Online-gaming craze creating new digital micro-economies

Who doesn’t long for it now and then?
   Our jobs can put us into a pressure cooker we can’t get out of. Our kids, God bless ‘em, can leave our self-control in tatters at the end of a long day. Escaping from these real-world pressures is a common theme for most folks; some people play sports to relieve pressures. For others, a quiet house and a good book after the kids are in bed is a perfect prescription to escape into the world of the novel they are reading.
   But for millions of people in an increasingly digital culture, a new escape is becoming more and more popular — so popular, in fact, that budding entrepreneurs have sprung up to service this new 9-figure economic niche. And, as so often happens in growth industries, the owners of these “businesses” are able to harness the third world’s poor to do most of the sweating.
   No, this isn’t some new designer drug from South America or can’t miss “excercise regimen of the stars.”
   It’s a computer game.
   Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, or MMORPGs, ensnare millions of players across the world every day, connecting them to medieval-styled fantasy worlds via the Internet.
   Players pay the originators of these worlds a monthly fee to explore the virtual worlds created by the designers. Perhaps the most popular of these worlds is Irvine-based Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft, which charges $15 per month to play. Players join tens of thousands of others simultaneously exploring a Tolkein-esque fantasy world of dragons, dwarves, and evildoers.
   When players install the game and first log on, their characters are very real compared to those around them, lowly level 1 schmoes who have a hard time swatting a fly; the objective is to roam around the world, gradually getting to higher and higher levels by killing monsters and gathering loot.
   I’ve never played an MMORPG, but their addictive nature is legendary. The wife of a good friend of mine finally had to lay down the law when he spent a week straight playing Warcraft until 3 a.m.; she was not pleased.
   Going from lowly serf to Ruler Of All He Surveys takes time and effort. In an NPR segment about the MMORPG phenomena, one World of Warcraft (or WoW) player admitted that working the honest way to get his character from level 1 to the maximum of level 60 took him about 400 hours of gameplay. Yikes.
   Here’s where the entrepreneurial spirit really kicks in.
   Budding growth industries have opened their cyberdoors on the Internet to service needy WoW players looking for a bit of a quicker fix than 400 hours of toil.
   Perhaps the quickest route is by simply buying a powerful character online. A quick search of the Internet led me to an auction site where bidders had already plopped down $140 to buy a level 52 character that “somebody” had spent hours on. But who is that nameless “somebody”? More often than not, it’s not the geeky kid next door (and I say that as a self-professed geek myself). In fact, it’s probably a teenage male somewhere in Asia, who gets paid $1 a day to come in to a huge bank of computers and play WoW for 12 hours at a time, levelling up characters that are then sold for perhaps 50 times what they cost to “build.”
   Not a shabby profit margin.
   Another option is to pay someone at a power-levelling service (no, I’m not kidding) to play your newbie for you when you’re not around. Got to pull yourself away from WoW long enough to, say, go to work, or even (gasp) sleep?
   No problem. Pay the service, and they run that little elf wizard of yours all over the countryside while you’re on the job. Come home, feed the cat, eat, and wham! there’s your tougher wizard, waiting for you — for a price.
   And like the real world, WoW is a place where gold can buy you just about anything — but it’s hard to come by. Slaying your average wandering troll or ogre may net you a few pence, but to buy that really awesome glowing sword thingy will really cost you. No worries, just go online and buy all the gold you need!
   That’s right, there are auction houses online where you can pay real-life currency for cybercoin. There is even a Web site where you can get the latest exchange rates: Euro, Yen, Deutschmark, Franc … WoW gold piece.
   These days, the going rate seems to be about $50 bucks for 500 gold pieces. The gold is accumulated by the sellers through a technique called “farming,” where that same bored teenager in Singapore or Seoul or Manila spends all day collecting gold in the WoW world. And again, he gets paid about a buck for what his boss turns around and sells for $50.
   Millions of people are playing these games — probably hundreds of thousands right now, as you read this. And everything that they’re doing, from the initial cost of the game (about $40) to the monthly fee to the extras they are forking out the cash to buy, costs money. Real money. One recent estimate has the total worldwide market for MMORPGs and their side industries at more than $1 BILLION.
   That’s a lot of gold pieces.

John Thompson is publisher and editor of The Bellingham Business Journal. He can be reached by calling 647-8805, or via e-mail at

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