Journalist Earns Significant Salary Trading Virtual Goods

Julian Dibbell reports that his year-long experiment in virtual item trading from the fantasy world of Ultima Online netted him, in its final month, a tidy profit of $3,917. Over the course of a year, that would be $47,000. The self-imposed challenge here was to beat his best-ever earnings as a writer, but that's not the only benchmark one could apply. Consider the following:

GDP per capita in both China and India: Below $700
Average earnings of short-order cooks: $17,000
US poverty line for a family of 4: $18,400
Average earnings of dancers: $27,000
Average earnings of drug abuse counselors: $32,000
Average earnings of firefighters: $38,000
Average earnings of museum curators: $40,000
Average earnings of secondary school teachers: $46,000
Trader Dibbell: $47,000
Average earnings of insurance salesmen: $54,000
Average earnings of computer programmers: $63,000
Average earnings of economists: $76,000
Average earnings of lawyers: $108,000

Earnings data from BLS.

In short, Play Money has proven conclusively that virtual item trading is a viable occupation.

Congratulations, Julian. [applauds]


Comments on Journalist Earns Significant Salary Trading Virtual Goods:

David Maduram says:

It's really neat to see this profession stacked along with its more traditional counterparts.

However, I seriously doubt that this is a stable job.

After all, there's always a continuous demand for the skills of lawyers, but, with the introduction of in-game auction houses (i.e. such as the one in Final Fantasy XI) and increasing market spread from new MMORPGs, it will be harder to maintain such a high yearly income.

Then again, the job market for computer programming is quite unstable, even though it has such a high proported income, so I suppose that anything is viable on an individual basis (^_^)

Posted Apr 15, 2004 3:06:33 PM | link

TEK says:

Actually, I would disagree. With the growing number of games in this market that means more oppurtunities for other sellers to get ahold of some kind of the market share. It also means more and more stability for sellers that diversify the games in which they sell in despite the erratic nature of the market.

Posted Apr 15, 2004 4:33:16 PM | link

Ren says:

Congrats Julian!

It's good that Julian has gone ‘open book’ and proven that, financially, virtual item trading is viable job.

But is it a viable lifestyle option?

Julian’s posts seem to suggest that there is a 24x7x365 pressure to be ‘there’ just in case someone wants to purchase, more recent posts seem to allude to an almost existential angst about trading in things that are non-physical and relatively ephemeral.

But what’s the difference between this and trading something like Futures?

There is a 24x7 global market, their ‘reality’ is highly nebulous – and while I could probably explain what a UO gold piece was in under 200 words I’d challenge anyone to do that for a Future or a Derivative.

To me, right now, the whole thing is promising. Dr C talks about the effects on VWs on physical economies, but he (and lots of others) also talk about their beneficial effects. The digital divide aside, surely as VWs grow they can offer real alternatives for people – not only socially but as a career option, and one where you don’t have to live in a financial centre or have gone to the right school or look the right way.

The only nagging doubt that I can see people having is that this is not ‘real’ but as I say time and time again, look at the way social reality is constructed and you will find that there is very little that is more real, just things that happen to be know to and accepted by more people.

Posted Apr 16, 2004 3:14:49 AM | link

Kelly Charles says:

I'm not very familiar with Ultima Online, but I've played EverQuest for a few years now. The makers of EQ, Sony Online Entertainment, take the official stance that everything that exists within their virtual world (regardless of what character happens to possess it at any given moment) is their intellectual property. Real world monetary transactions for cash or items or characters in the game is a violation of their licensing agreement and the legal equivalent of selling the rights to something that doesn't belong to you.

However, SOE hasn't been able to determine a way to prevent such transactions from taking place - they were unable to get ebay to stop hosting the auctions for instance. I'm sure they also realized that filing dozens of lawsuits against the individuals who are profiteering would likely do little but cause controversy and alienate part of their player population and the whole trade in virtual goods would just go underground and continue.

Not only that, but if SOE were to bring a weak suit against someone and manage to lose, it could have broad legal implications regarding the copyright status of their online content and and so forth.

