Even when trading a skin, item, decal or anything else, it does not belong to you. This much is clear from the terms and conditions of developers such as Riot Games, Epic Games and of course, Steam.
Developers of games on Steam are forced to use the Steam Wallet for in-game transactions. Logical though it may be, it’s an unsavoury centralization of what has grown to a huge market in the gaming world.
At the end of the day, Steam can lock access to your in-game assets at whim. It’s right there in their subscriber agreement:
“Your license confers no title or ownership in the Content and Services.”
This includes not just the games you buy, but every single transaction you make inside it; essentially, at no point do your in-game items or games belong to you.
Not to be alarmist, however, as it is not commonplace for Steam to go around repossessing user-owned assets — it wouldn’t be the most effective consumer relations strategy — but the status quo is certainly cause for unease.
Why is this cause for concern?
Sure, Valve have a strong motive to work in tandem with their player base on the virtual assets bought and collected on their platform. But people are paying real money for these items and are not really allowed to trade them outside of Steam.
A quick Google search will give you a wide range of marketplaces which facilitate the buying and selling of Steam items. It happens, probably quite a lot. This doesn’t mean that one day external pressures won’t pile up, or Valve themselves have a change in tack and crack down on the exchange of in-game items for cash.
Quite simply put, one day games companies may decide they don’t like what you choose to do with the digital goods that you have paid real money for.
Issues surrounding children becoming entangled in a world where in-game items hold monetary value must of course be addressed.
That’s easy on blockchain: identities can be reliably verified and — as it should be — minors could have restrictions on trading items for cash. Complying with further regulations would be straightforward should there be need for a validated parent account to approve cash trades.
Blockchain can regulate without centralizing control
What a centralized platform is good at doing is providing a guarantee for the safety of in-game items. They are a trustworthy body and have to be seen to maintain this reputation.
Blockchain removes the need for this, however. If the security of the items are in no doubt — a key benefit of the technology is that it is considered near unhackable — then users could trade items on a decentralized platform.
There are startups who have recognized the opportunity to put digital assets on blockchain and look to create freer marketplaces.
Gameflip were already at the forefront of the in-game item market but have seized on blockchain technology to better their product. They see smart contracts as enabling a “decentralized” and “robust digital goods marketplace” which can scale to millions of users.
Dmarket are slightly newer players looking to make a splash and have certainly done so in their ICO, raising over $19 million. They not only released an initial concept but came straight out with a working demo and now look to create a fresh experience for traders of in-game items.
Qlear Protocol have a different approach and, unlike the others, do not act as a central commercial entity. Instead, the power largely goes to the users themselves who can trade items across gaming platforms simply by operating on Qlear’s environment.
They appear to have the most fundamentally game changing approach to in-game item trading; the key problem with a marketplace is that it can still be prohibited or made ‘unlawful’ by the platform which its sold items are native to.
Qlear looks to change this by creating a standalone, decentralized environment on blockchain which in theory would allow users to simply trade items between their wallets, for crypto tokens or other digital goods. Alternatively, developers would be free to create their own marketplaces on Qlear.
They bill themselves as “the trust machine for online gaming” and want to encourage developers to build and host games on Qlear. If there were a thriving ecosystem of games on the protocol, then in-game items would never have to leave the safety of blockchain.
The future is murky
As the in-game item market continues to explode, not least with the rising eminence of Fornite, it is hard to see in which direction it will go.
But one crucial element that a fully blockchain-based proposal can offer — and a marketplace based on the tech is a good start — is allowing users to actually take ownership of their digital goods.
This means handing back control to the player base who in most cases are paying money for their in-game items. It’s not a deregulated marketplace that we need: what the games industry is crying out for is a fair, controlled and open market for items.
It’s possible that this might take some time to come to fruition, though blockchain may well prove to be the solution.