play money
DIARY of a dubious proposition



(And you can buy it at Amazon.)

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

State of the Enterprise  

There is now $37 in my PayPal account. Despite the odd misstep, in other words, I am now up to about 2 million in gold, at discount prices. Which just may be my next investment: 2 million gold at $18/million or less, with a view to flipping them at $20 or $21. Or maybe just buying some cheap rares and moving those on eBay.

I realize these are not the big numbers you may be expecting, but understand: I am in this for the long haul, and I don't intend to risk a penny of my real-world income on this venture. Bootstrapping, I believe it's called.

In other news, I have adopted a corporate identity. No longer does eBay identify me to the bargain-hunting masses as jdibbell. Henceforth, we are runic_enterprises (logo pending). I thought long and hard about the name, in case you care, and you may have noticed that unlike many of my competitors (uotreasures, uogold, etc.), I left the UO out of it. Two reasons: one, you never know when OSI might start cracking down on trademark infringers; two, you never know when UO might fold and send us eBayers looking for another game to milk.

Like I said, I'm in it for the long haul.

1:52 PM

Sunday, April 27, 2003

Two Presentations and a Funeral  
I went to two gatherings last week that reshaped my thinking about this project somewhat. The first was the O'Reilly Emerging Technology conference, a yearly, weeklong thing that is, I suppose, the Burning Man of technology confabs -- the one place you can still reliably find, in critical mass, the kind of geek who feels about the offbeat, socially interesting software hack the way a dog feels about a bone.

I attended on Thursday only. I wanted to hear Clay Shirky and Stewart Butterfield, the one keynoting on the topic "The Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy: Social Structure in Social Software," the other presenting on his MMOG The Game Never Ending and more broadly on The Game Context as a Testing Ground for Social Software.

Clay was his usual briskly eloquent self, weaving the group-psych theory of Wilfred Bion into a history of virtual communities from the CommuniTree messaging system of the 70s through LambdaMOO and arriving at the conclusion that what social-software designers do is closer to political science and economics than programming. Stewart's talk was more scattered, but rich nonetheless, glancing at the many aspects of play in culture and teasing out the ways in which games matter both to virtual worlds and the real one. I can't say any one insight really stands out. The effect of these two talks was simply to remind me that my interest here is as much intellectual as financial. I came away tingling with the intuition that what I'm up to is meaningful in ways I only need to think a little bit harder to pin down.

And then, on Friday, I flew down to Los Angeles for a memorial service. The 34-year-old wife of a high-school friend of mine had died after fighting brain cancer for a year. The funeral was sad as hell, and halfway through it the profound silliness of how I'm proposing to spend my days broke in on my consciousness like a slap in the face.

5:39 PM

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

The First Million's the Hardest  
Five weeks ago, I sold my first mining rune book on eBay, for $1.99. By last Friday I had sold 9 others, for a net profit, after eBay and PayPal fees, of about 22 bucks. Or to put it another way: a little over 1 million gold pieces.

And having made my first million, I found myself at a crossroads. Cash out or reinvest? I could take my $22 and move it into my bank account, or I could put it back into the UO economy -- find some undervalued item on eBay and wring some more profit out of it, or even buy a million GP and do some re-selling in-game. It was a business decision, of course, but it was also, in a sense, an existential one: Was I still really just playing the game, or was I finally going to take that first decisive step toward making the game my living?

In the end, I decided to think about it some more. In fact, I decided to invest my money in thinking about it some more. I paid $9.99 for a "manual" that promised to explain just how to "Make Ultima Online Your Job." And I must say this document taught me a lot. Specifically, it taught me that you can make money from practically nothing on eBay, for that is what I got for my $9.99: a page or so of common sense suggestions, none of which was too much more illuminating than "Buy low, sell high." I briefly considered selling the manual myself, for $8.99, which would hardly have been more fraudulent a scheme than the author's, but thought better of it. If I'm going to make a living selling imaginary goods for hard-earned money, the least it can be is an honest living.

3:38 PM

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Two's Company  
I never much wanted company in this endeavor. I know games like Ultima are supposed to be all about community, but I was sort of hoping to keep my fellow player at a safe remove, in contact with me only through the arms-length channels of the market. I wanted customers, not companions. God knows I didn't want a roommate.

But God knows better, generally speaking. Some weeks ago an eager player showed up at the entrance to my new-built mansion in the new-built land of Malas, wondering if he could place a vendor or two on my front steps. I had my own vendors there already, but I wanted others', to help drive traffic, and the young man seemed to have a marketable line of goods. I let him place the vendors.

We'll call him Radny. Not Randy. Radny -- a normal American name deformed, apparently, by a typo committed when he created the character. And this was the first thing that bugged me about him. The second was the tacky neon green clothing in which he dressed his vendors. But worst of all, I suppose, was his mere presence, which was more or less constant. He'd been away from the game for a while, he explained, having sold his old house on the way out, and he just needed a place to log in and out till he got back on his feet. And did I mind if he stashed some stuff here? And hey, he had an idea, what if we set up a box that he could drop his loot in and I could enhance it with my smithing skills? And listen, could he maybe have a room where he could put some chests and do some decorating?

