Megabyte Millionaire

Jon Jacobs wants to make a fortune. His business: virtual real estate.

Then the bidding began. Jacobs figured he had enough money to hold off any other buyer. But he was wrong. On December 14, 2004, MindArk announced the Treasure Island auction had been won by an Australian named Zachurm "Deathifier" Emegen, who paid a reported $26,500 for the land, a record price for virtual real estate.

Land ownership in Entropia is a prickly subject, because a legal system does not exist to mediate disputes, and MindArk retains control of everything, no matter how much money a player invests in the game. What's more, land values can fluctuate more greatly than in the real world. In Entropia, unlike in the real world, land can literally be created by the developers.

Whether disputes over virtual real estate can be settled in real-world courts is still a legal unknown. Only one such case has been filed. In February 2002, BlackSnow Interactive sued Mythic Entertainment after the developer announced it would shut down the game Dark Age of Camelot, making virtual items related to the game worthless. BlackSnow Interactive ultimately dropped the case.

That lawsuit exemplifies the risk of investing in virtual real estate and items, says Richard A. Bartle, a London-based game developer who studies virtual economies. "If you buy things in a game like Second Life, and the company announces that they're going to close the game down, you're in trouble because you can't get your money back," he says.

After Jacobs lost the bid to buy Treasure Island, his personal life crumbled. His girlfriend Leiu had been suffering from a flu that wouldn't go away. One morning, she couldn't get out of bed. "She was in great shape, but she was lying there in bed complaining about her throat," Jacobs says. "The next thing I know, she says, öI can't breathe.'"

He rushed her to the hospital. Leiu was diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart. His ill girlfriend found temporary freedom in Entropia. Island Girl was her avatar's name.

"I'd get up in the morning, and she'd be up already, hunting," he says. One time he noticed her at the computer. Jokingly, Jacobs began to sing: "My girl's a gamer chick, and oh I love her so." For fun they recorded the song and sent it to MindArk, which included it in Entropia's in-game jukeboxes. The song made NeverDie something of a virtual pop star.

But Leiu wasn't improving. "I kept noticing weird shit, like hiccups," he says. "She'd get hiccups all the time."

They saw a doctor again in January 2005. She's not going to die, the doctor said. "A month later, she was dead," Jacobs recalls. "Somehow, whatever it did, it got her. She was 39."

Leiu had become a popular player in Entropia. To commemorate her, MindArk created a small piece of land called Memorial Island and erected a shrine. When players visit the commemorative, serene music plays. A picture of Island Girl is on one of the walls. A plaque reads, "This shrine is dedicated to the loving memory of Tina Leiu, öIsland Girl,' the ultimate virtual warrior."

As he visits the shrine on a recent afternoon, Jacobs looks down and touches his chin gently. "This is the only thing of its kind," he says. "This is really the first-ever virtual gravesite. We played Entropia enough for this to have more meaning to me than if there were a grave."


A few months after Leiu died, Jacobs met Cheri London, a regular performer at The Forge in Miami Beach. He hadn't expected to meet anyone so soon after Leiu's death, but there was something about London. "She was perfect," Jacobs recalls.

At the time, Hey DJ had been shot and was in the editing process. That left plenty of time for Jacobs to play Entropia again. And his timing couldn't have been better. MindArk announced the sale of an entire asteroid with twenty "bio-domes" for hunting and mining, a nightclub and disco, a large arena, 1000 individual apartments, and docking stations.

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 only Zachurm "Deathifier" Emegen — the Australian who had purchased Treasure Island one year earlier — and Jacobs vying for the virtual real estate. After three days, the auction ended. Jacobs won. The final bid: one 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.

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 thirty-six posts followed from gamers demanding an answer from Jacobs.

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