"Great Money Maker!" cries one ad. "Ultimate Money Maker account!" enthuses another. EBay is thick with advertisements hawking characters that can earn gamers status in the virtual world -- and some cool, hard cash. For folks who inhabit the worlds of massive multiplayer role-playing games EverQuest or Ultima Online, auctioning talents on eBay has become a fun way to make fast bucks. Build up a character, earn some platinum pieces and sell them all to the highest bidder -- for hundreds, even thousands of dollars.
"Ruekilla" (his gaming handle) is a 24-year-old student who says he "made $1,747 in two weeks by selling platinum, then the next week sold my character for $1,500." He has sold four of his own creations, because he was "getting out of control" and spending too much time playing. "People need to make extra cash somehow," he says. "This is a quick, easy way to do it, and if you earned it, you can sell it."
Earning items like platinum or precious jewels is part of the fun of a role-playing game, or RPG. To play EverQuest or Ultima Online, you first buy the game itself and then establish an account that allows you to enter the online multiplayer world. Then, you choose a character and begin wandering the world. Along the way, you build up experience, gather items like platinum pieces by killing monsters or doing good deeds, forge alliances with other characters and so on. Through such efforts your character can gain new skills (like the ability to craft armor) and magic spells, as well as the ability to move into higher levels of the game. But it can be quite time-consuming to build a high-level character -- which is why some people are opting to buy ready-made accounts instead.
Twenty-one-year old "Jim" (who, like most of the gamers interviewed for this story, prefers to remain anonymous) is an administrator for an Internet service provider -- and an EverQuest fanatic. He says he plays as much as 60 hours a week and claims to have reached level 24 in less than a day -- an extraordinary feat. Jim has played so much and gotten so good, he's now trying his hand at building characters for people who are either too lazy, too impatient or too busy to build their own. And he's charging real-world money for his services.
So far, he estimates that he's made about $2,000. He has "personally built about six [characters] now," but says that more than "20 total have passed through my hands." Three friends pitch in and help when he's too busy. And, he says, there is a waiting list of about 30 people who want him to build characters for them too. Jim is considering taking a vacation from his regular job to concentrate on gaming; he figures he "could easily make $10,000 in a month if I had the time."
Jim wants to build the characters now, while the market -- and his services -- are hot. EverQuest formally launched in March; so it's had time to become popular, but not enough time for most players to fully develop their skills. But Jim expects that before long, "more and more people [will] become experienced and stronger and able to obtain the things they want" all by themselves. So, he's looking at "character building" as a short-term career; he figures three months from now the demand will have dwindled. But, at $10,000 a month, he could put away a chunk of change before the market slows.
Of course, not everyone who offers goods on eBay meets with the success Jim and Ruekilla have found. A powerful character -- a level 31 wizard with all kinds of accouterments -- was listed at a greedy $1,000 a few weeks ago; but even as the auction reached its final hours, not a single bidder had emerged. And seller "oogog" had no luck auctioning a server and domain name, planeteverquest.com, for $20,000; perhaps it was priced a bit high.
Other troubles, too, have beset account auctioners on eBay. Origin, the maker of Ultima Online, said last month it had dismissed one of its employees for taking advantage of his position with the company as a game master -- a staffer paid to play, help newbies, solve problems and generally keep things running smoothly. The industry scuttlebutt is that the game master was selling items on eBay.
Origin declined to elaborate on an announcement it posted on June 28, which said that the company "found reason to believe that this employee was engaging in activities that breached the trust that must exist between a company, its employees, and its customers ... We are grateful to players who bring these incidents to our attention, as these reports are used to ensure that [Origin] representatives are providing the best possible service at all times."
Given that the game master, or GM, is supposed to be in the game to help out -- and that he has far more power in the game and access to items than an ordinary player would, precisely so that he can assist others -- using that power for personal gain is sketchy behavior at best.
"I think firing the GM is too nice," Scott Holmes, co-owner of the EverQuest Guilds fan site, said in an e-mail. "If UO [Ultima Online] has any legal recourse they should take it; that GM has permanently tarnished UO's reputation." He says that among his friends, "UO has come up in conversation five times in the last week, and the conversation always starts with the GM who was selling items on eBay and ends up with 'I'm glad I don't play there.'"
Origin may now be keeping a tight watch on GMs, but it has absolutely no objection to players selling items on eBay: "It's not illegal in Origin's eyes," says spokesman David Swofford. Although Origin obviously prefers that people play the game from start to finish themselves to get the full Ultima Online experience, Swofford says that most of the people buying accounts are already players and may well be buying new characters simply to broaden their experiences in the game, something he thinks is of real value.
As for people creating characters solely for the purpose of selling them and using the game to make money, the Ultima world "is a reflection of the real world," he says; "people are welcome to play the game that way."
But Ultima Online is no longer the prime RPG territory. These days EverQuest, created by 989 Studios and published via Sony's Station Web site, is the hot ticket. And EverQuest's makers are less enthusiastic about the commercialization of their game. An EverQuest spokeswoman said she couldn't comment until her response had been vetted by 989's legal department -- but more than a week after we first spoke, the lawyers had approved no statement.
