play money
DIARY of a dubious proposition



BY JULIAN DIBBELL
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PLAY MONEY now at Amazon THE RUMORS ARE TRUE:
PLAY MONEY IS NOW A BOOK.


(And you can buy it at Amazon.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Lost  

I am in San Francisco tonight and lost.

I flew in yesterday and already felt like weeping even as the plane made its approach across the bay. Every street I rode through on my way into the city reminded me of the life we left behind here three months ago.

And then the hotel, and the oddly unresponsive laptop, and the calm voice of technical support telling me the hard drive was surely dead and all the data on it lost, at least for now and possibly forever. I've spent every spare moment since then mentally cataloguing all that may or may not be gone, depending on how bad the damage is and how good my last backup was. The best-case scenarios are not that great; the worst are heart-wrenching.

All of which is to say that operations here at Play Money are somewhat in disarray at the moment and may remain so for the next few days or even weeks. I have no way of logging in to UO, and no way of delivering the items I've sold in the last couple days (thank God for my good friend Mr. Big, who very generously agreed to fulfill the orders for me). It pains me to say also that I have no way of compiling the weekly Market Watch features, which I would otherwise have been posting right now.

I have no idea when and how I'll be able to sort all this out. My travel schedule is getting crazy: SF this week for a roundtable discussion on future directions for the promising young virtual world Second Life; Utrecht, Holland, next week for the Level Up games research conference; New York City the week after that to give a paper at the State of Play conference.

I miss my data. I miss my home. I don't even know where my home is right now.

11:31 PM



Friday, October 24, 2003

Deal of a Lifetime!  
A couple months back, I did a guest spot on NPR's "The Connection," sharing airtime with John Dugger, the 43-year-old Oklahoma bread-delivery man I wrote about in the article that set me on this professional path. The article was about a virtual tower Dugger had bought for $750, on the Great Lakes shard of Ultima Online, and about its history prior to the purchase -- from its construction by a player who happened to be, in real life, a union carpenter, to its sale to Bob Kiblinger of UOTreasures (the Wal-Mart of UO stores), to its resale, at a tidy profit, to Dugger.

Dugger liked the story, I'm happy to say, and after the radio spot he wrote to tell me how much he'd enjoyed being part of that, too. But he had other things on his mind, too:

"Now to the heart of the matter, if ya might be interested in buying my account on UO, the one with the tower, if ya think you can make a profit on it. I have stopped playing uo, aos killed me, and went to swg. if interested just mail me back, I know yer pretty busy."

How could I resist? We haggled a bit, struck a deal ($250 for the whole account), and that was that: I was owner #4 of the famous tower.

Such was my thrill that upon receipt of the account I actually considered holding on to the house and making it my Great Lakes residence. But I realized soon enough, of course, that for me the sentimental value of the property consisted entirely in its prospects for turning me a profit. I didn't want to be the next owner of the house; I wanted to be the next link in its value chain.

And so, after sitting on the property for the last 6 weeks, scouring it for high-value contents more profitably sold off separately (a rare suit of coal armor boxed up in a storage room, a year's supply of reagents piled in a corner) and lovingly anticipating the moment when the house finally went to market, I am here to say that the moment has arrived:

Famous TRAMMEL LARGE TOWER (Great Lakes), as Seen in Wired Magazine! Deal of a Lifetime! $1 Starting Bid! No Reserve!

Who, I sit now quietly wondering, will be owner #5 of this historic piece of property, perhaps even for the low, nay, the humbling price of a single American dollar?

Might it be... you?

(Sigh. I note that in recent weeks, I've been getting a steady trickle of spam targeted at real-estate agents, no doubt because of the spambots' inability to grasp the subtleties of what's for sale here. This entry, I imagine, will pump the trickle up to a flood, only now I'm not so sure I don't have it coming.)

9:57 AM



Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Market Watch  
Another weekly UO eBay market snapshot, based on average sales figures for the preceding 14 days:

Market sales total: $134,156 (+4,032 from last week)

Market sales total, annualized: $3.5 million

Market volume total: 3,299 sales (+26)

Exchange rate: $14.94 (-0.40) per 1 million Britannian gold pieces

Price of an 18x18 house in the new Malas region: $156.63 (-17.50)

My gold holdings: 69.4 million gp ($1,036.84)

My dollar holdings: $691.62

My profits, year to date: $3,002.82

(Numbers crunched with help from HammerTap's DeepAnalysis, an eBay market research tool.)

1:53 PM



Friday, October 17, 2003

On the Nature of the Intangible: A Dialogue  
The following conversation actually took place, at approximately 4:30 pm U.S. Central time today.

"Hi, thank you for calling PayPal, how can I help you?"

