A hidden gem among in-game economies – Annenberg Media

MapleStory is one of the most celebrated MMORPGs of all time, with over 182 million registered accounts on the Global MapleStory (GMS) version alone (there were multiple versions of the game released after the original in 2003 to accommodate for players outside of South Korea). However, for most gamers, Amherst City on Maple Island wasn’t just where you decided to be a Warrior or a Bowmen; it was also where you were introduced to the concept of macroeconomics for the very first time.

Besides the usual skirmishes against mob enemies, tense boss battles, and exploration with your friends, MapleStory also included a robust, user-generated economy in which players could sell and trade their items for either mesos (the in-game currency) or NX (which were purchased using real money). Players would wander around massive towns filled with public chats advertising what items that particular person had, and how competitive their prices were. If nothing else, MapleStory taught kids the supply and demand curve well before their schools ever did.

But while players may reminisce on the good ol’ days where the biggest concern on our minds was the big boss raid after school, MapleStory also introduced players to the phenomenon of market manipulation.

Bots were rampant in the game, programmed to farm for mesos and rare items so that their owners could sell them to lower-level players in town. Conversely, players could also pay third party organizations and provide their account info for an “expert” to log in to the player’s account and farm for them, removing the “grindy” aspect of the game’s progression system. Additionally, players could engage in Real World Trading; essentially sending real money through PayPal for items that were considerably better than the normal drops you would get from repeating tough raids.

All this led to hyperinflation. Since anyone could go on the Internet and “buy” mesos, the in-game currency ended up being practically worthless and even low-level items would go for billions of mesos, making them inaccessible to most casual players. Rare and upgraded items were even more difficult to attain, often requiring players to buy huge quantities of NX or just wiring the money directly to the seller. Cosmetic items, which could only be initially purchased from a random item generator using NX (think loot boxes in Overwatch but with a secondary market), became status symbols that created a vicious capitalist wealth class system in what was supposed to be a lighthearted, 2D scroller adventure game.

MapleStory was not the only game facing such issues. Another poignant example of this rampant hyperinflation used to exist in Diablo 3 with its now infamous Auction Houses. Much like MapleStory, players could either bid for rare items in the gold Auction House, which used the in-game currency, or the Real Money Auction House, which used real money with Blizzard taking a cut of the final transaction. Blizzard quickly shut down the Auction Houses in 2014 after the same problems of bots, paid farming, and real world trading created an economy where lower quality items were auctioned off for billions of gold and higher quality items were sent directly to the Real Money Auction House for thousands of dollars.

So how does a game publisher avoid the issue of inflation while creating a robust, self-sustaining in-game economy? Well, enter MapleRoyals.

MapleRoyals started out as a private 10x/5x/5x server (essentially a modified version of the game that allowed for more frequent rare loot drops) but has since rebranded itself as the prime server to join for players looking for that nostalgic 2005 GMS gameplay experience. The game itself has none of the subsequent content updates Nexon released for GMS; there are no new maps, no new classes, and no new gameplay mechanics. Instead, players get access to the base number of classes and can relive their childhood memories.

But what’s most surprising about MapleRoyals server isn’t that it supports a consistent player base even in 2021 (it remains at the top of gtop100′s server rankings), but rather that it has a completely self-sustaining economy that hasn’t suffered from inflation. Rare items are still more expensive than common ones, and you will still have to grind to get enough mesos to pay for that Godly item that someone else has, but every item remains largely attainable and none of them exceeds the in-game max meso cap. How is this possible?

Well to start, items can only be traded for mesos and cannot be exchanged for NX (except cosmetic items). Even then, NX can be earned for free simply by voting for MapleRoyals on the gtop100 server rankings every 24 hours, completely eliminating real money from the economy. Furthermore, the MapleRoyals administrators do not make a profit off the transactions made in the server (both in mesos and NX), meaning that there is no incentive for them to push for higher prices for items.

With both GMS and Diablo 3, the publishers took a cut from each transaction, which means that it benefitted Nexon to push for more NX purchases and Blizzard to push for higher prices in the RMAH. Just because the in-game economy is inflated doesn’t make the dollar any less powerful IRL.

With MapleRoyals, there is no direct benefit to the owners of the server, which means it’s in everyone’s best interest to try to keep prices manageable since player progression and the fun of in-game trading are what keeps players engaged and the server running.

“But Joey,” I hear you astute readers cry, “What about Real World Trading? Can’t players just ask each other to Venmo for rare items, thereby circumventing the in-game economy?”

To that I say, checkmate gamers. Not only is Real World Trading banned on the server (with hefty punishments even for just soliciting Real World Trading), but moderators track every single transaction in the server in a pseudo-blockchain system. If a Godly item were to be traded for zero mesos (indicating that a player must have paid through alternative means), that transaction is quickly flagged for potential Real World Trading and both players are immediately investigated for such an offense. In doing so, the moderators can at least heavily discourage outside trading to preserve the integrity of the in-game economy.

Unfortunately, not a lot of this is applicable to larger titles such as GMS as a whole or the next big MMORPG. Publishers still have to make money, which makes microtransactions and premium in-game currencies practically a guarantee. Additionally, with a player base of hundreds of millions, most publishers probably don’t have the time or resources to track every single in-game transaction, much less PMs between players.

However, MapleRoyals is an astounding case study on what happens when a game makes it both the players’ and developer’s goal to maintain an accessible economy. It gives hope to the idea that one day, players will be able to explore new islands and buy new armor to their hearts’ content without the oppressive hand of Big Meso.

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