How much would you pay for a piece of imaginary real estate? Anshe Chung has made millions renting it. Maybe your investment portfolio needs to include more fake property. A decade ago Ailin Graef was just another player in online games with a virtual avatar named Anshe Chung. Now the young entrepreneur's China-based company manages online video game property worth millions in US dollars. How? In some online worlds, like Second Life, in-game currency (in this case, Linden Dollars or L$) can be sold for real money. Ailin/Anshe started making virtual money by designing and selling virtual fashion items for her fellow avatars. She leveraged that into virtual real estate investments. Today, Anshe Chung Studios has 80+ employees managing thousands of rental properties, helping design new 3D virtual chat rooms, and making tons of money on virtual to real currency exchanges. Anshe was the first person whose virtual property exceeded a real world value of 1 million dollars, and Anshe Chung Studios is perhaps the single largest third party developer of virtual property ever. Hers is a model for a new kind of online mogul: not one who makes the games, but someone who works inside the system to make a killing. Anshe Chung is a digital life mogul. Who wants to be next?
Each online video game has its own way of handling currency. Some just give you points, some allow you to perform repetitive tasks to earn coins, and many will allow you to trade virtual goods and currency back and forth. The true goldmines (so to speak) are those games where the currency can be exchanged for real world money. Second Life allows its users to readily exchange L$ for US dollars or Euros, etc. Entropia actually sets the rate to a fixed amount. Either way it means that the activities you do in the video game can translate to an actual income. Some people, like Graef/Chung see that as an opportunity to make a fortune.
Graef started off in mid 2004 designing small scale animations/styles for virtual fashion. "Give me a few fake bucks, I'll give you this nifty alternate design for a normally bland accessory." (Something like that.) Anshe Chung Studios continues to make customized goods you can buy to dress your avatars in several online worlds.
Once you start accruing virtual currency, however, investment opportunities outside of fashion begin to arise. In some virtual worlds, like Second Life, you can buy land to modify and develop. That's what Graef did, and soon "Anshe Chung" was managing vast tracts of land in Second Life. And the scope of that real estate continues to expand. Today you can go to Azure Islands, some of the custom built and designed landscape built by Anshe Chung Studios, and get yourself your own parcel to rent starting at around L$ 821 or $3 USD per week. The really fancy plots go for as much as 13000 L$ a month (about $50), and the prices just keep going up from there (check out the picture to see what $80 a week will buy you). Anshe's tenants may simply want a fancy place for their avatars to live online, or they could be more business minded. Virtual dance clubs and other meeting places can draw in good business by having the right landscape and design. It's not just Second Life selling to Anshe Chung Studios who's selling to users. There are many more tiers in the economy as everyone in Second Life, Entropia, IMVU and the other online worlds find places to live their virtual lives.
Online real estate is just the beginning. AnsheX is a virtual currency exchange. Do you have USD but want Linden dollars? AnsheX will sell you some. Same for Euros and PED (the currency for Entropia) or IMVU credits and Hong Kong dollars. While AnsheX rates are pretty close to the going rates, they make real world money on each purchase. Customers are willing to buy and sell at slightly disadvantageous rates because they can get the currency in 24 hours or (much) less rather than having to barter or arrange their own deals by hand.
So, you're a fashion mogul, a real estate developer, and a banker - what's next for your virtual empire? You might as well step behind the video game. Anshe Chung Studios is one of the major partners with a hand in Frenzoo, a social network and online chat program based in Hong Kong. Create an avatar, spend money (or time or both) dressing them just right, then go and meet other avatars and chat. Frenzoo has a pretty standard formula for success. IMVU is similar and has 50 million+ users and six million items up for sale. Catch the demo video for Frenzoo below and judge for yourself whether it has the same potential:
We've certainly seen people make real money on virtual property before. A single piece of territory sold for $635,000 not too long ago. What makes Ailin Graef and Anshe Chung Studios different is that their endeavors highlight the diverse paths one can take to gaining wealth by augmenting the way people play online games. The appearance of avatars, the design of locations, and the facilitation of trade are three big virtual markets and Anshe is tapping them all.
I also marvel at the value of the secondary markets that Anshe represents. If the actual producers of these virtual spaces are the ones reaping in billions of dollars (as Blizzard is with World of Warcraft) there's still hundreds of millions to be made as players trade not with the owners, but with each other. Most of those business deals are probably going to be small - probably for virtual property valued at less than $1, but when you multiply that by millions of items for sale and tens of millions of regular users...that's a lot of cash. The efforts of Anshe Chung Studios exemplifies how these games constitute real economies. Er, virtual economies. Or real virtual economies - look, you get the idea, these games are real revenue generators. Graef accrued a million dollars worth of online wealth way back in 2006. Others have followed and it looks like the future could support a wave of new VR moguls who build their riches on nothing but digital living.
Which isn't to say it isn't all some elaborate bubble. After all, when you buy Linden dollars, or an island paradise, or a new broach for your avatar you aren't owning anything physical. Some day the entire affair could come crashing down. Imagine if people suddenly lose interest in a simulated environment because a new and better one arrives. Your investments could turn out to be worthless.
The same could be said of any investment on Earth.
Take a good long look at the multi-tiered empire Anshe Chung has built, and think of all the people it took playing those games to help her build her fortune. Those millions of players represent a growing part of our population. As online living continues to gain ground, the virtual economies (however temporarily) will thrive as well. There's money to be made in those digital hills. Ailin Graef was the first virtual millionaire. The first billionaire could be right around the corner.
[image credits: Anshe Chung Studios]
[sources: Anshe Chung Studios]