"Yes, hi. I just had payment reversed on a sale that I made, and I understand that because the item I sold was a virtual item from an online game, that payment is not covered by your Seller Protection Policy, and I therefore won't be getting my money back."

"Thatís correct."

"So, yeah, so I just wanted to check in about that and for future reference make sure that I understand just what is and isnít covered under clause 5 of the policy, which requires that 'The seller ships tangible goods.'"

"That means anything that isnít tangible isnít covered. Any kind of digitally delivered goods, or a service, like a moving service. These are not covered because we need to have an acceptable proof-of-shipment like a tracking number from a shipping company."

"OK, I just want to be absolutely clear about this now. So say I ship somebody tickets to a football game -- is that covered?"

"Yes, because youíve shipped them tickets. Thatís a tangible good."

"OK, then what if I ship them tickets to a virtual item?"

"What?"

"Say I write down a password that gives the buyer access to a virtual item -- say I write that on a piece of paper or put it on a computer disk and ship that to the buyer and then give you guys the tracking number for that shipment. Would that be covered?"

"I donít think so. You would have to look at it on a case by case basis. You would have to wait until you have a situation like that and then come ask us whether itís covered or not."

"But these virtual items are expensive. I donít want to get to where Iíve already delivered something and only find out then. Isnít there any way you can give me a ruling beforehand?"

"You would have to wait until you are going to ship such an item."

"Well, OK, I am then. I am going to ship such an item."

"What exactly?"

"Iím selling an online account and Iím going to be shipping the buyer a password to the account."

"OK, I can tell you now then that that would not be covered."

"Why not?"

"Because itís a virtual item."

"But Iím not shipping a virtual item, Iím shipping a piece of paper or a floppy disk with a password for the virtual item."

"But youíre not selling the password, youíre selling the virtual item, which is not a tangible good."

"Well, neither is a football game. Football games are not tangible goods."

"But youíre not selling the football game, youíre selling the tickets, and those are tangible."

"So is the piece of paper Iím sending to my buyer."

Silence.

"Look, I just can tell you, right now, that the sale youíre talking about is not covered."

"Well, why not?"

"It just isnít."

"I understand that. What Iím trying to understand is the reasoning behind why it isnít. Can you tell me what the distinction is between a football game and a virtual item that results in one being covered and the other not."

"I just explained that to you."

"No you didnít. You told me that there is a distinction. Can you tell me why that distinction exists?"

"Yes. Because itís company policy."

"OK. Could you tell me how that policy decision was reached, or can you connect me to someone who could?"

"I already told you, the virtual item youíre talking about is not covered."

"I understand that. What Iím looking for now is a different piece of information. Can you please let me talk to someone who can give me that information?"

"Iíll connect you to the managers' line."

Three minutes of on-hold music. Busy signal. Dead line.

10:33 PM



Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Market Watch  
Another weekly UO eBay market snapshot, based on average sales figures for the preceding 14 days:

Market sales total: $130,124 (+3,674 from last week)

Market sales total, annualized: $3.4 million

Market volume total: 3,273 sales (+117)

Exchange rate: $15.34 (-0.65) per 1 million Britannian gold pieces

Price of an 18x18 house in the new Malas region: $174.08 (-7.66)

My gold holdings: 200.0 million gp ($3,068.00)

My dollar holdings: $126.27

My profits, year to date: $1,740.84

(Numbers crunched with help from HammerTap's DeepAnalysis, an eBay market research tool.)

2:30 PM



Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Go Ahead, Scammer, Make My Day  
Longtime readers will recall that I once narrowly escaped losing control of my PayPal account to a wily scammer. I was lucky that time, and I guess luck can't hold out forever. Yesterday, PayPal informed me that I'd lost round two: An $80 payment I'd received a week before for 5 million gold pieces was being reversed as fraudulent.

It's just about the commonest scam there is, and generally speaking, the easiest. Most often it's just some teenage miscreant using Mommy's credit card to run up a tab she will truthfully deny having any knowledge of. In such cases, as my old friend and mentor Mr. Big informed me, the wisest recourse is simply to scare the crap out of Junior with threats legal and semilegal.

So I put on my best Charles Bronson game face and fired off a message laced, I hope, with just that tone of friendly menace that chills the spine of bit-part punks in 70s action movies. "Hi," I wrote. "I am writing to let you know something: I buy and sell UO stuff for a living, so I take fraudulent payments very seriously, and I will pursue them
to the point of putting you in jail, if need be." If this didn't work, Mr. Big advised, I should ratchet the threat level up to scarier options, like telling the kid's mom and dad on him.

But as Mr. Big and I followed the leads on this guy, it grew clearer that it probably wasn't the typical teenage crank yanker we were dealing with. A quick look at the perp's eBay purchases revealed a buying spree of over $5000 in the last week, all spent on virtual items from Ultima Online and the sci-fi MMORPG Anarchy Online. (One poor sap lost an AO account worth $2000.)

