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The Alchemist 

Hayden Gill found a way to turn videogame gold into real-world cash.

There's nothing virtual about Hayden Gill's  BMW and two Land Rovers. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • There's nothing virtual about Hayden Gill's BMW and two Land Rovers.
The delivery man walked cautiously to the drop point. This wasn't a good area to be alone, especially with what he was carrying.

Suddenly a muscular figure came barreling toward him. Was it the buyer? The man drew a blade and swung. Blood splattered everywhere. The bag of gold fell to the ground. He grabbed it and disappeared into the village.

Such are the risks of working inside a videogame. Luckily, you can always begin another life.

Meet Hayden Gill. Two years ago he started Massive Online Gaming Sales, or Mogs for short. Think of Gill as a commodities trader in virtual reality. His mercantile exchange is a terrain of rolling hills, dark caves, and jagged mountains. The goods are magical swords, gold bullion, and spells to make you invisible. But the fantasy economies are larger than those of some small countries -- World of Warcraft, for example, claims six million players.

The cash is real. It's given Gill a BMW, two Land Rovers, and a palatial house atop a private bluff in Rocky River.

"It's definitely not child's play," says Gill. "We're pioneering something right now."

With the internet explosion of the late '90s came a new breed of videogame. Thousands of players linked up across the world in stylized virtual societies. Players formed alliances, bartered, even fell in love.

But the games soon took on a life of their own -- and proved that the laws of supply and demand apply even in virtual reality. Gamers with jobs (and, in rare cases, girlfriends) didn't have 60 hours of leisure time to devote to obtaining the Blessed Blade of the Wind Seeker. So, like any capitalist, they hired people to do it for them.

Before long, players were buying and selling gold and other items on eBay. Then they formed their own brokerage houses, like Mogs.

"It's huge business," says Chris Kramer, a spokesman for Sony, which created the popular MMORPGs Everquest and Star Wars Galaxy. "We've seen the secondary market grow from like a couple guys selling their characters on eBay to what's become like a $200 million sales market."

Step into Gill's office above McCarthy's Bar in Lakewood, and you can feel the cash buzzing in the air. In one room, several guys in cargoes and hoodies stare at wafer-thin LCD screens, processing orders to the website. Across the hall is the "business" department, where pricing analyst Monique Smith studies the tickertape of virtual economies (on this day, gold pieces in World of Warcraft are going for $80 per thousand).

The person who looks most out of place is also the man who would seem most at home in a conventional business. CFO Bill Brinkman, Gill's father-in-law, is a graying man in glasses and dress slacks. A Price Waterhouse accountant for seven years, Brinkman says that entering the matrix of cloaking spells and parallel universes gave him a new way of thinking about global markets.

"The pace is what's been so eye-opening," says Brinkman. "Here you can see moves within a day or a week. You see changes in currency and how valuation can change. It's kind of fun, being in that pure a marketplace."

Then there's Gill's office, decorated with a framed screen-shot of Conan the Barbarian, two wakeboards, and a mountain bike. The CEO, with his long sideburns, pale blue eyes, and slightly stoned demeanor, seems right at home.

When he was 22, Gill quit his job as a chef to play EverQuest, supporting himself by selling his extra gold and other items on eBay. He brought home $90,000 that first year, he says, and decided to start Mogs in his basement with a few friends from high school.

Now 29, Gill has made Mogs one of the largest companies of its kind -- he estimates 100,000 customers worldwide. Gill buys much of his inventory wholesale from Asia, where "gold farms" employ thousands of people to sit at rows of computer screens 24/7, killing monsters and stockpiling gold and other valuable items. He even has a satellite office in Shanghai with 20 salaried workers, who act as liaisons to the local gold farmers.

But the RMT, or "real money trade," isn't without risk. For starters, game economies are about as stable as those of third-world countries. Some farmers cheat by using computer programs to produce infinite amounts of currency, thus diluting the market.

"Imagine if the American economy suddenly had an influx of billions of free dollars," says Gill, who adds that he's had days when he lost thousands of real dollars to virtual inflation.

Complicating things further, some developers, like World of Warcraft creator Blizzard, consider RMT to be not only cheating, but illegal as well, a violation of the game's licensing agreement. Anyone caught gets banned from the game, so Mogs' inventory is always at risk of being seized. To outsmart the game cops, Gill spreads his wealth over hundreds of accounts.

Some companies, however, have begun to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit. Sony runs its own auction house in Everquest II, skimming 10 percent off each sale. It's a nice racket, considering that the company can create new and better product with a few clicks of a keyboard.

"We have the rights to alter and change any of the items in our world," says Sony's Chris Kramer. "Every blade of grass, every cloud in the sky, every sword in hand."

Gill says he plans to cash out someday and go back to reality, maybe open his own restaurant. While he's made good money playing videogames, like any parent, he worries that his seven-year-old son is addicted to Xbox.

"I'm like, 'Listen, you've been playing this too long. Play with some Legos. Draw something,'" says Gill.

Legos? Where's the money in that?

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