Apologies for the vague title, but I don’t want my autolinks on social media to this post to be inundated with bots and hexagon profile pics who think being ardent assholes to people who don’t like their weird pyramid scheme is a good way to sell it.
So yeah, today, I want to talk about NFTs, and largely through a gaming lens (editor’s note – lol). The headlines in 2022 have already been swamped by discussion of how this new and awful technology is going to threaten all of our gaming experiences by making them awful treadmills with some measure of “ownership” as the olive branch. First, we need to establish the basics.
I’ve been diving into this topic, reading a lot about the particulars, as I’ve been working on this post in pieces since the Square Enix CEO comments about the future of NFTs in their games back in early January. In the meantime, Dan Olson released an excellent documentary-length video essay that summarizes the whole market well, which is worth a watch if you somehow have not seen it yet.
The thing I appreciate most about the approach he took with this video is that there is a real effort to analyze the underlying psychological effects that have pushed people into these systems. Bitcoin was, in many ways, a response to the market crash of 2008. Ethereum is a response to Bitcoin made by (of particular interest on this blog) a butthurt Warlock main from WoW who responded to a nerf to his class by…creating a ticking ecological timebomb! The idea is to be a “have” – to get on the inside of the next big thing in finance before you are stuck on the outside holding the bag, as most US taxpayers were as a result of that 2008 market crash. There is a very real response to the results of the bailouts that is worth analyzing and including in any analysis of the cryptocurrency community.
In practice, everything about crypto is awful – the nature of the blockchain is sketchy and bad with elements that empower those acting in bad faith while jeopardizing those acting in good faith, the future envisioned by “web3” and crypto evangelists is a hypercapitalist hellhole where literally everything about our existence is commodified and tokenized, actual fraud and money laundering are rampant, the ideal state envisioned by crypto-shills is just a worse version of everything locked behind a fictional veneer of digital “scarcity,” and the structure of the whole thing at present is effectively a pyramid scheme trying to convince new suckers to get in every day to enrich those already in, creating a microcosm of the 2008 market crash where those with the assets make out like bandits while the rubes who come in late are stuck with worthless tokens sold to them under a fictional ideal of a democratized financial future. Also, literally the worst people you see online are crypto fans, and they have a meme-based lexicon designed around financializing everything – if you don’t like crypto, they’ll tell you to HFSP (have fun staying poor), completely tone-deaf and arrogant because they aren’t aware of how far up or down the pyramid they are – and some of them will likely be winners in this stupid digital casino.
Despite the loudness of crypto-zealots, most estimates (even favorable ones) point to a total of under 4% of the world’s population owning crypto. It isn’t exactly a big thing, which is why so many people in the crypto-world are still on the offensive, trying to push and bully more people into buying into their labyrinthine and stupid gamble. NFTs exist to give you something you can buy with your “currency” which allows it to sidestep or complicate enforcement efforts that would be stronger if it were a security being traded, which, in reality, it kind-of is.
To get to the gaming part, let’s quickly break down what an NFT is conceptually. You’ve seen the most popular variant as JPGs, either shitty art created by dimwits with procedural generation tools if intended solely for NFTs, or stolen artwork being run through the machine by shameless assholes. The work made for NFTs is, without exception, empty, vapid, devoid of any thought or ideal, often self-referential to an extreme degree, and extremely cringeworthy. The Bored Ape Yacht Club is most well known for their shitty template ape that was shilled by celebrities like Gwenyth Paltrow and what might as well have been Jimmy Fallon at gunpoint (totally natural read, Jimmy, you nailed it!) But NFTs are just tokens – they’re an entry on the blockchain chosen for that project (and there are several, with Ethereum’s being most prominent for them) that says you own a thing. Effectively, it’s buying a receipt for a digital asset – could be anything from a photo or image to an audio or video file, or crucially for us today, an in-game asset. The asset itself is not often stored on-chain, because that is prohibitively expensive and slow, so usually there is a bit of code in the token (called a “smart contract”) that can be executed and usually a link to some external resource where the actual media or asset is stored. That means that link rot or malicious changes to that link can be made to remove or modify the thing you bought, not to mention that most NFTs don’t really do much of anything other than give you some claim to a token – theoretically you could have a usage license, a reproduction license, actual ownership, some form of other value, but most NFTs aren’t any of that – just some dumb image that the original seller promises they’ve only sold one of.
