Proxy Fight­ers Take War­craft to An­other Level

Power-Lev­el­ing the Play­ing Field

The Washington Post Sunday - - Business - By Mike Mus­grove Mike Mus­grove

I f you’re a fan of the PC game World of War­craft, you might want to go to an­other ar­ti­cle right now. There are 8 mil­lion of you, and I’m sure you’re all good peo­ple. But I just don’t get it.

I’ve tried to like this game be­cause so many peo­ple I know just love it. Ad­dicts in my cir­cle in­clude friends, col­leagues and a fu­ture sis­ter-in-law. A new re­lease of the game’s gi­gan­tic on­line world gave me new rea­son to give it an­other chance. But it hasn’t re­ally been tak­ing, de­spite a few hon­est ef­forts last­ing into the wee hours.

So last week, I cheated and paid a com­pany to play the game for me, to skip through the te­dious parts of “WoW” and get to the good stuff.

Yes, that’s right. There are com­pa­nies that will play your com­puter games for you, if you’re too busy or lazy to put in the req­ui­site time keep­ing up with your friends in the vir­tual world. It’s an un­der­ground in­dus­try called “power lev­el­ing,” frowned on by many gamers and game com­pa­nies. And yet, some­how, it’s also a pretty big busi­ness.

Con­sid­er­ing that some peo­ple spend more time in this game’s world than they spend do­ing their real-world jobs, I feel like an Amish guy try­ing to ex­plain “Amer­i­can Idol” here. But the ba­sics of World of War­craft are this: In the mag­i­cal land of Aze­roth, two fac­tions, the good-guy Al­liance and the sin­is­ter Horde, are locked in end­less com­bat. Spells, mon­sters, trea­sures, quests — in the world of Aze­roth you have them up to your eye­balls.

Start up a new char­ac­ter in the game, how­ever, and it takes a while be­fore you get to any glo­ri­ous bat­tles with your fel­low play­ers. Rather, you’re stuck do­ing some drudgery for the game’s com­puter-con­trolled char­ac­ters: Find some gold dust in yon­der mine, help some­body get can­dles, take a note to a wine mer­chant. Courier jobs, in other words, though im­bued with a Re­nais­sance Fair vibe.

With some time and ef­fort, your char­ac­ter builds up in strength and ac­quires ar­mor, magic, chutz­pah and what­ever else it takes to make it in the big leagues. As you toil, your char­ac­ter grad­u­ates to higher lev­els, up to a top level of 70. Some play­ers say the game doesn’t get fun un­til you hit Level 20; I’ve only ever got­ten to Level 5 in the game be­fore giv­ing up.

Get­ting to Level 20 might take a new­bie a cou­ple of weeks, but

power-lev­el­ing com­pa­nies know how to get there a bit quicker. With $24 and a few days, you can out­source the grunt work to a com­pany such as one called IGE, based in Hong Kong and Shang­hai, prob­a­bly the largest and most fa­mous com­pany of­fer­ing the ser­vice. All you have to do is en­ter your credit card num­ber and send the com­pany your game ac­count in­for­ma­tion and pass­word so IGE em­ploy­ees can log on and take over for you.

World of War­craft has the big­gest mar­ket for this ac­tiv­ity be­cause it’s the most pop­u­lar game, but there are scores of sites of­fer­ing such ser­vices for just about ev­ery on­line sub­scrip­tion game out there.

IGE’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, James Clarke, de­scribed his firm as an out­sourc­ing busi­ness, no dif­fer­ent from many oth­ers.

“The prac­tice is anal­o­gous to some­one who main­tains a beau­ti­ful gar­den but doesn’t al­ways have enough time to per­form all the yard work him­self, and there­fore hires a gar­dener,” he wrote in an e-mailed re­sponse to ques­tions about the com­pany. “Some purists might call hir­ing a gar­dener ‘cheat­ing,’ but we be­lieve most peo­ple are quite com­fort­able with it.”

Some game in­dus­try vet­er­ans take a sim­i­lar view, as it turns out. Play­ers who are on the same in-game teams of­ten trade their ac­counts around, said Matt Firor, a for­mer game in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tive who lives in the Bal­ti­more area. What’s the dif­fer­ence if you pay some com­pany to do the work?

“I might give you [grief] about it for be­ing lazy,” he said. “But as long as some­one puts the time in legally to get to Level 20 — as long as no rules were bro­ken — it’s fine. . . . You’re just pay­ing some­body to do your job.”

Firor, who was ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer for the game Dark Age of Camelot, is cur­rently play­ing eight of his own Level-30 char­ac­ters in WoW. He said he has never used a power-lev­el­ing ser­vice to skip ahead.

Us­ing one of th­ese ser­vices can be a risky busi­ness for the gamer, though. If a game com­pany sus­pects you’ve used one of th­ese ser­vices, it may shut down your ac­count. And if that hap­pens, don’t count on get­ting a re­fund from the com­pany that up­graded your war­lock or blood elf for you.

Bliz­zard En­ter­tain­ment, World of War­craft’s maker, said it has closed thou­sands of ac­counts for sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­ity that looks to be the work of power-lev­el­ing ser­vices. The com­pany said us­ing th­ese firms breaks the user agree­ment that play­ers are sup­posed to read when they in­stall the game. And, they add, play­ers who use power lev­el­ers might end up get­ting ripped off.

As for me, the power-lev­el­ing ser­vice worked well enough. My war­rior char­ac­ter, John­mul­let, had been suf­fer­ing a mar­ginal ex­is­tence in Aze­roth when I was play­ing the game a cou­ple of weeks back. Sneeze in his di­rec­tion, and you’d prob­a­bly kill him.

But with a Level 20 up­grade, John­mul­let was mostly able to hold his own on the mean streets of Aze­roth. His rags had been re­placed with a lit­tle ar­mor, a sporty cape of some sort and a gi­gan­tic sword.

Af­ter I got the char­ac­ter back, I met up with some friends in Aze­roth, a fam­ily I know in the real world that plays to­gether just about ev­ery night. I ap­pre­ci­ated their hos­pi­tal­ity and got more of a kick out of the game than usual. But two things still nag at me: How is it that so many peo­ple are hooked on a game where you spend most of the time run­ning around look­ing for the next quest? And: If the game seemed bet­ter af­ter $24, how much bet­ter would it be if I ponied up more cash?

Be­fore Bliz­zard shuts down my ac­count for vi­o­lat­ing the li­cense agree­ment, I’ve got to get rid of some loot my char­ac­ter has ac­cu­mu­lated. If you’re a reg­u­lar in Aze­roth, on the “Ursin” server, look me up. And please don’t kill me.

BLIZ­ZARD EN­TER­TAIN­MENT

The au­thor’s char­ac­ter bat­tles an en­emy in Level 10. He hired a com­pany to “power level,” or help ad­vance, his char­ac­ter.

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