My prediction? As MMORPGs develop further, you will see fundamental changes in the approach to the design of some of the in-game "systems" - money, items, trading, item decay, etc - that will be aimed at preventing the sale of virtual goods. Or at least inhibiting it and rendering it less profitable.

An alternate prediction would be that somebody will figure out a system where these virtual goods sales can only be facilitated by going through some sort of auction service or whatever that is run by the manufacturers of the game - and they'll be happy to take 10% of the profit from every sale.

At any rate, the number of people who will be able to mimick Mr. Dibble's success in this business will be very few indeed, and the more that try to do it, the less success all of them will have collectively. And I think at some point whatever pack of morons it is out there who are buying fake money with real money will have to figure out that PAYING isn't as much fun as PLAYING when it comes to these games and they'll move onto some other hobby like smashing their heads against big rocks or whatnot.

--- NK

ps: It also sounds like Mr. Dibble is working too hard at a totally meaningless occupation for even the 47 grand to justify the total waste of so much time. If you really want a meaningless job that does nothing to improve society become a drug dealer. You set your own hours, you can work from home... Of course, work consists of getting high, counting money, and returning some phone calls or answering the door occasionally mind you. You can make a LOT more than 47 grand a year doing it, though there are some occupational hazards involved. But at least you're selling people something that physically exists in the real world, so that should be a big self-esteem boost for you at the end of the day I would think.

Posted Apr 16, 2004 6:18:56 AM | link

Michael Buckwald says:

As an EQ player I would think that Kelly would be able to appreciate the already wide-spread nature of Dibbell's work.

If a company like IGE can generate millions a year in revenue and employ well over a hundred, it's a bit foolish to consider the virtual goods market as inappropriate for individuals with an interesting in profiting from it.

Posted Apr 16, 2004 8:25:28 AM | link

Dan S says:

I am not convinced that the trend will be to eliminate the outside markets. Already some games are going more in the other direction.

The prohibition on outside trading dates far back. Trading for real money always used to be underground, but it is now more aboveground. It has not destroyed games, despite the cries of parts of the player base. What destroys games is exploitation of bad coding or design, or poor game management.

Speaking for myself, the longer I've played games the more I've moved to the side of believing that not only is out-of-game trading in in-game "objects" not bad, it's actually good for the games. I was very much in the early days of the opinion that this sort of trading hurt games. Experience has simply not shown this to be the problem. Always what is is the discovery and extreme expoitation of duplication and other bugs. These happen whether or not an outside market exists. If anything, they give some serious players (who tend to be very wired into what's happening in the games) a reason to report these bugs earlier, as they can greatly damage the value of existing inventories or systems to create wealth. (I am not claiming all who trade in virtual items would report such bugs, but I suspect more will have personal incentive to do so if they are active in trading virtual goods.)

I am not at all opposed to better in-game market mechanisms. The relatively recent changes to the bazaar in Star Wars have resulting in a significant improvement in the variety and quality of goods that are generally available.

But this still requires that players invest significant time (which the anti-outside-sales crowd likes!) before they have access to many goods. This is not the best model for an entertainment service, as the outside market for other entertainments proves. Those of us with more money than time will always willingly trade money for time.

Work with reality; don't fight it.

Posted Apr 16, 2004 8:27:33 AM | link

greglas says:

Just in case anyone missed it, Julian is famous...

http://www.wired.com/news/games/0,2101,63083,00.html.

Well, to be honest, he's famous again again. :-)

Oh -- and check Slashdot Games too...

Posted Apr 16, 2004 8:40:45 AM | link

greglas says:

KC> If you really want a meaningless job that does nothing to improve society become a drug dealer.

JD a while ago> If I have in my possession a kilo of cocaine, for instance, U.S. law doesn't grant me much control over it at all. I can't sell it, I can't use it, I can't even, well, possess it. But for legal purposes it is nonetheless my property. Why? Because the law does in fact grant me the right not to have it taken from me by illegal means. This is so the law can prosecute people for stealing, and not give people who happen to steal contraband a free ride.

