Books, culture, fishing, and other games

August 28, 2003

Absense Explained but not Excused

Yes, work interferes with blogging. But I must confess, it's not just work. I started playing Star Wars Galaxies, Sony Online Entertainment's latest MMPORPG ("massively multi-player online role-playing game," to you unwashed infidels!). At least this time I can tell myself it's time productively spent. Honest.

Okay, I have made use of my gaming, and even gotten paid small change for articles and such occasionally (more than from my poetry, less than from my fishing writing). Mostly, I admit, what's resulted from it has not been renumerative, though it has on occasion been satisfying. I was googling (verb: to google, to search the web using the Google search engine) on my name as I do occasionally, not out of vanity, no, but to see what sort of grimey fingerprints I'm leaving on the virtual whitespace. Some of the expected listings popped up, and some unexpected, but the one that made me smile was the re-listing of a scenario (Slash & Burn) I created for Civilization II (generation 2 of what is now 3 generations, following Sid Meier's hall of fame original game), and its "award" status among Civ fans. I did put a lot of work into it. I did a lot of graphics and sounds, added some original photos to the splash (Dad's pictures from the Amazon), and added notes on the setting and "logic" of the scenario. It was a labor of love.

Sadly, my second big effort, a scenario based on the golden age of piracy, never got released. It was playable. I should have released it as it was, rather than letting it languish in a directory on my hard drive.

Asides aside, my googling also turned up some articles and guides on other MMPORPGs that I'd forgotten I'd written and had no idea were around. It's amazing how conservative the web can be.

But in the process of poking around I came across an article by someone else on the economics of virtual worlds, such as those in which I live some of the time. I was aware that "virtual" funds and items were traded for "real" funds on auction sites, but I wasn't aware that this had drawn the attention of any academics. The only articles and papers I had come across were social in nature, not economic. The economies of some of these worlds, figuring in man hours, rate larger than those of some real world economies. Edward Castronova, PhD, Associate Professor of Economics, Cal State Fullerton, is one such academic who has a website with his studies of ebay activity involving the trading of goods and funds from virtual worlds for "real" funds.

I'd scratched my head (bad habit when you have as little hair as I do) over how to make a bit of money online, but I hadn't seriously considered trading virtual items recently. The markets, and the virtual worlds, were too underdeveloped when I last daydreamed scenarios in which I could move online. The last time I gave it serious thought was back in the very early days, 15 years ago, or so. Then I played a game on Compuserve called Island of Kesmai.

But that is now on the edge of possible. In fact, by my scribble-on-the-yellow-sticky calculations, it's possible to live at the upper edge of the poverty level online playing games and trading the virtual rewards for "real" funds. Of course, by violating major strictures in most terms of use for the games this could be stretched, but I'm avoiding the idea of pools of computers running mouse-move macros to automate the process of producing virtual value.

One gamer and student, Julian Dibbell, has already done a proof of concept test, but his involves trading more than labor. I can see that with a pool of capital (virtual and "real") one could study markets, as he has, and buy low and sell high to wealth (comparative), but my interest was more in whether the virtual funds could be created in game, then "exchanged" at the market rate for "real" funds.

It's a fine point, and smart trading, whether in the real world or the virtual worlds, is always more lucrative than production.

Julian Dibbell, at his blog, Play Money, is chronicling his journey to a 2004 tax filing in which he plans to list his primary source of income as "the sale of imaginary goods." I hope the IRS has enough humor left (excision of the humor organ is a pre-requisite of promotion) to recognise that he does not mean fraud. He's tracking his status in virtual gold and real dollars weekly, and he also tracks the trading on ebay. His estimate of the annualized trading activity on ebay of the items in the game he's "working" is $3.3 million, at current rates.

Julian had an article in the January 2003 Wired on the topic of trading in Ultima Online (UO). In that article he claimed UO qualified as the "79th richest nation on earth." He calculated the hourly wage at $3.42 at that time.

