The man who virtually has it all

A 30 year-old Sydneysider has amassed a small fortune by trading virtual items for real cash in the online game Entropia Universe. What next, though?

A 30 year-old Sydneysider has amassed a small fortune by trading virtual items for real cash in the online game Entropia Universe. What next, though?

In game, the nearest moon to Planet Calypso sits huge in the sky, framed against a blanket of twinkling stars and space clouds. Surrounding mountains tower above and oddly bendy palm trees sway in a gentle breeze. It is beside the teleporter located at Camp Icarus, Planet Calypso's seaside outpost for new players, that I met with Zachurn "Deathifier" Emegen, leader of the Dark Knights society and one of the wealthiest men ever to play Entropia Universe.

With a few quick mouse gestures, Deathifier — a tall, handsome avatar clad in shiny red armour — had spawned a Quad-Wing Interceptor, an impressive and expensive-looking aircraft. He then added me to the vehicle's guest list and invited me to take a seat inside. Our destination? Treasure Island.

Deathifier's Quad-Wing Inteceptor. (Credit: Andrew McMillen)

Deathifier is the owner of the 25-square-kilometre plot of in-game land called Treasure Island. He purchased it for US$26,500 in December 2004 and set a Guinness World Record for the largest amount spent on a virtual item. We had to take the long air route, though, because Entropia Universe game developer MindArk had, without notice, disabled the teleporter that allows new players to travel between Camp Icarus and Treasure Island with ease.

My pilot wasn't pleased about this unexpected change: he's reliant on hunting tourism for much of his income, and if players can't easily get there via teleporter, he's missing out on potential Project Entropia Dollars (PED), the in-game currency that's tied to the United States dollar at a fixed exchange rate of 10-to-one. (Treasure Island cost 265,000 PED in 2004.)

In real life, outside of this vast virtual planet and its two continents, Deathifier is David Storey, a 30-year-old Sydneysider who has been playing Entropia Universe for almost 10 years. Throughout that decade, behind the screen, in-game investments and earnings have comprised the bulk of Storey's income. With help from a handful of silent partners, whose identities he has never revealed, Storey has invested over US$1 million into the game. The $26,500 Treasure Island purchase broke even in its first year, thanks to Storey's tireless development, salesmanship and marketing, both online and off.

At first, this is a strange concept to get one's head around. This man makes a good living by spending his work week inside a computer game, a space more readily associated with fun and entertainment than commerce and profit. While Storey piloted the Quad-Wing Interceptor south-west across vast oceans and jagged mountain ranges toward Treasure Island, my avatar sat in the gunner's seat — the aircraft is armed and able to shoot down opposing vehicles if necessary — while we spoke over Skype.

Deathifier's alter ego, David Storey.(Credit: Andrew McMillen)

I asked him whether it's been difficult to separate the fun from the business side of the game. "They've always been intertwined," Storey replied. "At some points, it's been more for fun; at others, more for business. More recently, I've transitioned more toward business, because the fun elements have declined, so to speak. The core gameplay hasn't changed in 10 years."

Entropia Universe players can choose to specialise in professions such as mining, manufacturing, trading and hunting. "If I go hunting, at my end, I can spend $100 an hour without any problem at all. It's a trivial amount," said Storey — he's talking about Australian dollars here, not PED. He'd get 80 to 90 per cent of that amount back in "loot" taken from dead creatures since practically everything in Entropia is of some value. That loot can be sold directly to other players, or put up for auction on the game's robust open market.

"A new player might go out and spend a dollar an hour hunting, but for them, the experience is new and fresh," he said. "They haven't seen the creature before, they haven't tried to fight it, they don't know what loot it carries — they're still in that exploration phase. That's the more interesting part of the game: exploring and finding out how things work. For a few dollars here and there, that's great fun. It's cheap, it's easy and it can be quite enjoyable, especially once you've met some people and you get the social aspects going." (The game is free to play, though I was required to download nearly 7 gigabytes of data before I could set foot on Planet Calypso.)

The hunting and exploration side of the game can't stay new and fresh forever, though. "If you've been around for several years, you know what's out there," said Storey, as I announced that he's about to hit a mountain; he then nosed the aircraft up just before we crashed. "I've got all this gear. I can fight almost anything in the game without batting an eyelid. My main issue is that there's nothing in loot that I want. I can either buy what I want, or I've already got what I want."