Meanwhile, eBay -- the site of most of the auctions -- takes a hands-off approach to dealing with the sales of EverQuest and Ultima accounts. All transactions are "between the buyer and seller," according to Kevin Pursglove, eBay's senior director for communications. If a seller were doing something illegal, or if a company complained that intellectual property rights were being infringed upon, eBay would investigate, but otherwise it stays out of all transactions. EBay would neither confirm nor deny receiving complaints regarding Everquest and Ultima.
The RPG community itself is split on its view of the trade in characters and items. More hardcore players seem to be in favor of playing the game through, rather than buying your way in, but so far there have been no protests against the practice. "About half don't like it, and the other half are the ones making money," said one player.
A thread running on the EverQuest Guild message boards right now talks about this very issue -- and there's little to no hostility over it. "If they want to miss out on the fun of building their own character and waste $1,000, then I don't really care," posted "Falpus." Another poster joked, "I wouldn't sell my guy for [$1,000]; someone else's guy -- that's different. Hey, anyone have a level 50 character I can sell?"
EverQuest fan Holmes, however, isn't making any jokes about the auctioning. "I think it undermines the quality of the game. I have played on text MUDs [multi-user domains] for years, and when a character is sold, the rest of the characters resent the character. The new owner did not earn that character or put in the many hours to get it to where it is now. The distrust for the character turns to distrust of the gods [in the game] and the game itself, as it leads to assuming the gods themselves are selling characters and items, and then players leave," he says.
"There are two types of players who make up the RPG community," adds Holmes. "You have the players who want to role-play and have fun, which I would say is about 75 percent of the people, and the other 25 percent who will do whatever it takes to make sure they have the best character possible." Here Holmes is adamant: "No one likes the 25 percent and the 25 percent don't even like each other."
A 19-year-old student named Serge takes a more world-weary view of it all: "I don't have any problems with selling items; I'm not particularly happy with it, but it was obvious people would do it. Buying items ... well, there's a sucker born every minute."
But, Serge figures, players stand to benefit from the market for items and characters. "Once you tire of the game, your time spent playing it isn't a complete waste," he says. Serge figures that in five years, time spent playing the game could be a whole new career; he predicts people will be making big money on gaming.
"Demand [for in-game items and characters] is not an issue after a certain point," he argues in an e-mail. "There are enough new players coming in so that there will always be a 'floor price' for low amounts of platinum. (If your 5,000-platinum auction doesn't get enough, auction off 100 platinum lots and it will.) ... In the next few years, I think you'll see a lot of people making in the $50,000 a year range just playing games."
Ruekilla agrees that making a lot of money is possible. "At level 50, my character made around 5,000 plat a day," he says. "I could sell 35,000 plat a week, selling at about $800 a bundle, so that means $5,600 a week. " He admits that this is only possible "if you're lucky and can find people to buy all that platinum. Making $1,000 a week is totally realistic though," he adds.
The idea of going pro has long been pushed by the Professional Gamers' League (PGL), which was formed in 1997 with the goal of turning gaming into a spectator sport and building a stable of "professional gamers."
Several years ago, Thresh, a master Quake player, was heralded as the first real "star gamer," the Michael Jordan of the PGL. He won Quake developer John Carmack's Ferrari and big prize money in Quake tournaments -- and the hype was hot in both the mainstream and gaming press. But though the PGL is still holding tournaments and awarding prizes (Bon "Kuin" Danan recently won $10,000 in a Quake II tournament), it just hasn't taken off the way some hoped it would -- and the buzz about pro gaming has all but disappeared.
Aren't the young men who think they can make a living playing RPGs and selling characters overly optimistic?
"I seriously doubt that there would be enough of a market to make a living selling RPG items or characters," says John Gray, a computer consultant, who at 31 has racked up 15 years of RPG experience. "Earning the items to be sold would be a very time-intensive process ... If you could make a living doing that, I'm probably in the wrong career!"
It would indeed take a lot of time and energy to earn a living building characters for others and selling items -- enough that the pleasures of gaming might simply be converted into the stresses of work. That's probably why most of the people you are likely to encounter while playing EverQuest are doing just that -- playing.
In fact, a few weeks of probing the gaming community turned up not one soul who is actually succeeding at it. Instead, the waning demand expected by Jim is already noticeable. As recently as three weeks ago, a quick scan of eBay turned up a half-dozen items selling for $800 or more; on Friday, there were no EverQuest-related auctions to be found at such prices. And platinum pieces, which sold for a dollar apiece two months ago, are now often priced at three to the dollar.
What would-be pros would need to stay in business is a constant stream of new RPGs, creating fresh demand for new items and characters. But the major-hype games don't come out every day; the next one expected to be a big deal -- Asheron's Call -- isn't scheduled until this fall. Another approach would be to figure out a way to auction on eBay pieces from other game genres -- like first-person shooters, 3-D action-adventure games, racing games, sims and the whole lot. But that would take a monumental shift in the gaming industry.
It's too early to consider character building a true profession, but that's not stopping the dreamers. Jim, for one, plans to use his formidable gaming skills to supplement his income for as long as he can.