Monday, June 13, 2005

Wage Slaves

There’s a pretty fascinating article in Computer Gaming World this month.

Stop it. I’m serious. Yes, computer game magazines are probably dying, and for several good reasons, but that’s for another day.

The article is titled “Wage Slaves,” and it’s a piece of actual investigative reporting on MMORPG “sweatshops.” Believe it or not, there is an incredibly profitable industry devoted to making real money from online games by farming virtual money.

My conception of how this worked always involved one or two people making a living from playing an online game, but that’s not what this is about. This is profit on a large scale, involving dozens or even hundreds of employees (usually overseas) working for low hourly wages, gathering online currency and items that are then converted into unbelievable profits in the real world.

How much? Try 1.5 million dollars last year for a single operation from Star Wars Galaxies. One individual (named as “Smooth Criminal” in the article) claims to have made $700,000 in a single year.

Here’s a brief description of how this usually works. The brains write a program or find an exploit that can be used to gather in-game currency or valuable items). This is communicated (usually through an administration layer) to the workers who will actually gather the online currency. Then they hammer away. The resulting gold/items are then laundered through several accounts to avoid detection (and subsequent account termination) by the game provider. There are even resellers who facilitate these transactions.

I wrote last month about online games finding additional revenue streams, but I had no idea that the actual secondary market was this large. This makes Sony’s Station Exchange (an in-house auction site for EverQuest II) even more sensible. I would be very surprised if most online games don’t have in-house auction sites by the end of next year.

I’d like to congratulate writer James Lee for one of the very few pieces of investigative journalism I’ve ever seen about gaming.

I can’t find this article online yet, but when it does show up, I’ll post the link.

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