Club Xanadu

I log in to Entropia on a Friday night to visit Club Neverdie. I’m here to meet a man and interview him, if possible. The man is Jon Jacobs, and I’m sure I’ll know him when I see him – he almost always dresses like a pimp.

Club Neverdie, named after Jacobs’ avatar, is an indoor portion of a giant asteroid Jacobs purchased from MindArk, Entropia‘s developer, for $100,000 – real dollars. He planned on charging players a fee to access the asteroid, which would provide a bunch of “biodomes” housing loot-dropping monsters and a shopping mall through which they could sell items, in addition to the nightclub.

Following the instructions on Jacobs’ website, I created my character and spawned inside what looks like a spaceship hangar. I stumble around a bit, trying to find my way to the club when a woman dressed in an orange teddy approaches me and asks if I’m lost.

I tell her I’m trying to get a look around before I spend some time with Jacobs, and ask her if she knows him. She says she knows him by reputation, and then tells me one of those “he talked to me once!” stories you hear from people who live in LA and hang out on Sunset Boulevard. As she takes me around a large shopping mall and into the club, I run into a bunch of telescreens fixed on walls along corridors, all playing music videos starring Neverdie, Jacob’s in-game avatar, and Jacobs himself, oscillating between virtual and real life. People mill around, dressed like Neverdie, with a funny hat and pimp suit. When I tell them why I’m here, that I plan on talking to The Creator, I become a star, too. I’m in a cult of personality, and I’m a prophet among believers.

It’s clear Jacobs is selling an image these people are buying, but I’m just not sure what the image is. Is it the European playboy turned actor turned director turned powergamer? The club owner so hip the real world can’t accommodate him? It isn’t until I reach the area called the Control Room that I discover the answer.

Off, Off E3
When I first met Jon Jacobs, several months earlier, he was dressed like a pimp from the year 2020.

I was in Los Angeles, attending an offshoot of E3 called eFocus, an annual Tuesday-night, invite-only soiree held by companies too small to pony up the thousands of dollars they’d need to reserve an E3 booth.

Jacobs was the only one there wearing a fuzzy suit. It was purple, made of velvet with a matching furry hat. He and his assistant, a statuesque black woman wearing a leopard-print leotard with shoulder pads, were standing in front of an HDTV showing off a virtual dance club complete with speakers pumping out house music. He pulled me over to the TV and explained that the nightclub actually existed inside a virtual world (he was very careful not to say game), called (at the time) Project Entropia. The people dancing to the music were doing so to the very same music we were yelling over in person. He fiddled a bit with a laptop behind a podium and zoomed out the camera, showing an avatar of himself, with the same hat and suit.

“That’s me,” he said. “That’s Neverdie.”

It was at this point that I had a brief moment of clarity: I’d heard about this guy before. Project Entropia, now called Entropia Universe, was one of the first companies to get on board with real money trade (RMT) in MMOGs. Rather than leaving their economy a closed system, MindArk allowed players to buy currency directly from the company at an exchange rate of 10 PED (Project Entropia Dollars) to US$1. When the dollar rises and falls, so does the PED, making it the first virtual currency you could conceivably trade on a futures market. What’s more, players have the option to withdraw the PED they make in the game into real-life bank accounts, meaning it’s possible to make a legitimate business out of your leisure. And that’s what Jacobs meant to do.

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Van Damme and Larry King
Even Jon Jacobs’ past is larger than life. Born to an infamous powerbroker who bordered on Bond-villain level eccentricity (the British press referred to him as Mr. X, and he’s actually quoted as saying, “I’ll be back again, richer than ever!”) and a former Miss U.K., Jacobs grew up in a posh London district five doors down from Paul McCartney. He grew up dreaming to be an actor, but he quickly found gaming to be a distracting passion.

“There was a moment, a very key moment, in my life when I was about 15 or 16. I was playing a lot of single-player RPGs on the PC. I really was extremely passionate about [gaming]. I loved it. I could just lose hours and hours in there. And I was spending more time doing that than I was developing my craft as an actor. And I did question myself and said, ‘Do I wanna get into this? Do I want to make games?’ And I said, ‘No, I want to make movies. I want to act in movies.’