I'm not sanguine that that rate is possible without resorting to macros and computer farms. (With those, of course, it can be surpassed.) I figure 2-3 computers can be managed simultaneously by one played, with sufficient attention to respond to others in game. This prevents accusations of away-from-keyboard macroing, a no-no in most games, and a bannable offense.

As I work on this entry, another computer is dedicated to mining asteroids in Eve Online. That's an activity that (done mostly AFK) doesn't pay well, but it is producing while I am actually working (or writing) on real-world projects. It's a mostly unattended activity, and boring, when done in a safe sector (no pirates to warp in and start shooting due to heavy police presence), requiring only occasional retargetting to a new asteroid, or a trip to a station to unload. How much does it pay? Not much, but it's something. I estimate about 150,000 isk per hour. Isk is currently trading at around 250,000 per dollar on ebay, so that's 60 cents per hour. It's background, not really profitable.

On the other hand about 20 hours of that covers my monthly fee for the game. Abother 80 hours of one-time work covers the cost of the game itself. At that point this silly hobby is paying for itself in cash flow. That sounds like a lot of time, but remember it's multi-tasked time. It runs mostly on its own.

I could mine a lot faster, but that takes attention and multiple ships. Ships that mine fast can't haul much; ships that haul a lot can't mine fast: it's a designed-in Catch-22. When I actively play the game, though, I prefer to trade commodities. There is a limited amount of supply and demand generated daily, so the opportunities (while somewhat random) are limited. I usually pull in 3-10 million more per week trading a few hours a day. I had a good run last week in that I found a big supply of booze cheap. It took me a week to sell it all off to the steady trickle of demand, but I netted around 8 million from the whole deal.

I don't know what kind of legs Eve will have though. It's a smaller game, produced by a group in Iceland. It has real possibilities, and for a game of its size it has an active trading presence on ebay. But I worry. I will probably sell down my current account of over 120 million and sell off my second account soon. I've sold one lot of 10 mil and three of 2 mil to date, just testing the waters, and have two more lots of 2 mil listed now. So far I'm making $4.6875 per million gross (before auction fees and such). At that rate my current holdings in Eve (excluding the value of the developed avatars themselves) are worth around $550. The two accounts should bring at least $50 each.
My investment is around $80 for the two boxes, and about 4 months of fees at $13 per month. Don't ask me to calculate my hourly "pay." That would involve admitting how many hours I played.

All of this started with my statement that I've started playing Star Wars Galaxies. I wanted to see how it worked a a game, of course, but I also was curious about what opportunities to "profit" might arise in a game on such a popular franchise. So far it does look that great, though it has possibilities. As with other huge games, it's broken into individual servers, so virtual gods are tied to the economy of one server. I chose a new server, which might be strategically sound from a game-play perspective (better chance to become "someone of note" fast, which can help business), but isn't from an immediate opportunity stantpoint. It's easier to make money in an active economy than a struggling one.

A quick search on funds beings traded on that server pulled up a slim list, and the bidding was thinner. So far it looks like credits for at a rate of about 10,000 credits per dollar. The one active aution at this moment, though, has 100,000 credits going for $20.50, so there's hope. Another, older server, appears to trade actively at $2 per 10,000 credits. I've found I can earn around 15,000 credits per hour with a starting character doing donkey-work missions. That's getting close to Julian's number for UO.

What I don't know yet is how profitable a developed character, one that specializes in producing items in large demand (preferably consumables, for the steady stream of demand), can be. The game allows for a large degree of automation in production and selling, though both require daily (or more) "touch." Still, such an environment has a lot of potential for multi-tasking within the terms of use.

And I have accounts, inactive but live if I resume monthly fees, in several other games. I could pay one month's fee to inventory those characters and sell them off, or could take a hard look at the markets there. I know my Everquest (EQ) and Dark Ages of Camelot (DAoC) accounts fall into this category, and others may also. I should at least sell the accounts, as they have developed characters, if I decide not to do some business in those worlds.

Of course, it must be said, I'm not talking about income anywhere near the range for my real world work. It's more than one order of magnitude of difference. But this is fun! And mostly stress-free.

And I can dream.

Posted by dan at August 28, 2003 03:24 PM
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