In Which I Stop Playing World of Warcraft to Play Auction House Extravaganza

Last year I mentioned my obsession with E-Bay I cut short and haven’t been back to E-Bay for a real auction in more than a year (I do occasionally buy some office stuff from a vendor who uses E-Bay to offer goods at a discount, but I’m strictly a “Buy It Now” guy).

Unfortunately, now my life has become dominated by virtual auctions within World of Warcraft. There’s been quite a bit of press about virtual economies in these MMORPGs, especially when they spill over into the real world such as the people selling their uber WoW characters on Ebay for hundreds of dollars. And, of course, there are a number of services where I could go to buy gold or items for use in the game. Of course, if you get caught buying or selling items, Blizzard will ban your account, plus I prefer to find ways to tweak the game within the in-game parameters. Going outside to E-Bay or some other service is akin to using a trainer program — not something I’ve ever found interesting.

No, it is the in-game trade in items that is my current obsession. World of Warcraft has a fairly interesting economic model which attempts to balance things by setting a time limit on how quickly one can acquire money and items. So, as with most action-style RPGs, the better an item is the less likely it is to drop from a beast or monster, beasts and monsters don’t drop very much money relative to how much time and additional resources it takes to kill them (you won’t get rich farming monsters), and other methods of making money, such as mining for various metals, only respawn at given intervals, so you might find a vein of gold and mine it, but it disappears and then respawns later with the time it takes to respawn based on how valuable the resource is.

But WoW has an additional way of making money and procuring items — Auction Houses. There are three Auction Houses, one each in a Horde and Alliance town and one in a neutral town that both factions can use. The Auction House works like an Internet auction house. You take your item and set a minimum bid, a buyout price if you like, and the length of the auction (the minimum is 30 minutes, the longest is 24 hours). Players find items by searching for what they’re looking for, and the search is pretty granular so I can look for swords that are only of a specific level range and only with a certain set of magical enhancements. I’m not sure how many individual items there are in WoW, but it is clearly in the thousands.

Because it is a simulated economy and not a real one, many (most?) players do not have a good idea of how much a given item is actually worth. If I someone says how much would you sell a brand new SUV for, I may not be a car salesman but I could give someone a decent range. How much should a Level 25 Sword of the Monkey go for? I have no idea, since there are so many items I have no intuitions or experiences with how much most items should go for. My knowledge about pricing is limited to an extremely small subset of items. As a result, the pricing of items is all over the place. You might look at the listings of people selling the same item, and the minimum price might range from 9 silver (very low price) to 2 gold (very high). There are clearly lots of opportunities for arbitrage in that situation, if a player can get a handle on what the market value of the item really is.

Enter Auctioneer. Auctioneer is an add-on to WoW produced by some enthusiasts. What Auctioneer does is add a “Scan” button to the Auction House interface that methodically goes through each auction posted and writes information about the item, the minimum bid, buyout, and current bid price to a database. Perform such scans frequently, and the result is a much higher level of information about the market for goods in WoW than most players have.

This is viewable in game through an enhanced tool tip. I can arrow over any item in my inventory and see, say, that in all of the scans I’ve performed there have been 300 auctions, the average minimum bid was 50 silver, the average buyout was 2 gold, the average bid was 60 silver, and the best estimate of the market value of the item is 1 gold, 80 silver. When I’m ready to sell an item, Auctioneer will suggest a price based on both historical data and the most recent scan that just undercuts the competition. The result is that I’ve gone from selling about 95 percent of my auctions compared to maybe 35-40 percent before using the add on.

If that’s all Auctioneer did it would be indispensable, but it also has a feature that is almost unfair to those who do not install it. It has a number of command line parameters that make it trivial to identify arbitrate opportunities. Run a scan and then run Auctioneer’s bidbroker command. It will then display all auctions in the most recent scan where the minimum bid of the item is 50 silver less than the market price for the item. Buy those items, sell them at market price and count the money.

I was doing pretty good at the auction house before using Auctioneer — after a day of questing and farming I’d make maybe 5-6 gold a day. This Saturday, I made 25 gold just in buying and reselling items at the auction house. As I joked to my wife, I decided to stop playing WoW and start playing Auctioneer. Auctioneer essentially turned the game from an RPG to a trade sim for me.

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