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High rollers, but in a virtual world
[October 28, 2010]

High rollers, but in a virtual world

SINGAPORE, Oct 28, 2010 (The Straits Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- What will S$30,000 (US$23,000) buy? For some, a high-end watch. For others, a made-in-China car or even a university education in the arts here in Singapore.

Mr Francis Tan, 34, has splashed out this amount over three years, but on items that do not exist -- not in the physical world, at least. The rifles, bracelets, pets and costumes he has bought are no more real than the pixels in which they are rendered on his computer screen.

They are for "strengthening and beautifying" Toto, a character he battles with in the online game Granado Espada.

The project manager was among 80 guests at a ball thrown for the game's high rollers who have collectively spent about S$200,000 in the game in the last three years. This is possibly the first time such an event was held in Singapore.

The game's publisher, Infocomm Asia Holdings, set out to impress them with the Raffles Hotel bash: Wine was served, as were fine finger foods like snow crab salad in rice paper rolls and oysters.

The guests, having spent S$3,000 or more each on virtual items, are among a growing number of people willing to do this kind of shopping. People who play this game spend S$40 a month on average on virtual items.

Analysts estimate that the worldwide market for virtual goods will hit US$6 billion this year. Asia is leading the trend, with Korea and China being the two biggest markets.

No figures are available for the virtual goods market here, but companies here that provide avenues to pay for these virtual goods report thriving businesses.

MOL Global, a payment service provider which sells credits used in games, social networking sites and for buying music, is signing up members every month, with most using the credits to buy virtual goods. It expects to hit 250,000 members by the end of next year.

The most active members spend hundreds of dollars a month, said Mr Eugene Seow, the company's head of sales here.

On Wednesday, online payment giant PayPal launched a service that enables people here to pay for virtual goods easily. Globally, it processed more than US$1.3 billion from transactions for digital goods in the first half of this year, which puts it on track to outdo last year's US$2 billion.

It used to be that only hardcore players of massively multiplayer online games spent money to advance in the games, but these days, even those playing social games like FarmVille on Facebook do so, said Mr Seow.

Singapore start-up Tyler Projects, the creator of popular Facebook game Battle Stations, is also raking it in. It earned S$1.5 million last year, six times its revenue from the year before, most of it from selling virtual gear to people looking to upgrade their 'battle ships'.

People buy virtual goods for the same reason they buy real-world goods, said a Singapore Management University (SMU) don.

Assistant Professor Richard C. Davis, who studies online-game culture, said: "Money is used in exchange for something of value; with games, they get value from increasing their powers. Even if the goods aren't real, there's real value." Mr Tan, for example, buys virtual items to beef up his characters' powers. His most expensive buy so far has been a rifle costing three billion viz, the gaming world's currency. That worked out to S$300 in real-world Singapore dollars.

"I can kill enemies faster and perform better, so it's worth it," he said.

Another guest at last night's ball, financial services consultant Philbert Tan, 28, once spent S$8,000 just to ready his characters for battle against a rival faction.

Said Ms Jaslin Tan, 28, who blew S$10,000 on weapons and costumes for her characters: "I don't have any ugly ones." Assistant Professor Rajesh Krishna Balan of SMU said this spending also buys status outside of the game, in real life.

"People do it because other people can see it. Like in FarmVille, other people in the game see the kind of crops you have on your farm, so people go nuts and try to buy the best crops and animals and say 'Beat that'," he said.

Then again, it may be more about pleasure than cut-throat rivalry.

Mr Philbert Tan said: "Some people play golf and spend a few thousand on golf clubs. It's the same thing for me -- just that my hobby is playing games." To see more of the Asia News Network, go to Copyright (c) 2010, The Straits Times, Singapore / Asia News Network Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit, e-mail, or call 866-280-5210 (outside the United States, call +1 312-222-4544).

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