The fact is, there is no such thing as virtual commerce. You might think you've been making money buying and selling virtual items from your favorite MMORPG on eBay or IGE, but it's just not true. Don't tell the game companies, though. As far as they're concerned, virtual commerce is alive and well - and they'll do anything to keep it that way.
If that sounds like an upside-down version of the world you know, you may be in for a surprise. Let me explain.
Aimee Weber sells clothes at stores in two locations: one at the southwest corner of Umber's central park, the other at the east side of the Chase Manhattan park near the Limelight Club in Hawthorne. If those places don't sound familiar to you, it's because you probably haven't spent much time in Second Life, a 3D virtual world where reality is what you make it (for the most part), and a place that gives you the tools to make reality almost anything you please.
Umber and Hawthorne are the names of two of Second Life's 1,000 or so interconnected server regions. (It's all one infinitely scalable world in Second Life, no sharding here.) Aimee Weber is the name of a Second Life avatar who's garnered quite a reputation for her fashion line of funky skirts, tops and plaid lingerie - all of which can be worn only by other Second Life avatars, of course. But as virtual as all this sounds, Aimee earns real money for her work. That is, she earns Linden dollars, which can then be converted into U.S. dollars on sites like GamingOpenMarket.com, IGE.com or eBay. While she won't say just how much she makes, she does say her virtual clothing sales bring in enough that if she concentrated on it full time, it would pay all of her real-life expenses.
Others in Second Life earn even more. According to Philip Rosedale, CEO and founder of Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, a handful of the world's 40,000-plus residents earn the virtual equivalent of $100,000 a year or more, most in the virtual real estate business, and close to a thousand of them turn a profit on their in-world activities. One made more than $38,000 in one month alone earlier this spring, according to Linden Lab vice president for product development Cory Ondrejka. Though SL is a place where you can live out your fantasies as a sex slave, a dream-world architect or a guy with a box of cocks, among other things, it's also a place where you can turn your fantasies into reality in the form of cold hard cash. And Second Life is not alone. Selling UO gold or EQ plat on eBay has long been a moneymaker for dedicated gamers. And it doesn't take a Chinese gold farming operation to turn a profit. One gamer I spoke with recently said he earned $25,000 a year for the three years or so that trading UO items was his full-time job. He wasn't getting rich at it, but as he pointed out, "It doesn't get any better than getting paid to play games."
All in all, the market for goods and services produced in online games - things like gold and plat, power leveling services, entire characters or the set of Runescape armor that recently sold on eBay for $167.50 - has reached almost a billion dollars a year, according to Steve Salyer, president of IGE.com, the largest broker of virtual goods. By some estimates, the market could be twice that size.
The idea that someone would pay real money for a collection of screen-bound pixels that will never enjoy a physical existence is old hat to most gamers, especially to MMORPG fans. But try to explain the idea to most civilians and you're met with blank stares or, worse, a shocked incredulity that someone might be tricked into buying something that doesn't actually exist. In laypersons' mouths, the "virtual" label has even taken on a slightly pejorative tone, one that seems to imply a touch of insanity about anyone who would be foolish enough to pay hundreds of dollars for an entry in a database in Austin and some screen art the size of a postage stamp.