Now that many games allow users to trade in-game currency and items for real cash, a feature which is supported and controlled by some companies while explicitly banned by others, the valuation and economic role of virtual goods has become a topic of serious discussion among both the gaming community and tech industry at large. One point of contention is the ability of tech-savvy gamers to exploit gaming vulnerabilities to illicitly acquire in-game currency and items, which they then trade for real-world money. Taking inspiration from this, a hacker known only as “Manfred” revealed he has managed to support himself almost exclusively from online gaming hacks for the past 20 years.
Speaking to attendees at the 25th annual DEF CON Convention, held this weekend in Las Vegas, Nevada the hacker revealed that hacking games was lucrative enough that the proceeds were sufficient to put him through college. Manfred began his professional hacking career in 1997, when he discovered a minor bug in Ultima Online, a once-popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (mmorpg).
The exploit enabled Manfred steal digital plots of land from other players, allowing him to build more player housing than the game was designed to allow. The hacker then sold the houses on Ebay, with an average price of about 2000 dollars each. Manfred said he sold approximately 100 houses at this price, netting him a hefty 200,000 dollars. In other words, Manfred’s digital real estate scheme earned him enough to by an actual home.
Manfred went on to find vulnerabilities in other popular online games, including titles like Shadowbane, Lord of the Rings Online, and Star Wars New Republic, among others. During his talk at the Las Vegas conference, he demonstrated a hack for the game WildStar Online. Thanks to the exploit, Manfred effectively created a pile of the game’s currency valued at 397 trillion real-world dollars.
While the hacks are carried out covertly, Manfred was once nearly caught. In 2003, hacks to Shadowbane were so widespread that they received attention and coverage from major technology reporting outlets. According to the hacker, this ended his more “malicious” enterprises, instead opting to stick to more secretive, difficult-to-detect hacks to support himself. Manfred declined to reveal just how much money his hacks have made him throughout his 20 year career, and justified the enterprise by likening it to the in-app purchases that permeate cell-phone, console, and computer games. Legality aside, the hacker’s story is one of creative entrepreneurship and technological ingenuity.