Virtual Loot for Real Cash

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After putting in a full day at his computer technician job, a 30-year-old Internet game player known as Ebaid went home, logged on to a game called "EverQuest" and started his night job. His game character donned armor, slapped on his sword and began slaying beasts so he could make some real money.

Hail the rise of yet another strange creature of the Internet revolution--the professional online game hunter.

Ebaid played for hours, slaying every computer-generated monster on his screen. For his effort he figured he'd made a few hundred dollars--real dollars.

Ebaid is part of a growing wave of online game players who hunt down and collect weapons, equipment and other accessories from popular online computer games, then sell the booty to other players for up to thousands of dollars apiece.

"This is hilarious," said Ebaid, a Riverside County resident. "All it is, is data. . . . But when I turn off my computer, I see cash."

Ebaid and his hunting partner, Lee, who lives nearby, play the game as a team and have made more than $6,000 in the last month by selling their captured game equipment and accessories on EBay, an online auction firm.

The hunters, also known as "EBayers," have become some of the most reviled denizens of the online world. Their ranks just seem to keep growing because of the demand for game items, even though some games prohibit their sale.

Unlike traditional video or computer games that people play solo or with a few others in their homes, the new generation of online role-playing games uses the Internet to bring together thousands of players from around the world in computer-generated games that never stop.

"There's a reason people call 'EverQuest' 'Evercrack,' " Ebaid said. "It's an addiction. You just always want to find out what is going to happen next."

Massive multi-player online role-playing games began appearing in the mid-1990s and have been quickly growing as more people connect to the Internet.

Sony's "EverQuest" game was released in May 1999 and now boasts more than 200,000 players. Electronic Arts' "Ultima Online," which started in 1997, has 170,000 players. And "Asheron's Call," from Microsoft, has gained 80,000 players after just five months on the market.

The game software costs about $50, and for a $10 monthly subscription fee players get endless hours of play time against thousands of other gamers online.

The games all revolve around sword-and-scorcery themes. Players enter a world where they can explore territories with other game players, attack monsters, cast magic spells, marry sweethearts and amass fortunes in virtual loot found on monsters as a prize.

Players start off as weaklings with barely any equipment to help them defeat monsters. But the characters grow stronger as they battle over time and collect new swords and armor that make them tougher opponents.

What makes the games so addictive is that players have to shape their own characters. They can buy different clothes and weapons from store owners in the game using virtual dollars. And these characters, which can take years for players to develop into godlike warriors capable of destroying the hardest beasts in a game, take on adventures like a never-ending novel.

It also creates a lucrative business opportunity. Mike Gmeinwieser and his game partner, Ben Schriefer, in Maryland run a full-time business selling virtual gold captured from "Ultima Online." They expect to do about $400,000 in sales this year.

They have an office, company cars and two Web sites, Ultima Treasure and Ultima Gold, that tout: "Pay for Ultima Online gold with your Visa, MasterCard, AmEx, Discover or Eurocard. We deliver in 72 hrs. References available."

"We're one of the few Internet companies that actually makes money," Gmeinwieser said.

Their scheme is to buy gold from other "Ultima Online" players for about $200 for every 1 million virtual gold coins--a vast sum that can take even strong characters months to accumulate. Then they sell the gold on EBay in lots of 50,000 coins at a rate of about $500 per million gold.

Gmeinwieser uses his game character to collect gold from sellers while in the game. When someone on EBay buys a shipment of gold, he again uses his game character to meet them at a certain time and place in the game and then hands over the gold to his customer's character. "In the beginning, this business did look strange, but it's an instant-gratification world we live in," Gmeinwieser said. "To make gold in 'Ultima,' you have to work chopping down trees, making bows and mining. People work, like, 50 hours a week in their real jobs. Who wants to go to 'Ultima' and work more?"

Buyers are willing to pay cash for such arcane game items as EverQuest's Short Sword of Ykesha (average EBay price: $170)--a powerful sword that kills monsters faster. Or the Hoary Mattekar Robe from "Asheron's Call" (about $50) that offers a lightweight protective armor. And the Blessed Surpassingly Accurate Durable Silver Katana of Vanquishing from "Ultima Online" ($300), a powerful sword that inflicts great damage.

Many customers are game players who do not have the time to spend battling for this hard-to-find gear, so they just buy it to speed up their enjoyment of the game.

"It speaks to the power of this medium that people are willing to pay for something that intrinsically is not real," said Toby Ragaini, design director for Turbine Entertainment Software Corp., the Westwood, Mass.-based developer of "Asheron's Call."

John Smedley, chief executive of Verant Interactive Inc. in San Diego, the creators of "EverQuest," said a group of players making about $10,000 a week from selling online gear was recently banned for violating the game's rules against selling items. "As funny as it is, it is also a kind of dark side of the game," Smedley said.

