Virtual Barnum

Editorial Notebook

December 10, 2005|By ROBERT BENJAMIN

Tired of your dreary job? Miss out on the housing boom? Your social life need a boost? While we're at it, want a whole new persona - appearance, clothes, skills? It's now possible in cyberspace. Just go virtual. And it appears that you now might be able to make some real money there. Or so suggests the unfolding (and perhaps cautionary) tale of Jon Jacobs, more widely known by the name of his alter ego or virtual avatar, "Neverdie." Read on skeptically.

Mr. Jacobs, a 39-year-old Londoner now living in Miami Beach, has been scratching around in the cutthroat reality of the independent film world since 1987. He's made some movies and produced some songs but - even he acknowledges - it hasn't been so profitable. Despite his best efforts at promoting his work, he's not exactly a household name. But since last month, Mr. Jacobs has been the focus of some buzz in the mainstream press around the world. "Man buys virtual space station for $100k," went the headlines.

Indeed, Mr. Jacobs claims he spent $100,000 this fall (two-thirds from refinancing his house) to buy a piece of property- an asteroid-cum-space-resort - in a virtual world called Project Entropia. Last year, this cyber world's Swedish developer, MindArk, supposedly sold a virtual island for $26,500. Mr. Jacobs' claimed purchase stands as the top price for virtual real estate - and as his greatest self-promotion and work of art.

It's tempting to think of such online worlds - known as MMORPGs, or massive multiplayer online role-playing games - as simply giant Monopoly games. But they're fast becoming so much more sophisticated than just that.

Entropia claims it's drawn more than 300,000 players worldwide. They create their own avatars and then move around, interact with other avatars, acquire virtual skills and weapons, and spend and make money by hunting, mining, manufacturing and buying and selling virtual raw materials, goods and real estate.

The new thing here is the direct link of real cash to a virtual world. Players deposit and withdraw money in their Entropia accounts, where each $1 is credited at the rate of 10 PEDs (Project Entropia Dollars). MindArk profits by selling items and taxing transactions, not from subscription fees like most such games. And it is more than a game, says Mr. Jacobs; it's a functioning economy. Players aren't pitted against a game developer (say, to find a treasure and get a prize); instead, they're in a world in which "it's up to them to make the best of it," he says.

That's where Mr. Jacobs' space resort comes in. He's been an Entropia devotee since it opened in 2002. "Neverdie," he says, is Entropia's best-known avatar, primarily because he set out early to acquire all the "coolest stuff" for his avatar. At one point, he says, he recorded a song that ended up on all the jukeboxes within Entropia, making "Neverdie" really famous. Then, he says, he watched as the player who bought the island quickly turned a profit by taxing other players visiting his turf to hunt and mine.

Once Mr. Jacobs' asteroid opens Dec. 21 and begins to attract hunters and miners and lure party-goers to a virtual club offering music and videos, he figures - conservatively, he says - he'll be netting at least $5,000 a week (after paying DJs and other talent to perform online at his club). The movie business was never that good, he admits. His goal, he gleefully adds: "`Club Neverdie' will be the coolest place to hang out on the Web."

There is, of course, a big dose of real-world Barnum in all this, though perhaps not any less than with any other entertainment venture these days. Some online critics point out that Mr. Jacobs has promoted Entropia in the past, and he freely admits that, after all, the more players in Entropia, the more his potential revenue. And in the absence of the assurances that come from contracts, property law, courts and a Federal Reserve, there's some chance that this virtual economy could well crash with a big dose of Ponzi. Or maybe not. At the very least, one thing remains certain in both the virtual and real worlds: caveat emptor.

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