Proxy Fighters Take Warcraft to Another Level

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 1, 2007

If 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?

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