On paper, MapleStory is a 2D online RPG with platforming elements. In reality, it's also a quiet cult with an alleged 67 million members. At times, this level of success seems hard to explain: the game's almost never written about by the press, but manages to grind out page after page of FAQ sheet and advice forum postings. Nobody really reviewed it, and it spends little on advertising, but thousands still log in to Maple World every day. And if all of that wasn't unlikely enough, try this: MapleStory's essentially free to play, yet still manages to generate large quantities of money from its community.
If World of Warcraft is the meat and potatoes of the MMO scene, then MapleStory is probably the popcorn chicken: lots of people seem to like it, but nobody wants to talk about it very much. With graphics that some fear are not so much cartoony as reminiscent of cheap late-nineties e-cards, and an ambience that can initially seem more trivial than whimsical, many choose to ignore the game totally.
But they might be missing out. Give MapleStory half an hour of your time, and it's hard to avoid getting sucked in. The landscapes quickly draw out sweet memories of decades-past afternoons strung out on Alex Kidd and Wonderboy, and the savagely simplistic one-button combat lures you into a trance that's surprisingly difficult to extricate yourself from. Played in bursts - as it's designed to be - MapleStory, particularly in the early stages, resembles a sweetshop with unnaturally low shelves. A quick spill through the early character levels sees you colourfully rewarded every two minutes or so, and, like WOW or Lord of the Rings Online, the game's designers have made sure each new quest seems never more than one item from completion, and each new surprise is never more than a few platforms away. So before you knew it half an hour has become two, then three, and a quick log-on to reach level seven has become an embarrassing twenty-eight screen marathon.
But there's more at work than a happy accident of frothy throwback platforming and sugary looks. Unlikely as it seems, this toy box realm of deadly snails and talking mushrooms may have a lot to say about broadening the overall appeal of the entire MMO market. After all, talking mushrooms have been right before.
Developed by Wizet and controlled by South Korean publishing powerhouse Nexon, MapleStory seems to have had Charles Darwin for a chief designer. More than almost any other title, the game has been evolved from the ground up to adapt, survive, and ultimately flourish in the very competitive Korean MMO market. Streamlined for a cyber-caf·culture, where software is almost always pirated and computers are primarily communal terminals, downloading the game is entirely free and there are no monthly fees to pay afterwards. Instead, MapleStory was one of the first titles to utilise a system where revenue comes from virtual asset purchases rather than subscriptions. From the main website, players can buy NEXON Cash to spend on clothes, haircuts, better items, and even temporary stat boosters. None of these trinkets are essential to playing the game, but the model clearly works: between 2003 and 2006, MapleStory generated revenue of USD 200 million in South Korea alone.
When MapleStory does make it into the press, it's generally this business model that gets it there. In July 2007, the game received the ultimate endorsement any title can hope to garner: a reputation-cementing examination on Fox News, branding it "a craze that's out of control". By painting a startling picture of addicted teens prying open their parents' PayPal accounts, prior to bankrupting their families one Cotton Blanket (3100 NEXON Cash) and Pink Rabbit Puppet (2900 NEXON cash) at a time, Fox suggested the virtual asset purchase model may place MapleStory somewhere between people-trafficking and serial arson as a contributing factor in the inevitable collapse of human civilisation. Despite these allegations (or possibly because of them), the micro transaction model is catching on, with many other games adopting it.