October 1, 2005
Online Games Spawn Own Economy, Society
SAN FRANCISCO -- Emerson Larkin, 23, just reaped $400 selling two characters for Blizzard Entertainment's "World of Warcraft" after investing nearly 75 online gaming hours creating them.
Larkin was able to cash in because of the growing popularity of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), which now draw more than 20 million players globally. Alongside the multiplayer universe is a marketplace for the virtual characters and other assets created online.
Some big name corporate players have started to get into the business of virtual asset trading, which is so hot that some industry experts say it may be overheated.
Still, virtual asset trading has a long way to go before it rival's eBay's multibillion-dollar revenue.
And some sellers like Larkin -- who spent hours gearing up his characters to high levels with items including "the staff of dominance," a "kroll blade" and an "epic kodo" mount -- find that the process has been more a labor of love than a fast road to wealth.
Online games are all about fantasy worlds, but sites that enable trading of virtual goods such as powerful game characters and currency help players broker and buy status and power for cold hard cash -- just like in the real world.
"It's a way to make some extra money," said Larkin, who had hoped for a bigger profit from the eBay auction of his Level 60 Troll Rogue -- which has the power to go invisible around equal or lower level characters -- and Level 60 Undead Mage -- which is equipped with magical powers.
He was under pressure to sell before leaving Texas to study in England, where he will not have the same unfettered access to MMORPGs, where thousands of people play simultaneously.
"World of Warcraft," the world's largest MMORPG, boasts more than 4 million paying users -- including more than 1 million in North America. Some characters have sold for thousands of dollars.
Dan Hunter, assistant professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, was not surprised that Larkin's auction take was not the windfall he expected, saying that in-game economies are profoundly broken due to huge inflationary pressures.
"If they were real-world economies, they'd be like a Banana Republic," said Hunter, who noted that virtual worlds have an unlimited money supply that is not being efficiently drained.
Contributing to the problem are "gold pharmers" who flood the market with in-game currency.
In several developing countries, multiple players will use one account to mine game gold nonstop. They then sell the gold through a site like IGE, which resells game gold or currencies and allow people to trade virtual assets for "real world" money.
Real countries use levers like interest rate adjustments to manage their economic health, and virtual gamers have their own way of attempting to correct perceived imbalances.
"There is a kill-on-sight rule for certain guilds (groups)" when members see what they think is a gold pharmer, Hunter said.
REAL-WORLD PROFIT OPPORTUNITY?
Many trades take place on sites like IGE and eBay, but competition is mounting as more individuals and companies see the chance to make money from virtual asset sales.
Sony Online Entertainment, whose multiplayer titles include "Star Wars Galaxies" and "EverQuest," recently changed its stance on virtual asset trading and began fostering deals for items in "EverQuest II."
Some of the virtual assets recently offered for online sale include a "rare" Robo Dog for "The Sims Online", listed for $41 on eBay. IGE is having a "World of Warcraft" gold sale, offering 500 gold for as low as $51.99 on some servers.
The average MMO player is a 27-year-old male -- a demographic drooled over by marketers. Plus, nearly half of all MMO players have jobs, which often means they have more money than time and are the perfect consumers of virtual assets.
While Larkin and numerous others have made money selling characters, gold and weapons for use in such games, buyers of such items are often regarded with disdain.
"I wouldn't play with them because they didn't put in the time and effort to learn the game," said Larkin.
According to a recent survey by IGN Entertainment, the publisher of gaming Web sites and magazines, most gamers say they despise and avoid sites like IGE, believing that they give players with more discretionary income an unfair advantage.
But such attitudes are called into question by size estimates for the virtual asset trading market, which is seen having a value of $200 million to nearly $900 million in 2005.
One potential explanation for the disconnect between attitudes and money spent may be that gamers are unwilling to admit they use the services, IGN said.
"People do role play, but a lot of real-world behaviors, market pressures and social pressures port over very quickly," said Dmitri Williams, assistant professor for speech communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"For many people in the game guilds, the idea of paying for your character is verboten," Williams said.