“[Van Damme] already knew about me from some of my independent movies,” says Jacobs, speaking of the project which would ultimately lead to his work on Neverdie. By the time he met Jean Claude Van Damme, Jacobs had appeared in 31 movies, directed eight and written seven. “[Van Damme] asked to have a meeting with me, and asked what I might wanna do with him. At the time I was playing [EverQuest], actually buying items for real money. I thought this whole concept was fantastic. I projected a few years into the future and I imagined that people would start dealing big money for virtual items, and [a character named] Neverdie would be the world champion, finding great, great treasures and [being] interviewed by Larry King. And I wrote this script – Van Damme loved it,” he says, but ultimately, he ran into budgeting problems, and the movie never underwent production. “It would have cost about $100 million to make. … That’s why I put it on the shelf for the time being, and just [started] playing Neverdie myself.”

Neverdie was one of Entropia‘s first residents. Disenfranchised by SOE’s decision to outlaw RMT in EverQuest, Jacobs heard about Entropia‘s beta and bought into it immediately.

A Virtual Promised Land, 20 Miles Up
“In 2004, I had the most valuable avatar,” says Jacobs, speaking of his first, unsuccessful, attempt to buy land for Club Neverdie. “I was worth $25,000. That was the value of Neverdie’s equipment. I acquired all of that stuff. … I sold [my] greatest equipment to buy [the land]. And some kid, a 22-year-old, deposited, I don’t know, must’ve deposited $40-50,000 in order to buy it out himself.” He ultimately lost the auction to the other buyer; the final bid was $26,500. Rather than admit defeat, Jacobs resolved to win the next big-ticket auction, no matter what. (“I’ll be back again, richer than ever!”)

October is the tail-end of hurricane season in the eastern U.S., and Jacobs lives in Miami. As luck would have it, Hurricane Wilma was bearing down on him, as the auction for the asteroid that would become Club Neverdie went up with a buyout of $100,000. He opted to weather the storm, afraid he wouldn’t have an internet connection in a shelter and would be unable to participate in the auction. As Wilma rolled her way through, Jacobs committed to the asteroid’s buyout price mere minutes before he lost power. In order to come up with the $100,000, he had to mortgage his house. I asked him what he was thinking.

“At that point, it no longer became possible to use only money that you built up inside the world to acquire the greatest treasures,” he answered. “It became a mix of both realities. I had to use my real-world resources. … I had no choice.”

I thought I was talking to a madman. The guy, in some sort of competitive frenzy, rode out one of the most powerful forces of nature and borrowed on his equity to play Asteroid Tycoon. But when he started explaining his profit model, I remembered how blurred the lines between genius and insanity usually are.

While the nightclub is his main entertainment draw, he says the majority of time people spend on the asteroid is inside the 20 biodomes he’s created. Inside, players listen to live streams of the music in the club and hunt exotic creatures he’s specifically bred to produce valuable loot, and they also mine for rare minerals. “I tax everything that’s dug up, all the loot, essentially,” he tells me. “I have a 5.5 percent tax rate. It’s automatically deducted. … You don’t even miss it. I think I’ve got it worked out that, on average, I make about $1.50 per hour [per person]. They’re not paying me, that’s just the revenue on their turnover.”

His strategy is working, too: In his best month, he’s cleared $20,000 gross profit in taxes (meaning players have churned over $363,000 in loot in one month), and he’s paid for the asteroid in eight months. That’s $100,000 in less than a year, for what’s essentially a one-man operation.

“In the real world, a nightclub in a major metropolis will easily do $5 million a year,” he says. “This is the number one nightclub, really, online. Once I think people start to go to virtual reality as quickly as they go to a website, imagine the traffic of the number one place to go!” Jacobs estimates, given the square footage he has now, he could increase his revenue by 20-fold, or up to $400,000 in revenue per month. All he’s waiting on is more digital pilgrims, which he’s working on leading to his promised land.