I acceded to all his requests. I'm not sure why. I like my solitude, and I began to cringe slightly on logging in, wondering if Radny would be there to greet me with a "sup" or a "hey bro" or an observation that some ill-designed aspect of the game's interface was "gay." The house was no longer entirely my own, and though I still had final control over it, including the ability to banish Radny with a button click, I saw no good enough reason to do so. The best I could do was remind him not to get too comfortable and point out that the price of a new house was dropping fast since the Age of Shadows release.

He has shown no signs of taking the hint, however, and in the end I'm glad of it. Last night we turned a sort of corner, Radny and I. He was downstairs working on his tailoring at around 5pm PDT when I breezed through on my way to logging out, giddy with the recent purchase of a +10 Magery Powerscroll (for a reasonable 500,000 gold pieces). Who else could I share my excitement with but Radny? We got to talking. He told me he's been making big cash with a rares vendor at a vendor mall around the corner from my place. "made 3 million this weekend," he said, and said he'd sold 2 million on eBay to pay his subscription fees for another few months. "i had enough to move out on you :)" Why didn't he? "i love you man lol" And then he said "i still have a lot to teach u," which was partly a joke, but partly not. He proceeded to explain that I should start trading rares if I wanted to make real money -- "go to the auctions wed sun and mon nights. buy some things to sell. you have to know a little about prices. but with a vendor at Ultima's [the big mall he's placed in] you can pretty much put any price and you will sell out over the weekend. every time."

I liked the idea, but I pointed out that the auctions always happen right around the time my daughter comes home from day care. It's really not an option for me to attend. He thought about that, then came the proposition: "how much do u have in the bank?"

"uh oh here it comes," I replied, only half joking. Just a few weeks earlier I would have stopped listening at this point, sure I was about to be scammed. But now I felt almost ready to trust Radny. "u give me some money to invest," he said. "i'll buy things at auction with it and sell on my vendor. i'll guarantee your principal but keep 20 percent of the profit. deal?" I went to the bank and brought back a check for 500K, then logged to go pick up Lola. The auction was set to start in 20 minutes.

When I came back on later that night, Radny told he'd already turned a small profit for me, having beat someone for a 400k clothing bless deed then turned around and sold it to the very same loser for 430. I liked this, and at last, genuinely, I liked Radny. We hung out for awhile, doing our various tasks (I watered my plants, he worked his tailoring) and talking onscreen and by ICQ. He told me he was 52. I said "whoa i thought i was the old man around here." But he was kidding of course. He's 17. He razzed me about being old: "hey i got a question for you -- can you still get it up? -- cuz u know i'm 17 and when i tell it to tuck it rolls -- just kidding!!!" Or this: "hey you were alive in the 70s, did you smoke pot?"

Which turned out to be a serious question. Radny is interested in marijuana, and his interest is apparently more than academic. I told him I didn't like it much but didn't deny I've tried lots of drugs. And suddenly felt very cautious about what I should be saying, being the responsible adult in the conversation. "lol" said Radny. "But Mommy its okay to do drugs this guy on the internet told me so!"

"lol," said I, and for once I actually was laughing out loud as I typed that. I felt a little dizzy with the complexity this relationship had taken on in the course of an evening and still wasn't entirely sure what to make of it. Mentor, business partner, kid brother and roommate, Radny is now most of all a puzzle.

2:23 AM

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

I, Michel Slavin  
Last week a 14-year-old Rumanian boy named Michel Slavin collapsed in an Internet cafe and was taken to the hospital -- "physically and mentally exhausted," doctors said, after playing Counter-Strike nonstop for nine days. He'd lost 18 pounds and hadn't showered once in this period, and his mother blamed the game. Right-thinking people blame the mother, of course. Or the culture. Or whatever gene produces the addictive personality. Lately, though, I'm sort of with Mrs. Slavin on this one.

It's been three weeks since my last entry. For one of those weeks I was away in Rio de Janeiro, where, among other productive activities, I addressed a conference of lawyers and business people on the topic of Ultima Online's eBay markets. For the other two weeks of negligence, though, I really have no excuse. I blame the game. Current neurological theory seems to hold that when intense mental focus and immediate reward converge -- as they do in MMORPGs -- intoxicating waves of dopamine bathe the brain. But what does this tell you? If you have never felt the warm, cottony urge to log in and play pressing in on you like the very hand of God pushing you steadily toward your grave, can you really understand? Suffice it to say that my commitment to keeping this journal up-to-date is no match for that urge, and I'm still somewhat astonished that I've finally, tonight, managed to resist the call long enough to make this entry.

I have joked about being addicted to UO, and I will joke about it again, but on some level it really is no joke.

12:47 AM

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