Does PLEX Work Anywhere Besides EVE Online?

CCP introduced PLEX, the Pilot License EXtension item that could be bought for real world cash and sold on the in-game market of EVE Online or consumed to extended your EVE subscription by 30 days a little over five years ago.

Current prices are around 800 million ISK in Jita

Current prices are around 800 million ISK in Jita

It was very much an experimental move by CCP who proceeded with caution.  As you can see from the five year old screen shot above, when introduced, PLEX was stuck in the station in which you claimed it.  CCP didn’t want it becoming a loss mail item on day one.  Later, when it became clear that players were going to accept PLEX as a thing, CCP loosened up its restrictions on PLEX… and hilarity ensued, with the first major loss being 74 PLEX in a Kestrel.

PLEX has had quite an impact on EVE Online. It has been a major tool in the war against illicit RMT for the in-game currency, ISK, by giving players a legitimate way to effectively buy ISK.

It has become a major indicator of the health of the in-game market.  I think people mostly track Catalyst hulls, tritanium, and PLEX these days. (just kidding)

It has been opened up so that you can use it to enable other services or currencies.  You can use PLEX to enable the training queue for a second character on your account or convert it to Aurum to buy clothes at the New Eden Exchange. (Need more/better hats!)

It has allowed some players to play for “free,” where “free” means exchanging time for ISK and then ISK for PLEX. (If you think anybody is actually playing for free, please go read up on the time value of money.)

Through the simple math conversion (Real World Money to PLEX, PLEX to ISK) it has given people a dubious way to assign real world value to losses sustained in EVE Online, so now every huge battle report that makes the headlines at the BBC must include an obligatory dollar amount which gives people the false impression that you buy ships in the game for real world money or some similar nonsense.

(I am kind of disappointed that Edward Castronova, who spent so much time writing about the EverQuest economy, never spent much time writing about EVE Online where things have gotten at least a little closer to his virtual economy vision.)

And, of course, PLEX loss is a staple of loss mail porn as people unwittingly, to be charitable, try to transport billions of ISK in PLEX in ships that cost a million ISK or less.  Of course, every PLEX destroyed during such a loss is a win for CCP as that is a promise for 30 days of game time they do no longer have to honor.

I think we can safely declare PLEX a success.  Certainly, CCP has not suffered from having it, and the game has continued to grow since its introduction.

Success, of course, attracts imitation.  Since then a number of PLEX-like items have popped up in other MMOs.  We have:

  • KronoEverQuest & EverQuest I and maybe other titles.
  • CREDDWildStar
  • GRACEAnarchy Online
  • DUELDarkfall
  • REX – Rift
  • APEX – ArcheAge

Did I miss any?

The thing is, I have no real sens of how well the various PLEX-like currencies have worked in these other games which, even if they have a comparable player base to EVE Online… and you would need a lot of smoke and mirrors to make Darkfall or Anarchy Online appear to have a tenth of the subscriptions… they do not have the single, unified market of EVE, being chopped up into distinct servers, each with their own economy.

I have been peeking at the Krono market as I have been playing EverQuest II lately.  There seem to be about two dozen on the market at any given time, with the low end hovering around 3,000 platinum coins for one Krono.

I currently have 300 platinum coins, and feel quite well off for having that much.  But I am also playing a level 70 character and remember the days when earning your first platinum coin was a big deal and having 300 gold coins made me feel quite well off.

At 3,000 plat, the market seems somewhat static.  The number of Krono for sale does not fluctuate much from day to day, so I have to wonder how much traffic there really is. (Though, granted, the trade channel is where you go if you want to sell something RIGHT NOW, but it is also so spammy that I tend to keep it off.)  And I am on the Freeport server, which is one of the high population servers, somewhere behind Antonia Bayle, where all the cool kids used to hang out, and Splitpaw in activity, so what I see on my server might not reflect what is happening on other servers.

But my gut is that Krono hasn’t had the impact on Norrath that PLEX has had on New Eden.  And with WildStar having problems keeping people subscribed, I am not sure there is a comparable case to EVE Online when it comes to PLEX… yet.

Because suddenly World of Warcraft hove onto the scene.  Last week Baishok put up a post about things coming to Azeroth in the new year which included this entry half way down the post, between garrison improvements and heirloom storage, under the innocuous heading of “New Ways to Play.”

We’re exploring the possibility of giving players a way to buy tradable game-time tokens for the purpose of exchanging them in-game with other players for gold. Our current thought on this is that it would give players a way to use their surplus gold to cover some of their subscription cost, while giving players who might have less play time an option for acquiring gold from other players through a legit and secure system. A few other online games offer a similar option, and players have suggested that they’d be interested in seeing something along those lines in WoW. We agree it could be a good fit for the game, and we look forward to any feedback you have as we continue to look into this feature.

