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Blutwölfin
Friday, July 8th, 2005, 09:09 PM
WAGE SLAVES

From sweatshops to stateside corporations, some people are profiting off of MMO gold.


Last month we showed you some of the scammers and crooks that lurk in MMO games. Now, let's go into the field for a firsthand account of another part of the online underworld.

"Sack" is the only name I'm given for the person I'm supposed to contact. He lives in the Fujian province of China, but his place of business is online—he plays Lineage II. He's paid about 56 cents an hour to work in a videogame "sweatshop."

If the term sounds familiar, it's because of Lee Caldwell. The notorious MMORPG scripter got busted four years ago for admitting that his company, BlackSnow, hired workers in Tijuana to earn gold by "farming" in Ultima Online. Caldwell sold that in-game tender online for a handsome real-world profit while only paying his employees pennies on the dollar. Since 1998, the second-party market for MMORPG loot has steadily grown. Last year alone, this newfound industry grossed roughly $500 million, according to Bob Kiblinger of UOTreasures. CGW decided it was high time to go underground and find some of the key players who are going after a piece of the action.

Sack is the low man in these operations. "I work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on the U.S. Lineage II server," he says. He works long, boring hours for low pay and gets no holidays. Carefully constructed macros do most of the work; Sack is just there to fend off the occasional player itching for a fight or game master who's hunting for these automated farming programs. "Everyone knows where the good places are, and GMs know that your account has been online for a whole month," he says. "[A GM will] message me asking, .Hello, what level are you, please?' I know he isn't asking my level; he just wants to know if [there's actually a person at the computer]."

How does it work? The macros for World of WarCraft, for example, control a high-level hunter and cleric. The hunter kills while the cleric automatically heals. Once they are fully loaded with gold and items, the "farmer" who's monitoring their progress manually controls them out of the dungeon to go sell their goods. These automated agents are then returned to the dungeons to do their thing again. Sack's typical 12-hour sessions can earn his employers as much as $60,000 per month while he walks away with a measly $150.

Macros and exploiters
The real money is made by the people with the resources and the right programs. Rich Thurman earned $100,000 by farming 9 billion gold in Ultima Online. A longtime user of the macro easyUO, Thurman says he had "up to 30 PCs running at once, automatically collecting gold for me."

That is the first step. It isn't too difficult from there to make the leap into creating your own sweatshop. All you need is the ability to write game macros or the money to purchase them. That's right, if you know where to look, they are on the open market. A macro that uses a teleportation exploit in WOW is currently going for $3,000. Then just hire cheap labor to monitor the bots.

Weeks go by as I chase ghosts and rumors of Chinese workers clicking 12 hours a day. Word has it that 300 farmers are working at computers lined up in airport hangars somewhere in Asia. After all, Lineage II banned certain Chinese IPs for a reason. Finally, I get in contact with a man in his 30s who goes by the name Smooth Criminal. He's a partner in one of the largest sellers of MMORPG gold, and he isn't apologetic. His rap sheet: banned from Ultima Online, Asheron's Call, Shadowbane, Star Wars Galaxies, and Ultima Online again. He says once someone even traded him a wedding ring worth $2,000 for WOW gold.

Smooth Criminal's game cartel made $1.5 million from Star Wars Galaxies alone last year, and individually, he's made as much as $700,000 in a single year. "[SWG] built my new house, which I paid for in cash," he says. "So when you ring my doorbell, it plays the Star Wars music." Smooth Criminal is in charge of writing programs, finding exploits, and locating in-game "dupes" (bugs for duplicating gold or items). "I have a real job, but when there's a dupe, I call in sick," he says. It costs him more money to actually go to his "real job." "When I dupe," Smooth Criminal adds, "I farm billions on every game server and spread out my activities." He then uses three accounts to launder the gold: a duper account, a filter account, and a delivery account—each created using different IPs, credit cards, and computers. This way, it's hard to trace the source, and the gold comes back clean.

