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Virtual-Gaming Tycoon Makes A Killing With 'Play Money'

Julian Dibbell chronicles yearlong venture in 'Trading Virtual Loot' book.

For one year Julian Dibbell tried to make good money playing video games.

He wanted to make more than he'd ever made in his day job as a journalist. And he wanted to do it exclusively through the buying and selling of virtual stuff prized by players of the massively multiplayer game "Ultima Online" -- making money, in essence, out of nothing.

"I would have been doing $50,000 a year if I just stuck with what I was doing," Dibbell told MTV News during a phone interview as he drove through the California desert.

Gamers have been playing at the margins, buying and selling the virtual goods won in massively multiplayer games with real cash for years, through sites such as eBay -- all the while testing the limits of what is truly in the spirit of a game and what actually spoils the fun.

In March 2003 Dibbell decided he wanted a piece of that action. He embarked on a yearlong venture he has now chronicled in the book "Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot." For a year he was a dedicated trader to his cause, gaming for dollars at the patience of his wife and young daughter. He would buy and sell virtual gold, acquiring a million pieces sometimes for $9, and selling that million to someone else for $14. He traded valuable suits of "Ultima" armor and flipped pieces of virtual real estate for a profit.

"If I could just do this and make a living at it and be happy, why shouldn't I do that?" Dibbell said, remembering his reasoning. So for a year he became a merchant of the intangible, playing "Ultima Online" daily but ignoring the games' kingdom of quests and going on his own to find stuff, buy it and sell it.

Along the way he met a real-life construction worker who would come from his job and spend his leisure time logging into "Ultima Online" to do virtual construction work on a tower that would sell for several hundred real dollars. He met a 17-year-old known in-game as Radny who helped Dibbell sell items and hit the author up for advice about girls. He linked up with a Russian player whose payment plan for in-game gold required Dibbell to use the MoneyGram service at his local Vietnamese grocer. He met players both prominent and obscure, some shady and some shadier.

He experienced "Ultima Online" as a business. He played the game as a job. The players he met were suppliers or customers, sometimes competitors. When Dibbell was in high school he enjoyed the arcades so much they inspired him to write a sonnet. Now a game was inspiring profit. "There wasn't this moment where I got bored, where I said, 'I want to be watching a movie,' " he said. He liked the grind.

What he was doing technically was not against the rules. The terms of service governing player activity in "Ultima Online" did not ban the so-called real-market trading of virtual goods. Such is the nature of massively multiplayer games: Some players don't feel like spending hours questing and conquering to obtain plunder and would rather get said booty from another player in-world and happily drop that player a PayPal payment as recompense. "UO" isn't "Second Life," an online world in which developers openly encourage this kind of activity and handle many of the transactions themselves (see [article id="1521239"]"Finally, You Can Buy Something Real With Play Money"[/article]).

But it also isn't "World of Warcraft," a game in which all real-market trading is banned. The "Ultima" folks just let it happen so long as no one is too obnoxious about it.

But that's not to say that everyone likes it. In fact, the controversy is a hot topic. Some people think it's akin to using real money to get out of a bind during a tough round of Monopoly. They say it's not a clever new way of expanding a game. They say it's cheating. But Dibbell said he didn't encounter the flak one might have expected. "What does it mean that 'someone got ahead in a different way than I did' when there are no winners and losers in this game? It's very hard to isolate what the harm is. To some extent that explains why nobody ever came out and slapped me. To some extent it's more of an inner dialogue."

Dibbell wasn't shaken at all by what he was doing. He was just occasionally unnerved by how he was doing it. Consider the Bonecrusher, a valued weapon that one gamer offered to sell to Dibbell for a hefty but reasonable price. Shortly after receiving the offer, Dibbell discovered that the Bonecrusher had likely been stolen from the virtual house of another gamer with whom Dibbell was also suddenly in touch. In "Play Money," Dibbell confessed his reservations about buying the weapon. He asked a friend for advice and that friend, to his surprise, pointed out that thievery in "Ultima Online" is a skill programmed into the game. As far as the friend was concerned the robbery was legitimate play and a purchase from that thief was not a moral crime. Dibbell made the deal. He's still not sure if he did the right thing.

So what did he encounter that was out of bounds? "I think it's a little over the line with Rich and Mithra running their armies of robot workers," he said. The two players he named were major sellers of "Ultima" gold, which they didn't obtain through the tedium of mining the stuff one mouse-click at a time. Rather, they used multiple computers, running multiple characters, each run by special computer codes with no guiding human hand required. That is against "Ultima Online" rules. But as Dibbell's book recounts, the efforts of these "bot-farmers" and that of the game masters who hunted down suspicious characters in-game and tried to figure out if they were controlled by real people made for a colorful game within the game.

Dibbell didn't get into the bot-farming. He did field an offer from a man in China to hire some low-income Chinese workers to farm gold full-time and sell it to Americans -- an arrangement similar to one that made front-page news in The New York Times late last year.

Ultimately, though, Dibbell made his run for the gold with his own virtual hands. He knows people he was sure were making six figures. How close did he get? It's in the book.

But put it this way: Dibbell said he hasn't made an in-game transaction "in ages." He's not even playing "Ultima Online" anymore. He's discovered "World of Warcraft." Chinese gold-farmers rule the illicit real-money economy in that game, he said, and he's not getting involved. A couple of weeks ago he maxed his character at level 60, and he did it through good old-fashioned play. That's good enough for now. Leave getting rich to someone else.

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