Project Entropia (PE), developed by MindArk, the "high concept" massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) / experiment, has certainly been a success to date at grabbing mainstream media headlines. You may recall the early-2005 "Gamer buys virtual island" story, and perhaps even the late-2005 "Gamer pays US$100,000 for virtual space station", as they got reasonably wide play, even in media sectors that usually steer well clear of such "news". Both happened on Calypso, Project Entropia's in-game "planet".
The central concept of the game is what generates all the headlines: PE has a "real" economy. Players start with (literally) nothing, but can "buy" Project Entropia Dollars (PED) for hard currency, and also exchange the other way, at a rate of 10 PED to the US dollar. The concept of "earning" PEDs in-game and then cashing them in for "real" money certainly has a certain intriguing quality to it the first time you hear it. So I can give up my boring job and play games for a living?! Whoah, partner!
Publicity it's got, but does it have players? Unfortunately, player numbers for online games are hard to meter. Constant "player churn" and the high percentage of "inactive but still subscribed" accounts mean that all figures quoted by game developers need to be taken with a large teaspoon of salt. Project Entropia regularly claims to be in the "100,000 Club" -- a MMORPG industry benchmark for those games with 100,000 subscribers -- but since PE doesn't charge subscription fees the application of this title is somewhat dubious. On its website, PE claims (on January 17, 2006) to have had 360,000 plus people download its software and "get a life in Project Entropia", which could include or exclude people who've just fired it up to "take a look" and then left immediately.
In an exploratory and quite possibly non-representative session on January 15, 2006 lasting several hours, this writer watched an experienced PE player repeatedly attempt to move to supposedly "highly populated areas," and finally exclaim "See!" when we managed to find a group of four other players together. The typical view of another player, at least in this quite extended sample, was of a solitary figure moving at running speed from somewhere to somewhere else, at the very edges of the game's "view".
Should you decide to join them, what awaits? PE combines some traditional MMORPG activities with some unique to itself. Rather than killing monsters for your first "experience" in the game, or running the infamous "Fedex" missions endemic to the genre, if you want to start without converting a chunk of real money to buy things in game, you'll need to "sweat". Unfortunately, that's not a euphemism for "work hard". You will, literally, use your "power of concentration" (read: sit there and do almost nothing) and collect the sweat of in-game creatures. This is about as fun as it sounds. But it is also the only way to make PEDs without laying out substantial cash for "mining" or "hunting" or "tailoring" equipment.
If someone makes a game which a player can (theoretically, at least) download for free and then earn money by playing, one shouldn't be surprised when that then becomes the prime focus of the game. There are no epic quests or mythological back-stories here -- just the eternal quest for the almighty dollar, oops I mean PED.
Everything (no, not Everything!) takes a back seat to the economy, including game graphics (which look like something stolen from a ten-year old FPS), and interface (which, at the click of a button, fills the screen with dozens of tiny ergo-hellic boxes). To get briefly technical, clipping problems constantly occur, and the game's collision engine is about as good as Lawn Tennis for the Commodore 64 -- you remember, the game where you'd "hit" the ball a few virtual feet above your tennis racquet.
In summary, an ugly and horribly flawed but somewhat original attempt at a real economy in a computer game. Since even regular swords and sorcery online games have economies these days, though, if that's your thing you could easily have it with a serving of fun on the side.
Since this writeup was completed in early 2006, the column inches that were going to this online world have almost entirely been taken by Second Life -- which is quite similar in some respects.