play money
DIARY of a dubious proposition



(And you can buy it at Amazon.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Market Watch  

Another weekly UO eBay market snapshot, based on average sales figures for the preceding 14 days:

Total sales: $125,033 (-5,318 from last week)

Total sales, annualized: $3.3 million

Total volume: 3,488 sales (-8)

Exchange rate: $16.13 (-0.50) per 1 million Britannian gold pieces

Price of an 18x18 house in the new Malas region: $154.46 (-4.36)

My gold holdings: 71.5 million gp ($1,153.30)

My dollar holdings: $708.38

My profits, year to date: $488.10

(Numbers crunched with help from HammerTap's DeepAnalysis, an eBay market research tool.)

10:50 PM

Monday, July 28, 2003

Edward Castronova seems to be all over my radar screen this week.

Last Thursday I noticed that his Web site has (with a nod to our own beloved Market Watch), begun tracking aggregate sales data for all virtual items traded on eBay. Way to take it to the next level, Dr. C!

Then, on Saturday, I caught him on NPR's Weekend Edition, featured in a piece that mostly just summarized the good doctor's famous paper on the economy of EverQuest -- but did include a curious snippet of interview with an editor at the American Economic Review, which recently rejected Castronova's paper on gender bias in the pricing of EverQuest avatars. Curious because, if I heard correctly, the editor's reason for rejecting the paper was not that virtual economies aren't the same as real economies but that they're not different enough!

Finally, next Wednesday, Castronova will be live at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, at an event I would give my last gold piece to be able to attend. Every year, the Black Hat computer-security conference stages a moot-court hacker trial, and this year they've decided to put a virtual-economic spin on the facts of the imaginary case: The defendant stands accused of hacking into a fellow MMORPG player's game account and transfering to his own the legendary "Staff of Viagra," a rare game item worth $5000 on the eBay market. Castronova will be the prosecution's expert witness, testifying to the real value of virtual goods.

As it happens, another friend and colleague of mine, Stanford CIS director and defense attorney extraordinaire Jennifer S. Granick, will be arguing the case for the accused.

May justice prevail!

(And watch this space to find out if it does.)

6:49 AM

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Market Watch  
Yes, stat fans, Market Watch is back -- and more datalicious than ever. This week we introduce at-a-glance color-coding (to tell you which numbers are up and which are down) and two brand new stats, fresh from the lab: the long-awaited "Total volume" and the provocative "My profits, year to date," which tells you just how much cream I've ladled off the operation (and into my bank account) so far.

With apologies for last week's lapse, here, once again, is your weekly UO eBay market snapshot, based on average sales figures for the preceding 14 days:

Total sales: $130,351 (-258 from two weeks ago)

Total sales, annualized: $3.4 million

Total volume: 3,496 sales

Exchange rate: $16.63 (+0.04) per 1 million Britannian gold pieces

Price of an 18x18 house in the new Malas region: $158.82 (-29.44)

My gold holdings: 58.4 million gp

My dollar holdings: $604.10

My profits, year to date: $488.10

(Numbers crunched with help from HammerTap's DeepAnalysis, an eBay market research tool.)

12:49 PM

Friday, July 18, 2003

Rage, Pillage, Repeat  
So I'm thinking maybe I have the business model all wrong:

[In today's hyperwired Korea, Forbes magazine reports, a] whole subclass of young men without real jobs form online gangs that rage across digital landscapes, pillaging villages and robbing other virtual characters of their possessions. Most of the virtual goods such as clothes, armor or even sunglasses can be sold in online auctions for hard currency. Sales of stolen and legitimate items are brisk, with prices ranging from $1 for a diamond crown to more than $100,000 to bribe an occupying clan to move out of a castle.

Let's see now: Rage, pillage, occupy castle, bank six figures.

And this job is less real than Donald Rumsfeld's how, exactly?

5:38 PM

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Market Watch ... On Hold  
Due to technical difficulties, this week's UO eBay market numbers are unavailable.

(Numbers would have been crunched with help from HammerTap's DeepAnalysis, an eBay market research tool that called in sick today. Market Watch will return as soon as DeepAnalysis gets over this bug.)

5:36 PM

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

This Just In: Gamers Not Entirely Pathetic  
Been feeling pretty good about myself these days. Not only did I make my three-week goal of $1000 in UO trades by a 10% lead last week, but now no less an authority than the Pew Internet & American Life Project has certified that spending a significant part of your life playing online games does not necessarily make you a loser.

In a new white paper called "Let the Games Begin: Gaming Technology and Entertainment Among College Students", the Project reports that its research on 27 U.S. campuses shows "[c]omputer, video, and online games are woven into the fabric of everyday life for college students ... [and] are more of a social/socializing activity than most suspected." Interestingly, while about half of the students surveyed said that games keep them from studying "some" or "a lot," the number of hours they reported studying per week was not, in fact, significantly different from the number reported by college students in general.

Props to the Pew research team headed by the University of Illinois-Chicago's ace Internetologist Steve Jones. This puts me doubly in debt to Prof. Jones, who once upon a time hired me to teach a course on digital culture in his department -- and now has given me and my customers permission to hold our heads just a little bit higher and let our game-freak flags fly.

