Square Enix’s Letter From The Chairman – A Spicy Hot Take

Stop being concerned about the Square Enix letter, please.

I’m not sure how to start this brief writeup, but that’s okay. Anyway, now that we have a starting sentence, have you read the investor letter from Square Enix’s president? Here’s a link to the actual letter.

This letter has a lot of people hot and bothered, because it has terms in it like “NFT” and “Blockchain.” A large number of people are acting like he announced that the Square Enix servers will be powered by harvesting life energy from the Earth and that he’s renaming the company Shinra.

This interpretation is incredibly stupid for a variety of reasons, but it makes me think that people, perhaps understandably, don’t quite know how to read this sort of letter.

Brief diatribe. I think NFTs in their current implementation are fairly stupid. The idea of exchangeable digital property? Kind of neat. Everything about how they currently work, including the lack of oversight/controls, massive wastes of power, use for money laundering, and general pointlessness? Miserable, awful, needs to die in a fire.

Anyway, we’re talking about this specific type of letter. See, the purpose of a letter to investors is more or less to just buoy investor confidence. It’s not directed at consumers. If you do not care about SQENIX’s stock price, there is no reason to care about the content of this letter. Buy their games, products, and services based on what they actually release, at release. As a result, these letters tend to be filled with the appropriate buzzwords and terminology to signal to investors that the company leadership has their finger on the pulse of the industry.

As an example of this, I want to bring up the 2017 letter from the Chairman. In this letter, you’ll see extensive reference to virtual reality, augmented/alternate reality, and the key importance of smartphones. Why are they talking about Augmented Reality even though they haven’t ever made a augmented reality game? Simple. Because Pok√©mon Go came out in 2016 and made a godscrillion dollars while being a worldwide fucking phenomenon for several months.

So, with that as the context, let’s go back and dissect the actual letter with the framing, and the offending paragraphs that have people so annoyed.

Paragraphs 1 & 2 are primarily fluff about the concept of the “Metaverse.” They end with the following line.

As this abstract concept begins to take concrete shape in the form of product and service offerings, I am hoping that it will bring about changes that have a more substantial impact on our business as well.

Yosuke Matsuda, 2022 Letter from the Chairman

No promises. No commitment or statement of investment. Just 2 paragraphs of fluff that if these concepts transition into actual products and services instead of a pipe dream, they may impact the gaming and entertainment industry.

Paragraph 3 is the spicy one that actually talks about NFT’s.

 However, we do observe examples here and there of overheated trading in NFT-based digital goods with somewhat speculative overtones, regardless of the observed value of the content provided

Yosuke Matsuda, 2022 Letter from the Chairman

In case anyone is wondering how you say “Right now the value of any of this is massively fucking inflated, and the things being sold are pretty much worthless” in this sort of letter, here you go.

Paragraphs 4 & 5 touch on AI technology and cloud services. Of these, only paragraph 4 includes any actual statement of action, noting that the company has established SQUARE ENIX AI & ARTS Alchemy Co., Ltd. with a stated goal of R&D on AI.

5, 6 & 7 are all about token economies/crypto. They’re the second set of paragraphs that have people annoyed, and so I’m going to break them down a little bit here. I don’t actually agree with some of the concepts espoused here, but I’m gonna put my thoughts at the end.

Paragraph 5 is mostly a definition of the concept of “Play to Earn”, Blockchain-based games, and their theoretical differences from standard game development.

Paragraph 6 is, interestingly enough, the most consumer focused paragraph of the whole thing. I think this paragraph is attempting to make the case that there is value in the technical space that has been opened by Crypto. I think this paragraph is trying to win over people like myself who don’t like Crypto.

Paragraph 7 is the densest section of the letter, and has multiple concepts. Again, I encourage you to read the letter yourself, first from your own perspective, and then from the perspective of someone who is financially invested in Square Enix. I will likely not cover all aspects of it.

Loosely, I would summarize it as follows:

  1. People play games for multiple reasons, which in some cases include modding, creative expression, and gold farming. Traditionally, gaming structures do not have built-in methods for rewarding those types of players.
  2. The technology around Blockchain-based design, and social acceptance is currently mature enough to support creating games that do reward those types of players.
  3. Square Enix will continue to observe these changes, and will move to expand their portfolio of entertainment products to include what they define here as “Decentralized Games” if they think they can make money off it, which could include systems that financially reward those types of players.

8 is a generic wrap-up, and acknowledges the worldwide pandemic. Nothing too special here.

So, that’s the letter. It contains some overviews and definitions of some trendy topics in the video game sphere of business. It has a single concrete statement of action about AI for something they already did in march of 2020.

