White Text on a Black Background

I want to point something out. It's to do with NFTs. This is not a grand, overarching perspective of the topic, nor is it a persuasive piece. I suspect given the population on Gemini that I would be preaching to the choir, anyway. This is just something interesting that I noticed: a similarity between two topics that nobody else has pointed out (though somebody did mention them in passing near one another[1]). Ok, so first, let's talk about Loot.

Loot

Loot is an NFT collection (hosted on Ethereum, of course) comprised, fundamentally, of 8,000 svg images: white text, on a black background, serif font - whatever the renderer defaults to. They all have exactly 8 lines of text, listing the "loot" in each "bag". Here is an example of the text from a Loot NFT:

Falchion
Plate Mail of Fury
Linen Hood
Ornate Belt
Chain Boots of Rage
Ornate Gauntlets of Fury
Pendant
Gold Ring

All 8,000 are randomly generated and were given away for "free", aside from the Ethereum usage fees. There are no other components to the NFTs themselves. Just the text.

I found about Loot while researching for some written work or another that I ultimately scrapped. But it's stuck in my mind ever since. Not because there'a anything particularly evocative about the idea. Not even because of the response to the project - the fact that people (who were able to get Loot) have gone off and created dozens of derivative works and little mini-communities around their Loot is unsurprising to me. Why wouldn't they? They are, after all, directly financially incentivised to. Make Loot seem cool and interesting by using the established tropes of fantasy adventure videogames to make your own video game or art project that requires Loot to use, and the value of the Loot that you hold goes up.

No, the one thing I haven't been able to forget is one tweet, embedded in a Techcrunch article[2], which was as follows...

Loot is NFT improv.
It is an invitation to respond with, "Yes, and..."

It was reading this tweet, embedded in an article which seemed to be trying to imply that this sort of "magical" creation of expansive and great derivative works from simple white text on a black background could only come from NFT projects like Loot, that finally convinced me that NFT fans are fundamentally missing something.

Because I've seen all this before.

Now, let's talk about Blaseball.

Blaseball

Blaseball is a simulation browser game comprised, fundamentally, of a series of text logs broadcast to the game website in "real" time: white text, on a black background, serif font - Lora, if your browser supports it. There is a light mode available. These logs are the play-by-play events of a game also called "Blaseball", a baseball-like game from a universe almost, but not quite, entirely unlike ours. Here is an example of some text from a Blaseball game log:

Greer Gwiffin batting for the Tacos.
Ball. 1-0
Ball. 2-0
Ball. 3-0
Foul Ball. 3-1
CONSUMERS ATTACK CHORBY SOUL
Mcdowell Mason hops on the Grind Rail toward third base.
They do a Hot Dog Stand (775)!
They land a Fan Service (415)!
Safe!
Greer Gwiffin draws a walk.

Blaseball games are randomly generated by the website's serverside simulator, often referred to as "the Sim", as they appear, in real-time. Access to the Blaseball website is free for all. Blaseball does have gameplay beyond simply experiencing the text, primarily focused on betting on Blaseball games to gain currency which can be used to shape the league in your own image - voting on rule changes or enhancing the powers of your favourite team, for example.

Ok, I am burying the lede in my description of Blaseball to make it sound more similar to Loot. Blaseball does have a fair bit more to it on the site itself. The text game logs are just one mechanism by which the game tells its story, which is in particular often described as a *horror* story. Blaseball players (the in-universe ones) are incinerated, brought back to life, attacked by "Consumers", "percolated", encased in giant peanut shells, "swept Elsewhere", and various other terrible fates. Blaseball fans (Blaseball players in real life) have limited influence over the horrors of Blaseball, and the game's narrative plays in this dissonance, where fans can use their earned power to vote on sweeping changes to the League's rules, win "Blessings" for their teams, and occasionally come together with ridiculous plans that have lasting plot implications, but they can't actually make things better for the game's players. At least, not without actually killing the "Blaseball Gods" responsible (and even that seems to only help temporarily).

Despite how dramatic it all is, though, the story is still primarily told through that white text on a black background, presented without context or any sort of narration. Occasionally some Blaseball God or another will show up, taking over the site with their own coloured text to do some monolouging. Sometimes there are even diagrams, or neat little visual effects. But there aren't any pictures, aside from non-representative icons, and there is absolutely no sound. I know this does sound a lot like "tech nerd discovers incredible storytelling technology called 'words'", but hear me out, I'm getting to the point now.

The Point

Incentivising creative work with money via NFTs is a neat trick, but it can only get you so far

Both Blaseball and Loot NFTs have inspired a variety of creative works. I haven't gone over Blaseball's fan creations yet, actually. Like Loot, Blaseball fans have created visualisers, tools that work with the original codebase, artwork, all sorts of stat trackers, and a variety of mini-communities within the main one. Unlike Loot's community, Blaseball fans have created staggering amounts of music (including an entire musical which is very good [3]), fan stores, lore, an in-depth wiki, and detailed descriptions including backstories and art for ~300 in-universe Blaseball players. It's the characters where the most direct comparison to Loot can be made. Like the fictitious video game RPG gear from Loot, the fictional baseball players in Blaseball are just randomly generated text, with no other details (save for some arcane stats and a "pregame ritual").

And yet, for every Blaseball player who's seen active play, there is a generally accepted interpretation of the character that has been constructed by the community from little more than whole cloth. For example you have Sutton Bishop, a vaguely eldritch goose/manifestation of the british village of Bishop Sutton; Bonk Jokes, an animated skeleton-creature who communicates with ASL (you'd think the community would go for a clown thing, but no, the joke here is "Bones"); or Tillman Henderson, a completely normal guy who is just described as "the worst". Alternate interpretations of names are allowed in the community too, and it's generally accepted that nothing is canon except what they actually put on the website, which is very little.

