A large investment in virtual property can be a real-world liability when digital goods sell for cold, hard cash. Recently, a player of the massive multiplayer game EVE Online, a futuristic role-playing game that has its own economy, acquired and within minutes lost a virtual spaceship, a "Revenant Supercarrier," worth roughly $9,000.
The virtual goods business raked in $1.26 billion in the first half of 2012, as reported by Forbes, and the industry is expected to be pulling in more than $11 billion by 2016. And those numbers only reflect totals in the United States. Worldwide, that figure is several times larger.
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While much of this revenue comes from microtransactions worth a few bucks each, there is also an existing high-end virtual goods market in which players might, as was the case with the EVE online enthusiast, spend as much on a digital spaceship as would cost for a down payment on a real car.
And as crazy as it sounds, $9,000 isn't even close to the most money anyone has spent to buy a virtual piece of property.
Diamond Chisel, $77,000: For $77,000, a shopper could buy enough diamond to blind any onlookers. The game Curiosity by 22Cans, however, charges that much for a downloadable diamond chisel. According to a description of the game from last year on Geek.com, Curiosity is a game in which players chip away at a black cube in a white room to reveal what's inside. Here's hoping anyone who coughed up that much to learn what was inside got a little more than, "Be sure to drink your ovaltine," for the money.
Crystal Palace Space Station, $330,000: In 2009, the Entropia Universe social gaming site entered the Guiness world record books for the first time when a player in the game sold a space station for $330,000. That's more expensive than a ticket for a real trip to space aboard a suborbital flight with Virgin Galactic.
Neverdie Virtual Club, $635,000: Given the cost of a virtual space station in the Entropia Universe, you might expect a virtual club aboard an asteroid to have a similar out-of-this-world price. And you'd be right. Originally purchased in 2005 for a whopping $100,000, this property was sold by British "virtual entrepreneur" Jon Jacobs for a $500,000 profit. Before Jacobs sold it, he reportedly was earning more than $185,000 annually from the club.
Planet Calypso, $6 million: Six million dollars is more than most people well ever spend on, well, anything. But that was the price one user paid for a planet on the Entropia Universe social gaming site in 2011. Why would anyone pay that much for any virtual item, even if it is a planet? The planet was purchased not by a user, but by a company, because the planet itself comes with its own economy that translates into real-world income.
Virtual Sword, Life: Two people had their lives shattered over a dispute about a virtual sword from the game "Legend of Mir III." Online gamer Qiu Chengwei had lent his friend, Zhu Caoyuan, the in-game weapon, which Zhu then sold for $870. Upon learning of the loss, Qiu drew a real blade and used it to kill his friend. For his crime, Qiu received the death penalty, a sentence later commuted to life in prison.
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Photo: Meet the $9,000-spaceship from EVE Online, the Revenant Supercarrier. Credit: EVE Online