PS: I really do not agree with the definition of Decentralized Gaming presented in this letter. If the fundamental technology stack that is needed to actually run and play a video game from a technical standpoint is not actually freely available and modifiable, you have not created a decentralized game. You have simply created a game that uses Blockchain/a decentralized database as a repository for user game objects. But hey, that’s just my opinion. It remains to be seen if it ages like wine, or like my high school quote about how “The iPad will be a failure because it doesn’t support Flash”.

That’s a real thing I said.

The Pokemon Card Kerfuffle

Right now, something very interesting is happening. So what am I talking about? Is it the global pandemic? The fact that we’re finally making progress with immunizations? The massive change in working remote or working from home? Or perhaps it’s the new presidental administration.

Well, no. Those things are all happening, but I’m talking about the fact that the cost of buying sealed packages of Pokemon cards has almost doubled or trippled in price. In this writing/video/whatever, I’m going to talk about why I think that is, and why I think a lot of people have the wrong idea. For those already familar with the Pokemon Trading Card Game, or TCG as it’s often shortened to, skip ahead a bit to the reasons. For everyone else, I want to provide a little bit of quick background.

Background on the Pokemon Trading Card Game
Pokemon, for those who might not know is a global media franchise that started as a video game, and at this point has branched out into almost every conceivable product you could imagine. In terms of popularity, Pokemon is often quoted as the most profitable franchise in the world, above things like Star Wars, or Marvel, or Micky Mouse.

The Pokemon Trading Card Game is a collectible card game. For the purpose of this discussion, it’s not important to know too much about it, except for two brief things.

The first is that cards are released in “Sets”. You can think of them like seasons of a TV show. Each set has a specific number of different cards in it, at various rarities. The second thing to know is that a single “Set” may contain multiple copies of cards that are mechanically identical, which is to say when used as part of game, they function exactly the same, but they have different artwork. Here’s an example, with a card named Charizard V. The first image is the normal version, the second is the full art version. The full art version is much rarer. Finally, there’s a shiny version, the one that’s black. It’s actually from a different set, but we’ll talk about that later. The key point here is that from a gameplay standpoint, all of these cards are identical, and there is no in game advantage to using one over the other.

And finally, a little bit of background on pricing. Generally speaking, a Pack of Pokemon Cards retails at $4.00 MSRP(Mass Suggested Retail Price, IE, what a Target/Walmart will sell the product for on release.) for a single booster. A booster box, a collection of 36 boosters, retails at about $140 dollars, but generally speaking, when a set releases, it’s not hard to find a booster box for $90 to $100 dollars on either eBay or Amazon. There are also Fat Packs. These tend to retail at $30 to $40, and contain 10 booster packs.

One other quick thing to note: Buying products at MSRP for those of us who are addicts enthusiasts is fairly rare. We usually have connections, either with stores, or online distributors that, as mentioned above, sell below MSRP.

End of Background

All right, so with that background out of the way, lets get into the current state of things, by looking at how much booster boxes cost for several of the last few sets of cards.

NamePrice – USD
Battle Styles (Not released at time of writing)$147 eBay, $160 Amazon
Vivid Voltage$197 eBay, $208 Amazon
Rebel Clash$150 eBay, 190 Amazon
Darkness Ablaze$172 eBay, $180 Amazon
Sword and Shield$200 eBay, $190 Amazon

Keep in mind, these are all products with an MSRP of $140, and that generally speaking only ever cost $80-$90 dollars in reality.

Now, people who already follow the scene might notice something missing here, and I’ll get to that in a moment.

NamePrice – USD
Shining Fates Fat Pack (10 Packs) $100 to $150 eBay, $123 Amazon
Champions Path Fat Pack (10 Packs) $100 on Amazon, $95 on eBay

Now for anyone who plays the Pokemon Trading card game, I’d like to make a brief note: I bought a playset of all non-reprint cards in Champions Path. It cost me $133. That’s 4 copies of every single card in the set, that hadn’t printed before.

So, whats going on here? Why are these booster packs so expensive? What happened?

And for anyone who thinks “Well, thats just capitalism” here’s the offical statement from pokemon.com. So clearly, they’re not in love with this either.

Ed Note: And why would they be? As they’re the publisher/distributor, they don’t make extra money if the price people are willing to pay goes up, if they’re not the one setting the price.

I have two general guesses here, one for the first set of cards, and one for the second. They overlap a bit, but lets start with the ones above.

So, lets talk about the dates here. While the official announcement on the site has been updated since then, articles about the announcement start showing up on Feb 11th.

So why is this date important? Well, because Feb 11th is the day right before the start of Chinese New Year.

For anyone who hasn’t had things manufactured in China, Chinese New Year is effectively a full shutdown period. And this year, it won’t be over until Febuary 22nd. It’s a public holiday, and a very big one, and you can expect factory shutdowns for approximately two weeks. So, what that actually means is that factories will likely be shutdown until February 26th, the day I’m writing this article.