You should watch the video above for all the various ways in which crypto and NFTs are amazingly bad, including incredibly awful new harassment vectors (your wallet can just have stuff dropped into it and you can’t delete a token, you have to “burn” it and pay “gas” for it, which fluctuates depending on the blockchain in use and can be hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars, so a stalker could mint an NFT of your front door or house and drop it into your wallet, drop a malware-riddled smart contract into it that takes your wallet contents once interacted with, or a weird creep could mint a dick pic and drop that on your wallet, so again you’re either stuck with that forever or have to pay a ludicrous sum of money to get it out of there or send it to someone else, oh and if any of your “stuff” is taken by bad actors, there’s not really any way to get them back without just paying up to buy them back from the thieves!) and just the generally exploitative nature of the whole system, being perpetrated by a lot of the same finance industry goons and VCs that did the bad things in 2008 and still profited because of their size and disruptive potential. What a great system!
Editorially, let me make this very clear in case the prior paragraphs haven’t, and especially before we abstract discussion of NFTs in games – NFTs are bad, crypto as a whole system is a pyramid scheme scam that is aiming to find new chumps to buy in so the existing holders can dump their worthless digital bullshit, and any illusion that you can buy in and make money as a new investor should be readily shot down by the simple fact that there are people who have bought Ether at $12 per token and people who’ve bought it for $1,200 a token, competing in the same market and buying the same things for what is ostensibly the same unit of “currency” but in fact represents wildly different values and purchasing power to those individuals. If you buy in today, you are an absolute baby-brained moron and I will stand by that rude commentary on your intellect, because anyone with two brain cells to rub together should be able to see that. That being said, the underlying awfulness of crypto as a whole is the way that they weaponize concepts of community and belonging, using in-group signifiers and meme culture as ways to bring in disaffected younger people with a fictional utopia, when what they’re selling is an actual dystopian hell where every aspect of your life (more than is already the case) is monetized and sold as a commodity that offers nothing you can’t already get with real fiat currency through normal, not-stupid means. The only difference between a crypto-bro and that spinster who lives two blocks over with a garage full of Herbalife is that we still have layers of abstracting bullshit that make the crypto-bro think he isn’t buying piles of worthless nothing and the media has a breathless obsession with discussing how what he’s doing is tied to some nebulous future state of society.
So anyways, NFTs in games? No Fucking Thanks.
The Hook of NFTs In Games
So what does an NFT bro think that games can gain from having their stupid financialized tokens added in? Well, the selling point most (non game devs) are pushing is two smaller points – ownership and stake in a game (the “play to earn” bullshit) and the idea of being able to buy in to a range of in-game aesthetics that would, in theory, be portable between games.
I’ll address play to earn a bit further on, so let’s center on the one thing that almost looks interesting if you squint at it hard enough – the idea of a common identity between games. Crypto-morons will say that the future of gaming is you as a player being able to buy a single identity that you can carry with you everywhere between games and the Metaverse – that you can cobble together a unique personal aesthetic with NFT items like armor, clothing, weapons, and character customizations. If you’ve got a token for a leopard-print tuxedo, then hooray – you wear that in every game until you get tired of it, at which point you’ve hopefully got some other tokenized looks you can swap for like transmogs or glamour plates.
And, here’s the thing – if we don’t analyze that claim further, simply process it and accept it as-is and ignore the very real environmental cost of the underlying tech – it’s an interesting concept, maybe even bordering on cool. There is a nugget of something there that sounds vaguely appealing, even – which is why that most hapless cryptobros love using that as the go-to for the “future of NFTs.” The technology is confusing and obfuscated and customization options are always catnip for gamers, so if you just present that as a thing that is being worked on, it makes NFTs sound better than they are!
Of course, there are a myriad of problems with that actual idea.
Game engines work differently and process files in different formats depending on which you use. A 3D model made in Blender might work flawlessly in one engine but have trouble with another. Then there’s the problem of model scaling – while you can work in units of measure in most game engines and 3D modeling tools, sometimes it behooves you not to, or you work on larger scale and bring it down later, so the same asset in two games with what look like same-sized characters built on the same game engine might look drastically different because of scaling (without even touching on character creation systems with races that have vastly different proportions). There’s also the matter of stylistic choices – even if we assume that I’d want to bring my 2B glamour set from Final Fantasy XIV into World of Warcraft (and you know what, maybe!), the artstyle of both is completely different and it would look offputting, again assuming that the scaling problem and engine compatibility are all smoothed over.