Selling Ban Doesn't Stop Auction Action

Verant last month warned "EverQuest" players that selling game gear is against the rules of the game and could get them banned. The company also has been thinking about asking EBay to stop carrying "EverQuest" game items, although no decision has been made.

Despite Verant's rules against selling game gear, more than 3,000 items from "EverQuest" are listed on EBay, ranging from $1 Rubicite Greaves to a much-prized Cloak of Flames that was going for $3,050--a princely sum that will buy for the lucky bidder a little extra speed, armor and the always-handy resistance to fire magic.

Who in their right mind would ever buy this stuff?

"Well, it's all helped me have more fun," said Joe Goldstein, a 54-year-old jewelry store owner in New Jersey who figures he has spent about $2,000 buying virtual weaponry. "When you're playing, the stuff all exists for you in that world. You just want the best armor and the best weapon to help your guy out."

The heart of these games is developing a character that has the right skills and abilities, such as sword wielding, war magic, healing, baking, magic resistance, invisibility, fishing and, in some games, alcohol tolerance.

For new game players, the first few weeks of playing can be miserable. Their characters are easily identified by their worthless leather armor and pathetic-looking short swords. In the most pitiful cases, new players who have lost all their equipment through repeated deaths run through the streets nearly naked (underpants and bras are usually the minimum attire) begging other adventurers with such lines as, "Got any spare armor?"

As Goldstein, the jewelry store owner, pointed out, no one wants to be a 98-pound weakling who gets sand kicked in the face by every two-bit Goblin Warlord. The trick is to get equipped with the most exotic armor and weapons to give a character abilities far beyond the typical newcomer.

Still, even for experienced players such as Ebaid and Lee, it took a year of playing before they realized the profit potential in collecting equipment. Even then they hesitated, because the very idea of turning a fun fantasy world into a profit-making venture seemed so contrary to the spirit of the game.

"I was really trying to resist," said Lee, who did not want his full name used for fear that he would be punished by Verant Interactive and other players. "But when I saw the prices on EBay, I thought, 'Who's crazier? Me playing for 12 hours a day or someone paying real money for an item that doesn't exist?' Well, we're both crazy. God bless America."

Big Spenders Say It's All for Fun

Buying game equipment is sometimes the only option for working people who can't dedicate their lives to online game playing.

One big customer is Jim, a 49-year-old real estate attorney in Georgia who would be happy to give his full name except that he says his wife would divorce him if she knew he has spent more than $5,000 equipping his "EverQuest" character.

Jim explained that buying virtual gaming gear is really not that different from, say, buying a book--in his case, lots of books.

"If you buy a book, it's not because you want to put a bunch of leather and paper on your bookshelf," he said. "You buy them for the ideas inside." Virtual gear, he said, is the same--well, almost. "But what difference does it make as long as you are having fun?"

For game designers such as Smedley, there actually is a big difference when players change from adventurers to profiteers.

He said there are numerous cases of players being cheated by bogus equipment hunters, who collect money but fail to turn over any items. The cheated player in turn blames game designer Verant for not cracking down on fraudulent merchants.

"The dark side is fraud," Smedley said. "People put us right at the center and that's not where we want to be."

Smedley said another big complaint is over hunters who continually stay in the same spot of the game, killing off the same monster to "farm" a precious item and prevent others from having a chance to collect it themselves.

Lee, the game hunter, said that such behavior is to be expected when so much money is at stake.

"If you play this game for 12 hours a day and make $2,000 a week, you definitely take it seriously," he said. "It's a business and it's totally competitive."

The creators of "EverQuest" say that some new rules in an upcoming expansion of their game should help reduce some of the farming problems.

But regardless of what new schemes are put into place, the equipment hunters say that there is no way to stop the wave of game hunters.

The makers of "Ultima Online" and "Asheron's Call" have largely resigned themselves to the practice, although they are not happy with it either. "I don't view farmers very highly, and as a game player I think it's sad," said Ragaini of "Asheron's Call." "But we have no policy against it."

There are well over two dozen massive multi-player online role-playing games in development, and most have the potential to be farmed. The upcoming game, "Diablo II," a sequel to a game that sold several million copies, will be a prime candidate for game hunters and could kick the farming industry into overdrive.

A Trend That Isn't Near Its End

Matt Householder, the producer of "Diablo II," said he is still uncertain about how his game will deal with this phenomena. "These are relatively uncharted waters," he said, adding that he has considered creating some sort of "escrow" service for equipment sales on the idea that if you can't beat them, you might as well join them.

For the game players, there is little doubt that equipment selling has become a fixed part of the online gaming world.

Ebaid has been so encouraged by his last few weeks of "EverQuest" farming that he just quit his $68,000-a-year day job as a networking technician to start a Web site dedicated to game equipment called Gamesauctions.com.

He is already looking for an office to rent and envisions a room full of game playing, minimum-wage high school students whacking monsters all night that he will sell.

"We could have a sweatshop of online gaming," he gushed. "I'm not joking. This could be very profitable."

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