My favourite blog post is probably the one about ivansparty.com – a site on which I posted photos and let people comment on them. It even got re-published in the April 2012 issue of Entrepreneur Country Magazine. But Facebook was just one of the billion dollar ideas which I missed out on.
There is a certain age group and group of people who will have a strong emotional reaction when they read the words “Ultima Online”. This was the world’s first commercially successful massively multiplayer online game – a fantasy world which you could enter, which contained thousands of others, and in which you could do almost anything. It was such a new experience that it seemed like the game was almost able to tap directly into your neural pathways, and provide you with a regular dose of serotonin to keep you hooked on playing.
The game spawned many competitors, which have been following much the same model, while consistently improving the quality of its visual presentation. World of Warcraft is the most famous one, making over one billion dollars per year in revenue for Blizzard, the company that created it. But there are hundreds of others which are almost as popular. This would be a pretty mundane post if that was the point. But that’s not the story I want to tell.
In Ultima Online, in order to progress you would need to spend many hours improving various skills of your character. Very quickly some people, including me, realised that this was not the most fun part of the game, and that it was quite repetitive. For anyone with a programming mindset, this is like a giant light bulb – boring and repetitive tasks should only ever be done by a computer. So I started creating macros, which are automated commands sent by the computer to the game to get the character to perform certain actions. I’d leave the system running overnight, and come back to either a much more advanced character, or to a dead one if something went wrong – this was in the days of dial-up, so there was a pretty high likelihood that your internet connection wouldn’t make it through the night.
I thought this was fantastic – I wasn’t cheating, but I was using intelligence and ability to give myself an edge, to solve a problem, and to be able to get further in a shorter period of time. The macros got more and more advanced until it was possible to play much of the game in an automated way. Other, much better, programmers were writing applications to let other players do this, and a whole community sprung up around “macroing”. And then, much like many of my other childhood pastimes, I set Ultima Online aside to concentrate on real life.
But at the same time, an American 19 year old called Brock Pierce did not set the game aside. Instead he realised that due to the fundamental tenets of economics and capitalism, people’s time had a monetary value. If it took 200 hours to get a character to a high level, or to make the right amount of in-game gold to buy a certain item, then, he realised, some people would be willing to pay real money in order to save themselves that time. So he learned how to macro not one, but six characters across six computers at the same time, and every night lead them to kill the Myconid Spore King to get his Fungi Tunic. So far, that sounds pretty geeky. But only until you realise that he would then sell them, one a night, on Ebay, for five hundred dollars.
And Brock did not stop there. Realising the market he had stumbled upon, and the mind-blowing growth in the number of people playing such online games, he set up a global empire, with warehouses in China full of “farmers” playing the games to get gold, independent in-game “couriers” in Romania picking up the gold from the farmers and delivering it to the customers, and a large scale corporate office in America developing the brand he called IGE – Internet Gaming Entertainment. By 2006 he had not only raised $60 million in VC funding, but he single-handedly controlled an industry valued at $880 million.
Our perception of the world has changed rather drastically over the past two decades. What was once uncool is now revered. The sporty and cool kids who looked down at the geeks are leaving their mundane careers to try and emulate the success and social standing that those geeks now have. Brock didn’t give in to social pressures. He carried on playing the game – and the game he plays is no longer in the fantasy world. It’s in the real one.