Imaginary worlds. Real cash.
graphic January 16, 2002: 12:08 p.m. ET

Publishers aren't the only ones profiting from online games
By Chris Morris
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Manalope the Vicar is a level 60 cleric in Sony's online role playing game "Everquest." He's got amulets and magic rings out the wazoo, more hit-points than he knows what to do with and is the proud owner of the chestplate of vindication.

And he's about to make his creator significantly richer.

Manalope's for sale on eBay - and as of Wednesday morning, he had bids totaling $2,000, with five days left in the auction. That same day, a level 60 warrior will be sold. Current bid price: $1,200.

Auction sales of online characters have been going on for a couple of years. They are a good indicator, though, of how gamers are finding ways to make money off of their hobby.

"It does surprise me that people are willing to spend that much," said Dustin Schwartz, a 19 year old who's selling the Manalope account for a friend. "But people are lazy and they don't want to spend a ton of time to create a character."

Publishers, historically, have frowned on character auction sales, saying it detracts from the spirit of the game. They're probably also not real happy about the practice since they don't see any return from the sales. But the publisher of an upcoming massively multiplayer online role playing game is trying to change the rules.

Part of Project Entropia's in-game business district
"Project Entropia" will be the first massively multiplayer online role playing game to forego monthly charges. Instead, publisher/developer MindArk hopes to make its money from the sale of in-game items, such as armor, weapons or even in-game real-estate.

The plan goes something like this: Players, using credit cards, will transfer their money from real world cash to "Project Entropia Dollars" - or PEDs - at virtual banks in the game ($1 equals 10 PEDs). That money can be spent freely in the game. Then, when they decide to take a break from playing, they can cash the PEDs in for real world cash - perhaps more than they initially invested.

Just like in the real world, nothing lasts forever. And that's part of MindArk's strategy to make the game profitable.

"Everything that will be used by citizens in this universe will have some form of deterioration or wear," said Jan Welter Timkrans, managing director of MindArk. "If you use armor ... it will wear down and you will need to replace it."

Everything a player wants can be purchased from MindArk (and, after the game has started rolling, other players). Eventually, the developer plans to expand the economic model to allow players to buy "shares" in the in-game companies that sell various products.

Players who don't want to give real money to the game can still play. It will simply take them longer to accumulate items and weapons. Once they have those items, though, they, too, can cash them in. Alternatively, players can set themselves up as merchants and "sell" items they craft in the game, conceivably making a profit from their play time.

Plans are also underway for auctions of equipment and, after a few years, perhaps even in-game casinos (the minimum age to play "Project Entropia" will be 18).

Welter Timkrans estimates the game will need 100,000 players to be profitable. It will launch in the U.S. and probably Europe in the second quarter of this year. MindArk expects to be in the black within a few months after that.

That might be harder than it hopes. The audience for online role playing games has been slowing over the past year as gamers have reached the saturation point. "Everquest" has 410,000 players, but Microsoft's entry in the field - "Asheron's Call" - only has around 100,000 players, according to an estimate in PC Gamer magazine. Both of those games, though, cost roughly $10 per month to play.

Morris is director of content development for CNN/Money.

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