JD in Wired> "And I know that people are going to be coming to me, 'Hey, you want to buy this castle?' It's going to be like walking away from the drug world."

Hmm... looks, tho, like JD is 1) getting out of the "biznis," and 2) just addicted to doughnuts...

Posted Apr 16, 2004 8:51:57 AM | link

Benjamin Westafer says:

Thank you for mentioning dancers in your list. I was a full-time professional ballet dancer for many years. I was lucky to earn $27,000+ a year. Keep in mind that most dancers are only employed around 30 weeks a year and that most don't get any benefits (I was also lucky enough to get health insurance, but no retirement). Also, a dancers' schedule is Monday - Saturday 9:30 to 6:30. I guess that's the price of fame. ;-). Hmmm, how to interest Ultima players in virtual pointe shoes and dance belts?
Congrats on almost making it!

Posted Apr 16, 2004 10:12:52 AM | link

Ren says:

I’m still coming to terms with the idea that US lawyers earn an average of $108,000, given what the celeb ones seem to be on and this being an average I wonder how the rest can pay their law school fees.

Posted Apr 16, 2004 10:20:17 AM | link

Camilo says:

Actually, what we may expect to see is some outsourcing of auctioneers: It is far more efficient to a gamer in LatinAmerica (closer culture, understands English, propbably grew with American culture) to work 8 hours a day hoarding virtual goods, and the auction those, than it is to a gamer in the USA.

Take then the disparity in income per capita, and the Ecuadorian gamer will be living a life of luxury. We can set up whole corporations based on this.

Posted Apr 16, 2004 10:26:43 AM | link

don says:

>> In short, Play Money has proven conclusively that virtual item trading is a viable occupation.

Let’s be clear.

Julian didn’t make 47K. He made x amount over some limited period and then extrapolated that amount into a yearly salary. It also appears that this x amount was derived under rather extraordinary circumstances. E.g., a 24/7 attention span and, much more importantly, the “fame” greglas refers to. If Julian’s escapades demonstrate anything, it’s how to promote a virtual business: you get yourself in wired and slashed and on NPR and (yes, even) well painted in terra nova. And your sales go up, and you make some dough.

Good deal.

Is it sustainable?

I would suggest that Julian get more realistic virtual job -- like working for IGE, maybe -- and then blog that out for a year or so.

Until then, I wouldn’t elevate Trader Dibbell into a poster child for virtual marketeers. He just plays one on the web.

Posted Apr 16, 2004 11:08:10 AM | link

Euphrosyne says:

Good point Camilo. Why should an Indian call center worker, fluent in English, work for $300/mo when he could make thousands? Realistically, it would be less than that, but it can be on smaller margins, and it'll be goodbye to the fast cash for Julian and his first-world fellows.

You don't need Julian's press to make a good living when just $500/mo is living large locally.

Posted Apr 16, 2004 11:35:36 AM | link

Jason says:

This is an interestng story, but not unique. I have a friend who consistsantly makes significantly more than Julian except selling things from the game Everquest. I am sure there are many others who also do this.

Posted Apr 16, 2004 11:41:05 AM | link

magicback says:

The story just shows that this activity as an income-earning job is viable.

The story also shows that on a certain scale someone from a deprived nation can make up to 50x the national average household income. $47K is a lot of money for a lot of people around the world.

This is a quite empowering trend.

Now regarding 24x7x365, wait until they come up with sophisticated bots. I think advancements in MMORPG NPC AI will come from biz-bots.

Frank

Posted Apr 16, 2004 11:59:27 AM | link

Ian McGee says:

I just finished Hernando De Soto's "Mystery of Capital", and it's hard to ignore the similarities between his "extralegal" property systems and the EULA-violating systems that are being built up via Ebay & other online markets.

