment?
There are a number of barriers to entry for gamers in terms of NFTs. We are the demographic that bore the brunt of experimentation with mobile monetisation strategies and microtransactions after all. But one that can't be ignored is the impact on the environment. Often vocalised as, "Why is my damn graphics card so expensive?"
Not much is good for the environment. The screen you are reading this article on right now isn't good for Mother Earth. Neither are your farts; are you going to stop farting? Obviously, there are grades of impact to how our presence and actions hurt our home. And sarcasm aside, I'm 100% for more sustainable technology.
The traditional way of upholding a blockchain is Proof-of-Work, which is a massive energy consumer – countless people with tons of GPUs and CPUs competing to verify amendments to the digital ledger. However, newer blockchains opt for a Proof-of-Stake mechanism, whereby verifiers are pre-selected. So only their computer needs to chug electricity.
Ubisoft is using Proof-of-Stake, specifically the Tezos blockchain. It's still not ideal, and Ubisoft has been very vocal about how it will be pushing for more sustainable approaches. But in the grander picture, the environmental impact is significantly less than the methods used by the likes of Bitcoin.
The energy consumption of Proof-of-Work is a major limitation we identified early on in our 5-year exploration of blockchain. We fully support the [call] to halt the use of NFTs if traditional solutions can provide the same benefits and to only use Proof-of-Stake blockchains. Where blockchains like Bitcoin and Ethereum can use as much energy as countries the size of Argentina in a year, this energy-efficient version of the technology achieves the same results while consuming no more than a 20-people village over the same period.”
When can you get Ubisoft Digits?
The initial airdrop of Digits will occur in 3 batches on 9, 12 and 15 December 2021.
How much do Ubisoft Digits cost?
The initial batch of Ubisoft Digits are free, with an asterisk. They don't cost any money directly, but can only be rewarded to players of Ghost Recon: Breakpoint on PC. And they must have reached at least level 5, too. I'm okay with this approach. It is really early days, so a tentative launch and mild exploration makes sense. And I like that they are making sure it's going to genuine players of the game.
In the future, we can expect Digits to come in 2 forms. There will be free Digits that you earn in game just as you do now. As in, when you pick up a gun and stick it in your inventory, it gets minted into an NFT Digit. Then there will be Digits that you buy just as you would now as DLC. These should cost exactly what they do now.
It's possible, much like we've seen in games like World of Warcraft and Counter-Strike, that items will hold some value on the secondary market. Potentially plenty more than what it cost you to get it in the first place. That's what makes NFTs so damn cool. It's yours; you own it. Not Ubisoft. So, when you buy the game, you're investing in it – not throwing your money up against the wall.
Why is Ubisoft Quartz great news for gamers?
In the 2021 financial year, EA made US$1.62 billion from Ultimate Team virtual cards. In early 2021, Epic Games revealed that just 1 set of skins from Fortnite netted the company US$50 million. Just 1 set!
Millions for what, gamers? We're putting a ton of money into these products and they just take it and give us a bunch of zeroes and ones we can use for a limited time. Until the next season. Until the next game. We don't own anything. We don't even own our games, really.
It's not like you can go and sell your Xbox Games Pass, or your digital games, or your Fortnite skins, if you want some cash for your first car. Or, heaven forbid, have a medical emergency and need to fund your recovery. The current model is greedy, archaic and unsustainable. As an individual, the idea that you can spend all this money without a single asset to show for it is the black hole that threatens to swallow all our lives.
NFTs are the solve
NFTs are the way out. If your game, or your skin, or your character, has a unique electronic receipt of ownership that you control, then you do have that asset. You can sell it. Or trade it. Or HODL it forever and a day. The choice is yours and not the company's. Not the fat cat sitting in their mansion shaking their head in delighted disbelief as you throw more money into their hat.
The reason why Ubisoft Quartz is great news for gamers is that it's a major games publisher putting their digital download income stream at risk in pursuit of a better outcome for gamers. A maker of proper AAA blockbuster games. A company saying, "Hey, you don't have to buy this skin twice, just take it between games." Or saying, "Hey, if you've finished this game, why not sell your weapons to another player to fund your next purchase, even though that means the player won't buy said game directly from us?"
This is a good thing. And while I understand that there are hurdles to overcome yet – namely with environmental impact, but also with how Ubisoft will protect their game ecosystems from external market pressure – it's a positive step in the right direction. It shows guts. And hopefully it will force the hand of other big companies to be gamer, not shareholder, orientated in their thinking.
And I haven't even started on gamers owning their user-generated content and mods…