2:16 PM

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Market Watch... Oh, and One Other Thing  
My weekly UO eBay market snapshot follows. But first, the moment you've all been waiting for...

When I posted last night, my deadline was less than an hour a way, and I was sweating it. With $295 in my PayPal account and 33 million gp in the game, last week's exchange rate would have put my cash holdings at $839 -- a solid $141 short of the $1000 goal. The only thing keeping hope alive was my 40 million gp or so in inventory, and in particular the 20 million gp worth of suits of armor Mr. Big had promised to buy. If I could close that deal with him, I'd be at 53 million gp cash and almost certainly in the clear.

But where was Mr. Big? I hadn't been able to reach him on ICQ all day. The minutes were trickling away, and I was beginning to despair. A fairly major gold dealer I know happened to ICQ me and, apprised of the situation, offered to try to find another buyer for my suits. For a brief moment I was tempted. But in the end I knew the score: a deal is a deal -- even, or maybe especially, when what you're dealing in is make-believe -- and I had to say no.

And just as I did, Mr. Big's name lit up on my ICQ panel, telling me he was back online.

I had maybe 15 minutes to unload the suits, sock away the gold, and get out the door to the airport. In the event, I managed to move only 16 million gp worth of the suits before I hit the stairs running. With 49 million banked, plus the $295 on PayPal, I was good for $1103 at last week's exchange rate.

But was that good enough? The price of the Britannian gold piece, as we have seen, can move pretty quickly. A 15% drop from one week to the next is hardly out of the realm of possibility, and that would have been all it took to drop my net worth back under $1000. The final tally, then, would have to await the verdict of today's market numbers.

Now, if you were watching "Survivor" or some such spectacle, this would be the point where, having exhausted every other means of drawing out the suspense, we would cut to a commercial. Lacking that option, I will instead have to cut to the chase:

The gp held firm (crept upward 9 cents, in fact), and I made my goal with $108 to spare.

We now continue with our regularly scheduled UO eBay market statistics, based on average sales figures for the preceding 14 days:

Total sales: $130,609 (-19,638 from last week)

Total sales, annualized: $3.3 million

Exchange rate: $16.59 per 1 million Britannian gold pieces (+0.09)

Price of an 18x18 house in the new Malas region: $188.26 (-5.61)

(Numbers crunched with help from HammerTap's DeepAnalysis, an eBay market research tool.)

5:53 PM

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Moment of Truth  
In less than an hour I will be leaving for the airport to pick up Jessica and Lola. As announced three weeks ago today, their arrival is my deadline: either I have acquired $1000 worth of gold pieces and PayPal dollars -- or I have failed the first, modest test of this immodest proposal of mine.

It could still go either way, believe it or not. I'll give you the verdict tomorrow.

7:14 PM

Saturday, July 05, 2003

Or very nearly, anyway -- and by rights, I shouldn't have gotten away from the scam as cleanly as I did. I mean, this guy was good.

It started with the kind of Tradespot post you pat yourself on the back for noticing. A sweet deal, but not quite too good to be true:

selling 110 smithy, paypal verified only for $14

To hear for yourself just how those words spoke to me, you don't have to know the first thing about the nature and function of a 110 Blacksmithy power scroll. All you need to know -- all I needed to know -- is that Mr. Big pays me 2.5 million every time I bring him one. Which means that if I bought the scroll on offer, I would effectively be buying gold at a 66% markdown off the exchange rate -- and turning $14 into $40.

Why would anyone be selling so low? You never know for sure. This is the mystery that keeps me and Mr. Big in business and that seems, for that matter, to lie at the heart of market economics.

Once again it's been an epiphany for me. The childlike, magical thinking of the consumer mind looks at price tags and bar codes and imagines -- I don't know -- some celestial database containing the One True Price of every product under heaven. But from where I sit now I see that things are otherwise. For any given good, there is no single price. There is, instead, a chaos of them -- hundreds or thousands or millions of price points at which the market's various players would be willing to trade at any given moment, some exorbitantly high, a few shockingly low, most clustered around an average number in the middle that may, for convenience' sake, be thought of as the commodity's "actual" price.

My job, though, is not to find that center. It's to find the outliers: buy low, sell high. It's what a trader does. But somehow now that I'm doing it, I don't really feel like a trader at all. I feel instead like a certain mythic little creature I remember from my high-school physics textbook: Maxwell's Demon. Perched between two chambers full of roiling, gaseous molecules, the imaginary imp of James Maxwell's famous thought experiment (designed as a challenge to Maxwell's own Second Law of Thermodynamics) sat studying the chaos around him, opening and closing a frictionless little door between the chambers at just the right moments, until all the fast-moving molecules ended up on one side, all the slow-moving molecules ended up on the other, and a rudimentary heat engine stood ready to work. The point, for Maxwell, was that this was a theoretical impossibility -- an overall increase in energy at the cost only of a little quick-wittedness. A something for nothing.

