I really do not like free-to-play games. I don’t know that I’d go as far as to say that I hate them, but I certainly hold a lot of animosity toward them. Not blind rage, mind you. I’ve no interest in being yet another furtburgler who decries them as some kind of gaming Satan, but I wouldn’t invite them over for dinner either.

Gaming Satan trying to sell you an extra life

As it stands, I’ve played a fair number of free-to-play titles. Hell, not all them were even bad. One of them was though. It was so bad in fact, that it’s painted my perception of the business model for over a decade now. That said, today we’re talking about MapleStory.

Good lord – you can’t be serious? MapleStory? Really?

MapleStory promotional art

Yes, really.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I used to play MapleStory. It was my go-to title back in college. It had two major positives: being free, and having a lot content. This made MapleStory an extremely attractive title to spend my downtime with because I was a broke college student. Little did I know, MapleStory would feature one of the most egregious monetization models I’d ever encounter in a game, and would forever colour my opinions on free-to-play titles.

Before I can truly delve into how gonzo MapleStory’s monetization was, I need to first go over how upgrades functioned. Players had to use an item called an enhancement scroll to upgrade their equipment in MapleStory. These had a percentage chance to work, and would greatly increase the base stats on whatever they were applied to. If they failed however, there was a flat 50% chance for the scroll to destroy whatever you used it on.

Chives staring in dismay at a pair of boots that were lite on fire

That’s correct. The equipment you spent hours grinding for would disappear to the whims of a coin flip.

Any reasonable person looking at this system would never engage with it. Hell, when you consider the human tendency toward loss aversion, it makes gambling with your precious equipment seem like even more of a farce. Why would you ever wager an item that only has a 10% drop rate from a boss that takes 10 people 40 minutes to defeat? You wouldn’t. That’d be insane.

Chives saying nope

Unfortunately, upgrading your equipment wasn’t optional. Every enemy is a damage sponge outside of the starting zones, and it only gets worse the further into the game you get. By the late-game, a character without upgraded gear would do so little damage that they couldn’t meaningfully engage with any of MapleStory’s content. You either risked enhancement scrolls, or you stopped playing.

MapleStory character struggling to deal damage to a buff late game enemy

It’s here that we see the first piece of MapleStory’s disgusting monetization: you could buy insurance. As if to answer a problem of their own creation, the development team implemented a cash shop item called a protection scroll. Players could apply this item before using an enhancement scroll to negate the 50% boom chance. All it cost you was a couple dollars for peace of mind that your equipment wouldn’t explode. Yay.

The messed up part of this whole system was that the protection wore off immediately. It didn’t matter if your enhancement was a success, or a failure – you still had to apply a fresh protection scroll, lest you risk your precious equipment going up in smoke.

MapleStory mushroom trying to sell the player insurance

As it stands, selling literal insurance to players wasn’t even the worst of MapleStory’s crimes. Yes – there was something even worse: the potential system.

I’m going to try to keep this light because, even as a veteran MapleStory player, I thought this was confusing. The short version is that players could infuse items with bonus stats known as potential. It had your standard RPG rarity system where the higher tiers had larger boosts. The best bonuses were percentage based, so the idea was that you’d stack as many of them as possible to increase your primary damage dealing stat. This let you hit like a truck, and helped with the tremendous power creep in MapleStory’s late-game.

So how exactly was potential the worse of 2 evils here? Well, all potential bonuses were assigned randomly, and you had to purchase a cash shop item to change them. Yep – gambling. MapleStory was one of the OGs when it came to implementing loot boxes. There was also a cash shop item with a chance to increase your item’s potential rarity tier, and another that let you lock in specific bonuses while you rerolled others.

A slot machine with "fuck you" written on it to really drive home the point of how god awful gambling is

I’d like to sit here, and tell you that I wasn’t stupid enough to pay for any of this. I’d like to. But I can’t. Across the few years I spent playing the game I spent about 300 dollars, which is the price of 3 full priced games here in Canada. It feels like so much more though because of how scummy all of this garbalingus was.

The truly sad thing is that none of the endgame content was even worth engaging with. You spend that money, only to find that enemies were still braindead punching bags, and most bosses recycled the same handful of mechanics. The only difference was the amount of damage you did. As a result, I eventually got bored, and left. I took with me a newly found dislike of free-to-play titles, and largely resent the time I wasted on MapleStory.

That’s a bit of a sour note to end on, but I’d like to hear from you. Where do you sit on free-to-play titles? Have you played a game that is more abusive than MapleStory? Perhaps Genshin Impact? Let me know. Would love to hear your stories.