Everybody paying attention immediately saw this for what it was, PLEX comes to World of Warcraft.  This was met by various levels of excitement of despair, depending on various rational or irrational points of view and analogies.

Ages ago I wrote a post wondering if the World of Warcraft in-game economy could support something like PLEX in the way that the EVE Online economy has shown in can.

On the plus side, World of Warcraft does have a more vibrant economy than most of its peers.  There is a lot of gold floating around looking for places to be spent, given the number of alliance choppers I have seen running around since they went up for sale.  With the unification of economies across Horde and Alliance on servers, there are no more economic ghettos where one faction hugely outweighs the other.

Finally, here is a game that has an illicit RMT problem of epic proportions and which really needs a legitimate way for people to buy gold since it has become crystal clear over the years that people are going to buy gold no matter how many horror stories you tell them about account hacking and credit card fraud.

Plus, once you’re selling level 90 characters, what other taboo is there left to transgress?

On the down side, even with economies unified on servers, and across servers when it comes to the co-joined, merged in all but name servers, there are still a hundred or more individual economies to look at.  Servers that had 8 hour queues when Warlords of Draenor dropped might fare differently than servers that never even got to a medium population load on opening night.

And then there is Blizzard’s tentative nature.  World of Warcraft is the goose that lays golden eggs, quarter after quarter, and they are justifiably nervous about screwing that up.  So, even after having had five years to look at how PLEX has worked out in EVE Online, two years to observe Krono over at SOE, and having run their own “cash to item to gold” experiment with the guardian cub three years back, Blizzard is still “exploring the possibility” of the whole idea.

I know I mock SOE from time to time for jumping into ideas with both feet before they have thought things through… and then being forced to adapt and change in front of a live studio audience.  But here we are at the other end of the spectrum, where Blizz probably has all the data they are ever really going to get and they are out there being coy about the whole thing.

Yes, this could just be a trial balloon to see if the people who actually pay attention to these things explode at the idea.  And yes, the whole real money auction house plan in Diablo III, which worked out so badly in the end, does loom over this, a point many people in the forum thread are quick to compare this to.  However, I would argue that the RMAH in Diablo III, which allowed people to buy in-game gear directly for real world money and, more importantly I think, allowed people to cash out and walk away with real money profits, was a different and beast altogether and lead to problems people were calling out during beta.  Furthermore, even the in-game gold auction house was a serious problem, leaving real money aside,  Blizzard didn’t just close of the RMAH, they closed down both sides because both sides were killing the game.  The auction house as a whole was the problem, not just the real money aspect.

World of Warcraft, on the other hand, has existed with an auction house for a decade at this point.

None of which gets around to answering the question in the title.  I really have no concrete feel for how something like PLEX does affect a game aside from EVE, which remains unique in many ways in the MMORPG ecosystem.

I don’t think a PLEX-like item is a done deal for WoW either.  Blizzard is very cautious about its main source of revenue and, as we saw over the last year, would rather sit and do nothing than do something that might go wrong.  Add in the stink left over from Diablo III and my gut says it is only even odds that Blizzard will adopt something like this in 2015.  We certainly won’t see it until the summer if they do.  But that timing might make it a good hedge against another content drought.  People might stay subscribed longer if they could just pay for their subscription out of the giant pile of gold they have accumulated in their garrison.

Do you think PLEX-like items in other games are working out?  Do you think something like that will work in WoW?

Others on the idea of a PLEX-like item in WoW:

17 thoughts on “Does PLEX Work Anywhere Besides EVE Online?

  1. Vatec

    REX in Rift.

    Not sure it “worked” really. Last time I played there was always a lot of spam with people offering way below exchange prices for REX and a lot of spam with people offering REX for way above exchange prices. No clue if either kind of spammer ever got any results, though.

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  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Vatec – Forgot about REX! I’ll add that.

    And what you describe is sort of what I see on the trade channel in EQII, but I never stay on it long enough to hear if any Krono get sold… not that I would hear… because it just scrolls off into forever with spam.

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  3. Rohan

    I am not so sure that PLEX has worked in Eve Online. From an outside perspective, it seems like Eve has a lot of problems with multiboxing and with regular players engaging in RMT shenanigans like lotteries, etc.

    I also wonder if PLEX is masking some fundamental gameplay problems with resource extraction and generation. It allows some players to skip that part of the game, and I think has allowed CCP to ignore improving that part of the game, because people desiring PLEX will generate resources even if it is “unfun” or unbalanced.