The refrain of the NFTbots, faced with this, is that all of these would be solved or are solvable problems, and to a point, sure. However, not every developer is going to just fix the problem of their own volition – they need an incentive and the ability to profit from it. For some, they see a possibility, but most major games with NFT support now are closed ecosystems – your NFT is good for the game it comes from and that game alone.
I Can Totally Believe AAA Publishers Think NFTs Are A Good Idea
The core concept of NFTs in games is that you would have external, verifiable ownership of an in-game asset of some sort. The way NFTs are sold to artists is that the smart contract can be configured for royalties, meaning future sales of the same NFT give a kickback to the original artist. Combine these, and you can start to see what AAA studios see in the space.
Ubisoft, not content with being a big studio with employment problems due to a pervasive culture of sexual harassment, rampant misogyny, and general awfulness, decided to be one of the first major publishers in AAA to dip a toe into NFTs. Their platform, Ubisoft Quartz, uses the lesser-known Tezos blockchain to manage the ledger of tokens being given to and traded among Ubisoft gamers. These NFTs are for Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint and are unique guns and outfits in the game. The core offer is that each gun/clothing item is unique with a serial number and can be resold through two non-Ubi controlled marketplaces.
Ubisoft’s pitch here is that you get a unique item and have total ownership of the token – a scarce digital asset and the ability to resell it later if somehow guns in Tom Clancy’s Generic Shooter 38 go “to the moon” as they say. Ubisoft’s real motivation is, of course, money. They give away NFTs now, sure – but if you try to sell it later, you can only use an approved marketplace (likely because those marketplaces support Tezos as a blockchain and because they’ll properly execute the smart contract royalties provision, giving a chunk of your sale to Ubisoft). If you push enough NFTs out and enough gamers sell them, then your rent-seeking on each sale nets you a pretty neat sum. In theory, of course. As of late December 2021, Ubisoft’s first round of Quartz NFTs had 9 total sales for under $400 total, and most of that $400 goes to the players who sold them, which means whatever Ubisoft paid in fees to mint them likely wasn’t offset by the royalties accumulated for those sales. So, essentially, they earned a shit-ton of negative press and backlash from players and employees alike to…either make a puny and insignificant amount of cash, or to lose money. Great job Ubi!
The statement from the Square Enix CEO, Yosuke Masuda, to start off 2022, poured more gasoline on the fire. His statement attempted to split people who “play to have fun” from those who “play to contribute” which is a categorical misread of why people even play games in the first place. The fear from that statement is that company cash cow Final Fantasy XIV would add NFTs, which the February 18th Live Letter rejected with a prestream statement from game director and producer Naoki Yoshida, thankfully. However, that winds to another major trend in the NFT invasion of gaming – play to earn.
The Dystopian Nightmare of Play to Earn
One of the other key pushes related to gaming in the crypto space is the concept of “play to earn.” The name conveys the basic idea well enough – play a game, earn actual real life money. Cool, right?
Well…no, actually. Let’s discuss.
Much of the study of the psychology of gaming is focused on incentive structure – what do players find rewarding, what keeps players engaged, and what features and systems can you roll into a game to keep things pleasing for players such that they want to play/continue to play/invest in the game with microtransactions or evangelism for the game – those kinds of concepts. When you’re playing, say, World of Warcraft, for fun, you likely have a chosen mode of content you enjoy most. You do world content because it is relaxing and interesting to explore the world, you raid or do dungeons because they present interesting challenges that stretch your problem solving and reward success with loot that improves your player power, you PvP because you…like being cursed at by strange assholes (crypto bros have a deal for you!). All of these center on some form of enjoyment – you choose to engage with them and thus the engagement is authentic and stimulating in a positive way.
Play to earn is a concept that fundamentally corrupts the core idea of what a game even is. By assigning a cash value to things you do in game, it alters the incentive structure for that game in a very real and corrupting way. If the thing you like for the fun of it gives you $5 of real value but a thing you dislike strongly is worth $25, you’re a fool to toss that $20 out for the sake of enjoyment – so you suck it up and do the thing you don’t like for the money. It perverts the very reason we play games – giving you the veneer of a video game while actually just being, well, a job.
