Getting paid to play

Originally published 2004 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


The mainstream media's just starting to notice that there are people managing to make a real living by working in virtual worlds. It's not just old-fashioned honest gamers who've gone through the grind and are now selling their +5 Moustache Snoods of Puissance on eBay; there are PC-farms macroing away all day in MMORPGs (small farms can be run manually in some games), and hordes of minimum-wage Koreans doing the most tedious jobs in games that can't be macroed. And, of course, scam artists. The proceeds of these industrial-scale operations are being sold through auction sites and dedicated brokerages for cold hard cash.

The game companies insist that virtual goods have no actual value, but they do that mainly to avoid legal liability. If Sony admit to the rapidly changing, but nonetheless real, EQ-plat-to-US-dollar-to-whatever exchange rate, every server crash that cheats players out of everything they did for the last four days will spawn a class action lawsuit. License agreement or no license agreement.

Obviously, things with no material existence can have value. That's what the whole copyright brouhaha's about, and plenty of things less material than a +7 Pointy Stick of Biped Slaying are traded for vast sums of money on derivatives markets every day. TAG Heuer would have gone bankrupt by now if derivatives brokers didn't exist.

Accept that virtual things are still things, and making hats or hunting game or Tomb Raiding for magic items in games becomes, qualitatively, surprisingly similar to various jobs in the real world.

Especially if you live somewhere where the inflation rate's pretty ferocious already. The Ultima Online Gold Piece is, even now, a better place to put your money than some of the world's "real" currencies.

What actual humans actually have to do in order to perform in-game jobs is, of course, almost always completely different from what they'd have to do to perform an analogous task in the real world. What everybody in games really has to do, to some extent at least, is pretend. Games turn everyone into an actor. Soccer makes you pretend a ball in a goal is a very important thing, many First Person Shooters are full of people pretending that they're unduly obsessed with red and blue flags, and RPGs have "role-playing" right there in their name.

I'm looking forward to games that reward proper acting more than the current crop. Not acting in the "Huzzah! Well met, good sire!" Renaissance Faire sense, but in the broad role-playing sense. The game should encourage you to behave like the creature you're meant to be, without punishing you if you absent-mindedly mention the real-world weather where you live to your adventuring companions.

Consider, for instance, a massively multiplayer game that doesn't necessarily cost anything to play.

If you want to be Schlong The Barbarian, Invincible Vanquisher Of Anyone Who Bathes, or Grimstaff Cliché, Thermonuclear War-Mage of the West, you have to pay big bickies for the privilege. Characters like that will cost a lot of in-game meta-dollars to create. This is already starting to happen, thanks to third-party game-item-merchants.

But if you just want to be a regular schmoe, starting from level 1, you can get in for cheap. And if you're even less prideful, you can get paid to play.

Game companies don't need to pay people to create in-game items; those they can make themselves from nothing in whatever quantity they like. What they can pay people to do is act, especially in thankless roles.

Start as a kobold, goblin or other Level-1-player-fodder kind of monster, and you should earn meta-dollars (which you can later use to play something more flexible) whenever you do something to advance your inglorious species' cause. Like actually managing to jab the fairly sharp stick that is your only armament into a human, for instance.

The value of low-toughness characters could float, based on supply and demand. If there are already 3475 little dog-faced blighters running around and you decide to spawn as a kobold too, you should only earn one credit an hour no matter what you do (but you'll still get to be part of the Mass Storming Of The Clean And Muscular Humans' Castle). If there are only 20 human-controlled kobolds on the thousand-player server at the moment, though, then playing as one should be worth a credit a minute, as long as you spend those minutes doing koboldly things.

I don't think there's any way to make playing as a Lurker Above, Shrieker or unspellable stationary abomination entertaining; they're going to have to stay as NPCs. There similarly probably won't be a big market for the roles of Mimic, Monster Waiting Behind The Door, or Magically Animated Floor in Exodus' Castle.

But a simple yet entertaining game can be crafted that involves playing as a low-power beastie. Especially if after your inevitable death you can respawn into the body of another beastie, which was previously an NPC, close to the action, and retain the benefit of whatever experience points you by some miracle managed to acquire in your previous life.

If you can get game credits for doing this stuff, people will. Look at the dead boring press-lever-for-food-pellet things that people already pay a monthly fee to do in MMO games.

This idea has no doubt already occurred to people who, unlike me, actually know something about game design. It's probably been rejected for boringly prosaic reasons, like the fact that you'd end up with a server groaning under the weight of a hundred thousand non-paying ghosties, ghoulies and long-leggety beasties, and not be able to cover your bandwidth bills.

But if the concept can be finessed into reality, it could dovetail very nicely with the brave new world of 3D VR fully immersive gaming that Ah Have A Dream we'll all be enjoying several years from now. As games widen and deepen conceptually as well as merely cosmetically, the game companies are going to need more cooperation from their player base in making the game world rich and interesting.

Loads of Fighters called Supa Killa and talking 1337-5P34K will not help with this. People avariciously pursuing the Path of Perfect Orchood, though, will.

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