    The question is more, “what would Eve be like without PLEX?” I am not really certain Eve would be worse off in the long run.

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  4. kevinbrill

    @vatec

    Rex works pretty well, especially since you can cash it in for gems and buy stuff off the Rift store. One of the things that you can buy off the store is a 30 day Patron’s pass, which can be equated to game time. But Rex isn’t a just a straight up gold for game time exchange. FWIW GW2 also has pretty similar model.

    Prices on Wolfsbane are around 1200 plat on the AH, but you can typically get about a 10% discount by working the trade channels. I’m a hoarder and have around 1100, but don’t actively work the AH. I think if you’re a pretty active you can get a patron’s pass for “free”. Which seems about right.

    Check out Syp’s recent post on BioBreak about it too.

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  5. Noizy

    I don’t know how much free gold is floating around the WoW economy. Or should I say economies? If Belghast is right about a month’s sub time being worth 100K gold, that would really hit the gold sellers hard, as I think they may be charging up to 3 times that amount.

    Adding RMT like this to WoW would have some drawbacks. Expect some players to want to start using bots to get their game time. Other players would start doing the whole grinding content for gold thing, competing with the RMT outfits and normal players just trying to complete quests alike. Also, I think this would, like in EVE, lead to an explosion of alt accounts. Would that be good or bad for WoW?

    Oh, and bringing up Professor Castronova, I don’t think he’d like the idea. At least in his early years, he disliked the idea of any RMT, sanctioned or otherwise, in games. I’m not sure if he mellowed out on that over the past few years. He may have.

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  6. Noizy

    Oh, almost forgot. I think Bonds in Runescape may be, after a year, about to be a factor on RMT prices. I’ve heard good things, but Jagex is still banning 2 million accounts a year.

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  7. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Rohan – I would argue that PLEX has worked as one of several weapons against illicit RMT by giving people a legit way to buy currency. That some long-time RMT vendors like Markee Dragon have attempted some shenanigans around PLEX to keep their hand in seems like more of an indication of success in that area than a problem.

    But to agree with that you have to accept that illicit RMT is bad and that its existence isn’t due to flawed game design. I suspect you lean towards the latter idea, that game design is the problem. And, certainly, people have been saying for years and years now that RMT would go away if doing things to earn gold or ISK or whatever were just more fun.

    The problem is that “just make it more fun” is easy to say but hard-to-impossible to do because what is fun for you may not be fun for me and so on. Fun is not an absolute and, as we have seen time and again, no matter what aspect of any MMO you criticize as being not fun, somebody will pop out of the woodwork and disagree with you. By changing how things work, you will make something unfun for somebody as you make it fun for somebody else. I don’t see a way out of there being some people who want to just buy the in-game currency rather than earn it, no matter how you change the game.

    Meanwhile, botting seems to be an issue in MMOs no matter what you do, the way aimbots are in shooters. There is just a percentage of the population that just doesn’t want to play the game.

    Now, given what I said at the top about being a tool to combat illicit RMT, I have to wonder why SOE bothered with Krono as the last time I looked at game currency RMT prices, and it has been a few years, EQ and EQII currencies were in such low demand that RMT vendors were not bothering to stock it. Krono showed up after that. My only guess is that Smed is just a fan of EVE Online… and that SOE will apparently try anything that seems like it might be a good idea.

    Anyway, the real lesson out of Diablo III is “let’s just not have an in-game economy, let’s make everybody get things by playing the game.” You could make that the answer for WoW I suppose. Garrisons certainly make that step easier. But EVE Online, where the economy is a huge portion of the game I think you just have to live with some manner of problems due to people just being people.

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  8. Shintar

    The advantage of these systems is that aside from combating illegal RMT, they basically allow the game to sell extra subs that may not actually end up being used but just end up floating around the economy as extra currency. It’s basically the MMO equivalent of a store gift card.

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  9. Pingback: WoW PLEX | In An Age

  10. SynCaine

    PLEX has a huge and positive impact on EVE. In addition to RMT, how many space coffin accounts would people pay $15 for, vs buying a PLEX for them? And that’s an important aspect, because I suspect that most PLEX sellers are newer accounts, so you have newer players basically funding older player alt accounts. Unused PLEX on accounts are, if I had to guess, also a huge boost to CCP. Would love for them to tell us how many PLEX are currently sitting on unsubbed accounts; guessing its a rather substantial amount.

    Plus PLEX is always more expensive than buying account time directly, so anytime you use a PLEX for time, CCP is getting MORE money then they would if you paid directly.

