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ARTICLE ON ACCOUNTS, World of Warcraft, FFXI, EVE Online) NEW YORK TIMES ARTICLE

Upward Mobility

By MARK WALLACE

Published: June 26, 2005

In an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), in which thousands of players control virtual wizards, warriors or starship pilots that are linked to the same online environment via the Internet, getting started can be a daunting experience. No one likes his novice warrior to be slashed by an orc or stabbed by a shady rogue just moments after stepping into battle. Now, a Netflix-like service will help level this online playing field by letting players rent already powerful characters, rather than building them up from scratch.

A monthly subscription (which costs about $15) to one of the 50-plus MMORPG's (like World of Warcraft or Eve Online) entails creating a character that enters the virtual world in a relatively defenseless state. Progress is measured in levels, from 1 to about 60, but it is only through weeks or months of repeatedly logging in to do combat, mix magic potions and generally explore the game and its world that players can gain the skills and other knowledge that allow them to compete in the most advanced battlefields, dungeons or reaches of space. Using GamePal.com, those who simply can't wait can rent a high-level character and play as long as they like, then return the character for a different one or for a character in another game.

The 20-year-old gamer Eric Smith and his partner, A. J. Robey, said they polled a wide range of gamers before starting the service last week. Though it could be used to get a feel for a game before subscribing, Mr. Smith said "serious gamers" would be his most important market. "A lot of people want the service to use in raids," he added, referring to maneuvers organized by a half dozen or more players to vanquish fearsome creatures or mount attacks on opposing groups. Others might want to be able to help a friend or to collect loot they can then give to their primary character.

Mr. Smith said that many of the characters now available for rent once belonged to veteran players who no longer had much time to devote to the games but were not ready to let go of their alter egos. Others came from two companies that offer power-leveling services, which for a fee will level up a character. For now, gamers have access to only one high-level character at a time in any of 14 different games. GamePal isn't cheap, at about $130 a month, plus a $299.99 deposit to insure against stolen accounts. Should a character be returned in substantially better shape, however, the company will consider a partial refund.


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