We recently wrote an editorial about why mobile games fail. In this article, we’re going to look at what happens AFTER the game fails and the servers shutdown. What happens when a game shuts down? Why are you receiving the “Can’t connect to server” error?
Your answer up front:
When a mobile game gets shut down the servers that hold game data is turned off (and repurposed). The game looses access to that data and, depending on the way it’s coded, may stop working all together. The mobile game will also be delisted from the app stores. At best, some games will continue to work using the cached local data, but most games will just display a prompt saying “They cannot connect to the server”.
Do mobile games need servers?
Technically speaking, mobile games are just games and there are no actual needs for a connection to a server to exists, unless the game is practically speaking – a multiplayer game. Gaming and games have existed since long before the internet was a thing.
Games requiring an online connection are somewhat new to the industry. Yesteryear, only MMO’s and Multiplayer only games required any kind of connectivity. Nowadays, 90% of the mobile games out there are reliant on a constant internet connection. But why is that?
Mobile games need servers due to: In-App Purchases
One of the reason why online connectivity is a requirement is due to the existence of in-app purchases. How else are you going to purchase things online if you are not, well, online? If you have the ability to play the game fully offline you couldn’t see the “latest and greatest offering from the devs”.
Mobile Games need servers due to: Advertising
Another reason is the need to display advertising in the game. Usually adverts are displayed as animations, either animated images or as videos.
Think about the games installed on your phone that have advertisements. How many different ads do you see? Imagine how much space the game would take on your phone if it had to bundle 100 different videos and images with your game. You’d run out of phone space after 2 or 3 games.
An internet connection is required in order for the game to download the advertisement, display it and then cache it until it’s no longer needed.
Mobile Games need servers due to: Analytics
Another reason is the need for analytics for the game. The industry is dreadfully dominated by the constant need of validation if the game is doing well. The dreaded KPI’s. We’ve covered KPI’s in our article titled “Why do gamers hate mobile games” article, but in short: They stand for Key Performance Indicators.
Mobile games do frequent calls to a server and report on the game and it’s usage. Here a few examples of what data developers are interested in:
- Did the player start the game?
- Has the player spent 5 minutes in the game? What about 10 minutes? 15? 45? Did he spend 2 hours in the game?
- How many ads did he see?
- At what time did he start the game?
- How many times did the player die while playing?
- On what level did the player die?
- How much ammo / items did he use?
- How much in-game currency, hard or soft currency does he have?
- What phone is he playing it on on?
The server logs this information and developers then use it to either balance the game, tweak the drop rates, tweak the rewards or create “special offers” targeted to the player. Here’s an example of a targeted special offer:
You’re playing Call of the Cutie and you just keep on dying on level 10. You’ve been trying to pass that level for the past week. Suddenly, the game opens up a window and says “Want to purchase 100 Fire Bullets with x300 extra damage against “The Feral Boss”?. The Feral Boss is the exact reason your progress was hampered and for just $1.99 you can defeat him. What a coincidence the devs are doing a promotion on the exact item you need :).
Can a mobile game exist without a server?
Well yes, mobile games can exist without servers. In fact, there are still some games like that around. These types of games are usually released by indie or hobby developers who don’t necessarily look to optimise their game towards turning a huge profit. Premium games with an upfront costs have a higher chance of not having analytics but even those are rare nowadays.
In short – a mobile game does not require a server connection to download and track things and they can exist without it. It’s just that the mobile gaming industry loves their data, loves to track progress and loves optimising for profit.
What happens when a mobile game shuts down?
Back to the topic at hand. What happens when a game shuts down? Usually, but not always, the game is delisted from the app store it was available on. New users won’t be able to find and download it. Those that already have it installed can still access the app.
If you tap to start the game/app it will boot but depending how the game is programmed, you might be able to get as far as the main menu.
Sometimes, the game will crash when it’s loading just before or during the main menu. This happens because it’s trying to pull data from the server and since the server is not responding anymore… well, it stays either in an infinite loop or displays a “Cannot reach server” pop-up.
Some games use placeholder data. That’s just dummy information, prices and items name to populate entries and information. This is usually done during development, before the networking infrastructure is up. Some games never handle or aren’t design to operate in case of a server shutdown so that dummy data remains there, accessed instead of the online data.
Other games ping the server on startup and download the “deltas”. That means the data that changed since the game was last online. This could be a list of characters, available content, items, etc.
When the server shuts down, the new data might not be accessible but the game would still be able to use the one already downloaded and cached. If you clear your cached data, you might brick the game forever.
Why don’t developers allow players to play the game without a server?
In most cases it’s due to financial reasons and corporate greed.
The biggest reason is the fact that it would cost a lot more money to design the game to work offline when the company is not planning to have it online. It’s like designing an single player RPG to support multiplayer even though you never plan to release multiplayer content.
Another reason for this to happen is because developers and publishers want to have the power to stop you from playing a game and get you to move to another one.
Let’s say you’re playing a racing game titled Need For Velocity on your phone and Electrical Artistry just released Need For Velocity 2.
You, as a player – have 100% the previous game and play for fun. Electrical Artistry pulls the plug on NFV1 to force you to move to NFV2. They might even offer existing NFV1 players some incentive to move over or as a way to say “Sorry we closed down the previous game”.
If they loose you as a player of NFV2 well, they’re not loosing any money as you already spent as much as possible in NFV1 and if you don’t move over, it’s not like you’re gonna spend any more in NFV1. But if you do move over and start spending in NFV2 it’s a win.
Some developers cannot afford to implement total offline play if their revenue model is based along on-line play. Let’s say an indie game dev launches an online multiplayer battle arena.
The game did good for 3 years but they have to shut it down now since it costs more to maintain it than it’s making money. If they have another game in the works, and the cost to make the current game playable with bots would be high, they would have to choose between making the new game or going bankrupt (as an example).
Where To Next?
You’ve reached the end of this article and hopefully you have a better idea of what happens when a game server shuts down. I write extensively about the mobile gaming industry, their tactics and how greed influences a game’s design. I believe that you might be interested in more articles on game monetisation. So if you want to stick around, you can check out “How Do Free Mobile Games Make money“, “Why Do Mobile Games Have Fake Ads” and “Why Do Mobile Games Have In-App Purchases“.
There’s also a monster post (about 4000 words) that answers the question: “How Hard Is It To Make A Mobile Game“. It goes in depth with actual examples on how Experience, Resources and Financials affect the difficulty of developing and releasing new mobile games!
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