    As for other games, I think it works, but not nearly as well as it does in EVE.

    I know in Wildstar there is STILL a way to make infinite money due to a math fail by the devs (NPC buy/sell prices), so at least from a players perspective, the economy in Wildstar is a joke, so why buy CREED to sell it for gold?

    In DF the population is so low the market for DUEL might as well not exist. Doesn’t help that anyone who is still left playing has close to infinite gear, so what do they need gold for? Again a completely broken economy is the root problem from a players perspective, which I think trickles up and lowers PLEX sales for the company.

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  11. JetCord

    the horror of diablo 3 auction house still left sour taste in my mouth as a consequences im did not buy reaper of souls expansion.

    the question that need to be asked can WoW in game economy with cope with PLEX like items?

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  12. Anonymouse

    PLEX has been massively profitable for CCP. Prior to PLEX, all of the RL cash for ISK was going into the hands of the RMTers, since that was the only way to buy ISK. I remember seeing ISK spammers in Local every day, in every system; after the introduction of PLEX, they disappeared rather quickly. Now, most of that money ends up in CCP’s bank account.

    I don’t see why PLEX would not have the same result in WoW for Blizzard.

    Despite what many people seem to think, most people generally buy things legally, when they can do so. Sure, RMT will always continue, as long as there are idiots who want to save a few bucks, but it will be greatly reduced.

    Looking to RL examples, in the US, bootlegging still happens in a few states, but it is not nearly as widespread and profitable as it was during Prohibition.

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  13. gwjanimej

    Trading game time to other players for in game currency works anywhere you have a large enough player base, and an economy with enough currency sinks or forced currency exchanges. In EVE, this has long been the case, and the blooming PLEX prices since their introduction are proof of this. I think SynCaine has the right of it as to the games where it’s not working so well, in addition to why it doesn’t work there.

    So, WoW. I think that WoW is close enough in terms of economy(gold sinks/desire to exchange gold for goods) that players will be more than willing to exchange game time for gold. Things like the Alliance Chopper, items on the BMAH, and other similar routine, if infrequent sinks are more than enough motivation for players to sell game time to other players. The other consideration that’s also important is the number of players with an excess of in game currency who may want to turn that excess into free play time. I’d say that there’s more than enough of those on any given medium to high population server without taking into account realms being logically merged or the unification of auction houses. Once you account for that, from an economic standpoint, every logical server has ample population to allow for multiple individuals paying for their accounts via in game currency trading.

    What’s really interesting about all of this is that regardless of the game in question, the gold flow will be largely circular. Most of the gold obtained via selling game time will ultimately go back to the people who are buying the game time itself. This is almost entirely true in EVE, but even in WoW I’d wager that a large portion of it will follow that path. Ultimately, any MMO/MUD economy suffers from an excess of currency faucets vs currency sinks, and the economy suffers from fairly severe inflation as a result. It’s why every MMO I’m aware of has had some issue with illicit RMT. So long as there are time limits on acquisition of currency, you’re going to have people willing to ignore the rules on trading time out of game for time in game, and there are going to be business that take advantage of that. I think that companies need to start getting out ahead of that and simply legitimizing RMT from the outset via PLEX-style systems. After all, it’s not really all that often when you can universally point at something players clamor for(vocally or otherwise) and call it a legitimately good idea, and this is definitely one of those cases.

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  14. gwjanimej

    Oh, something I forgot to mention. I’m not sure where Belghast is getting his numbers on gold exchange rates, but that’s way off. IGE(the “gold” standard for exchange rates IMO) lists WoW currency at ~23k gold per $15US. Assuming Blizzard follows the CCP model of charging slightly more for these 30 day tokens, it’d be 25k per $17.50US token. Not unreasonable IMO.

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  15. St Mistaken

    I recall that the function of PLEX in EVE existed before the PLEX item itself. Game time codes could be purchased from 3rd parties (not CCP), put partially into the in-game redeeming system, and then advertised for ISK on one of the buy/sell forums (adjacent to the character auction forum, iirc). The system wasn’t foolproof, so there were a steady trickle of people cheating the system and being banned as a result.

    So, no in-game item, no market data graphs, but the same function in the economic cycle.
    I do suspect PLEX was created at least in part to reduce the workload on GMs from complaints about GTC fraud – certainly a happy secondary effect if it wasn’t the root cause.

    I’m not sure how long this existed before PLEX itself was created – but I suspect several years. I’d been playing for around two years when Oveur published the PLEX devblog, and I don’t recall GTC sales for ISK ever being noted as new or unusual.

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