Follow the money
For every reseller of gold, there's a wholesaler who supplies it to gamers with real money to burn. And the biggest name in gold resale is IGE, or Internet Gaming Entertainment. "It's not that they pay the best; they are the most well known, and so [stuff] sells fast," says Smooth Criminal. He knows sales are good because resellers can track profits in real time—and because IGE is one of the biggest fish in the secondary gold market. In fact, IGE has been on a buying spree. It is acquiring the competition and creating a virtual monopoly in this market.

IGE president Steve Salyer tells CGW, "We don't farm assets, nor do we endorse any type of cheating or abusive farming practices. IGE is leading the way in efforts to help prevent these abuses. We spend a lot of time speaking with sellers and educating people involved in the secondary market. IGE is against abusive farming practices wherever they are taking place." But finding and shutting down these farming sweatshops is a hard thing to do. Kiblinger says that IGE's customer service is based in Hong Kong, its employees working for sweatshop wages. IGE's response: "The reason we have customer service in Hong Kong is because it's the gateway to Asia, and our customer service reps earn a fair salary in relation to the profession in that country." This is the same rationale for major companies shipping their customer service desks to India.

Even though IGE itself doesn't farm, and IGE representatives recently told us the company is working to ferret out and ban such behavior, it does buy from farmers who could use exploits. "Whoever supplies IGE controls the market," says Smooth Criminal. Even worse, he continues, "IGE looks the other way when you give them currency. They don't care where it came from even if you tell them you duped it." In fact, Smooth Criminal alleges that IGE helped him hide the illegal credits. "They had to keep moving [Star Wars Galaxies] credits around from account to account to avoid the credit trail (i.e., duped credits) because we told them they were duped." (We asked an IGE representative about Smooth Criminal's experience and received no response.) Currently, Chinese farmers are the main suppliers of WOW's in-game items and gold, and they control the market. Does this mean IGE needs to buy from these suppliers to stay competitive?

Smooth Criminal owns 30 percent of an Indonesian farm, and he just bought a Chinese one that was entirely funded by a recent WOW exploit. When he doesn't have a currency exploit, he falls back on his shops to do some wholesale farming. "Farmers in WOW will be stationed on like a 20-gold-per-hour spot. They have to make at least 15 gold per hour," says Smooth Criminal. However, he has only 10 computers in place so far.

"Ten computers? We have 100 employees for one game!" laughs "Sell." Sell is a recent graduate from Nanjing University. At 24, he's a manager for Vpgamesell, a large SWG Chinese farming center that wholesales to popular resellers. He started off by selling gil in Final Fantasy XI, but his farming days are over. He's moved up to manager status, helping with marketing and delivery. His many farmers work 10-hour rotations and are paid $121 a month. Sell gets $180 a month and works closer to 14 hours a day because he lives at the office, which is a fairly common practice at farming centers—if you lose your job, you also lose your home. Sell negotiates with resellers online to determine the amount of credits they promise to purchase from Vpgamesell. While chatting with me, he's messaging five different people and making contracts for 5 million credits for each server per day.

"HeRog," the owner of Your Virtual Seller, does the same thing as Sell but gets paid well here in America. "I was able to quit my full-time, six-figure-income job," HeRog says.

Smooth Criminal tells me the hiring process at his Indonesian farm is through word of mouth, and the farm turns down 10 to 20 people a day. But that process can get difficult, especially in poor countries.

Adrian2001, a manager for Gamer's Loot, says of his hiring process, "Trust is most important." He gives an example: "I have one boy here [in Romania] that raises goats. So imagine someone who has never seen a PC in his life. I hired the boy because his family is very poor, and he is honest. I tested him by putting money where he might notice it. The money never moved from the spot. I do that with everyone I hire."

For all the so-called virtual sweatshops discovered, a lot of these young men and boys don't mind their jobs, and they aren't exactly working in sweatshop conditions. There's a world of difference between making sneakers and watching bots fight all day. However, they are underpaid, or as Smooth Criminal puts it, "They get paid dirt. But dirt is good where they live."

Source (http://www.1up.com/do/feature?cId=3141815)