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Last Updated: Monday, 11 August, 2003, 08:34 GMT 09:34 UK
Making money from virtually nothing
DOT.LIFE - how technology changes our lives
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Julian Dibbell and friend at the E3 show, Julian Dibbell
Can Julian Dibbell earn a living by selling imaginary goods?
Can you make a real living buying and selling goods which only exist in the virtual world of an online fantasy game?

Many thousands of people make a very good living writing, creating and running computer games.

Rather fewer people earn a wage playing games professionally by taking the top cash prizes at tournaments around the world.

But Julian Dibbell is not trying to support himself, wife and daughter by programming or playing.

Instead in April 2004, he will declare to the US Internal Revenue Service that his main source of income is the sale of imaginary goods.

Game gear

Mr Dibbell is buying and selling virtual cash, weapons, armour, homes and other artefacts from the Ultima Online game for Earth money from his home in San Francisco.

Many players of massively popular multiplayer online role-playing games such as Ultima Online, EverQuest, Asheron's Call, Star Wars Galaxies, make a little cash on the side by selling some of the things they find while adventuring in these virtual worlds.

But Mr Dibbell is turning this occasional trading into a fulltime occupation. He is, as he puts it, trying to get rich by literally "selling castles in the air".

Screenshot from Ultima, Julian Dibbell
A sample sale item from Mr Dibbell
People began adventuring in Britannia - the world of Ultima Online - in 1997, which makes it the most venerable graphical game on the web.

It has more than 225,000 active players, who spend up to 20 hours per week in Britannia.

The game has a broad fantasy setting, familiar to anyone who knows Tolkien. Players can choose a life of adventure or a more sedate or sedentary occupation such as weaver, weaponsmith or tailor.

Mr Dibbell had good reasons for picking Ultima Online for his virtual business empire.

"I was playing the game every spare chance I could. Finally, I thought I should figure out some proper reason to do this before my wife pulled the plug."

Britannia also has a well established economy and is not prone to the deflation and economic surges that seem to be afflict other game worlds.

Mr Dibbell says that the trading system in Britannia is engineered to make it hard for someone to hand over cash and get nothing in return.

Trial run

Also Origin, the makers of Ultima, are happy for the trading to go on. Other games, such as EverQuest, have tried to ban sales of artefacts and characters with varying degrees of success.

To see if the idea of making a living by selling artefacts would work at all, Mr Dibbell set himself the task of making $1,000 of Ultima Online trades in three weeks - while his wife and daughter were away.

He made it with only minutes to spare.

And now it has become his job.

Screenshot from Star Wars Galaxies, Lucas Arts
Trading in Star Wars Galaxies items has already begun
A typical day starts with a check of the places on the net where money, artefacts and even property in Ultima Online are traded.

He looks to see if anyone is giving a good price for what he has to sell or something he knows he can get from other people.

Sites such as eBay, Player Auctions and Tradespot list items, characters and player accounts for sale.

The amounts being traded are huge. Figures collected by economist Edward Castronova show that the total dollar value of what is being traded, excluding EverQuest items, runs into the millions.

Mr Dibbell has become an itinerant merchant wandering the land of Britannia seeking out gold and other goods to sell.

"I've discovered that there is a food chain and the producers are at the bottom and the merchants are at the top," he says.

"The producers are the teenage kids that have a lot of time on their hands but no money so they go out and hunt and loot and craft and produce the stuff that I am buying and selling," he says.

Dodgy deals

Mr Dibbell is also acting as an in-game representative for a well-established trader who regularly asks him to find objects on his behalf.

This "Mr Big" is one of a handful of Ultima players who make six figure sums annually from their trades.

They manage to do this because they are well-known, trustworthy and have amassed huge amounts of in-game goodies.

EverQuest II screenshot, Ubisoft
EverQuest has tried to ban sales of its game goodies
Big money can be made when buying an Ultima account of a long-term player who has got bored of the system and the work involved in keeping it going.

The account may be sold as a whole, but can generate much more by breaking it up and selling the items, money and property individually.

"You can double or triple your money on one account," says Mr Dibbell.

But the buying and selling of virtual goods is not without real ethical dilemmas or risks.

Mr Dibbell recently found he was acting as a fence for a very rare stolen artefact that he could make a big, quick profit on.

He consulted Mr Big who declared that he had no problem with in-game theft as there are many Britannia inhabitants who make a living as rogues and footpads.

Mr Dibbell greatest fear is that he falls prey to real cyber criminals who pillage his Ultima items or steals the cash from his PayPal account.

With his livelihood gone, Mr Dibbell would have no doubt that a crime had been committed but he realises that he might have a hard time convincing the police to investigate the theft of goods that have a tangible value but negligible reality.

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