Now, despite what we might believe, even global megacorporation’s are limited by the laws of reality, including the fact that if you want to ship this stuff via boat from China where it’s printed, to the rest of the world, you’re going to be looking at a timeline of about 3 months.

With this info, we can start to make some guesses about what’s going on here, and to make some predictions involving future timelines. But before we get into that, lets talk about three more parts of this perfect storm.

Charizard, Coronavirus, and the 25th Anniversary

This year is the 25th Anniversary of the Pokemon Franchise. As part of this, there’s been a general marketing push with things like a Post-Malone concert, Katy Perry, and other things that I think might have pushed Pokemon a little bit more into the limelight then it might have been otherwise. I don’t think it would have been hugely noticed if it wasn’t for the fact that we’re all stuck at home, with no ability to go anywhere or do anything. But a large portion of this push has probally pulled up a bit of nostalgia.

And this brings us Charizard. Charizard is a large fire dragon Pokemon. It tends to be one of the more visible and identifiable members of the franchise, and it also has the interesting distinction of being one of, if not, the most valuable mass market card ever available. Currently, base set shadow-less Charizard’s go for $5000 to $10000. And perfect ones can go for over $200,000. And currently, many of these sets that have just released feature Charizard’s new form, Charizard VMAX. This is the first time this Pokemon has been featured on a card.

And finally, we have coronavirus. Parents are staying home from work, and trying to entertain kids. Large numbers of people are on unemployment or furloughed, looking desperately for anything they can use to get a bit of extra money or scrape by. And we’ve had a wave of publicity about how profitable scalping can be recently with things like graphics cards and game consoles.

Oh, and one more thing.

Most Pokemon Cards are effectively worthless.

You won’t hear most collectors say this, and you won’t hear it brought up often, but it’s a simple fact that should be acknowledged. When you buy a sealed pack of Pokemon cards, odds are that the price of buying the cards in the booster pack are lower then the price of buying the cards individually. Even for the most recent sets, commanding ridiculous prices, the common/uncommon/rare cards in those sets go for 5 to 20 cents. It’s why I was able to buy a full playset of these cards for $133. The only cards worth over a few dollars are the hyper-rares, cards that present in less then 1-3 sealed packs, and of those, only the full arts and alt arts are really worth cash, and those tend to be present at about 1 in 36 rates, and NOT EVEN ALL OF THOSE ARE EXPENSIVE.

Buying sealed Pokemon Cards is a gamble, and statistically you will not get your value back. For kids, to whom every card is special, this isn’t a huge problem. For adults, who can just buy the cards they want, this shouldn’t be a problem, unless you really like gambling, and opening boosters.

Which a lot of folks do.

Lets put these pieces together, and see what happened.

So here’s what I think might have actually happened, based on the things I’ve laid out above. From this point onward, we’re venturing into purely speculation. Pretty much everything I’ve put above is a verifiable fact, and I’m more then happy to fix them if folks find errors.

  1. Coronavirus and Shipping Delays result is less cards being generally available then usual, in addition to smaller game stores suffering heavily from the lack of foot traffic, leading to less orders of product in general.
  2. Hype around the 25th anniversary of Pokemon leads to a higher level of brand awareness, along with the fairly lucrative scalping that we’ve seen previously last year and this year.
  3. A set of cards is printed at a very high rarity, of a Pokemon with a history of being fairly collectible, and commanding obscenely high prices, and knowledge of this begins to leak out.
  4. The incredibly low rate of actually getting this card leads to everyone involved who wants the card, from scalpers to collectors buying up as much of the product as possible for a chance of getting it.
  5. This becomes public knowledge, and now even folks who weren’t interested are getting involved in the hype, or trying to get stuff before it sells out. Effectively, what we saw with toilet paper before.
  6. The simple realities of production in China, combined with Chinese New Year, international lockdowns, and all of the above means that there is no easy way to rapidly increase supply of product on a quick timescale.

So where does that leave us? Well, I started writing this article on the 26th, and it’s now the 15th. The prices of most sealed products show no sign of slowing down. And the simple reality of what it takes to manufacture more cards mean that we’re still likely several months out from increased supply. If we assume that TPCI (The Pokemon Company International) decided to try to increase supply as of the date that they made the official announcement of being aware that consumers were being hit by shortages, they still wouldn’t have started production until 2/26.

And since boats can only go so fast, we likely won’t see any difference in supply for at least the next three months, meaning that speculation, hoarding, and other junk will likely continue until June/July, as just having something showing up at port doesn’t mean it’s available to buy.

This is my personal theory. I don’t think YouTube personalities opening cards, or folks posting on Twitter caused this. I think it’s a combo of a heavily impacted supply chain, hype, and chaos.

So until that time, enjoy, and buy singles if you’re gonna buy at all.