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[News Focus] Call for transparency as gamers take issue with real odds of ‘random’ items

(From top: Nexon‘s three landmark games, MapleStory, Kartrider and FIFA Online 4)
(From top: Nexon‘s three landmark games, MapleStory, Kartrider and FIFA Online 4)

Last week, Nexon apologized for misleading users of the odds of receiving different types of probability-based items inside its fantasy adventure PC game MapleStory, becoming the first company here to admit that those “random” items have a preset draw probability.

In an apology posted Friday on MapleStory’s official website, Nexon director Kang Won-ki said a misunderstanding occurred due to different interpretations of the word “random.” The company has used the word “random” to describe an event in which a result is determined “randomly in preset conditions,” he said.

“From now on, MapleStory will check every probability item and system and alter their descriptions to deliver the accurate meaning to users,” he said.

The scandal revolves around an in-game purchase item called Rebirth Flame, which grants bonus stats of additional options to users’ equipment. When users employ this item, a message pops up notifying them that “additional options will be reset randomly.” There are 19 types of additional options, and hardcore users often spend thousands of dollars for Rebirth Flames until they arrive at the options they want.

On Thursday, however, Nexon uploaded a notice that contradicted the definition of “random.” The notice stated that an update has been conducted so that “additional points will be given to items with even probability,” acknowledging that each of the additional options of Rebirth Flames had different odds in the first place, not a uniform chance of 1/19. The notice sent ripples through the user base, who believed that additional options of Rebirth Flames were given randomly all along.

Despite the apology, users’ fury and suspicion have not subsided, as similar mechanisms still apply to other probability items and systems inside MapleStory.

In the fourth quarter, Nexon’s revenue and operating profit spiked 35 percent and 245 percent on-year to 709.2 billion won and 166.5 billion won, respectively. MapleStory contributed to the stellar performance by logging a 98 percent growth in Korea and 134 percent growth in North America and Europe on-year in 2020.

NCSoft is another Korean game company in hot water for a similar random item system.

In Korea, game firms are “recommended” by the Korea Association of Game Industry to disclose the probabilities of “cash items” to users to prevent gambling elements inside games.

For its hit game Lineage 2M, NCSoft employs a system that resembles the mechanism of Russian Matryoshka dolls to evade such a guideline.

Recently, Lineage 2M introduced myth-level weapons more powerful than existing legend-level items. To make a myth-level weapon, users require a myth-level recipe. To make a myth-level recipe, users need to collect ingredients first.

For the ingredients, as they are obtained from random cash items, NCSoft discloses their probabilities. However, when users collect ingredients and complete a full myth-level recipe, NCSoft doesn’t reveal the full recipe’s success rate of creating a myth-level weapon, because technically, the recipe is forged, not randomly obtained from cash items.

As calls for transparency grow, lawmakers are discussing legislation to order game companies to reveal probabilities on a mandatory basis.

However, the Korea Association of Game Industry is fighting back, arguing that probabilities are “trade secrets” of the industry.

“Limiting the probability of rare items is an intrinsic element that makes games fun. The legislation would significantly invade game companies’ business freedom,” an official from the association said.

In 2017, Apple’s App Store mandated that apps offering “loot boxes” or other mechanisms that provide randomized virtual items for purchase disclose the odds of receiving each type of item to customers prior to purchase.

By Kim Byung-wook (