I'm coming around to the view that the activity *can* be good for the games -- consider the casual gamer deriving more enjoyment & greater commitment after purchasing a US$100 sword. It's not that different from the alternative path of joining a big guild and attending multiple raids to earn points to buy high-end equipment. Or even farming to build an in-game stake to buy that sword.

It still falls to the game designer to provide ways that the activity can occur without stomping on the fun of the other players. For instance certain places in EQ regularly sport automated 'bots mechanically farming "rare" items -- this tends to block out live players trying to enjoy the content from a more traditional vantage.

Posted Apr 16, 2004 12:29:27 PM | link

Casey Sillito says:

Kelly Charles > And I think at some point whatever pack of morons it is out there who are buying fake money with real money...

Okay, forget about futures and derivatives. Ever buy a CD? What are you paying $15 for? The physical product? Then you've been cheated. No, your paying for the bits and bytes stored on it and for the right to convert them to SOUND WAVES! You're paying for atmospheric distortions! Moron! Go back to dragging your knuckles or whatever it is you do, etc.

As for online trading having no beneficial effect on society, I disagree, and here's why: The U.S. gov't seems quite fond of bolstering the economy by getting people to spend more. When the economy takes a turn for the worse, Bush gets on the tube and urges people to buy things that they don't need, which looks great on paper. Only problem is that these products are made using resources that are often non-renewable, in factories that often spew toxins, and end up in massive landfills.

If we're going to take the kind of suicidal path that classical economics has laid out for us, wouldn't it make more sense for people to buy things that AREN'T tangible and can be produced in abundance with no harmful by-products?

It might just be a crazy solution to a crazy problem.

Posted Apr 16, 2004 12:40:55 PM | link

TEK says:

There will always be the eternal argument as to whether the buying and selling is a positive for VWs. My take is that a strong dollar to virtual currency exchange reflects well on the status of the game. If the demand is so high for such currency that is rivals real world money market exchanges then a game company should view that positively.

The problem remains though, as with many things in our world, that someone will end up taking all this to the extreme and ruining it for everyone. Whether it be major lawsuit, corruption, and some kind of blatant criminal act that crosses the line and forces companies to crack down.

Posted Apr 16, 2004 6:23:30 PM | link

Brask Mumei says:

TEK> Whether it be major lawsuit, corruption, and some kind of blatant criminal act that crosses the line and forces companies to crack down.

I dunno. We've already had major lawsuits (counselor lawsuits) regarding value of in game time. We've already had blatant "criminal" corruption (GM Darwin manufacturing and selling castles on Ebay). And we've already had companies trying to crack down (SOE banning EBay sales).

I still conclude that the right answer in any modern MMORPG is to assume there will be Ebay & ensure EBaying does not harm your design. We would not let developers create a PK game and then say: "I didn't think people would turn it into a newb-killing slaughterhouse" after UO; so we really shouldn't let them create an Ebay sensitive game and then say: "I didn't know people would farm mobs and sell it on Ebay" after EQ.

- Brask Mumei

Posted Apr 16, 2004 7:03:08 PM | link

greglas says:

FYI: The distinguished Lum says we're being a bit breathless here.

http://www.brokentoys.org/2004_04_01_arc.php#108213574578491426

Posted Apr 16, 2004 7:32:19 PM | link

Julian Dibbell says:

A fascinating thread. Just fascinating. I could read about this Dibble guy all day.

Since I'm in a unique position to comment, however, I thought I'd toss in a few observations of my own.

First, Don is right to wonder how much my "fame" helped with my numbers. I wonder, too. But I can say with some certainty that it generated almost no direct sales. There was never any permanent link from my blog (or from any article about me) to my eBay auctions, or to my Markee Dragon broker page, and I would say 99.9% of my sales came through those venues.

What the relatively high profile of my blog and other writing did help me with was getting connected to the community of sellers and suppliers. I clearly wouldn't have gotten my spot on the Markee Dragon team, for instance, if not for the blog. And that's probably about 20% of my final numbers right there.

But really all we're talking about here is an initial investment of social capital, and that can take many forms, especially in an arena as social as the MMORPG market. Many a UO guild leader or in-game vendor could jump into the eBay market as well-networked as I was or better.

