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?

"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.

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