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Last Updated: Monday, 24 September 2007, 07:58 GMT 08:58 UK
The high cost of playing Warcraft
By Cristina Jimenez
Technology reporter

Night elf from World of Warcraft, Blizzard
The Zeuzo character was a night elf rogue or thief
A record has been set for the sale of virtual items in an online game as a World of Warcraft account is believed to have changed hands for almost 5,000 (7,000 euros).

The deal was done in early September and for their money the new owner got a level 70 night elf rogue called Zeuzo.

The price was so high because Zeuzo possessed magical items, including the twin Warglaives of Azzinoth, owned by only a handful of Warcraft's nine million active players.

The powerful items were gained by the character's original owner completing some of the most challenging parts of the game.

Cash call

World of Warcraft is an online fantasy world in which players create characters and take them adventuring. The characters gain experience and become more powerful by doing all sorts of quests (kill this, find that, deliver this).

At the higher levels many players band together to go on raids to kill the most powerful enemies and get the best loot.

Zeuzo's creator, who took the rogue from level zero to high level hero, was contacted for the BBC by other players but he would not confirm or deny reports of the sale.

The Method guild of which Zeuzo was a member also declined to comment on the the sale.

However, the BBC does have independent confirmation that the account was sold for a figure of about 7,000 euros.

Some Warcraft players who know Zeuzo's creator did speak out.

On condition of anonymity one said: "The trade was simple. It was a case of the buyer finding out that Zeuzo was currently the best geared rogue in game."

Screenshot from World of Warcraft, Blizzard
The next expansion will be the Wrath of the Lich King
"Zeuzo received a whisper from a person who said that wanted to buy his account and convinced him by offering more and more money each time for it."

He said Method was disappointed to lose such a good character, but at the same time, understood the final decision.

Oliver Koppany, a fellow player chosen by Zeuzo as a "spokesperson" added: "He had been undergoing financial hardship and that was the only reason why he sold the account."

The new owner moved the valuable rogue to another server and re-named it Shaks.

High risk

Bill Vaughan, editor of IncGame's World of Warcraft website, said many people bought accounts to get over the grind of taking a character to the highest levels of the game.

"It generally takes an average person anything up to 600 game play hours to reach the current highest level," said Ms Vaughan.

Account selling is a growing phenomenon and the average price currently hovers around the 200 mark.

"The problem is," said Ms Vaughan, "you have no idea how to play the character properly."

"Within a short space of time, you would be subject to the embarrassment of other players noticing your lack of skills, and it would be very apparent that you had either bought your account, or had paid to have your character levelled," she said.

But, said Ms Vaughan, worse than other players noticing someone has bought their account is catching the attention of Warcraft creator Blizzard. Selling accounts and in-game items is against the terms and conditions people sign up to when they start playing.

Blizzard has banned up to 100,000 accounts in a month for illegal gold trading or cheating in the game. In a statement the company said it took the action: "to promote a fun and fair environment for all our players."

Screengrab of search for account selling sites, BBC
It is easy to find places to buy and sell accounts
"Blizzard has an interest in enforcing its rules, but it has to spend substantial amounts of money to do so," said Greg Lastowka, a law professor from Rutgers University who specialises in intellectual property and technology regulation.

"Account sales can sometimes be hard to detect, depending on the technology that a game company uses to gather information about users," he added.

In this case Blizzard caught on quick. It banned the account about five days after it was sold.

Big business

While account selling is controversial among Warcraft players, for some it has become a business prospect.

"Account selling is a ludicrous business indeed. I have friends who make good money without moving one finger," the BBC was told by one player. "You can earn 200 euros without doing absolutely anything."

He said many buy a new account for 12 euros, then pay a gold farmer to power-level the character in 20 days and then when it had reached level 70 sell it back for 400 euros.

Dee Patel, an ex-Warcraft player and a game industry professional, admitted having sold his account for 650 on eBay.

"I could have been offered a lot more for my account but I was just wanting to stop playing and wanted to get rid of it," he said.

Last January, eBay banned on-line games account selling on its website. But thousands of other sites offer similar auction services.

Globally the business is huge. Edward Castronova, an academic studying the economics of online gaming at the University of Indiana, estimates that the real money trade - people paying real cash for virtual items - is worth around $300-$400m.

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