MapleStory is the rare 2003 game that’s still going to this day, despite its reputation for being a pay-to-win grind fest. So perhaps it’s fitting that its developers want to bring the title to the blockchain next, complete with non-fungible tokens, its own cryptocurrency, and the possibility of playable Bored Apes.
A lot of games have died in the timeframe that MapleStory has existed. I grew up playing the side-scrolling multiplayer game in elementary school and decided to revisit it in college. Back in 2015, I was surprised to find the game still had a robust community powered by a few “whales,” or people who tend to spend significant amounts of real money on the game.
It’s still alive in 2023 and considered a top MMO, though lately, some gamers have migrated over to Reboot, a server on the game where players don’t have to spend real money to gain better gear and weapons to take down bosses. Fans have also designed private servers, which infringe on parent company Nexon’s intellectual property. Nexon declined to comment on these servers, citing their illegality.
So when MapleStory developers attended the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in March to talk about how they were taking the game to the next level, it was a nostalgic experience for the audience members, many of them game developers who had grown up playing MapleStory themselves. What was less familiar was the brand’s ambitious blockchain plans, which include giving players the ability to build their own decentralized applications on Polygon.
“Considering the average active period of the top 50 percent of players is 15 years, it’s safe to say that MapleStory is a generational game now,” said Sunyoung Hwang, Nexon’s production director who spearheads the MapleStory Web3 efforts. “What we really want is to continue this successful journey for the next 10 years as well. Of course, it wouldn’t just magically happen on its own.”
Blockchain and video games have co-existed in the same space for the past few years. At GDC, I attended parties attended by ex-Twitch executives who are now big into blockchain gaming investments, and after a panel I moderated at the Twitch headquarters, Web3 employees swarmed me with event invites.
The former head of YouTube Gaming, Ryan Wyatt, is now president of Polygon Labs, which helps people build on the Ethereum-powered Polygon protocol. Polygon and Nexon are working together to bring MapleStory to the blockchain, as Nexon is what Wyatt calls a “high-impact brand.”
“I was never into crypto. I didn’t read some white paper on Bitcoin,” Wyatt said about his move from YouTube to Web3. Instead, he grew interested in digital assets because he felt it was unfair to buy goods within games but never get to own them.
Wyatt and Nexon developers are well aware of the vocal faction of gamers who hate NFTs. Nexon is part of a group of nostalgic brands, including Neopets, Atari, and Habbo Hotel, that have chosen the blockchain route, even while receiving discouraging fan feedback.
After eyebrow-raising headlines like “Zombie Atari Shits On 50-Year Legacy With NFT Loot Boxes” from earlier this year, Atari employees took a measured approach to describing their Web3 efforts. “We took an audit of everything to see where everything was standing. And it was pretty messy,” said Tyler Drewitz, director of Atari’s Web3 initiative, Atari X, who joined the team after some of Atari’s initial blockchain projects had already launched.
“We’ve tried to explain to users that it’s not a scam.”
“Loot box is definitely not a term we’ve ever used internally, nor has it ever been a goal,” David Lowey, an Atari marketing executive, told me on the same video call. “There was a fear that there was going to be this invasion of NFTs and blockchain into the games,” Lowey said. “Anytime there’s change, people are skeptical or apprehensive.” Lowey said that Atari is not building Web3 games right now nor integrating existing games into the blockchain.
The temperature around blockchain games has cooled significantly since their heyday in 2021. Over the past year and a half, gamers have been vocal about when they hate NFTs.
In October of 2021, for instance, the Neopets community was in an uproar over the 1990s web browser game now getting into NFTs. Users criticized the company for prioritizing earning quick cash over fixing the website, which still had glitches and missing features due to the retirement of Adobe Flash. Neopets CEO James Czulewicz told me at the time that it was a different team working on fixing the site compared to the team working on NFTs. “On a personal note, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to hurt anybody,” Czulewicz told me in October of 2021. “We’ve tried to explain to users that it’s not a scam. There’s nothing scamming about it.”
