From Gamer Gold to Cold, Hard Cash
Turning virtual trade of massive online games into money in your pocket
It's a colorful world of valor and honor and monster killing. The in-game conversation sucks, usually. But the conversation sucks in real life, too, and everyone is less likely to have perfect breasts.
Welcome to World of Warcraft, where the women are gorgeous and most likely staffed by boys making fart jokes. The plots of your quests involve heroism, daring and life-or-death situations. But of course it wasn't long before good, old-fashioned greed started feeding all the pressure to achieve. That's human nature. And blood elf nature and orc nature and ...
It's a great tool for procrastination, because when you enter Azeroth, the huge and multi-climated world, you've got things to do, things to make, things to buy and things to sell, all accompanied by a sense of fulfillment as you ding (that's slang for level). It was the buying and selling that got Sam. He won't use his real name, because he's something of a WoW outlaw, though a small-time one.
Before we go there, let's start by saying that WoW subscribers number more than 8.5 million. Each player can have as many toons (that's characters) as they like, though they're limited to eight per server. Each alt (another word for character) can have two professions used to make items you need in the game. It takes work and time to level up your profession and make good items. Items are also dropped by monsters you've killed. Some of them are super rare and hard to get.
Sam began his life of WoW crime in a totally legit way. He would wake up early in the morning when lots of players were logged on and buy items in the in-game auction house. Then he would sell it late at night to other players for 10 times what he bought it for. "I didn't actually farm for gold as most people think of farming for gold," he says. "I was almost a stock broker in a way." He would buy a five-gold item bright and early, then sell it for 40 or 50 gold to the late-night crowd. One wonders when he slept.
It's called "auction house flipping," and it's perfectly legal, according to WoW rules. What's illegal is the next step Sam took. He made between 4,000 and 5,000 gold in a matter of weeks. With almost 10,000 gold on his hands, he began selling it online for real money to other players. He made a little more than 1,500 bucks, real American dollars, by selling gold for those three months. "I did it mostly because I could," Sam says. "I turned these fake items into something real." He never tried to estimate how much he was making per hour.
But it's probably more than 30 cents, which is what Li Qiwen makes in Nanjing, China, where he goldfarms for a living. Paralleling real-world economy in some ways, Sam doesn't sell gold anymore for money, because it's no longer profitable. Little plants have sprung up all over China and other countries, where people play WoW for a living. According to a June 17 New York Times Magazine article, Li pulls down $1.25 for every 100 gold coins he turns over to his supervisor. The company sells them for $3 to an online retailer, who then sells them to players for $20.
Sam's estimates are even lower. He says he used to sell 100 gold for $10 during the first year of WoW, which came out in November 2004. "Now it's gone as low as $1.50 for 100 gold," he says. "A lot of corporations have taken hold of the whole gold economy. If you wanted to do that now, it's not really effective."
There's another way to make real money off the virtual world. William Bolt's never done it himself, but the semi-casual two-year subscriber knows people who have. Players put in hours, days, weeks, months leveling up characters to the top, which is 70. When one friend decided to give up the game last year, he sold his high-level account for about a grand.
These days, again because of the companies, top-level characters are going for more like a couple hundred. "I understand that the people who use World of Warcraft to make money by selling their characters or by selling gold or items are technically breaking the terms of service as set up by Blizzard, but I don't see it as that big of a problem," Bolt says. "Especially with selling characters, a lot of people feel they're not selling property of Blizzard, rather they're selling the time they invested in it."
One of the people Sam sold gold to reported his character to the game's administrators. His account was blocked for 72 hours. "That's the point where I stopped," he says. "I didn't feel like getting my account banned. I did work hard for it." He never felt bad about selling gold, though, Sam says. But he knows it inflates the economy, especially since the gold sweatshops have horned in on the action. "It's basically to the point where you have to always get a lot of gold or be buying gold to get some of the stuff on there."
Bolt says that's true, but there's also an upside. Though you'll see alts in their teens with 1,000 gold because they bought it with their Visa online, Bolt can sell the items his character crafts for more, too. "The whole economy on that server will get inflated, but as a ‘legitimate’ player, if one of my skills is mining, if I want to sell a stack of copper, all of a sudden I can sell it for a lot more."
Though WoW boasts an international subscription base, Sam estimates that most of the players buying gold for real money are American. "Why wait for your present when you can get it instantly?" he says is the U.S. mindset. Why work for your gold when you can just buy it?
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