In the MMO space, we’re not even strangers to this concept! In the mid-2000s, there were a fair number of mainstream media segments devoted to people gold farming, usually in World of Warcraft, and all of them fell into a common theme – the game wasn’t fun played in that way. If your livelihood hinges on the value of your in-game activity, then the incentive structure will push you towards whatever carries the most value, regardless of the enjoyment it provides (or doesn’t).
One of the biggest examples of “play to earn” games, mentioned in the Dan Olson video above, is Axie Infinity – it’s a play to earn card-based PvP game where you buy an Axie – think like a dull Pokemon you have to purchase a team of to get into the game. Winning in ranked matches gives you Smooth Love Potions, itself a crypto token on Ethereum that can be used in-game to breed Axies and generate new tokens, or can be cashed out. The cost of entry is prohibitively high – an average team of Axies runs around $1,000 as of December 2021, so there is a whole economy of “scholarship programs” which are basically rent-seeking assholes who will loan you a team to play in exchange for a cut of the profits, controlling the central wallet tied to the team you have been loaned. Most of these run as cutthroat business operations, with team leaders more akin to jerk bosses, pushing you to earn more SLP to keep a spot on the team, all so that you can earn just under the minimum wage in the Phillipines, while the scholar teams take the profits they make off the back of their players to buy fictional land for literally tens of thousands of dollars.
The core of the game doesn’t look that great, but you have the baggage of it being your income, so you can’t really quit, and if you’re under a “scholarship” then you have to keep grinding it out as your boss rides your ass over your performance, and did I just describe a video game or every other shitty oppressive job under capitalism? Oh, and if you make a good chunk of change via tokens, you can hit a big payday, but selling off your tokens for the money isn’t payday, it is quitting as Olson points out, because the big value is in selling your tokens (including the Axies), and doing that means you can’t play anymore. You can sell off SLP on a schedule set by the developer (so much for decentralized finance when your token sales are controlled by a single entity), but then you’re playing a bad game for hours a day to barely make a minimum wage income. The bosses of this system, the various scholarship programs, love to boast about their charity programs – and when they say charity, what they actually typically mean is that they are letting people play without getting any cut because they aren’t serious hardcore gamers earning that SLP so they boast about how kind they are as they take 100% of the earnings from these players, which, however small, is still a profit. It’s a nightmare world, basically – games as an object for fun with all the fun sucked out, reduced to drudgery for asshole bosses who want you to play better so they can take the fruits of your labor to buy fake fucking land in a game with no guarantee it will exist for another year because it already had a mini-market crisis that required the developer to clamp down controls on sale of tokens, but hey, it’s a game and the asshole boss posts fan art on Twitter and uses emoticons and emoji in their shitty communications, so is it really all that bad?
Yes. Yes it is.
The Metaverse – An Uglier, Worse MMO At Best
The final, vaguely gaming-adjacent piece to discuss in the whole crypto-idiocy is the Metaverse. It’s so big that Facebook became Meta to work on it, it’s such a thing that mainstream outlets are reporting with bated breath about weddings in the metaverse and the like. So, uh, what is it?
A bad MMO, basically.
Most Metaverse platforms are just shitty browser-based Second Life clones with worse graphics and a requirement to link a crypto wallet for tokens controlling access or availability of certain things. The current forerunner of this space is Decentraland. What Facebook (I’m not calling them Meta, fuck off Zuckerberg) wants is something similar but Facebook controlled – the idea being that you would almost live in the metaverse, putting on your VR headset and getting in to do anything, meeting friends in theme rooms, sharing virtual art at a flick of a button, and even working in the metaverse, represented by a digital avatar in a customizable office space that your colleagues could walk around in and explore, theoretically simulating a real office environment but with a lot of strange possibilities for customization that would be impossible in reality.
As with most things in crypto, this is a solution to a problem almost no one actually has.
