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South Florida's Jon Jacobs wants to be a millionaire. His business: virtual real estate.

The official story goes that Jacobs refinanced his Miami house — and public records back up this claim — and pulled out about $100,000 in equity. MindArk then held an auction for the property in October 2005, with Zachurm "Deathifier" Emegen — the Australian who purchased Treasure Island one year earlier — and Jacobs the only players vying for the virtual real estate. After three days, the auction ended. Jacobs had won. The final bid: 1 million PED, or $100,000.

The record-setting sale quickly made news on the Internet. Jacobs still bristles with pride when he remembers logging on to the BBC's website to see the headline: "Virtual club to rock pop culture."

Jacobs named the asteroid Club NeverDie and announced an ambitious plan to bring in world-renowned DJs to stream live music inside the club.

Gamers hunt down roaming monsters for profit
Gamers hunt down roaming monsters for profit
Players can interact with others in the game.
Players can interact with others in the game.

But allegations quickly followed that Jacobs was an insider who had benefited from a fixed auction.

Two months after the sale, in December 2005, an Entropia gamer who goes by the name Francine found something curious and posted it to the Entropia forum: Jacobs had registered the web address clubneverdie.com ten days before the auction ended. "There is something really fishy here," Francine wrote. One hundred and thirty-six posts followed from gamers demanding an answer from Jacobs.

He did answer, telling the other gamers that registering a web address before he'd actually won the auction was just prudent planning: "I was ready to pounce [on the auction], and while you all were busy hunting and crafting, I was refinancing, I was plotting, I was buying web domains, I was telling everybody in the dance scene that I was going to start a virtual night club and I would want them to spin there."

And now, for $100,000, he was the proud owner of an asteroid orbiting in a sky that existed only in the algorithms of personal computers.

Jacobs claims that Club NeverDie, officially opened for business in early 2006, is a profitable enterprise. He's sold some of the 1,000 apartments, and he collects a 5.5 percent tax on all hunting and mining in the biodomes. He also runs monthly events, including dance parties and hunting competitions, where players can win shopping sprees at Club NeverDie's mall, which includes stores run by other players who sell, among other items, virtual furniture and virtual mining equipment.

Jacobs promotes those events just as he would a party on South Beach: He employs promoters to sell tickets, then collects a cut. His main in-game contractor is Lynette Firn, a 59-year-old psychology professor at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa. Known in the game as "MindStar MindStar 9," Firn has become Jacobs' in-game handler and marketing director.

"Entropia was the first time I played in a virtual world, and I was hooked from day one," Firn remembers.

Firn preferred avatar-to-avatar interactions — the "human" relationships — over hunting and mining. Jacobs realized that Firn understood the entrepreneurial potential of Entropia and hired her to help him promote Club NeverDie. She's become the club's official reporter — writing regular articles for the online forums that chronicle the club's events — and the in-game guide to any real-world journalist interested in visiting the club.

She is among a growing cadre of players for whom videogames create more than entertainment; they create jobs. Firn admits that her gig with Club NeverDie can sometimes feel like work — she has pressures, deadlines, and stress — but it's an oversimplification to think of playing Entropia as a second job, she says.

"There's also that fun element," Firn explains. "But Entropia has a different component to it. I'm actually applying event management skills I learned in real life to Entropia. To me, that's a lot of fun."

Jacobs flips through a small notebook next to his desk. It's his handwritten ledger: apartments sold, taxes collected. He's averaging 100,000 PED in monthly revenue, or about $10,000 per month. In a year, he says, his investment will have paid for itself. It's not inconceivable, Jacobs claims, that he could one day be virtual reality's first millionaire.

"I've got 1,000 apartments," he explains. "It's a pretty good revenue stream. They sell for about $100. That's $100,000. But what I'm doing is rationing them onto the market. This is the history of Entropia: Everything goes up. If I put all of my apartments on the market today with a starting bid of, let's say, $10, maybe I'd sell all of them within a week at an average of $50. Next year, they will be trading those same apartments for $250, $300."

But as he strives for success in virtual real estate, critics continue to nag. In May, Dan Hunter, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, penned a lengthy entry about Entropia for Terra Nova (terranova.blogs.com), a blog that covers developments in virtual economies. Hunter discovered that in September 2004, Jacobs had attended a technology and gaming conference in California called Digital Hollywood. According to a short bio published on the conference's website, Jacobs "is a famous and high-profile Entropia U.S. spokesperson."

"So it turns out that the 'sale' of Space Station 'NeverDie' was from MindArk to, um, one of their marketing and PR people," Hunter wrote.

Today, Jacobs denies that he was employed by or received special treatment from MindArk. He listed himself as a spokesman for the company to have an opportunity to promote the game. "I had the opportunity to speak, so I said, 'Sure I'll come speak,'" Jacobs says.

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