As for the amount of time I put in during the last few weeks, 24/7 is definitely an exaggeration. The sun never sets on a virtual trader's markets, to be sure, but that never kept me from a full night's sleep. I'd say the longest week I ever put in was probably 60 hours, which I know is less than some of the bigger traders put in routinely.

This is the main thing to keep in mind. As many of you have pointed out, I didn't "prove" the viability of anything. Lots of people are making as much money doing this as I did last month, or better. (And some are making less in countries where less is a lot more. Over the last three months, for instance, I personally wired about $4000 to a single UO player in Moscow, and that's gotta be doing a lot more for his standard of living than my markup on his gold did for mine.)

All I did different was document my experience. Which I hereby donate to science.

Posted Apr 16, 2004 10:11:58 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Julian Dibbell>All I did different was document my experience. Which I hereby donate to science.

So you mean you WEREN'T planning on writing it up as a book and then making more money from writing about how you made more money from trading than you ever made from writing than you ever made from trading?

Richard

Posted Apr 17, 2004 5:44:32 AM | link

Will Leverett says:

I specifically remember talking to someone around late 1999 or early 2000 who showed up at the Origin campus in Austin when his account was erroneously suspended.

He said had bought the first ticket from his home somewhere on the East Coast to Austin as soon as he couldn't access his account. I informed him that it was our mistake and asked why he didn't just call or email to get it straightened out. His response was that he couldn't take the chance that it might not be resolved - the account was his main storage for his item trading business, and that it had several thousand dollars worth of items on it.

And his business had netted him over $100,000 in item trade profits the previous year.

Could have been blowing smoke but then again there weren't that many trade sites during that time.

Posted Apr 17, 2004 8:40:24 AM | link

Will Leverett says:

Kelly Clark >>>> "The makers of EQ, Sony Online Entertainment, take the official stance that everything that exists within their virtual world (regardless of what character happens to possess it at any given moment) is their intellectual property. Real world monetary transactions for cash or items or characters in the game is a violation of their licensing agreement and the legal equivalent of selling the rights to something that doesn't belong to you."


I've always been curious why SOE has taken the position they did. I took a quick look at the Everquest Terms of Service and it seems that they took the uber-cautious route with their License Agreement. It's structured in a way that SOE wouldn't even consider allowing those activities as part of their service.

Perhaps they decided that it might be too difficult to police item and account trading or that allowing such activity. Or that it could possibly open some intellectual property issues down the line. Naturally the best way to avoid both is to not allow it.

That approach is a little extreme. No company wants to relinquish the IP rights to the Content it created. But allowing item and account trading is a natural extension of the game... MMO providers can certainly allow that without giving up their rights to the Content to players.

Posted Apr 17, 2004 9:16:59 AM | link

Lee Delarm says:

I too, am a bit baffled as to SOE stance on virtual item trading. If I were to look at it from a standpoint of "not wanting to deal with it" legally, then what, pretell, is the point of actually getting eBay to take down sales now and then?

I mean, with the money they have and access to council, I'm sure they know it's not a feasible deterant tactic, nor is banning accounts or suspending them or whatever you want to call it since it's been done for the past 5 years and the industry has only grown since then.

I don't know...it just baffles me that a company like SOE wouldn't sit down and think out a way to make money off this side venture instead of SPENDING money to get eBay to take off a sale or two. My guess is that SOE actually has to physically call eBay to take down each individual auction since at any given time there's somewhere between 1-5 thousand auctions up for their games at any given time.

Anyone care to explain the logic as to why you'd even try to stop this as they have?

Posted Apr 19, 2004 6:44:31 AM | link

Ian McGee says:

Maybe part of the concern is that employees may feel inclined to "create" objects for sale? If sufficient safeguards weren't built into the system from the start it could be hard to trace/prevent...

Perhaps there are back-end technological issues that are being worked through to support sanctioned sales.

Posted Apr 19, 2004 12:25:33 PM | link