Facebook’s concept of the metaverse is an idiotic world where the best way to get news and entertainment is to go to your dedicated VR headset, log in to the metaverse, and then view the news, TV show, movie, or whatever that way, while represented by a kooky cartoon avatar. The way things are today is that you can pick up your smartphone and just…navigate to the thing you want. There’s no headset, no log in, no need to pick an avatar or navigate a virtual space, just…get the thing you want. The very concept of it is baffling as FB sees it. Maybe as a work thing it gets closer to a model for work from home that bridges the gap between normal people who like WFH and the bizarre ones who need to be in a cubicle farm to give their life meaning for whatever reason, but to me, it just seems like an overly complex way to do work – and I’m never going to spend 8 hours a day with a VR headset on, sorry, that sounds terrible.
The leisure Metaverse concepts like Decentraland are somehow even more stupid, if you can believe it. In these spaces, you can buy land – fake land (a recurring theme with this bullshit!) for real money, where you can then build a space, using either built-in editor tools or external 3D modeling applications. Space in Decentraland sells for thousands of real dollars off the back of manufactured hype, like how NY-based digital real estate developer Republic Realm purchased 259 parcels of Decentraland to build a mimicry of Tokyo’s Harajuku shopping district, a space which a Reuters reporter visited repeatedly to see zero shoppers, and the space cost…are you ready for this…I can’t even fucking believe this shit….$913,228 USD.
Metaverse concepts like this get coverage as some bizarre future state, but nearly everything done in these concepts can be done in a standard MMO for cheaper. Oh, 12 people went to a virtual Decentraland wedding? How beautiful. Half of my free company went to a Ceremony of Eternal Bonding in FFXIV, where there are emotes to cheer, throw flowers and coins, pop champagne bottles, and you can dress up in tuxedos, dresses, or whatever other showstopping number you want within the game’s numerous glamour choices, and the lucky couple can teleport to each other with their wedding rings! Oh, there was a rave with a couple dozen people in the Metaverse? Well, I’ve been to an FFXIV nightclub with more people, I’ve seen fashion shows in-game, and people create bespoke housing and rooms with themes to invite guests into. Not to mention the best part…none of this shit in FFXIV costs real money because it’s a fucking fake piece of land holy shit how stupid do you have to be to buy fake land with thousands of real dollars!
The metaverse conceptually is useful as a proof of concept of what a libertarian world would look like – hell to anyone without money, basically. The ideological bent is that Decentraland and other metaverse contender platforms are this new frontier of opportunity, where you can earn real money by buying a parcel, building a business, and providing value to people, but if you don’t already have substantial capital backing, you can’t buy shit except maybe some sort of outfit or customization, and you’re basically trying to sell to a fickle and volatile market who are mostly there to sell their investment in this concept to some other sucker, hoping they’ll buy in so they can cash out. It’s the ultimate encapsulation of the futility of hustle grindset culture – the mythology is that if you work hard and do right, you too can get ahead, but especially in crypto land, you’ll never be able to get anywhere that good through honest means and the participants are all, without fail, looking for the next sucker to come in to pump their investment and give them a captive audience to dump onto, cashing out before the bubble inevitably pops. Like real life, a system that is a free-for-all means those already with resources win and those without fail, and if you try to get in now, you’re effectively destined to fail, at least if you engage honestly and openly with the system. If you go amoral and try to get in on the pump and dump, you might win, but there’s not really a good way to tell if you are pumping or being dumped, and the volatility makes this unpredictable, almost by design.
Do You Like Gambling?
In the end, the whole crypto ecosystem is a gambling addict’s fever dream, a place where whatever stupid idea someone has for a token can be bought and sold, traded until it either goes “to the moon” or bombs, and for every Bitcoin and Ethereum propped up on inertia, there are hundreds if not thousand of discarded and dead tokens, worth fractions of cents and rendered untradeable. That’s without even accounting for the myriad rugpulls and outright scams, the tokens promising decentralized, coded organizational power while often using that as cover for the grift – it wasn’t us, it was the machine!
The world envisioned by crypto-schemers is a hellworld, one where every aspect of your life is turned into a token, stored on the blockchain, uneditable and captured in digital code for as long as the blockchain exists. Not content to leave gambling to casinos and the stock market, they want to make everything awful, turning your entire life into a series of financialized transactions, bought and sold, under some vague fantasy of future gains. They want to tie this to the future of the web, to create a horrifying future where everything you do is linked to a wallet, and hey, if you get paid there by an employer, imagine what they could see if you have an access token for a 4chan ripoff, or a governance token for a unionization effort, or a donation to a non-profit they disagree with. The only way to have autonomy in such a world is to engage dishonestly with the system as framed, because while the ledger itself is decentralized, the information it would hoard is actually quite the opposite – and the world seen that way opens up a discomforting amount of personal data to anyone with your wallet ID.
