Monday, February 18, 2019

The Rising Price Of PLEX - An Alternative View

In the age of Electronic Arts, I understand why some people worry about a big company coming along and buying your favorite game. EA doesn't have the greatest record about trying to milk every last penny from customers, and they are not alone. So when Pearl Abyss announced it had purchased CCP Games in September 2018, many players feared the worst.

The genesis of this post came from watching Talking in Stations on Sunday and a discussion of a video claiming that Pearl Abyss was somehow manipulating the in-game RMT token markets to try to maximize profits. Matterall's co-host Carneros, a long-time game industry veteran who has worked on both EVE Online and the Everquest franchise, rebutted the claims, saying that the purchase was too recent for decisions by Pearl Abyss to appear in the game. My thoughts were a bit different, as higher in-game ISK prices, all other factors remaining equal, results in lower real-world currency sales of PLEX. I first encountered the idea at Fanfest 2014 and have espoused it ever since. The more ISK a buyer can get per PLEX, the less PLEX the buyer needs to purchase. Buyers, for the most part, purchase in-game currency to obtain a specific goal, not just to have a big pile of ISK.

After the show and aftershow, I tracked down the link on the forums to the video. When I saw the video was created by Shipwreck Jones, my interest picked up. Shipwreck Jones is a serious YouTuber who has put out quality content for over a year. This wouldn't be his first video expressing concern about the Pearl Abyss sale, so I wanted to watch. I managed to do so before he took the video down.

Price of Omega time, in-game currency
Just looking at the market data, one could make a reasonable assumption that something happened when the sale of CCP to Pearl Abyss occurred. The sale was announced on 6 September, and from August 2018 to January 2019, the average price of 30 days of game time (500 PLEX) purchased with in-game currency rose from 1.379 billion ISK to 1.687 billion ISK, an increase of 22.3%. But hold on a second. Doesn't the price of PLEX always increase? Yet, the average price of 500 PLEX decreased 17.2% from December 2017 to August 2018. So, something happened in September 2018 when the sale of CCP was announced, but what? As Sherlock Holmes might say, "The game is afoot!"

A daily instead of monthly look at PLEX
I decided to look at the daily average price of PLEX to spot any trends. The low price occurred on 3 August with an average price of 2,675,506 ISK, a drop of 16.5% from the beginning of the year. The price then rose to 2,870,000 ISK on the day of the announcement of the sale and 3,103,080 ISK on the day the sale was finalized, 12 October. The day before the Valentine's Day sale last week, the price of a PLEX had risen to 3,680,181 ISK, or a rise of 18.6% since PA assumed control of CCP.

While the period before the sale to Pearl Abyss saw a lot more sales volume spikes than the period after the sale, I couldn't tell for sure. That lead me to an RMT token directly tied to PLEX, the Multiple Pilot Character Training Certificate (MPCT). The MPCT allows for training a second or third character on an account for 30 days, a very useful ability, especially for skill farmers. In addition to buying an MPCT directly off the market, players can purchase this form of game time by acquiring 485 PLEX and buying the item from the New Eden Store using the PLEX.
MPCT Certificates sold at a discounted rate in 2018
I was a little surprised by what I found when adding the price of 485 PLEX to the graph along with the average price of MPCT Certificates. The numerous sales CCP held throughout the first nine months of the year before the sale to Pearl Abyss was finalized kept the price of the MPCT very low compared to the baseline price found in the cash shop. But after Pearl Abyss took control, the sales, except for the one on Black Friday, ceased. On 10 February, the sale price of the MPCT matched that of 485 PLEX.

I could go on with a graph about skill extractors, but the price of the item required to create skill injectors is so closely linked to the price of PLEX (the normal price is 700 PLEX for a pack of 5) that including another graph is overkill.

So, is Pearl Abyss the second coming of EA and guilty of ruining the New Eden economy in pursuit of all the filthy lucre the company can haul back to Anyang, South Korea? My verdict is no. In fact, with the lack of sales since acquiring CCP, the developers are leaving very light footprints in the sandbox, at least where the business model is concerned. I did not attempt to judge the changes in the game over the past four months, but my feeling is that those also are not having a big impact on the economy. Given that the prices are rising due to the developers recent laissez faire approach, one could fairly make the argument Pearl Abyss is responsible for the change.

However, my theory on why prices are rising is a bit different. I would concentrate on the fall in price of the RMT tokens between December 2017 and August 2018. During that time, CCP was courting Pearl Abyss as a potential buyer, even inviting Robin Jung, the Korean game maker's CEO, to Fanfest last year. As part of the effort, CCP would have tried to boost sales as much as possible. One of the tactics would have been holding a lot more sales than normal, similar to what the graphs in this post show. Of course, increasing the amount of RMT tokens like PLEX and MPCTs in the game world would have a deflationary effect on the EVE economy, or at least the RMT tokens themselves. Once the practises ended, the economy took a few months to return to normal.

I should add one last point before signing off. Most publications listed the sale price of CCP at $450 million USD. In reality, only $225 million was guaranteed, with up to an additional $200 million in deferred, performance-based payouts still awaiting distribution. While we don't know the terms of the deal, I can't imagine that revenue targets for EVE were not included in the deal. So, the next time some sort of money grab is suspected in EVE, consider if the culprit is our new Korean overlords or perhaps someone trying to get a piece of that $200 million still dangling out there like a carrot on a stick.

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