MapleStory, which debuted in South Korea in 2003 before reaching North America in 2005, is still a free-to-play, money-grabbing success story. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) has taken root primarily in the Asian diaspora. Like its contemporary, World of Warcraft, MapleStory has been a matchmaker for real-life friendships and even marriages.
South Korean gaming company Nexon reported earnings earlier in May, and revenue was led by several games including MapleStory.
Players are encouraged to spend real money to customize their characters in virtual clothing and powerful weapons. They then team up for epic boss battles. The ability to use real money to essentially "win" the game was controversial among players, as those who couldn't afford to spend were at a disadvantage.
Nexon has tried to distance itself from that controversy.
"We've made every mistake you could possibly make," said Nexon CEO Owen Mahoney told CNN Business in May. "A game like MapleStory is around for a long time because we continue to provide value over a long period of time. And if you focus on over-monetizing, you're going to alienate your user base."
MapleStory released a sequel, MapleStory 2, which arrived in North America in 2018, but the success did not translate. MapleStory 2 shut down by the end of March.
Nexon said that MapleStory 2 did not win over fans because it wasn't true to the franchise. Unlike the original game, MapleStory 2 was three dimensional.
"3D itself is not a key aspect of MapleStory," said Mahoney. "The first MapleStory is an incredibly deep and rich MMORPG, even though the surface layer is 2D and very simple and pixelated."
Nexon is still working on how to build on the first game's success, Mahoney said.