Now nostalgic gaming brands like MapleStory, Neopets, and Atari are still trying to promote their blockchain initiatives while couching their language and expectations (something that’s becoming increasingly common for blockchain projects outside of games as well).
The blockchain project hasn’t been released in Korea or the rest of the world yet, though Nexon first announced it in June 2022 at its own Nexon Developers Conference. Nexon is trying to court developers at these conferences and entice them to build on the MapleStory blockchain.
“We’ve been hopping from one developer conference to another because we really wanted to show what we’re trying to get out with the MapleStory universe,” Hwang said. “We wanted to be able to communicate how we’re feeling and what we’re expecting to our potential users, creators, and developers.”
Nexon plans to continue supporting MapleStory on PC while building a blockchain version of the game that resembles the original. Items in the game will be NFTs that can then be traded outside of the game as well. Once the blockchain game is released, Nexon plans to open up its ecosystem and invite creators to build decentralized apps based on the Ethereum blockchain. The company also has plans to create a cryptocurrency for players, but it declined to share more.
During the GDC talk, Nexon gave a hilarious example of buying a Bored Ape NFT and then placing it in the game so that a player could hop around Kerning City, MapleStory’s thief town, looking like an ape.
MapleStory has managed to stay successful and relevant throughout the years by consistently updating the game and giving players fresh updates. It even collaborated with mega-popular K-pop boy band BTS in 2020, selling in-game accessories that players could buy for real money through the cash shop.
Blockchain MapleStory won’t have a cash shop. Instead, weapons and gear will drop from monsters that players defeat, and each region will have NFT rewards. Hwang spent a significant amount of his talk at GDC discussing how the rarity of in-game items influences player enjoyment. Players derive pleasure from winning rare items; Hwang gave the example of unlocking rare loot in Diablo III or catching a legendary fish in Animal Crossing.
But developers can’t account for changes to the game economy, such as more people fighting a certain boss, therefore increasing the amount of boss’ loot in the ecosystem and causing the items’ rarity to drop. When the items lose value, players’ enjoyment of the game also decreases, according to Hwang, and thus, he argued, NFTs, which have a limited supply, could help keep the game fun.
In some ways, it feels like MapleStory is an appropriate vehicle for a blockchain game with NFTs. The game has already given players who spend real money for tangible benefits, such as being able to skip out on doing tedious daily tasks and being able to roll the dice to get stronger equipment. As a former MapleStory whale, I spent $4,000 on MapleStory in the past. When I quit the game, I sold my weapon for real money on a secondary fan forum. With this new technological push, Nexon is hoping to bring those secondary sites under its wing. (While Hwang acknowledged that players on the black market who already buy and sell items with real money might naturally gravitate toward MapleStory NFTs, he said he didn’t condone black market trading.)
But Nexon has already caught flak from players for its pay-to-win reputation in the past, and a cursory glance at Reddit responses to the blockchain news shows that fans aren’t interested or excited about MapleStory’s cryptocurrency pivot.
“We’re getting a lot of mixed feedback.”
“We’re getting a lot of mixed feedback,” Hwang told me in comments translated from Korean. “If we had to break it down, it’s about 60 percent not so well received, 30 percent neutral, and the remaining 10 percent is really excited and positive about MapleStory on blockchain. But we thought this was inevitable, and we did expect this kind of reaction. It’s our duty and responsibility to slowly raise that 10 percent.”
As for whether MapleStory on the blockchain will be pay-to-win, Hwang said it depends on your perspective. “There’s no cash shop, so players have to farm for any item or NFT that they want. So in that sense, we don’t think it’s pay to win,” Hwang said. “But if the user chooses to spend their own money to buy an NFT or a decorative item, I guess that is paying to win, right?”
Longtime fans of the game that I spoke to all expressed ambivalence toward NFTs, but with the project still not out yet, some said they would reserve judgment.
Hwang said that the project hasn’t been released yet because it’s still in the final stages of production, and the developer is working on the technical issues of moving a game to the blockchain.
When asked if all of this was a ploy to win back players who have migrated to the game’s free server, Reboot, and are not spending real money, Hwang said, “It’d be great if they could move back to MapleStory.”