I've seen, and participated in, the process by which the community manifests a design for a newly-created player. It's mostly democratic, and very chaotic, and everybody gets their turn at sharing their thoughts. There's very little shutting down of ideas (usually, just in cases where something strays too close to real-world harmful stereotypes), and a lot of "yes, and". It's character design improv.

And to be honest, I think it's been more of a success than Loot ever will be. This is my point: Loot is a neat trick. It's clever. But it can only go so far. I don't believe, as is proposed in the article I read that started me on this mess, that NFT-based IP will ever really be a big creative force. I did try to think about why I believe this to be so. Culture problems with the NFTsphere seem like an obvious reason, along with the limits of creative works starting from *really* almost nothing, as Loot did. But maybe the culture will shift, and more clever projects can provide a sort of narrative skeleton (like Blaseball does) to make derivative works easier and more appealing to make.

I think the problem, fundamentally, is that the idea doesn't scale. The Loot project works by establishing an in-group - the <8,000 people who own the Loot NFTs - and then incentivising that in-group to make being in the in-group more attractive by way of allowing them to sell entry to it. The problem is, the in-group can't possibly get any larger. It's only valuable if it's exclusive, and the incentive to work on it comes from it being valuable. But this means the Loot project is forever limited to about 8,000 people who will actually want to work on it at any one time. And any other, similar project will run into similar limits.

Sure, it may attract some people who aren't currently in the in-group who are regardless interested enough to put work into it, but not only is there the negative psychological effect that doing such work is making other people richer with no rewards for yourself, if those people do want to join the in-group, they are making it directly harder for themselves, which is something of a disincentive. The heirarchy and ownership baked into any NFT system make it impossible for it to truly sustain a community where unstructed creation and limitless fan works can thrive, because those things thrive when everyone can (and will) participate, not just those who "own" the IP.

In conclusion (anti-anti)

I suppose, then, that Loot is a sort of Anti-Blaseball. They're both white text on a black background from which the community has created vast derivative works. But where Blaseball is explicitly anti-capitalist in its theming, Loot uses highly capitalist systems to incentivise derivative works. Where Loot is a paid members' club of 8,000 only, with even smaller clubs for owners of specific types of Loot, Blaseball is open to all, and even its offshoot communities (one for every team) are welcoming to visitors. And while the very cheapest Loot bags sell for a few thousand AUD, Blaseball is free, nobody is quite sure how the developers are planning to make money, and the biggest fan works are not-for-profit and support charities. Blaseball Cares, a fan-run merch store, has raised over $90,000 CAD for charity. I own a few shirts from there.

There's another difference, too. Loot is kind of... dead. The Loot project's Discord server has ~80,000 members who sent, collectively, 49 messages during the 10th of March this year. Blaseball's Discord, with its ~30,000 members, sent 659 messages in the same day, not counting the messages in the roughly 90 channels for fans of teams that I'm not in. Which also doesn't sound like a lot, but it's pretty remarkable when you consider that Blaseball, the game, has been on hiatus for over a month at this point[4]. The community survives, because they're united by a shared love of the game, instead of a shared goal to make money out of it.

Not sure how to end this one. What have we learned? I guess, you can't create a dedicated fandom community through force of capitalism alone. Blaseball is pretty cool. And if there is any winner in this situation, it's the people who run those print-on-demand t-shirt services. That is all.

Notes

[1]

I found this on google and haven't looked into it at all. If this person is a serial killer or something, I apologise. Please let me know and I shall have the link removed.

Jay Springett - A Napster Moment For Collective Storytelling

[2]

I hope the author of this one isn't a serial killer either.

Kyle Russell - The Loot project flips the script on NFTs

[3]

Though I imagine you'll find it a lot more emotionally impactful if you already have some familiarity with the events portrayed in the musical as they actually happened in-game.

Blaseball: The Musical - The Deaths of Sebastian Telephone (Full Show)

[4]

As of the time of writing, March 2022. I remember hearing that the game is returning "This Summer", though honestly living in the southern hemisphere I am not quite sure when that is. To go straight from reading Being Digital to implying predictions about the future of Blaseball and Loot here is probably very foolish of me. If you want to see how well this turns out, I invite you to join the Blaseball Discord:

https://discord.gg/blaseball

...ok, I guess it would only be fair to suggest joining the Loot discord so that you could make a comparison later on. But, I am biased, and I really don't have enough experience with the Loot Discord to safely recommend anybody join it. It's easy enough to find, anyway. Join at your own peril.

Updates

2022-03-24

Oh no... I managed to get myself emotionally invested in the future outcome of Loot, considering that I've predicted that it's not going anywhere. Not that I think that is going to change, but I have noticed one more crossover between the fates of Blaseball and Loot: a Loot-based project called "The Grand Adventure", which advertises itself as "Blaseball for Loot". Ok, look, as much as I don't want to have to link to this, it's nigh-impossible to find with googling. So here you go:

Previewing The Grand Adventure

I don't think this will go anywhere either, but it's interesting to note that at least some fan of Loot has noticed the similarities here. I'm beginning to wonder, actually, if "Loot didn't really go anywhere" is at all a fair way of making a value judgement. Some online projects or artworks I really, really like have only been seen by very few. I imagine this very page has been seen by very few, too. I guess I should say that as an addendum: I believe there are fundamental problems with the Loot system, and indeed any NFT-based system, which prevent it from being successful by any measure I value. Of course, there are people having fun, making stuff with what's here, so maybe I shouldn't write it off as a failure... then again, the people working on it clearly have ulterior motives, and their action does contribute to the massive carbon costs of Ethereum, so maybe, well, maybe it is fair to be harsh.

I hope there is no more to follow on this matter.

^