What's more, a phone call to the eBay account holder of record put me in touch with a 21-year-old female college student and her mother, both of them exhausted and exasperated from having spent hours sorting through records, filling out bank forms, and otherwise trying to pick up the pieces from what now appeared to be a classic case of identity theft.

I was obviously in over my head now. Either the college student was far too cool a cucumber for my low-grade interrogation skills or she was telling the truth, and I was up against an unknown, semiprofessional identity hacker.

So I finally did what no self-respecting 70s action hero would have done: I called the cops. Surfed my way over to the FBI's Internet Fraud site and filed a complaint. And then, one by one, I contacted all the eBay sellers the thief had bought from in his week-long spree and urged them to do the same.

Strength in numbers, and all that. And who knows? Maybe the feds will even manage to wrap their heads around the idea that virtual items have real value and come down on our perp with black helicopters and bullhorns.

And maybe, too, the next little schemer who gets it in his head to scam Play Money will stop first and ask himself: Am I feeling lucky?

Well, are you?

Punk?

2:35 PM



Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Market Watch  
Another weekly UO eBay market snapshot, based on average sales figures for the preceding 14 days:

Market sales total: $126,450 (+3,886 from last week)

Market sales total, annualized: $3.3 million

Market volume total: 3,156 sales (+58)

Exchange rate: $15.99 (-0.14) per 1 million Britannian gold pieces

Price of an 18x18 house in the new Malas region: $181.74 (-45.60)

My gold holdings: 111.9 million gp ($1,789.28)

My dollar holdings: $1,130.93

My profits, year to date: $1,740.84

(Numbers crunched with help from HammerTap's DeepAnalysis, an eBay market research tool.)

9:53 PM



The Property Question, Roped and Tied  
Hey all you people who wake up in the middle of the night asking yourselves, "Are virtual items really the property of the players who trade them?," here's a Terra Nova discussion I set in motion just for you. Featuring the keen insights of MMORPG legends Richard Bartle and Dave Rickey, legal scholars Dan Hunter, Greg Lastowka, and (hallelujah he's Korean!) Unggi Yoon, and of course the omnipresent Edward Castronova, the conversation is about as thorough and well-informed a workout of the relevant issues as you're likely to find online.

Unless of course you happen to find Dave Rickey's shorter, sharper take on the discussion, in his Engines of Creation column at Skotos.

11:14 AM



Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Market Watch (Course Correction Edition)  
Sigh.

I was hoping to be able to sit here today, in my cushy market analyst's chair, puffing on my pipe and serenely delivering my thoughts on what last week's fabulous new charts revealed. The steady decline in total market sales since June, I would have assured you (citing the verdict of longtime MMORPG developer Dave Rickey over at Terra Nova), almost certainly reflects the gaming industry's predictable summer slump -- and not, as I'd feared, UO's inevitable death march as the player base migrates to newer games. The sudden uptick in gold-piece prices, I would have told you in strictest confidence, probably reflects the calm after a recent storm of cut-throat competition among the big gold-farming cartels. And then I might have told you how like a work of art the charts were starting to look to me, how sublime in their unity of form and function, and so forth.

Instead what I have to tell you is that the charts are screwy.

A little. It turns out that the game most likely to eat UO's lunch -- the newly launched Star Wars: Galaxies -- has commenced by polluting my data. Certain eBay sellers (you know who you are) have been tempting away the UO faithful by listing their SWG wares under eBay's Ultima Online category. And since my data capture consists essentially of totaling all sales in that category -- pfft, suddenly my data are not what they seem.

The good news is that the distortion is easily corrected for -- and seems to have been minimal. SWG sales would have added only about $2000 to the total market sales figure of $122,564 this period if I hadn't caught the mistake. And the gold price, which would have been $16.60/million without correcting for sales of SWG credits (which sell for about $70 per million), is still a healthy $15.85.

The bad news is that the $2000 in SWG sales under the UO category is just a fraction of all SWG sales on eBay, which this week, for the first time since the game launched in June, surpassed UO's, hitting a total of $124,577. Let the death march begin.

And so much for serene pipe-puffing.

Here is your nail-biting weekly UO eBay market snapshot, based on average sales figures for the preceding 14 days:

Market sales total: $122,564 (-1,487 from last week)

Market sales total, annualized: $3.2 million

Market volume total: 3,098 sales (-297)

Exchange rate: $15.85 (-0.31) per 1 million Britannian gold pieces

Price of an 18x18 house in the new Malas region: $227.31 (+12.87)

My gold holdings: 112 million gp ($1,775.20)

My dollar holdings: $349.27

My profits, year to date: $1,740.84

(Numbers crunched with help from HammerTap's DeepAnalysis, an eBay market research tool.)

2:10 PM



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