Lynnwood man makes a living selling ‘World of Warcraft’ characters

LYNNWOOD — It’s 9 a.m. and Korgak the orc is commuting to Stranglethorn Vale for work.

Vince Knight — aka Korgak — is playing an orc rogue character on the “massively multiplayer” online game called “World of Warcraft.”

On a good day, Knight can gain five levels — gaining experience and gold — for his online character. Unfortunately, it isn’t going to be a good day.

No sooner has he jumped off a blimp into the lush, digital jungle of Stranglethorn than the green-hued Korgak is “ganked” or attacked, by a high-level night elf hunter.

Korgak dies.

“It ain’t easy being green,” Knight says with a sigh and begins the long journey back to his virtual corpse.

For Knight, it’s just another day at the office.

Knight provides a service in the thriving $1.5 billion market of virtual items, a business where men and women from around the world stay home, log on and cash in.

How much money are we talking about?

“Depending on the character and the class, I make anywhere from $200 to $700 a ‘toon,’ ” Knight said. “The needs of players fluctuate and I meet that need.”

And there are plenty of players out there. According to its Web site, “World of Warcraft” — its players call it by the acronym WOW — has more than 11 million subscribers who pay $15 a month, representing more than half of the multiplayer market.

Because of its popularity and the lucrative nature of the online game giant, Knight boosts characters exclusively on “World of Warcraft,” which is produced by Blizzard Entertainment in Irvine, Calif.

The company is against the practice of people such as Knight selling virtual items for profit.

“All of the content in ‘World of Warcraft’ is the property of Blizzard Entertainment, and Blizzard Entertainment does not allow ‘in-game’ items to be sold for real money,” according to an e-mail from Shon Damron, who works for Blizzard. “Not only do we believe that doing so would be illegal, but it also has the potential to damage the game economy.”

That’s not stopping Knight nor the thousands of others who make a living off of the popular game.

“WOW is the hottest game online right now, and that’s where the money is,” Knight said.

Knight’s specific niche is a practice called power leveling, taking a character from level 1 to level 70 where the character can be sold to the highest bidder. People also use real money to buy virtual gold from people called “gold farmers.”

Knight said he hadn’t considered a career in power leveling until his account was hacked. Because of WOW’s popularity, hackers steal account names and passwords and in turn rip off valuable items and in-game currency. They do it by “keylogging,” a way to record or capture passwords on a person’s computer.

“The day I got hacked was the day WOW got old for me. I tried logging on one day and found myself locked out of my own account,” Knight said. “I called Blizzard tech support and they froze my account.”

By then the damage was done. Seven high-level characters had been transferred off his home server; his armor, weapons and items sold or traded away.

“All my gold was gone. All my bank items were gone. Everything in my bank was gone,” Knight said. “They left my characters practically naked in Gadgetzan. Everything that I had spent months, years working for was gone. Those ‘toons’ were dead to me.”

But instead of deleting the characters, he sold them on eBay and Craigslist.

“I was shocked how much they went for,” Knight said. “But these days, no one has the patience or wants to put the time into leveling a character to 70. They want a high-level toon with a specific class, of a specific race and with a specific trade skill and they want it yesterday.”

After Knight’s post-hack sale, he has now built up a client base that reaches around the world. Now he only takes specific orders from a discerning clientele.

Korgak the orc is one of those orders.

Buying accounts or gold is considered taboo to players and against the licensing agreement Blizzard requires of players. Those caught purchasing gold or buying accounts are unceremoniously banned from the game. To Knight, it’s worth the risk.

To gamer Jodi Kenne of Marysville, power leveling services and gold farming is about as welcome as a fireball to the face. Like telemarketers, power leveling services and gold farmers spam players constantly in the game.

“It’s annoying. Gold spammers clog up trade and world chat, they send you private messages that bug you all the time,” Kenne said. “They ruin the game.”

Kenne plays a troll hunter on the player-versus-player or PVP server Tichondrius, perhaps the most elite PVP server in the game and home to some of the most challenging gaming online. (To warn less experienced players away, the server’s motto is: “Tic is not for you.”)

Well equipped characters on Tichondrius can be sold for $1,000 while 1,000 gold pieces can be bought for $54.

The practice is as damaging as counterfeiting real money, said Travis Ross, a doctoral student at the University of Indiana who is studying telecommunications.

He believes power leveling and gold farming could destroy the game.

“Every game has a level of ‘immersiveness,’ what we here call the ‘magic circle.’ It separates the virtual and real world,” Ross said. “But once that circle is breached then you get the gold farmers, the power levelers, more people advertising in game and then people begin to play the game in a way that it’s not meant to be played. Now we have an industry that is formed around the currency of a virtual world. It jeopardizes the fantasy the world is supposed to engender.”

As part of his dissertation, Ross is looking at online games such as “World of Warcraft.”

He is also part of a team of students and faculty that has created a virtual world called “Arden: The World of William Shakespeare,” designed for educational use for students interested in game design. Ross believes that there is no danger to a virtual world if the game itself was developed with real-world currency and trade in mind. “Second Life,” another multiplayer online game, is a virtual community that does incorporate real-world money into its setting.

Otherwise it ruins the game for the players themselves by intruding real-world greed into the virtual world.

Ross said that services that thrive on the virtual economy run the risk of luring the federal government into their lucrative business.

“Once you start getting a market for virtual goods, the government will take notice and then step in to try and regulate it,” Ross said. “Then the fantasy aspect will be gone. And then who knows what the government will do?”

Until then, it’s business as usual for Knight. He’s still in Stranglethorn Vale, leveling the orc rogue for a college student in Los Angeles.

“The game has nothing to do with reality for most people,” Knight said. “But the money is real enough for me.”

Reporter Justin Arnold: 425-339-3432 or jarnold@heraldnet.com.

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