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Virtual Loot for Real Cash

Online role-playing games have spawned an industry profiting from sale of cyber 'weapons' and other gear.


After putting in a full day at his computer technician job, a 30-year-old Internet game player known as Ebaid went home, logged on to a game called "EverQuest" and started his night job. His game character donned armor, slapped on his sword and began slaying beasts so he could make some real money.

Hail the rise of yet another strange creature of the Internet revolution--the professional online game hunter.

Ebaid played for hours, slaying every computer-generated monster on his screen. For his effort he figured he'd made a few hundred dollars--real dollars.

Ebaid is part of a growing wave of online game players who hunt down and collect weapons, equipment and other accessories from popular online computer games, then sell the booty to other players for up to thousands of dollars apiece.

"This is hilarious," said Ebaid, a Riverside County resident. "All it is, is data. . . . But when I turn off my computer, I see cash."

Ebaid and his hunting partner, Lee, who lives nearby, play the game as a team and have made more than $6,000 in the last month by selling their captured game equipment and accessories on EBay, an online auction firm.

The hunters, also known as "EBayers," have become some of the most reviled denizens of the online world. Their ranks just seem to keep growing because of the demand for game items, even though some games prohibit their sale.

Unlike traditional video or computer games that people play solo or with a few others in their homes, the new generation of online role-playing games uses the Internet to bring together thousands of players from around the world in computer-generated games that never stop.

"There's a reason people call 'EverQuest' 'Evercrack,' " Ebaid said. "It's an addiction. You just always want to find out what is going to happen next."

Massive multi-player online role-playing games began appearing in the mid-1990s and have been quickly growing as more people connect to the Internet.

Sony's "EverQuest" game was released in May 1999 and now boasts more than 200,000 players. Electronic Arts' "Ultima Online," which started in 1997, has 170,000 players. And "Asheron's Call," from Microsoft, has gained 80,000 players after just five months on the market.

The game software costs about $50, and for a $10 monthly subscription fee players get endless hours of play time against thousands of other gamers online.

The games all revolve around sword-and-scorcery themes. Players enter a world where they can explore territories with other game players, attack monsters, cast magic spells, marry sweethearts and amass fortunes in virtual loot found on monsters as a prize.

Players start off as weaklings with barely any equipment to help them defeat monsters. But the characters grow stronger as they battle over time and collect new swords and armor that make them tougher opponents.

What makes the games so addictive is that players have to shape their own characters. They can buy different clothes and weapons from store owners in the game using virtual dollars. And these characters, which can take years for players to develop into godlike warriors capable of destroying the hardest beasts in a game, take on adventures like a never-ending novel.

It also creates a lucrative business opportunity. Mike Gmeinwieser and his game partner, Ben Schriefer, in Maryland run a full-time business selling virtual gold captured from "Ultima Online." They expect to do about $400,000 in sales this year.

They have an office, company cars and two Web sites, Ultima Treasure and Ultima Gold, that tout: "Pay for Ultima Online gold with your Visa, MasterCard, AmEx, Discover or Eurocard. We deliver in 72 hrs. References available."

"We're one of the few Internet companies that actually makes money," Gmeinwieser said.

Their scheme is to buy gold from other "Ultima Online" players for about $200 for every 1 million virtual gold coins--a vast sum that can take even strong characters months to accumulate. Then they sell the gold on EBay in lots of 50,000 coins at a rate of about $500 per million gold.

Gmeinwieser uses his game character to collect gold from sellers while in the game. When someone on EBay buys a shipment of gold, he again uses his game character to meet them at a certain time and place in the game and then hands over the gold to his customer's character. "In the beginning, this business did look strange, but it's an instant-gratification world we live in," Gmeinwieser said. "To make gold in 'Ultima,' you have to work chopping down trees, making bows and mining. People work, like, 50 hours a week in their real jobs. Who wants to go to 'Ultima' and work more?"

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