On the unlikely chance you're familiar with Sci-Fi MMOG Entropia Universe, it's probably because of the record-breaking prices achieved by its virtual sales. Reading about these figures is a lot like coming under artillery fire but with numbers instead of shells.
All of the following figures are in US dollars. Entropia Universe launched in 2003, and in 2004 the developers created a huge island complete with a scenic beach, monsters, and a massive mine. At auction, a player paid $26,500 US for that island. In 2005, another player paid the developers $100,000 for a space station. In 2006, that same player purchased a unique monster egg for $10,000, though the highest figure ever paid by someone for a piece of equipment is $30,000 for a high-tech Healing Kit. In 2007, five players (or more accurately five 'avatars' since one represented a real-world banking organisation) paid a total of $404,000 for five two-year licenses to operate banks within the game world, with each of the five avatars expending a further $100,000 investment to start their business.
Entropia Universe developers MindArk have a daily turnover estimated at some $1.25 million, giving it 15 times the turnover per player of any other MMOG and the new acronym definition of Money Money Online Game. Did I mention Entropia Universe boasts the key selling point of being "Free to play"? Crazy-bananas.
All this has taken place on Planet Calypso, Entropia Universe' only current functioning world. There are, however, five other 'Planets' currently under development by third parties who have paid to become 'Planet Partners'. Nobody knows how much the Planet Partners paid for this, but on the games' forums the belief is that Planet Partners need to have several million dollars available for funding the project.
Jim told me to check out Entropia Universe a few weeks back. I gave it the most cursory of glances, at first seeing something which kind of looked like a Futurist Wurm Online.
Now, one of my first pieces of games journalism was a tongue-in-cheek exposé of furry virtual world Furcadia. It started with a trip through all the scarcely populated family-friendly regions of the game before I finally reached the 'Adult' land, a place so choked with pleasure-seeking horses, foxes, badgers and dragons that moving your avatar was a matter of slipping into adjacent spaces as they opened up. There was a touch of the abyss about it. You were rooted to the spot in a crowd of hundreds of animal avatars, trapped with the thought that maybe 70% of the players controlling these animals were there for the purposes of masturbation, and perhaps 6% were touching themselves at that very moment. And yet the scene was so quiet, because any cybering was happening via private messaging. Like the autoerotic equivalent of a silent disco.
I mention this now because no other game since then has done such an incredible job of forcing the dank reality of humans down my throat. Turns out what Furcadia did for sexual loneliness, Planet Calypso does for avarice.
First of all, the structure of Planet Calypso- Wait. No. First of all: It's shit. This game is shit. It's a grindfest devoid of the colour, sense of place, charm and polish that makes that palatable. You  can  do  better , don't go near it, don't let your friends and family near it, and if they disobey you then make a habit of sneaking up on them while they're sat playing and farting in their ear.
And can we stop using their glossy official screenshots and start using my in-game ones, please?
The structure here is similar to Eve Online without the player warfare (so, arguably without the point). Players on Planet Calypso earn cash either mining or hunting for materials, other players use these materials to manufacture items and sell them in shops, and the miners and hunters buy these items, creating a basic economy. There's also a tertiary sector with room for hairdressers, shop attendants, make-up artists, pilots, animal tamers and newbie mentors.
Where Planet Calypso skews away from the norm is that this structure, and every other facet of the game, is saturated with money. In Planet Calypso you don't pay a subscription fee, you only ever pay for in-game currency. $1 US is 10 Project Entropia Dollars (PED). Also, any player with more than 1000 PED can voluntarily cash out, receiving the money via official channels in their real-life bank account minus a transaction fee. So when a mid-level player makes a fancy gun, they're also technically making, say, $2.
Naturally this paves the way for high-level players to make serious money from Planet Calypso, and plenty do. That guy who paid $100,000 for a space station is known as NeverDie. He turned the station into a resort containing shops, apartments, a nightclub, and 20 biodomes full of good huntin' and mineral veins. 10 months after his purchase he claimed to have made that $100,000 back through little more than property rent and taxing the biodomes.
Calling the game 'Free to play', however, is reaching. New players start with nothing but a pair of shoes and a tattered jumpsuit that reveals patches of your bare ass. There are tutorials (inadequate ones; some altruist has placed a massive sign at the new player spawn telling you how to turn around) but you don't get starting quests, and not only do you not have a weapon but you're not allowed to fight without one. So you're left with two options for making money. 1: Collecting sweat from monsters. 2: Collecting their dung. At the time of writing the sweat-collecting process had been removed from the game for tweaking, leaving you with the sole path of advancement of filling your pockets with shit then tramping back to town to see if you can sell it.
Maybe you don't like collecting shit. So maybe you slap down $5 for a gun, ammo, some basic armour, some training and some pocket change. Oh, you'll need ammunition too. Equipped, you return to the wilderness and start battling monsters. Suddenly you're earning loot with a tangible, real-world value! You're not just killing space Murlocs, you're killing space Murlocs and getting 10p every time! The idea of making money from the game becomes very plausible. And the whole time you're fighting the global chat ticker is constantly pinging, telling you such and such player just killed a monster worth $90, or built an item with a market value of $150. You can turn off these globals, but they come back on whenever you login. 'This is the money you could be making', the game is saying.
In all of this you've failed to notice your weapon's been degrading, plus you're out of ammo and hurting bad. So you slap down another $10, and this time spend some of it on increasing your skills. All of a sudden you're embroiled in this game, this weird breed of unadulterated grossness where you end up trying to decide whether to stomach that horrible grind for another couple of hours or drop another $10. Suddenly you're looking up to those high-level, high roller players, and wondering if you should become one. But the high level players have their own problems. Pets must be fed nutrio bars, and apartments need their monthly maintenance fee. Suddenly you're not just hooked, you have a monetary investment in your character.
As an aside, this is the first game I've played where you can rent a sword from a bank.
Taking a trip to the forums there are some honestly worrying descriptions of how much veteran players are spending. People talk about dropping hundreds of dollars in a day, and I read one weirdly resigned user mentioning he'd spent upwards of $14,000 in total. In the same thread other players were complaining about the hourly cost of playing Planet Calypso. I say again: Not monthly, or even weekly, but hourly. Knowing all this, those mad numbers I dropped at the beginning of this article start to make a bit more sense.
Perhaps I'm giving the impression that Planet Calypso's entire playerbase has been sucked into a money-vortex. It's not quite so, because there seems to be an awareness within the community of the game's failure to be a functioning economy.
It all makes me feel a bit ill. Think about what might have happened if Blizzard had made World of Warcraft using this model. When that thought occurred to me I shuddered for twelve minutes straight.
To close, there are a couple of good points to all of this. First of all, Planet Calypso seems to be losing its momentum. A lot of big-money players have been cashing out recently due to the odds turning against them, and the game's tech upgrade to CryEngine 2 is likely one of the measures they've taken to revive interest in the game. The fact that Planet Calypso hasn't broken any more records in the last couple of years is evidence of this.
Second, there is some creature design in the game I wholeheartedly endorse.
That's all I got though.
I guess I'm writing as a warning as much as anything else. I hate to think of any of you guys getting involved in this bullet train crash of a game. It's the sickliest thing I've played in a very long time.