The Dollar Sign Invades Medieval Europe!

Dark magic among level-51 elves

The online game EverQuest is so addictive for some that they've taken to calling it "EverCrack." There's a story circulating about one player (who shall remain nameless) going AWOL from his job for three days and finally getting fired because he was at home playing EverQuest. Players—who pay about $50 to get set up with the game and then pay a monthly fee for unlimited play—can spend months wandering around online, acquiring wealth and experience, battling monsters, forming exploration parties, and gradually building their characters into beings of true power.

Now imagine if some rich little pip-squeak could come along, pay a thousand bucks or so, and instantly become more powerful then you—in essence, duplicating all your months of hard labor with cold cash. That's precisely what has been happening with EverQuest. The online auction site eBay (www.ebay.com) offers more than 1,600 game items for sale, including a bone-clasped girdle ($5,000), silver-plated leggings ($40) and a level-51 dark elf wizard ($1,600). The idea is that by going on eBay and buying a belt or a magic wand or an entire character, you won't have to spend weeks or even months online building your character's skills or wandering around in search of loot. Instead you just hand over your money and take advantage of someone else's effort. No muss, no fuss.

But it's a practice that has gotten a number of players—and the game's creators—hacked off. So in April, Sony Online (which produced and distributed the game) and EverQuest's San Diego-based developer, Verant Interactive, announced they were banning the sales.

"There are some nasty customer-service issues," said Verant vice president Brad McQuaid. "For example, sometimes a player with a very bad reputation will sell his account to an unsuspecting person. That person heads into the game and finds that no one likes him, so he complains to us. Second, we feel that most of our players want an even playing field in terms of advancing in the game. I think it's a bit disillusioning to work very hard questing for a special item only to find that some other player simply paid real-world cash for the same item."

There's also an obvious economic component for Sony and Verant: if Joe spends six months and 50 bucks in fees creating a powerful character and then turns around and sells that character to Fred, they've just lost the money Fred would have spent building up a similarly powerful character.

Sony and Verant had previously advised players not to buy or sell items and characters for cash last fall, warning that a lot of buyers had complained about getting ripped off. The business continued to boom, however, and now Sony is adding a clause to the user agreement stating that players cannot buy or sell characters or game items. Sony has also contacted eBay to request that the auction house discontinue sales of EverQuest items on its site. EBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove said that eBay was discussing the ban with Sony but added that eBay is generally cooperative about such requests when they involve intellectual property infringement.

Player reaction to the announced ban was mixed. Applauding the move, one said players caught buying or selling game items should have their accounts scrapped, and "they should be banned from playing EverQuest, period." Others disagreed, arguing that if people wanted to waste their money, why stop them?

Bryan Reynolds is among the latter. Reynolds' Tustin-based consulting company, Obsidian Technologies, runs the Everlore site (www.everlore.com), an EverQuest fan site. The Everlore site went up on the first day of EverQuest's release, and it currently boasts 16 million page views per month.

Reynolds has been playing the game since its beta-test stage, but he doesn't have a problem with people taking a short-cut by buying characters or game items. "It seems kind of silly to me," he said. "It doesn't make any sense, but people definitely do it. It's kind of like a quick fix—it doesn't really help you out that much; it doesn't give you a big advantage. The fun is in getting to level 50, not being level 50."

He also disagrees with Verant's contention that the character market is unfair to other players. "Is it any less fair than if you go play paintball and one person is rich and can afford a better paintball gun?" he asked. "Any different from racing when one person can afford a better car? It's only unfair in the sense that some people have more resources to spend to get better things. You've got to look at why people play the game—if a player just wants to own stuff, I don't see any reason why they shouldn't."

There is, of course, the question of how Sony and Verant are going to enforce the ban. EBay is generally pretty cooperative about such things, but there are dozens of small EverQuest fan sites, message boards, discussion groups and so on, ad infinitum, and any one of them could be used as a virtual marketplace for game items. "At this time we are not actively searching out these transactions, but if we do come across them, we will act accordingly," McQuaid said.

"It depends on how smart the person is doing it and how smart Verant is about tracking them down," Reynolds said. "If I were going to do it, I could get away with it. But there's people out there that couldn't."

Sell Wyn stuff at machineage@mediaone.net.
 
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