It’s hard to make real money selling virtual goods

It's a side-hustle.


There’s plenty of news right now about how people are trying to make real money through video games, and not just by trying to get a taste of that Ninja game-streaming fortune. Most recently, people are selling items for hard cash inside the new Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

As the coronavirus takes a hammer to the economy and a number of people are at risk of penury, selling goods inside the game seems like a good idea. But while there’s plenty of hype about the potential for virtual economies to thrive as the real-world ones collapse, the truth is a little different.

If you’re unfamiliar, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a sim game for the Nintendo Switch in which you build a life for yourself in a community of adorable, anthropomorphic animals. You fish, grow fruit, craft tools and furniture while working to improve your island home. The more well developed your community, the more characters come to live there, further increasing your wealth. When you begin the game, you are in debt to local landlord Tom Nook and have to work towards the goal of financial independence.

The game’s primary currency is bells, designed to mirror the rough valuation of the Japanese yen. For instance, if you want to purchase clothing or accessories, the price runs from 800 bells all the way up to over 100,000 bells for something extravagant. Earning this cash means taking the fish you catch, the fruit you grow and your creations to Nook’s Cranny, the local store, and exchanging them. You can even get better-than-market-rate fees by selling “hot” items that are in-demand that day.

Of course, this process of starting a community and earning your first “paycheck” requires a lot of tedious busywork, better known as grinding. But if you’re time-poor and cash-rich, it’s possible to buy quantities of bells through online platforms that are then “gifted” to you inside the game. It’s here that entrepreneurial Animal Crossing players are making a little bit of real money while sheltering in place, and not by trading Turnip futures.

Search around Etsy and eBay and you’ll soon find offers for millions of Animal Crossing bells for between $5 and $20. One listing, for instance, offers 12 million bells for $12, with the seller arriving on your in-game island within a few hours of purchase. Several pages include listings for when sellers will be online and promises of how fast they’ll be able to deliver the bells. Transactions are often handled by the platform, with arrangements then made on private Discord channels.

It’s possible to juice your money making in Animal Crossing by employing a practice known as “time travel.” Because the game’s narrative is tied to your console’s system clock and plays out in real time, it’s open to abuse, of a sort. If you’re waiting for a crop of, say, fruit trees to grow, you can alter your Switch’s system clock forward to speed up the harvest. This practice, while not explicitly cheating, is frowned upon by the game’s players, with even the former Nintendo of America chief jokingly shouting “Never!!” when asked if he would ever do it.

An additional glitch — now patched — allowed players to duplicate items inside their own homes, further creating surpluses of goods for those savvy or unscrupulous enough to exploit it. That glitch was found by a YouTube channel titled Artificial Switch. The video highlighting the glitch, after being reported on in the gaming press, was taken down by Nintendo on copyright grounds.

“Grace,” who wishes to remain anonymous, is a student and Animal Crossing fan from the Netherlands. “I was getting more and more money,” she said, adding that she had “come across some listings on Etsy of people selling bells and villagers and other in-game stuff.”

“I could be of help selling my bells and, of course, make some [real] money in a very easy way,” she added. Grace says that she had never sold virtual items before playing New Horizons but had — at the time of interview — been selling bells for close to two weeks.

To earn enough of the requisite bells, Grace’s character time travels, especially to invite villagers into her community. “You have to do this for three days straight,” she said, “so it takes too long [if] you’re selling them.” But Grace says that she’s mostly doing it to benefit those users who don’t have time to watch the Animal Crossing market (or join a community that does so) and wait until their items are hot.

Nintendo prohibits selling virtual items for real money in any of its game titles. Section 1.3 of its general terms of service states that in-game “virtual items” “cannot be exchanged for legal tender or any item or right outside of the digital product.” Many sellers get around this by saying that they’re not selling the items explicitly — it’s just a side effect of the transaction. One eBay listing, for instance, says that you’re paying them to visit your Animal Crossing island, the gift of bells is just something they’ll do in the process.

Grace can’t work at her current job during the lockdown so has used the game as a way of “helping people and earn some money.” She said that, so far, she had earned around €200 ($217), enough to justify the effort and make her game time more productive. But €200 is, ultimately, not enough to make a living or become a viable and sustainable business.

L’Atelier, a subsidiary of French banking giant BNP Paribas, recently published a report about the online economic frontier. Titled The Virtual Economy, the bank’s “foresight company” says that video games offer new ways of making cash.

The report suggests that the video game industry is creating new jobs, with big bounties available for those who take advantage of the emerging frontier. That runs from becoming a professional esports player, digital sex worker and Patreon-backed content creator through farming. One section claims that there are over 150,000 people working as digital farmers, each earning up to $25,000 per year, citing the example of Venezuelans who, in 2019, were farming gold in RuneScape to sell on to wealthy players.