Visiting Xanadu for a Championship Fight
Inside Club Neverdie, about a dozen people are standing around, all trying to sell their loot. The chat window fills up with pre-recorded macros; everyone trying to move something. What Jacobs sells is success, the idea that you, too, can achieve the Digital American Dream, starting from nothing and amassing enough wealth to buy your own asteroid, your own otherworld. Just standing in the room, looking out at the disco and the biodomes, you can all but smell the opportunity mixed with tinges of desperation.

The Control Room is bustling. A few little Neverdies are parading around in their purple suits, and girls in teddies in any number of colors are milling about. That’s when I see him: Jacobs’ Neverdie is dressed in warrior gear, in distinct red armor and glasses hidden under a helmet. People know him by visual cue. Wherever he goes, people follow.

He takes me on a tour to where he creates his monsters; his own Frankenstein’s lab. He says he spends over $1,000 per month on the special DNA he needs to tweak each monster. Lately, he’s been cultivating cotton-dropping monsters. “Jeans have just been introduced into Entropia Universe,” he tells me. “So there’s been, like, a denim revolution. And the wool is only found on one particular creature. People want to hunt them in a controlled environment.” He explains that he’s specially bred creatures that drop lots of wool, and he’s spawned a ton of them, giving people a reason to hunt where he can tax them. “If you’re hunting for an hour or two, you’ll kill thousands. If you’re hunting on the planet, you’d be lucky if you find 300.”

We move into the two nightclubs on the asteroid. The first is a small, old school disco complete with a checkered floor, but it is empty. We stroll over to the second, which is huge. Hard house music starts booming through my speakers as we enter. Giant statues of silhouetted naked women rise three stories from the ground up to the ceiling. Two people are dancing. The maximum capacity (if the club were real) would probably be around 180. Given how packed the Control Room is, I figure most people are focusing on the upcoming event.

Jacobs took me to the VIP area, a beautifully laid out section over the dance floor with a private bar and lounge area. He pointed out a golden egg the size of a small boulder. “I paid $10,000 for that. No one knows what’s going to hatch.” I marveled for a second, but by the time I reconciled the fact that I was looking at an egg in a videogame that cost more than my first car, Jacobs had disappeared down a hallway. “This way!” he called as he shuffled his way into another room.

When I caught up to him, he was inside a club-ish bedroom with three nude mannequins posing around it. “For special parties,” he said. I asked him if the mannequins, you know, did anything. “No, just for show.” Before I could get much more of an impression, he was off again, heading back in the direction of the event.

“The idea is to create the first global event to find the champions and the heroes [of gaming],” says Jacobs. “Using the rules as best we can to make it appealing to people who haven’t built up characters over the years in Entropia. … It could reach the level of million-dollar prizes and hundreds of thousands of people competing. We’re gonna film the first one for TV, so we can show how exciting an event of this kind can be.”

Other members of the tournament explain that it will last two hours; whoever accumulates the highest value of loot wins. With 30 minutes left, players will be able to set bounties on one another in an effort to slow each other down. With five minutes left, players will be able to attack anyone they like.

The competition goes as planned, with Neverdie continually flirting for a spot in the top three. I have to wonder, though, when does the king not win the jousting tournament?

“He never dies!”
Jacobs has taken steps to ingrain himself in the world’s memory. He’s commissioned a theme song, which plays on his website and throughout the club. Tack on a preternatural charisma and a genuine love for all things virtual, and you’ve got a guy who’s not short for the world.

And that seems to be Jacobs’ main push. How does a man whose parents put him next to a Beatle do better than the generation before him? Easy: Conquer a moon. And if that doesn’t work, you’ve got forever to keep trying.

The Escapist, a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist. Joe Blancato, a young Associate Editor on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the powerless, the helpless in a world of criminals who operate above the law. Joe Blancato, a lone crusader in a dangerous world. The world … of The Escapist.

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