It doesn’t take a lot of interpretation to see what the shills of this future are doing here. Look at prolific sludge-monster assholes like Gary Vaynerchuk, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, and the myriad other douchebags pushing hard to sell you the idea of crypto. If this is such good technology with solid foundations, why do you need to sell it so hard? Why do you dismiss the environmental impacts as a future problem that will be solved at some undetermined future point? Why is it that any challenge to the idea of crypto, founded in research, is met with dismissals about how we don’t “get it” or that we should “have fun staying poor?” If crypto was a real thing worth getting excited over, should the benefit not be self-evident?
In 2004, I joined MySpace. No one had to hard pitch me on the idea – I just had to see it and what it offered. I can connect to my friends from anywhere and share updates and photos with them? Whoa. The benefit was clear and it was unlike anything that had come before. You can argue the benefit or harm of social media in the long term, the impact it has had on society both good and bad, but there was a clear reason that it was/is worthwhile to many. What is crypto’s actual benefit to society, what does it offer us as a whole ecosystem, from currency to NFTs to metaverse systems? The more people look at it closely without seeing a benefit, the clearer it becomes – there isn’t one. Not to any honest person trying to wrap their head around it as a system. As a den of scum and villainy, its value is apparent – it is a way to milk suckers for their cash by selling them a false vision of what you have in the system, when all you actually have is garbage and deceit. Crypto sells this vision of community to disaffected people – those feeling alienated, isolated, and financially immobile, by putting them in Discord servers for JPGs by uncredited artists that shovel garbage into digital files, using the language and ideal of community to sucker them in.
When the bottom falls out on this, the people who are going to be most hurt are those very same people, and while anyone buying in now is an absolute fool, I do at least feel some measure of pity for them, even as the wound this system is bound to deal them is self-inflicted. I feel contempt for those pushing these systems, cynically leveraging that societal disconnect to line their (already fattened) pockets.
NFT? No fucking thanks.
3 thoughts on “I Guess It’s Time To Have An Opinion on Digital Asset Ownership”
I think Penny Arcade, of all things, summed up the concept of NFTs as part of a game pretty succinctly.
“How about, instead of us owning a bit of artwork on the blockchain, we own the GAME we paid for instead?”
Game exec: “Oh, no, that way lies anarchy!”
Three panels. Thus endeth the lesson.
Play to earn is by far the most awful idea. Most of crypto is just dumb and wasteful financially and technologically, but play to earn is demonstrable unsustainable as a concept. It has to be based on scarcity, which gives the things earned value. Without scarcity you have nothing.
To achieve that you have to make the earning so tedious that nobody would do it for pleasure. If you don’t, no scarcity and thus no value. So you have to make horrible game play so nobody is “playing to earn,” they are doing boring, repetitive busy work to earn. But if it actually earns real world money, then lots of people will jump on board… and then scarcity will end, the value will crash, and the whole scheme will be over. Axie was just another example of that.
Oddly, this model also applies to working in the video game industry. Scarcity is required to drive up pay and working conditions, but so many people want this dream job that, aside from a few critical positions, the industry pays people poorly relative to their technical skills, works them long hours, and lays them off on a whim. So you would think that video game company execs would get why play to earn is flawed.
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It’s hard for me to talk about play-to-earn without just getting angry, because it is such a deeply cynical weaponization of an ideal. Spot-on points about the scarcity and sustainability of the model.
The game dev career path is an interesting tie-in and I think one that is also on-point – I actually hadn’t really thought about it through that angle but it feels like a key that opens so much of the current news – unionization, pushes for even marginal improvements to working conditions, the overuse of gig work through asset development houses, all of it.
I do wonder if the execs are playing the short game, knowing that they can cash in and get the fawning headlines about how some people can hit barely minimum wage to lure in easy marks, make the cash, and get out. Sky Mavis has had large funding rounds with Animoca and Mark Cuban buying in, so there are marks at all levels who think they can cash in, just remains to be seen how good of a gamble it ends up being for them.