Making/Money: Virtual Red Paperclips

A few years ago now, I heard a news story about a man who traded one red paperclip for a house. There were several intermediate trades, but the basic gist of it was that he started with a paperclip and traded up from there until, eventually, he was offered a house in Saskatchewan in exchange for a movie role.

I remember thinking then what an interesting concept it was (and wishing I had thought of it first). He really did not need any particular skills except maybe negotiation. He did not need any money. In the early stages, he probably didn't even need a lot of buzz. Just some connections and a dream.

In more recent times, I have seen similar things done in games. Using the auction house and connections with guildies, friends, or just willing participants in the streets, it is entirely possible to trade your way to fame and fortune without ever picking up a trade or completing a quest.

This concept was first introduced to me in the context of City of Heroes when the consignment house was rolled out as part of Issue 9. Someone in the CoH LiveJournal community posted about a character they had created with zero XP but one million influence.

It seemed impossible to me. After all, you start out with no real items in CoH, so what can you sell to start with? Unless you go through the Outbreak tutorial zone you don't even have any enhancements or inspirations... but if you do go through it you get XP. Catch 22? I was baffled.

The original post had an ingenious, yet ever so simple, way to start - beg one influence off of whomever would give it. If they had been monitoring the consignment house religiously, they might have been able to find some insane arbitrage opportunity to purchase something for that 1 influence and sell it for much more, but instead they sold it to the NPC. That provided enough to get a slightly better item (or more low cost ones) and do it all over again. Eventually, they racked up over one million influence.

No fighting. No quests. No instances. One million influence... Jealousy.

It should be noted, for those who have not played CoX before, that there are no professions as such. There is only one craft available (invented enhancements) and the materials must either be purchased from the consignment house or drop from enemies. You can craft at any point but don't get the invention tutorial until level 10. Recipes are one-time use until you create five of the exact same thing (not counting set enhancements), at which point you've "memorized" it.

As detailed above, CoX starts you out with nothing to your name except a biography and a smile if you skip the tutorial. There is nothing to sell to NPCs to get you influence. In all other games I have played you are at least given something with which to begin your adventures. Not here. You're a hero, after all. You should be able to forge your own way ahead... or something like that. Besides, your powers are inherent - granted to you by the origin of your ways. Otherwise stated: We don't need no stinking weapons.

Most gamers usually associate the gaining of money with farming, muling, questing or raiding. Each of these strategies require the character to take on some foes, even if only to remain alive while mining or similar. But this technique specifically requires that you gain experience in most games. For instance, you must be level 20 in Age of Conan before you can begin gathering resources. In World of Warcraft, you're around level five when you get to choose professions.

The only games that I have tried (and admittedly, I have not played them all... yet) which allow you to pick up professions that would net you gold without experience are Runescape and EVE Online. As the craft or mining skills increased the player would need to venture into more treacherous areas, thus exposing them to more frightening creatures and raising the risk of needing to fight.

Another inherent difference is that the consignment house grants the person with the lowest sell price the highest amount bid by the buyer. So if you post items for one influence there is a good chance that they will sell quickly for considerably more. This is rather different from the auction houses elsewhere wherein the buyer bids on or purchases a specific item offered by a specific seller. These discrepancies are key to the ability of someone trying this little money gaining game to start out with so little and get so much.

It would theoretically be possible for this to exist outside of CoH. You could sell your starting items to the NPCs (maybe) and head to the auction house. Or you could beg some gold off a friend who's in on the deal. The magnitude of what you start with may need to change as it is uncommon to find anything on the WoW auction block for one copper. That's likely due to the fact that it would cost more to post the item than you would be getting at that point.

I think that this is a fascinating idea and that it should be more thoroughly explored. Personally, I don't have the patience to do it. I would rather get at least a few items to sell first and then go about selling them. Defeats the purpose of the experiment, but quickens the pace. Plus, it allows the opportunity to dig into story lines. And I would also be craving more data, which seems unattainable in any game other than EVE. With that data and a single influence I could rule the virtual world! Muahahahaha!

Have any of you adventurers out there tried this in other games? What success have you had with it? Curious to try it? If you do, please come back and comment with the details of your exploits.

[Thanks, Xany]


Alexis Kassan is a numbers nerd. She spends her days with statistical programs and her nights with spreadsheets and textbooks. She's also a MMORPG addict, having gotten sucked into Ultima Online at a formative age. In her time away from work, books and games, she can usually be found drowning in pools of sprinkles. If you have a question about in-game economics or how crafting fits in with them, hit her up at alexis DOT kassan at weblogsinc DOT com.

This article was originally published on Massively.