Digital farming has a long way to go before it could be considered a viable career at all. Not only does it really benefit platform holders over the individuals but it also exists in a gray area that borders on illegality. eBay, for instance, has specific rules about selling virtual items, laying down extra precautions and limits. And these systems have been vulnerable to abuse from well-resourced fraudsters and criminal networks.

Steam, which permits the sale of virtual items through its community market, has a looser policy than many. In late 2019, however, it had to ban the sale of Container Keys — which let you open in-game loot boxes — inside Counter Strike: Global Offensive. In a statement, Valve said that the majority of sales for these items were made by fraudsters looking to “liquidate their gains.” It’s likely that, as things stand, opportunities to sell virtual goods will shrink long before they grow to become a real economy.

Two decades ago, these rules were nonexistent and those canny enough to spot the opportunity were able to make some real money. “John,” who agreed to speak to us anonymously, got his start selling digital goods as a 13-year-old student growing up in Hong Kong. He easily mastered Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, the game’s 2001 expansion, and grew adept at the game’s Magic-Finding Runs. “Your character equips a shitload of gear that improves your chances of finding magic items,” he explained, “and you go and kill the same boss 100,000 times and, hopefully, one of those times, it drops that big epic legendary whatever.

These big epic legendary ‘whatevers’ were the sort of items that even good players couldn’t guarantee finding. Because of their scarcity and the time it took to acquire them, these items could attract a significant dollar value for Diablo II players — especially in the Hardcore version of the game, which was far more punishing (and rewarding) than the regular.

John says he could start a new instance and kill a boss “once every two minutes,” leading him to quickly rack up a huge inventory of rare items. He found a website that sold rare in-game items and realized that he was sitting on a goldmine. “I remember thinking ‘these guys are selling for between $15 and $20 US the kind of stuff I find most days,” he said. Soon after, he listed his first items on eBay and made a sale for $40, a fortune for someone his age.

Hardcore mode meant if you died in-game, you lost all your items. This forced you to grind back up from scratch. John, with plenty of time in his hands, could sell his spare gear to players who had lost everything and were eager to save time. “It could take you a month of playing two-to-three hours per day to get to level 99 [the game’s highest level],” he said. But John soon launched multiple characters and had his own digital army of supremely powerful avatars within the game.

He teamed up with a partner based in the US, and the business steadily grew. Things advanced with the use of (banned) software bots, who could play the game overnight. That enabled the pair to play the game while they slept, and while some bots died (losing everything) the majority succeeded, vastly increasing their stock of virtual items. They built a website and began selling items on a large scale, “it became like a virtual Amazon warehouse,” he said.

John says that the enterprise was earning around $300 a day, with both of them working between four and five hours each day. That involved playing the game, fulfilling customer orders, delivering items to them in-game and managing the inventory. “Sure, it was work,” he said, “but I never saw it as work because that was just part of playing the game for me.” And the income came in handy as a teenager living at home with no expenses and little overhead.

But the ride had to come to an end in late 2004 when Diablo maker Blizzard launched its next project: World of Warcraft. “People started realizing that [selling virtual items] could be a sustainable business, and Chinese gold farms were popping up everywhere,” he said. The new game’s sprawling economy and enormous player base was easy prey for bigger organizations. “No matter how good I was with a single PC,” he explained, “I could never cope with their economies of scale.” In 2011, The Guardian reported that Chinese prison camps were forcing inmates to play World of Warcraft between sessions of physical labor.

“The other reason why we decided to call it quits,” said John, “is because a number of the larger, more established websites, very mysteriously went offline very quickly.” He said that his own site was probably known by Blizzard, but was too small and niche to be worth going after. But he opted to close down rather than risk legal action by the games giant, drawing to an end the glory days of virtual item sales. At the time of publication, Blizzard had not responded to a request for comment on this matter.

And in more modern games, the opportunities to sell virtual items is much harder now that companies see the value in these markets. For instance, the sprawling game Minecraft has its own Marketplace in which people can buy — for real money — “avatars, skins, textures and worlds made by creators in the Minecraft community.” But these transactions are all handled within the game’s own store — something that is lucrative both for publisher Microsoft and its authorized partners.

It’s likely that the future of the video game economy will further box out and lock down gray market trading. When there’s money to be made, it’s rare that large publishers will cede that sort of control to third parties. Look at Fortnite, it sells all of its virtual items in-house on the back of a free game and makes the sort of money that makes global movie studios green with envy. But that’s a fortune made by a games publisher, not by the legions of people who are playing the title on a regular basis.

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