Another Day Older And A Book Deal
On Tuesday, March 11, 2003, I announced to my family, my friends, and anyone else who happened to look at my website that I was embarking on a new profession: I was going to start a business selling make-believe commodities, and I was going to get rich doing it.
So begins Julian Dibbell's Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job And Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot, an engaging account of one man's adventure into the virtual property (VP) and real money trade (RMT) underground. Much ink has been spilled on both sides of the debate, from those who think it's inevitable (self plug) and are adapting to those who decry it from the ramparts and fight desperately to stop the creep of legitimacy, but there's been very little from the perspective of farmers and traders who actually go into games, farm gold or items, and resell them to make a living.
I thought this would be another get-rich-quick gimmick book-"millions" on the cover is usually a dead giveaway, though in this case, it was about $4,000 in cash and millions of UO gold-and was surprised to find a very engaging and interesting account of one man's life on the virtual frontier. Play Money is alternately an economic treatise and one man's adventure through this rather hazy area where lawyers have not yet tread and government has not yet come down. The forces of Law and Order are coming, which means this will also be an interesting snapshot of a vanished era in a few years, once the corporations arrive and start trying to legislate or profit the freewheeling P.T. Barnum-era of this little corner of the Internet out of existence.
And, actually, he's like most of us. He looked around one day and realized he was spending a lot of time in Ultima Online and wondered if he could give it a point, give it a little meaning for the twenty hours a week or so he was putting into it. In this, he's just like anyone else who's found themselves whacking one more foozle and pondering what it all means. Dibbell goes in as a bit of a wide-eyed entrepreneur, following the sales of virtual items and meeting the buyers and sellers before jumping into the fray himself. He also weaves nimbly from personal narratives into cold, hard facts. I vaguely knew VP was big business, but I was staggered to realize the scope of it. Take current golden boy World of Warcraft...
Merely getting yourself off to a respectable start might entail buying a Level 60 Alliance warrior account from a departing player ($1,999 on Ebay), a Dwarven Hand Cannon ($20 worth of gold coins at the in-game auction house), a pair of Abyssal Plate Legplates of Striking ($10 at the auction house), an extremely rare Baby Murloc Pet just for kicks ($500 on eBay), and maybe five thousand extra gold coins for living expenses ($250 from an online currency broker). And that's just one night's expenditures, for one player, in one of the many games that sustain this ethereal market. Worldwide, annual sales of virtual goods run to an estimated $880 million and growing.
That's monocle-popping stuff.
The book actually has all sorts of interesting little nuggets to chew on: economic analysis, Dibbell's adventures, a psychological profile of why MMOG players keep on clicking (he memorably chronicles one construction worker who does bone-jarring, repetitive labor, then comes home to do finger-jarring, repetitive labor of the same sort), designers and hackers and traders locked in endless competition, the history of computing, e-drama galore (and with the loss of thousands of dollars), tax law (did you know you have to declare illegal income or wind up like Capone?) and so on.
Where Dibbell excels, though is in making all this information engaging. He makes in-game accounts of battling lizardmen interesting and paints a colorful picture of the characters he deals with as he moves into life as a trader, while keeping a sense of the very personal. It's possible to feel his frustration as a deal goes sour, his delight when he makes a big sale, his regret when he low-balls a guy selling a character with years of play behind it. It's one of the first books I've read about gaming that's not heavy theory or dry history. It's, you know, interesting.
By the time he goes pro about midway through the book, we've been well and truly introduced to the world, and it actually feels like we're diving in with him. What interested me most in the book was the way he conveyed the sense of discovery, the way pieces to the puzzle would suddenly come together. What also struck me was the day-to-day grind of it wearing him down. He goes from wide-eyed entrepreneur to worn, grizzled e-businessman, like anyone else going into their first job and discovering it's just work. By the end of it, he's like any other jaded player trying to remember when and if they ever had fun with the game, be it buying and selling in UO or playing UO for its own merits.
If there's a downside to the book, it's the occasional use of blog posts to substitute where writing would do. I found myself skimming the last chapter or two, simply because it was blog post-small paragraph-blog post and reading someone else's blog long after the entry has gone up isn't that interesting. He also slipped into leetspeak from time to time. Call me a classicist, but I cringed every time I read "noob" and "pwned" inserted into the text. Yeah, yeah, I know, it's the lingo of the genre he's working in, but I hate seeing people talking like that in games I play, much less reading them in a book.
Angry players and developers looking for a morality play or clues on fighting farmers won't find anything to chew on in here. These people spend hundreds of hours hammering at the most obscure aspects of the game, looking for holes, bugs, any economic advantage they can use-one old UO bug, for example, involved buying raw poultry from an NPC, cooking it, and reselling it to that same NPC for about twice the price-and reaping the rewards from it. Buried in Dibbell's tome is a good lesson on economics, in this case, if there is a market-and there is-there are people who will seek to fill it and reap the profit.