One of the most interesting and unexpected things to arise from online gaming is the birth of real-world economies based on the value of persistent world game characters and items. When Ultima Online and EverQuest characters started appearing on eBay, a lot of people found it hard to believe that anyone was willing to exchange actual money for game items that are, after all, largely imaginary. Nevertheless, trade in these digital goods continues to grow, and it has already gone from being a pastime pursued only by a handful of hard-core gamers to being a fledgling industry in its own right.
Time is Money
We've all heard it said that time is money. This is no less true when it comes to persistent world online games. Under normal circumstances, it can take months or even years to work a character into the upper ranks of a game like EverQuest, or acquire some rare item that only drops on, say, the Plane of Complete Annihilation. I guess it should come as no surprize that many people are willing to spend a little extra to get there faster. In fact, since you're paying by the month to play in most cases anyway, purchasing what you need to get straight to the end game may even be cost effective for some people.
For those who are serious about trading in game economies, the epicenter of activity is Category 1654, Internet Games, on eBay. While not every item in the category is a game item (lately I've noticed quite a few manuals on how to make big money trading game items), it remains the most popular auction for virtual marketeers. Dr. Edward Castronova, an economics professor at California State University, has been compiling statistics related to the category, and in 2004 it racked up over $22 million in total sales. Several entrepeneurs have taken notice of this and started other auctions and currency exchanges that specialize in virtual game property.
Players and Publishers React
To be sure, not all online game publishers, or players, for that matter, are happy with the real-world trade in game assets. Sony has been quite firm on this issue, and they've successfully had SOE game items removed from eBay. Blizzard has sternly reminded World of Warcraft players that it is against their policy as well, and that anyone caught doing it will be banned. Naturally, the trade in gear for these games continues through other auctions, and it seems unlikely that either company has the power to eradicate it completely. Other game companies have taken a more hands-off approach, condoning and sometimes even facilitating the exchange of cyber goods.
One can easily imagine the assortment of potential problems this trend creates for game developers and gamers alike. Many people equate it with cheating, and consider it unfair that a player can buy their way into game status that would otherwise take many game hours to achieve. For the developer, it can escalate into a customer service nightmare. Support staff will find themselves on the receiving end of complaints about bad transactions and rip-offs, while cheaters are provided with an economic incentive to hack and exploit the game.
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