Nothing takes me back to my childhood more than the soft guitar strumming that opens Maplestory’s login screen music. Ten years ago, that very tune signalled to my brain that I could turn off my real world awareness for at least an hour and immerse myself in this brightly lit, colourfully pixellated world of mages, thieves, archers and warriors. But as I nostalgically reflect upon my bygone youth spent in this virtual idyll, I can’t help but remember one particular aspect of the game—the economy was absolutely fucked. You thought the GFC was bad? Maplestory took it to a whole new level.
Like all MMORPGS, Maplestory is premised around levelling up. As you progressed, you gained access to better items, meaning you could fight stronger monsters and explore more dangerous areas with even more lucrative item drops.
On paper, the higher level you were on, the more of Maplestory you could enjoy. Just one catch—just because you were on a certain level, didn’t mean you could afford everything that level gave you access to. In order to make any meaningful progression in the game, you had to have an ample supply of the in-game currency, known as Mesos.
As a beginner, your in-game income depends mostly on monster drops and completing quests. Early game, this works perfectly fine, especially since all the armour and weapons you need can be bought from NPC shops with prices that never change (a form of government price control perhaps?) But after you pass a certain point, the equips you need are no longer stocked in NPC shops, and can only be obtained either by massacring swathes of a particular monster hoping one of them will drop what you want, or by going to the Free Market and hoping someone is selling what you want at a price you can afford. However, the income you generate from questing and monster drops is never enough for the ridiculous prices on the Free Market. This is where the problems begin.
Mesos can be made through sheer dedication. Like any economy, Maplestory does reward those who work hard. And by ‘work hard’, I mean play the game non-stop for ungodly hours to the point that the real world and the virtual world become one and the same. I had a friend who created 5 side accounts, got them all to level 36 where they would play a one-off quest which provided a very valuable scroll, and then transferred that to their main account. But as a ten-year-old who could only play the game on weekends, this wasn’t an option to me.
Another way of making mesos was using real world money to buy “surprise boxes” or “gachapon tickets”—a sort of lottery/gambling system which sometimes gave you incredibly rare and valuable items. While there was an in-game shop where you could buy items (mostly cosmetic) using real world money, perhaps more alluring was the unofficial black market, where you could buy mesos straight up. However, convincing my frugal Asian parents to spend real money on a game was also not an option.
So what then does a casual gamer do in order to make it in the capitalism-on-crack-what-is-social-welfare wasteland of Maplestory?
“Here, take this” a friend of mine says, through the in-game chat, before handing me 10 million mesos. Year-Six-me is shook. I ask him how he made his fortune. He told me it was simple—he was hacking the game. Or more accurately, he was “botting”, where you download software which plays the game for you, allowing the tedious process of levelling up and collecting mesos dropped by monsters to be fully automated and much more efficient. In any case, given that it was 2008 and we were edgy primary school kids, it was probably worded something like “ima m4d h4xxor u n00b l0l ^_~”.
“It’s really simple. I can teach you how to do it,” he tells me. I’m shaking with excitement and fear. Excited, because I no longer had to worry about money, and scared, because I honestly thought I was going to get arrested. I thanked my friend, but said I would rather not risk it.
[6:34:57 PM] d3monhuntax34: Y u s0 n00by 0_o ever1 is doin it l0l
[6:35:01 PM] sk4rl4th: Sry but this seems rlly dodgy :((((
[6:35:10 PM] d3monhuntax34: Wateva rofl its just a game XDDD
In many ways, he was a victim of circumstance, driven to a life of crime by a society that failed hi— who am I kidding. If a bunch of ten year olds were busy hacking the shit out of the game without any consequences, just imagine how the Maplestory economy was going. Not good. Hackers, from kids who botted to programmers who straight up duplicated items and mesos, injected huge monetary excesses into the in-game economy, causing the price of goods to sky rocket. Unable to access the goods needed to sustain level growth, legitimate but casual players find it harder and harder to progress through the game while those with means manage to make more and more.
The game moderators were hopeless at dealing with the root of the hacking problem, preferring to go on ban sprees every now and then instead of consistent maintenance. A major shake-up in 2010 known as the “Big Bang Patch” which greatly simplified levelling up and making mesos seemed to only exacerbate the issue. I quit Maplestory as a disillusioned 12-year-old in 2010. My friend, however, managed to make real world money by selling his pimped out account.
Within this experience were simple, but valuable lessons in economics for a child. Because of Maplestory, I first learnt how to budget and manage money, making sure I never had to spend more than I needed to. I learnt how to bargain and to trade (once I had enough mesos, I decided to buy items from others and sell them at higher prices. An investment portfolio, if you will). And I learnt about how supply and demand affects market fluctuations. It’s no wonder why UNSW teaches their introductory microeconomics course through a game (aptly titled Playconomics).
In an ironic twist of events, in 2017, Maplestory announced that it was removing the free market from the game. I’d make an analogy with the real world, but then again, in the immortal words of my friend, “wateva rofl its just a game XDDD”.