And the point in my case, I guess, is that just as Maxwell's Demon could never have opened his door in time if he'd had to pause and ponder the history of events that gave each molecule headed his way its particular speed and trajectory, so I can only do my job if I don't give too much thought to the reasons a person might be offering a 110 Blacksmithy scroll for $14.

So I didn't. I q'd the seller (sent him an instant message via ICQ, that is) and went about my business. When the reply came five hours later, I could barely remember what the message was about. But it all came back quick. The seller -- he called himself Eval -- wasn't sure he still had the scroll; he'd have to check first. But before we traded there was one thing he needed to know:

Eval (10:30 PM) :
are you verified?

Of course I had a verified PayPal account, I told him. I was glad he'd asked, in fact -- it implied that he was just as wary of the dangers of trading for dollars outside of eBay as I was. Not that I wasn't going to insist on security measures of my own:

Julian (10:31 PM) :
can i see the scroll first?

He didn't have a problem with that.

Eval (10:31 PM) :
what is your email?
i will send you a money request

Julian (10:31 PM) :
oh, cool --

Eval (10:34 PM) :
pls check your email for the money request
i will meet you at Main brit bank vault room once you have made the payment
my character's name is Andy

I checked my email, and there was the payment request, as promised. It looked very official and offered me a login form to get to my PayPal account -- but strangely, when I entered my username and password it just redirected me to PayPal’s home page, without logging me in at all. I tried twice without success, then finally just logged in directly through the home page and prepared a $14 payment, ready to transmit at the click of a button.

Ah, but I’m no dummy:

Julian (10:39 PM) :
tell you what -- i have the payment ready to send -- i'll send it when we meet, k?

Eval (10:39 PM) :
hold on dont send yet
my little one making noise

A minute went by.

Julian (10:40 PM) :
i am in the vault room whenever yr ready

More minutes went by.

Eval (10:47 PM) :
my son is having stomach ache
i am sending him to hospital
Q you tomorrow morning before i get to work

Julian (10:48 PM) :
ok -- sorry to hear it -- talk to you tomorrow

I was sorry, too. I always melt a little when someone on the other end of a UO conversation mentions child care -- it's such a relief just to know there are other adults out there.

And then, 15 minutes later, PayPal sent me a note advising me that someone had been trying to log into my account from “a foreign IP address” (Malaysia, it turns out), and suddenly I realized just how sorry I was. The login form on the money request hadn't been broken of course. It had merely, quietly, been sending my PayPal username and password to “Eval.”

My heart raced as I rushed to log in to my PayPal account and change the password. When I finally got to my balance I expected to see nothing but zeroes. But it was all still there, all $121 of it intact. I thanked God for the very existence of computer security and for whatever sliver of His wisdom He had seen fit to grant the network watchdogs at PayPal.

Still, I had to give props to Eval, too, however grudgingly. He's got a slick little con going there. He was offline, of course, when I finally called up his ICQ screen again, and so, for the little it was worth, the last word went to me:

Julian (11:39 PM) :
nervy bastard

Julian (11:39 PM) :
nice line about the kid though

10:51 AM

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Market Watch  
A weekly series of UO eBay market snapshots, based on average sales figures for the preceding 14 days:

Total sales: $150,247 (-8,831 from last week)

Total sales, annualized: $3.9 million

Exchange rate: $16.50 per 1 million Britannian gold pieces (-0.22)

Price of an 18x18 house in the new Malas region: $182.65 (+20.26)

Gold in my bank box: 19.9 million gp

Dollars in my PayPal account: $71.15

Total cash holdings, dollarized at current exchange rate: $399.50

Resale value of inventory (see also: chickens, unhatched): 47 million gp

(Numbers crunched with help from HammerTap's DeepAnalysis, an eBay market research tool.)

1:00 PM

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Two words about yesterday's entry: Never mind.

My trip to rescue wife and daughter from their desolate Midwestern straits has been canceled, mostly on the advice of said wife, who reminded me that she doesn't actually need rescuing, thanks, and that with a few deep breaths and a daily chill pill I will find my darlings are home before I know it.

The $1000 challenge proceeds as scheduled, therefore. I do apologize for any narrative inconvenience, however, and hope I can make it up to you with this complimentary link to Swarthmore history professor and hardcore gamer Timothy Burke's "MMOG of My Dreams" -- a brief essay that captures nicely the strange and, if you like, tragic appeal of games like UO:

Many MMOG players glimpse in the form an impossible possibility and that mere glimpse is enough to drive them almost mad. I include myself in this charge.

What is it that they see? Simply put, they see the enrichment of life itself through its fusion with fiction, a true Dreaming, an almost-sacred possibility of communion with imagination. A novel as capacious as life, a fiction unlimited by the labor time or mastery of its author. Life 2.0, with all of what makes life organic, surprising, revelatory, but always coupled to joy, fun, excitement, adventure. Dramatic conflict without tragedy, narrative motion without the boredom of everyday life, defeat without suffering. A fiction that one does not merely consume but always creates, where you can find out what happened next and where you can see what is happening beyond the frame of the camera or the page of the book.

Unreal, of course, and unrealizable.

4:02 PM

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