Balancing Act

Mark Wallace | 25 Oct 2005 12:01
Import/Export - RSS 2.0

Right now, it takes considerable effort to earn a real-world living in a virtual world. One 20-something gamer I recently spoke with said he earned about $25,000 a year in the three-and-a-half years in which trading Ultima Online artifacts was his only source of income. "I wasn't getting rich, but I wouldn't even call it work," he said. "It doesn't get any better than getting paid to play games."

But getting paid $25,000 a year to play Ultima Online is not, in the end, much of a living. (The gamer in question now earns more as a dog walker.) It's possible to do a lot better for yourself, but not without leaving the realm of play and getting deep in the world of work fairly quickly.

That's what Rich Thurman found during the two years in which he made more than $50,000 a year in the same game. Thurman's operation had no element of play to it at all. Instead, it involved a network of 30 highly complex bots - characters controlled completely via macro scripts and add-ons like EasyUO - run from 20 computers in Thurman's house in Dallas and 10 more in a friend's garage in Phoenix, Arizona. So extensively programmed was his "staff" that each bot would stop once it had made 250,000 gold, summon another bot that Thurman had programmed as his gold collector, hand over the loot and then go back to what it had been doing before. Once he got it down to a science, each of Thurman's bots was earning more than half a million gold pieces an hour. At prices of $15 per million gold pieces, Thurman's operation at times netted him more than $20,000 a month.

But it also took a lot of Thurman's time: Programming bots, dodging GMs, keeping accounts current, siphoning gold off to eBay and negotiating with angry players and other gold farmers became a more than full-time job. In the end, Thurman told me, "It's just not where I want to spend my time." Thurman took six months off in which a third daughter was born, he moved to a new city and he switched jobs, and he never went back to UO. "I realized that I was missing out," he said.

Besides missing his family, Thurman wasn't having any fun - and it's fun that is the main export product of just about every virtual world.

Economic analyses often view virtual worlds through a set of blinders that discount anything but traditional economic motives - that is, the theory that the people involved in an economy are always trying to maximize various types of personal gain. The problem with this theory as it's been applied is that it's singularly incapable of measuring many types of gain. It easily explains why people compare price versus quality before they buy, but it's not as good at explaining why you might blow a hundred dollars on a nice drawing by a local artist, say, even though you know he's never going to be the next Andy Warhol. It's also not very good at explaining why people spend money to have fun.

One of the staunchest defenders of virtual world fun is economist Edward Castronova of the University of Indiana, who specializes in the study of virtual economics. When you buy his forthcoming book, Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games (which you will do if you're more than casually interested in MMOGs, since it's an important piece of work), you'll be able to read about just how important Castronova thinks it is that we preserve entertainment in game worlds - and I agree with him. But economics may not be the best measure of what's fun in a game. By the same token, and more importantly for the future of the virtual import-export business, non-game worlds like Second Life may need to find a different economic model than the game world paradigm they currently operate on.

Castronova's view of virtual worlds is, not unexpectedly, deeply that of an economist. Few of the elements of virtual worlds have value - whether in terms of economics or of fun - except in relation to something else. That's all well and good; economics, as Castronova reminds us, is the study of choice under conditions of scarcity. Without two or more things to choose between, there's not much for economics to grab onto.

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