Outsourcing your 'Warcraft' skills

A growing group of companies will for a fee take over players' virtual identity and help them get to the top of the heap.

According to an estimate from a company called Power-levels.com, it would take someone starting from scratch 768 hours to reach the highest level you can hit in World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade.

Or, for someone who had already topped out at level 60 in the original WoW, it would take 384 hours to get to the top level, 70, of Burning Crusade.

That's a lot of hours, and if you're one of the many people with limited time who still wants to play online games like WoW at the highest levels, Power-levels.com and a growing number of competitors may have just the solution. That is, if you're OK with breaking the rules, as well as what some say is the spirit of the games.

"Using a service to level a character is pretty universally regarded as a 'lamer' move."
--Eric Haller, long-time WoW player

These game consultants sell what are known as power-leveling services. Essentially, that means that for a fee, they will take over your account in any one of a large number of online games and put in the work required to get you where you want to be.

That level 70 Burning Crusade power-up costs $556. The jump from level 60 to 70: $239.

For some time, high-level wannabes have been able to go to places like eBay to purchase entire accounts from retiring players. In doing so, they acquire special weapons, armor, tools or spells with the aim of getting to a place in a game beyond what they could do without help.

But in the wake of eBay's decision to delist all auctions for the assets of online games, some may be wondering where else they can turn. The power-leveling companies think they have the answer.

"They give us their character name, their password and they tell us which level they want us to reach for them," said Flora Chen, manager of Guy4Game, a power-leveling company based in Canada that also has operations in China, Korea, Japan and Mexico. "Some just want to reach levels as fast as possible, so they say to (play for them) 24 hours a day."

Outfits like Guy4Game, Power-levels.com, Power-level.net and GmLvl.com say they're pulling in serious business. For example, GmLvl.com says on its Web site that it employs more than 2,000 people solely for the purpose of helping clients get where they want to be. By comparison, Guy4Game's has a staff of 150 full-time workers.

Chen said Guy4Game has a client list of more than 100,000 customers, though there is no way to verify that number.

There's no telling how many power-leveling companies exist: online searches using various terms easily produce dozens. But that such an industry exists--for dozens of online games--is noteworthy, particularly because publishers of online games like World of Warcraft, EverQuest and City of Heroes don't allow their players to engage in such behavior.

Against terms of service
"Sony Online is aware that it happens, and we do not condone it," said Courtney Simmons, head of public relations for EverQuest II publisher Sony Online Entertainment. "It is against our terms of service...You (cannot) give anyone else access to (your) account."

Blizzard Entertainment, publisher of WoW, takes the same position as Sony Online.

"Making use of a power-leveling service," Blizzard said in an e-mail statement Monday, "is a violation of our account-sharing policy. This policy is discussed in World of Warcraft's terms of use, which players agree to prior to playing."

Blizzard added that because customers paying power-leveling services give over full access to their accounts, there is no way to prove that the services perpetrated any fraud (if a customer has such a complaint) while those accounts were in use.

Fraud or no fraud, if a customer wants to jump to level 70 of Burning Crusade and have a flying mount and a high riding score, but doesn't have the time to achieve such a goal, he can have someone else do it for him.

Chen said Guy4Game's clients ask for all kinds of things. Some want to rise to their desired level as fast as possible. Others want steady progress, but still want to be able to play when they want. So they ask to have access to their own accounts for certain hours of the day. The rest of the time, Guy4Game is in charge.

Similarly, some players demand to deal with power-leveling service representatives who speak English, or Japanese, or Korean. That's why Guy4Game has employees in those countries, Chen said.

In the eyes of regular players, however, those who utilize power-leveling services aren't sticking to the spirit of the games.

"Using a service to level a character is pretty universally regarded as a 'lamer' move," said Eric Haller, a San Francisco investor and long-time WoW player. "You will definitely not earn anyone's respect if they know you have paid for your levels."

In fact, Haller said he thinks the general perception of people who use power-leveling services, as well as those who buy well-stocked characters or advanced weaponry off of eBay or other secondary markets is that they are unfairly cutting corners.

"I think it is perceived as a form of cheating," Haller said. "Not necessarily in the sense of breaking the rules, but more in the sense of being a somewhat weak player who is unable to use (their) skills to acquire things. (It's) sort of like it is confusing to me why someone would pay $50 for a game and then $20 for a guide to walk them through it. Isn't the fun in the play?"

To Simmons, the problem behind power leveling has to do more with logistics than with fun. That, she said, is because Sony Online Entertainment gets customer service complaints all the time from players who have had their accounts stolen or compromised after using power-leveling services. Sony won't ban players who get caught using contractors, but they're on their own with customer service problems.

But Sony has little sympathy for such customers.

"Players are responsible for the security of their own accounts," Simmons said. "And players that use those types of services are at risk of having their accounts stolen or compromised."

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