Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Virtual worlds and outsourcing

The Times reports on World of Warcraft, an online multiplayer role-playing game with over 1 million US subscribers, and 1.5 million Chinese subscribers (in the US, players pay $30-50 for the software and $15 per month in subscription fees). Games like this have spawned their own real-world economies, with markets in magic items, gold, powerful characters, etc. Impatient players pay real money to buy these things from entrepreneurs employing bot-watching "farmers" in countries like India and China.

With this level of interest, it's not surprising that online gaming is driving interesting technology development. The new game from Sims creator Will Wright, called Spore, looks like a pretty good take on artificial life and virtual evolution.

The real money is made by the people with the resources and the right programs. Rich Thurman earned $100,000 by farming 9 billion gold in Ultima Online. A longtime user of the macro easyUO, Thurman says he had "up to 30 PCs running at once, automatically collecting gold for me."

That is the first step. It isn't too difficult from there to make the leap into creating your own sweatshop. All you need is the ability to write game macros or the money to purchase them. That's right, if you know where to look, they are on the open market. A macro that uses a teleportation exploit in WOW is currently going for $3,000. Then just hire cheap labor to monitor the bots.

Weeks go by as I chase ghosts and rumors of Chinese workers clicking 12 hours a day. Word has it that 300 farmers are working at computers lined up in airport hangars somewhere in Asia. After all, Lineage II banned certain Chinese IPs for a reason. Finally, I get in contact with a man in his 30s who goes by the name Smooth Criminal. He's a partner in one of the largest sellers of MMORPG gold, and he isn't apologetic. His rap sheet: banned from Ultima Online, Asheron's Call, Shadowbane, Star Wars Galaxies, and Ultima Online again. He says once someone even traded him a wedding ring worth $2,000 for WOW gold.

Smooth Criminal's game cartel made $1.5 million from Star Wars Galaxies alone last year, and individually, he's made as much as $700,000 in a single year. "[SWG] built my new house, which I paid for in cash," he says. "So when you ring my doorbell, it plays the Star Wars music." Smooth Criminal is in charge of writing programs, finding exploits, and locating in-game "dupes" (bugs for duplicating gold or items). "I have a real job, but when there's a dupe, I call in sick," he says. It costs him more money to actually go to his "real job." "When I dupe," Smooth Criminal adds, "I farm billions on every game server and spread out my activities." He then uses three accounts to launder the gold: a duper account, a filter account, and a delivery account—each created using different IPs, credit cards, and computers. This way, it's hard to trace the source, and the gold comes back clean.


Carson C. Chow said...

I have no idea how these games work. What is "WOW gold"?

Steve Hsu said...

WOW = World of Warcraft.

It's a role playing game, like D&D. Gold is gold, like currency :-)

You can write a "bot" script to control a player character, making him perform repetitive tasks to earn gold. The humans are there to supervise the bots -- keep them from getting killed or robbed by another player, or game creature. Also, the "game masters" might check in on a bot who has been working away for 20 hours straight to see if there is really a human controlling him.

At the end you sell all the stuff you accumulated to some lazy player who doesn't want to do boring work.

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