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Fantasy Games Spyr Real-World Trade

July 30, 2000

NEW YORK (AP) _ No matter how camp your taste, you can’t really wear a Tunare executioner’s hood or Tribunal batskull earring. They exist only in a computer fantasy world.

You can buy them, though, for real cash.

A real-world market has sprung up from several online, role-playing fantasy games. Players buy and sell their virtual characters, clothing, weapons, homes and magical objects acquired in online games for hard cash _ sometimes thousands of dollars.

Although the goods are just video pixels on a computer screen, the motivation to acquire them is quite real, according to players and game companies.

``It can be very addictive, but it’s no different, I guess, than the people who play 27 holes of golf a day,″ said Jerry Lustig, of Parsippany, N.J., a 62-year-old car dealer.

Lustig, who started playing 2 1/2 years ago as a form of relaxation, has paid about $6,000 for game characters and objects, hoping to reach a higher level of play more quickly.

``There are guys who might say that’s cheating,″ he said. ``If you’re 62 years old, you can’t wait forever to do these things.″

Many buyers are frustrated, busy or novice players who yearn to gain goods and a higher status or playing position in a game _ without the pain of playing for hours on end. Some are so desperate to move to another level that they buy other people’s accounts, the playing positions they’ve reached.

Other sellers play, much like professional card sharks, only to transform their game acquisitions into cash. Still others, not initially in the game to make a buck, simply cash out when they’ve had enough.

``People invest a lot of time, and there’s actual real-world value in these characters,″ said David Swofford, a spokesman for Origin Systems, of Austin, Texas, the distributor of the Ultima Online game.

The games, which came on the market just in the past few years, are known as massive, multiplayer games. More than 270,000 players are registered with Everquest, paying about $40 for the compact disc software and $9.89 a month to play.

The most popular games _ Everquest, Ultima Online and Asheron’s Call _ are set in medieval-looking, escapist worlds of castles, monsters and necromancers.

Players assume roles ranging from trolls to humans, develop skills, buy ancient clothing and weapons, embark on adventures, slay monsters, seize magical objects and enter professional guilds.

The market is especially tight for Ultima Online’s scarce real estate, fetching prices up to well over $1,000 for a prime piece of land.

Miles Hester, 42, an unemployed ambulance driver in Tavares, Fla., recently won an Ultima Online castle with a $1,025 bid on the auction Web site eBay. He figures he can sell it for that much or more when he tires of the game.

He acknowledged his wife was less than pleased. ``She doesn’t understand that this thing has true value,″ said Hester, who plays the game 45 to 50 hours a week. ``It’s a good buy.″

Players and game distributors agree that, to make real headway, a player must team up with others and spend lots of time _ often four or five hours a day.

Michael Simpson, 25, a computer system administrator in Houston, spent 1,320 hours _ the equivalent of 165 workdays _ playing Everquest over 15 months.

But when he started to lose interest, he sold out to another player for $500. His character had reached the 50th of 60 levels in the game, and the other player wanted to reach that level to play with a friend.

``It kind of paid for itself. That’s the way I look at it,″ Simpson said of his investment of time.

Nathan Bac, of Houston, a 30-year-old executive in an engineering firm, was playing at least 30 hours a week when he came to feel he was neglecting his baby boy for the world of Everquest. Bac offered his whole account for $600 on eBay, where much of the buying and selling takes place.

Some players say there is a stigma attached to players who buy into a better spot in the games.

Earlier this year, Sony Computer Entertainment, of Foster City, Calif., which distributes Everquest, changed the game agreement to ban real-world trading of game assets _ although not all players honor that. The company partly wants to avoid complaints from real-world buyers who may end up unhappy with their cash purchase, said Ryan Bowling, a Sony Computer Entertainment spokesman.

Microsoft, which puts out Asheron’s Call, frowns on such real-world buying and selling, but feels it can’t completely stop it.

Chris Di Cesare, the game’s product manager at Microsoft, says it violates the spirit of the game. ``It gets players who have spent a lot of time and invested a lot of energy into the game against a new player who just writes a check,″ he said.

But Swofford, at Ultima Online, said trade in pixels gives the game an economic ``added value.″

As a real-life entrepreneur, Lustig, who once paid $1,700 for a Dutch player’s account, said he could hardly fault other players who are able to buy what they desire with real cash.

``You take advantage of what you can,″ he said.

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