Making profits in a fantasy world

Online role-playing games: Making profits in a fantasy world - at - the best of the week's international financial media.

An Australian has just bought a virtual island for $26,500 as part of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game'. What on earth is he getting for his money? asks Simon Wilson.

What is an MMPORPG?

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games' are communal games that can have hundreds of thousands of players - strangers to each other offline - taking part over the internet. Globally, there are now about 350 MMPORPGs, with dozens of games having more than 100,000 registered subscribers. The most popular are quest-type fantasy or sci-fi games, in which the aim is to become the most wealthy or powerful character in your particular fantasy world. Some think that these games represent the next big thing, not simply for the computer games industry, but also for the internet as a whole.

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How does an MMPORPG differ from a traditional game?

Role-playing games took off in the late 1960s with the huge popularity of Dungeons and Dragons. This was initially a board game, but appeared in computerised form for die-hard fans in the early 1970s. It was followed by the likes of Adventure and Zork and online games have been developing fast ever since mass-access to the internet took off in the early 1990s. The key to what's different about the new generation of games, however, is the phrase "massively multiplayer". Rather than just a few people playing against each other, high-speed broadband internet (the craze started in Asia, and in particular Korea, where 75% of households have broadband access) and the power of modern PCs has made it possible for vast global communities all to play games such as Everquest or Star Wars Galaxies at once. The other thing that is different is the scale and complexity of the artificial worlds the role-players inhabit - it's all a far cry from playing Donkey Kong on a ZX Spectrum 20 years ago.

So what's this about buying an island?

Some types of game have their own economies', and allow players to convert real money into a special currency for the purposes of the game. Almost inevitably, these synthetic economies sometimes spill over into the real world. For example, characters, skills and assets in popular games such as Dark Age of Camelot and Ultima Online are traded, often for hefty sums, on auction sites such as eBay (although the biggest gamesmaker, Electronic Arts, has taken legal action to stop players selling its virtual property in the real world). Then, just before Christmas, a 22-year-old Australian known only by his in-game avatar' of Deathifier, spent US$26,500 on a virtual island that only exists within the world of a game called Project Entropia. In this game, which uses a fixed exchange rate of ten Project Entropia dollars to 1 US dollar, 200,000 role-players are currently battling to colonise a new planet called Calypso. According to the publishers, the quest will take you on an "epic journey into the future" during which "you must learn to use all available resources and a growing multitude of skills, wits, guts, teamwork and equipment to reclaim a lost paradise".

Why buy something that doesn't exist?Paying $26,000 for an imaginary island certainly looks like the act of an internet-obsessed nutter with more money than sense. But, in fact, Deathifier has made a calculated investment decision in the same way as he might in the real world. Potentially, he stands to make a decent profit from fellow colonists' in Project Entropia by selling forestry and hunting rights, as well as letting out parcels of land on which other people can build houses. All these opportunities might be imaginary', but the land sales alone are potentially worth 300,000 Project Entropia dollars - or 30,000 real ones. Thus, according to the people who play the game, it is perfectly possible to make sizeable sums of money by playing the game. But be careful: the amount of money in the Project Entropia economy is fixed, so for every winner there's a loser.

How do the games companies make money?

Project Entropia is free to join and play. The publisher, US-based MindArk Software, is planning to allow real-life companies to advertise within the world of the game, and presumably seeks to make investment returns on the cash hoard that players must in effect lend the firm interest-free for long periods. However, most games operate according to a more conventional model. The user buys the setup software and then pays a subscription to participate - starting at around $10 a month.

So it's a cash cow for games publishers?

Not yet, but there are some star performers worth investigating, such as Shanda Networks, China's hottest internet IPO of 2004. Shanda draws three-quarters of its revenue from MMPORPGs, and is listed on Nasdaq as an American Depository Share, soaring since being listed last year. But generally, publishers are still experimenting. Online game playing cuts out the traditional game-console producers and retailers, for example, so for publishers who get it right - in terms of content and payment method - the gains could be huge.