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Monday, July 10 12:00 AM ET

MMORPG Ships with Valuable Mistake

By Gerald Higgins

London - UK electronic games developer N3on Sense Gaming today announced the recall of 100,000 CD copies of City of Warriors – The Final Siege, the latest release in the hugely popular game series City of Warriors (CoW) due to a software bug. It is rumoured that the bug could give purchasers access to “virtual” assets that can be sold for thousands of pounds.

If true, the bug could prove extremely costly to N3on Sense, who have refused to say exactly what the bug does, citing merely “quality control” issues. But it is rumoured in the online gaming community that a disgruntled ex-employee installed code that gave every single purchaser of the game hidden access to a virtual “Atomic Fortress” that could be sold for thousands of pounds.

The Atomic Fortress is almost impregnable, making its occupants practically immortal. Anyone who owns an Atomic Fortress can rent out its space or weapons to other game players for CoW dollars. Normally the only way to get one is to play the game for so long that you earn enough points and CoW dollars to build one, or by buying one from someone else, for real world cash. Until recently only two Atomic Fortresses had ever been created, and one of them was sold in February 2006 for £6,800 ($13,600). It is rumoured that the bug has given ownership of an Atomic Fortress to anyone who buys the CD and can find a hidden key within the game – the precise location of the hidden key is openly discussed in gaming chatrooms. The cd normally retails for £39.99 ($80), so every purchaser can hope to turn a quick profit of more than £5,000 ($10,000).

Like many MMORPGs (Multiply Massive Online Role Playing Games) players of CoW have built up a virtual economy, where currency and other items can be traded both on line within the game, and offline in exchange for real currency – in some cases for huge sums. For example, a CoW dollar will buy 100 machine gun bullets within the game, or it can be exchanged for about £0.40 ($0.80) in real money.

Usually players start the game as weak characters with only a handful of CoW dollars and must earn more money, strength and status through risky and repetitive battles with other players. Many affluent players seek to bypass the boring early stages of the game by buying characters and other items from so-called gold farmers – players (often in China) who play the game full time to build up characters and money which they can then sell on. The process of fighting through the tedious early stages of the game is known as “grinning” due to the supposedly happy faces of the Chinese professional gamers as they enjoy their work so much.

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Whereas some publishers of MMORPGs have frowned upon – and even prohibited – the exchange of virtual items for real world cash, others have encouraged it, to the extent that some – including N3on Sense – themselves act as brokers between players. For companies like N3on Sense, the commission on their brokerage trade can form up to 30% of their income. The possibility that each cd they have sold could now be worth more than £5,000 is potentially disastrous for N3on Sense.

Copies of CoWTFS could be found yesterday on e-Bay for less than £20.00 ($40) suggesting that many sellers are still unaware of the hidden value in the CD. A N3on Sense spokesman yesterday begged purchasers to return the CDs as soon as possible - “we’ll give you double what you paid for it” he pleaded.

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