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Online games-Goldmine or money pit?

Just sit at your computer and get rich playing online games. While there is generally a kernel of truth to these stories, they tend to be exceptional cases.

world Updated: Apr 16, 2007 11:16 IST

It sounds like a dream: sit comfortably at your computer and get rich playing online games. There are lots of reports floating around about gamers who have gotten rich in the digital world, like the story of the woman who made a real-life bundle selling virtual real estate in Second Life. While there is generally a kernel of truth to these stories, they tend to be exceptional cases.

Indeed, gaming industry experts have more than a few words of discouragement for those who think that online worlds are the way to quick riches: "As of now I see only one company that's really earning money in Second Life - and that's the game's maker, Linden Lab," explains Winfried Kaminski from the Institute for Media Research and Media Pedagogy at the Technical University of Cologne.

"I cannot imagine that people can earn their livelihood through these games right now," Kaminski says.

To be fair, some large companies like Adidas have discovered the parallel world and set up their first branches in Second Life. The sporting goods maker set up its own shop in September 2006, reports press spokesman Oliver Brueggen: "We sell the Adidas a3 Microride in our shop for $50."

By January 2007, Adidas had sold around 23,000 pairs of its virtual shoes. The business may be worthwhile for businesses anyways, figures Winfried Kaminski: "It's one way to determine for example how specific goods are going to be accepted by customers."

World of Warcraft is another online role-playing game that can boast of millions of users. It also has a lot of real money changing hands, but in this case often to gain more virtual currency itself, or gaming characters themselves. The game's maker, Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) in San Diego, has created a trading platform called Station Exchange to allow the company to earn sales fees in the process.

SOE's analysis also shows who is earning money and who is spending it: the most successful vendors are on average 22-years-old, while the deepest pockets are from on average 34-year-old players.

The experts see this as a reflection of the fact that success in online games is primarily a matter of time. A family man with a busy career is unlikely to have the time to progress very far in the WOW system. But he may have real life money that he can use to buy virtual gold or better equipment for his avatar.

While most players look down on those who buy their way into more powerful characters, it is an accepted fact of virtual life. Some companies even specialize in servicing such affluent players: the Bavarian-based company InGameService provides immediate advancement for game characters over the Internet - for a fee.

Business director Andreas Herken can't complain about business: "Things are going well. A majority of the customers come back for repeat business."

In other words, earning money in the online world requires a lot of luck or a lot of time. The equation is reversed for those in a time crunch: real money has to be shelled out to keep up the virtual pace.