In this day and age, gamers are seeing more and more free-to-play titles on a daily basis. Not all of these are for the casual market; hardcore-tailored shooters, like Firefall and Ghost Recon Online are currently in development by top-tier talent and studios, and they will be using the "freemium" method of distribution. In a nutshell, gamers will be able to play the games for free but can invest some real money to either get exclusive items and other amenities to enhance the experience.
Of course, the free-to-play model has been operating in Asia for quite some time now. In the first in a new series of recurring features on Asia's most popular and well-known free online titles, we take a look at one of the pioneers of the free-to-play system: MapleStory.
Overview: Imagine if the developers of World of Warcraft made a game using visuals inspired by a mishmash of all known forms of Asian animation and caricatures while presenting the gameplay as a 2D platformer. That's MapleStory in a nutshell.
MapleStory was first released in April 29, 2003, in its native land of South Korea, and it was developed by a company called Wizet under the publishing label of Nexon. In the game, players control a resident in the Maple World as they level up to kill all sorts of creatures and enemies ranging from the world's esoteric wildlife to factions like the Black Wings.
There are now over 100 million subscribers worldwide, which truly makes MapleStory a gaming force with which to be reckoned. And it's not just huge in the PC gaming world; the franchise has an anime series that aired in 2007, a DS spin-off focused solely on single-player, a trading card game, two iOS spin-offs, and a Facebook equivalent that currently has 1,700,000 monthly active users since its inception this year.
How Does It Play: If you know how to play a 2D platformer, you'll get into the swing of things in MapleStory. Players control an avatar and are given a choice of six different factions at the start of the game. Each faction has its own individual classes to master throughout the course of the gameworld. For example, picking the Resistance faction will not only make you start off in the town of Edelstein, but you'll also get to choose among the battle mage class (close-range spellcaster), the wild hunter class (long-range user with a mount), and mechanic class (a soldier who pilots his or her own robot).
Like all massively multiplayer online games, there is no definitive best class; updates and tweaks have been made throughout the game's life span to make sure each class was variable in its skill sets and abilities. Having said that, some factions have different ways of leveling up; a warrior in a Cygnus Knight faction can dual-class into a level 50 explorer upon reaching level 120. Being a pirate in the Explorer faction allows more options for power-ups at the cost of the player not being able to branch out into other classes for extra abilities.
The enemies you kill in the game are a huge mishmash of whatever the developers could come up with and "cute-ify" in the process. You'll see talking candle monsters, killer potted plants, sheep, and pink wind-up killer teddy bears here. Even though it's presented in the style of a 2D platformer, it's still an MMOG at heart. This means that combat and numbers takes precedence over movement, so you will have to get used to the sluggish controls. Still, hotkeys are easily customizable, thanks to the recent patch called Big Bang.
Like Blizzard's MMOG, players can also form parties and guilds to form that sense of community while having people around to help you kill bosses with high hit points. If players wish to do so, they can join their avatars in holy matrimony through the in-game Amoria wedding system for imperishable rings that grant the couple high stats increases and unique abilities.
How Free Is It? While it's free, the game has microtransactions in the form of the Cash Shop. Here, you can buy custom items and enhancements to make your pirate look different from other pirates and warriors. You can also buy digital pets and in-game items like potions. In addition, players can buy a shop permit that allows them to set up a store in the game's Free Market area to sell their wares. Most convenience stores in Asia sell special cash cards that add in money to your MapleStory account.
How Big Is It in Asia? It's huge. Despite the hardcore gamer's disdain toward its graphics, the developers were obviously catering toward the casual crowd when it was released for each region, which in turn got them a lot of subscribers and players. According to distributor Asiasoft, the bulk of microtransactions are from gamers still in both primary and high school. These transactions, which are done on the game's Cash Shop and Maple Trading System tab, are mostly on resurrection and healing potions, as well as customization options for clothes and accessories for an avatar.
Asiasoft also went out of its way to engage gamers with marketing activities like giving away exclusive MapleStory content through expos and road shows like the Asiasoft Games Festival last year in Singapore. Given the game's "all ages" rating and content, it would be silly not to do community events in crowded shopping malls all across Asia for the purpose of recruiting new fans and would-be gamers. Be it the hardcore MapleStory player or the little kid who seems drawn into the game's subjective art style, you definitely can't fault the distributors for being shy about promoting the MMO role-playing game.
When you add to the fact that the game now has a Facebook spin-off, you have the publisher's transparent motive to sustain the brand while getting more people from that specific market. This is to the point where Asiasoft declares the game as a AAA title just based on the amount of content it has up, including the recent update, despite its age-old engine. To Asiasoft's credit, the developers did spend a lot of time not only refining the title for its audience, but also adding in a lot more activities like the aforementioned wedding system and minigames to change up the "kill an undefined number of mobs and bosses for experience" routine.
What's Up Ahead? Nothing at the moment. The big updates for the game, Big Bang and Ascension, have more or less been unleashed in the MapleStory servers in most Asian countries. The former is a huge revamp on the game's UI and world, while the latter focuses on changes for the warrior, magician, and bowman classes.
Should You Play It? It depends on your tolerance for old-school MMO mechanics with a dated presentation. We can confirm, however, that it is a title suitable for really young players who cannot afford console or PC games requiring high-end rigs. With its free-to-play approach and aimed-at-children aesthetics, it's a good and cost-effective entry-level title for a young kid before he or she moves on to bigger and better affairs.