As one of the Entropia Universe's largest individual investors — if not the largest — Storey's Deathifier avatar is rich, powerful and respected. He is clearly a master of this domain, having spent almost his entire 20s amassing virtual and real-world wealth. He has long since completed his Bachelor of Science and Technology at University of Sydney, where he achieved first-class honours. Storey lives at home with his parents — who unsurprisingly, took some time to understand the concept of their son making money selling intangible items and real estate — and drives a 1980s-era Datsun Sunny.

MindArk, the Swedish studio that released the game in January 2003, claimed in a 2008 press release that it recorded US$400 million of in-game transactions that year. To give a real-world comparison, the country of Tonga recorded a GDP of $436 million in 2011. Micronesia's was $318 million. It's clearly a big business. MindArk has stated in the past that it has invested over US$60 million in the game's development.

Entropia Universe lacks the financial barriers that characterise most other massively multiplayer online games. Excluding the costs of a computer and an internet connection, it costs new players nothing to get involved. Blizzard Entertainment's eight-year-old World of Warcraft (WoW), for example, requires a monthly subscription fee of around US$15. Yet WoW is still enormously popular, having attracted over 10 million subscribers as of October 2012.

By its very nature, Entropia Universe can't match those user figures. It's never been a mainstream game, and will probably never become one. The learning curve is quite steep once you've completed the first few hours of tutorials, as the game opens up significantly and you're left to find your own way through the vast world. Couple this open-ended mechanic with the cash economy — where almost everything you do has a real dollar value — and you have a game that's likely too esoteric for the average gamer to sink their teeth into.

"Entropia's very much about time and money," Storey said, as we neared the southern continent of Amethera. "If you have lots of time or you want to spend lots of time, then you can take pathways that are more 'grindy', more sluggish — but free. There's no cost involved." The alternative for impatient players is to make a deposit with your credit card, to turn cash into PED, and start buying virtual items.

Zachurn "Deathifier" Emegen.
(Credit: Andrew McMillen)

"If you go too far down the financial route without learning the game, the drawback is that you're probably wasting your money. It's really easy to waste it all," Storey laughed. "There's no safeguards — no-one's looking over your shoulder, saying, 'you really shouldn't be using that gun or that armour against that [creature] right now!' That mirrors real life to an extent: no-one really looks out for you, other than your family and friends."

After 35 minutes in the air — including a few brief stops to visit teleporters, which will allow for future exploration of my own — Storey and I arrived at the north shore of Treasure Island, which contains a handful of housing estates and aircraft hangars. It's a peaceful island; players can't hurt one another, only the native creatures. Storey had purchased "creature DNA" and scattered different species across the island, including some rare and unique animals.

This is Treasure Island's primary source of income, as Storey taxes players 4 per cent of all loot found while hunting creatures on-island. In real terms, this translates to around US$100 per day, down from $300 per day a few years ago. "And currently, on a declining trend," my pilot noted. This earns Storey and his investors a cool US$36,000 per annum for doing very little other than offering players the chance to kill virtual animals. Storey's income is supplemented by virtual real estate sales, both on Calypso and Planet Arkadia, another Entropia Universe destination where he is a "planet partner", or co-owner.

My two hour excursion in Deathifier's Quad-Wing Interceptor had been entertaining and educational — Storey is a great tour guide, with a quirky sense of humour and an amiable nature — but it's hard not to note that we had only seen a handful of human avatars since leaving Camp Icarus, Planet Calypso's playground for beginners. Despite its beautiful, Earth-like aesthetics and the enticing promise of the cash economy, Entropia Universe felt more than a little sad and empty.

Deathifier's Treasure Island. (Credit: Andrew McMillen)

"I want to grow the universe," he said as we flew toward Treasure Island City, the area's commerce and trading hub. It, too, was largely devoid of human activity. "If the universe dies, then everything I've got dies with it. That's obvious. I want to improve it; I want to push it forward." Storey talked of complications and disagreements with MindArk, who ultimately control every aspect of the game, regardless of the real-world investments made by players like Storey.

"Entropia is cool, it's interesting, it's unique, but it's not everything," Storey said, as he set the aircraft down. "There's a whole other world out there called 'the real world', where many things happen. Is there something there that I can go into, that's also interesting and potentially valuable? Can I contribute to it? Are there synergies between the two worlds?" I shrugged my virtual shoulders while Deathifier stood still, deep in thought. "I don't know," he finally said. "I'm just gonna' wait and see, man."

Andrew McMillen (@NiteShok) is a freelance journalist based in Brisbane, Australia.