Those kids you knew who spent their weekends playing Dungeons & Dragons were onto something. Virtual games and worlds are spawning virtual economies. "It's a real economy, but it exists in a virtual space, a computer-generated, earth-like environment that has persistence and physics," says Edward Castronova, associate professor of telecommunications at Indiana University in Bloomington. He points to the online video game World of Warcraft, which hit 7 million subscribers in September, as the largest example of a virtual economy in action.
Entrepreneurs will have to look beyond potions and battle helms for opportunities, though. That's what Sibley Verbeck's The Electric Sheep Company has done. The 31-year-old founder and CEO (in both real- and virtual-world versions) helms a team of nearly 30 employees that builds virtual 3-D experiences, including the open-ended virtual world of Second Life.
Online video games may have more participants, but virtual worlds like Second Life are wide open to creative business models that enhance in-world play. "You have to build your business around an aspect of the virtual world that makes [your business] fundamentally better than other platforms," says Verbeck. Think virtual real estate speculation, content creation and even ultra-interactive online learning spaces for 3-D collaboration. "This is like the opening of the frontier combined with the collapse of communism," says Castronova. "I would advise entrepreneurs to go play video games for a while."
Thinking of starting a business based on a virtual economy? Follow these tips:
- Make sure it makes sense. When it comes to the gee-whiz worlds of game and virtual economies, there's a temptation to climb the mountain just because it's there. But smart entrepreneurs will make sure there's a need before they launch their businesses. "The classic mistake is doing things that look cool but can be done more efficiently on the web," says Sibley Verbeck, 31-year-old founder and CEO of Electric Sheep Co. in Washington, DC. He helms a team of 20 employees that builds virtual 3-D experiences focused on the open-ended virtual world of Second Life.
- Don't dawdle. Virtual economies are growing up fast. For startups, Verbeck advises, "This is a fantastic time to do it. A lot has been proven, but a lot hasn't been realized yet. It's a good time to get in and explore." You want to be on the leading edge of the curve so you're not playing catch-up down the line.
- Play by the rules. Online games like World of Warcraft have specific user rules that can put a damper on entrepreneurial plans when it comes to real world money. Pay attention to player contracts that make it illegal to sell virtual goods for real money. Just because other people are doing it, doesn't mean it's a good idea for your business. "In my official capacity of public spokesperson, I cannot advise anyone to violate contracts," says Edward Castronova, associate professor of telecommunications at Indiana University in Bloomington.
- Get to know the game. Whether you're interested in the gaming inside of Everquest or the open-ended landscapes of Second Life, you have to play to make it pay. It takes time and a dedication to exploration to really get to know a virtual or game economy, what makes it tick and what the needs of other users are.
- Use your imagination. "The next few years of virtual economies will be led by entertainment," says Verbeck. But that's not the only fertile ground. There is entrepreneurial room for educational endeavors, informational services and social networking.