For over 20 years, Manfred exploited flaws in video games, making a huge fortune out of it. How did he do it? And why did he change his career to become a security expert?
Not every hacking story has a tragic ending. Some of them take a different and rather unexpected turn.
Once he reached the peak of hacking quadrupling the US GDP in in-game currency, Manfred decided to quit his full-time business. He got clean and turned into a security researcher. What first led him into the hacking industry? And what made him stop?
Manfred, the Ultima Online player
Before Manfred the talented hacker, there was Adrian, the Polish immigrant who sought asylum in the United States in 1984.
Video games have always played a crucial role in his life: “I grew up around computers,” said Manfred. “I’m a huge gamer, and I was very curious about online games. For example, my first game was Ultima Online.”
Released in 1997, Ultima Online is a role-playing game set in the medieval fantasy kingdom of Ultima. The MIT Technology Review defined Ultima Online as the pioneer of the metaverse, the very first virtual world that transformed the video game industry by creating an alternative universe where players could interact.
In this metaverse, Adrian became Manfred and ventured into the business of selling virtual assets to other players.
“In Ultima Online, you could have a house inside the game. It was a highly sought-after item,” Manfred explained. “Most people don’t want to spend eight hours a day mining virtual rocks. They’d rather just pay somebody else to do that,” he continued.
Manfred started building and selling virtual houses to other players on eBay, an idea that turned out to be more lucrative than he thought.
Manfred, the hacker
After understanding that Ultima Online players were willing to pay money to buy virtual assets, Manfred decided to make the most out of it, creating and selling objects without actually having to play.
And he was not the only one. “Pretty quickly, you had hackers. (…) They wanted to do more than just play the games within the confines the game developers had intended. And they were able to change the code of the games,” Brendan Koerner, cybersecurity journalist, explained.
Manfred became a master in finding loopholes and glitches in Ultima Online and later joined the similar WildStar Online game to increase his income.
In this online role-play set on planet Nexus, Manfred found a way to create and sell a huge amount of virtual currency, a business that quickly paid off. “I had about 12 trillion U.S. dollars worth of in-game currency,” Manfred admitted.
Manfred, the security expert
But life as a hacker is not always easy. Things started to change when the games began to sell currency directly to players, leaving Manfred and his hacking mates without buyers.
“That’s when I backed out, and I said: alright, it’s time to close this hacking for fun and profit chapter and move on,” Manfred told us.
In 2017, the mastermind decided to publically come clean. He got on the stage of the Def Con hacking convention in Las Vegas, took a deep breath, and revealed his illegal tricks.
Since that moment, Manfred quit hacking, and started working as a cybersecurity researcher for his former business competitors: the gaming companies.
To these groups, he says: “Keep your players happy, keep them as workers happy, and as a game company, you will make more money.”
Hacker Hunter: Next Level is brought to you by Tomorrow Unlocked, the cyber immunity channel from Kaspersky, in collaboration with the Euronews Tech Talks team.
Additional sources • Producer: Marta rodriguez