You’re in the subway and you take out your phone to play a game and pass the time. You tap on the game’s icon, the game starts up and you are greeted with a message that says: “This game requires an internet connection to play”. What gives? The game has no multiplayer component and it’s a single player game. And so, you ask yourself, why do mobile games require an internet connection?
Your Answer Upfront:
Mobile games require an active internet connection in order to validate that they can either display and track advertisements, to enable in-app purchases, to trick the user into establishing a habit of playing the game (via daily logins and rewards) and to track user data. The internet connection is also required for the game to be able to fetch updates, new content and to help the developer balance the game by providing real-time data on issues the players are facing.
In this article we’re going to talk about the reason why modern mobile games require a constant internet connection and we’ll begin with the technical reasons. We’ll talk about the need for content updates, balancing and the ability to side-step game stores (like the Play Store). We’re also going to talk about games with social and multiplayer components.
After this we’ll follow it up with the economical reasons, the need for display advertising, in-app purchases as well as Digital Rights Management and Anti-Piracy methods.
By the end of this article you should have a pretty good idea why even single player mobile games require an internet connection.
Technical Reasons Why Mobile Games Require Internet
Back in the early days of the gaming industry, and even in the early days of the smartphone boom (aka when smartphones started to become popular in the late 2000’s) 90% of games did not require a constant internet connection and those that did, were usually MMO games with a massive online player base.
As more and more people connected to the internet we started seeing a shift in the way games were distributed. Just a decade ago you would have to go to a physical shop or a kiosk in a mall in order to purchase a game. Nowadays you can log into online stores like Steam, the Epic Games Store or on the App or Play Store, click a button and you’re done. The game is added to your digital library and you can download and play it when you want.
This brought a huge shift in the way games are developed and distributed. Now that physical distribution isn’t a necessity, games began to embrace the “online” shopping experience and more and more games began to deliver their updates, DLCs and patches via this new method. Soon enough games began to be “exclusively” available online, as a means to cut cost in having to physically manufacture the media (box, manual and CD/DVD).
Let’s look at the technical reasons for why games embrace online connectivity and even actively require it these days.
Patching and Updates
Patching and releasing updates were one of the first breakthroughs and changes to be seen when it came to releasing and distributing games online. Back in the “good ol’ days” you had a deadline to finish a game and a contract with a manufacturing company to create the physical media (game box + manual + disc).
Missing the deadline would mean your contract and, possibly, any down-payment you already paid. So games were on a real rush to be finished in time for manufacturing and distribution.
Once more and more people embraced the internet, the game publishers and developers could breathe a bit more easily. They suddenly had a big burden lifted from their shoulders: they didn’t have to miss the manufacturing deadline and could create the physical media even with an “unfinished game”. They just had to finish it before the boxes became available in retail stores and the game could download their patches and updates from the internet.
This soon evolved from “not being locked down to a deadline” into various methods of releasing new content for the game and, currently, most mobile games embrace one or more of the following usages of an active internet connection:
- Tweaking and Balancing
Games nowadays have a wide range of data analytics built-in and if any problems are encountered they can be tweaked within minutes or hours. Here’s an example:
Let’s say Jack and Jill purchase Mass Reaction, a huge RPG set in space with multiple branching stories and a wide range of missions and locations that are locked behind the choices in the game. There are 800 possible branches in the game and in one of them, by taking the “dark side” of morality, you end up on a planet called “Salty Omega”. You tap on deploy to load the level.
- Jill’s game loads into the level and can play through the mission with no problem.
- Jack’s game never finishes loading and is stuck in that screen for hours with no progress to be seen.
Jill played through the game without doing any side missions and did not rescue any characters to bring to her party. Jack did so now he has a character named “Angel” that supposed to accompany him on the mission. In that specific mission the characters are wearing a special suit that allows them to breathe in the planet’s atmosphere however the game cannot load the headset model for Angel. It’s searching for “angel_headset_sOmega.md3” and it cannot find it.
By using data analytics the developers can see that the game failed to load that specific model and figure out that it’s due to the fact that someone misspelled the name when re-exporting the model (it’s more common than you think). As a result within hours of that issues being triggered in the data analytics software the developers can push a patch out to other users.
Jack can now complete the mission.
Pre-internet enabled games would rarely get updates for situation like this since the cost of releasing a physical CD/floppy/media with the fix for a small issue, like in our example (1 in 800 missions), would outweigh the amount of people affected by the issue.
We’re going to talk a bit more about data-analytics in the upcoming chapters.
- New Content and Updates
Back in the early days releasing new content and updates to a released game required them to be released in a physical format and usually mailed out to people who have registered their copy of the game. By using an internet connection, games can check with a server owned by the developer to see if new content is available.
This way developers can publish and release new characters, skins, weapons, missions and gameplay changes that either never got finished in time for the release or got designed after the release.
- Independence from mobile stores
Some games require an internet connection as a way to ensure that if something happens, and their game is removed from a store, they can still deliver content and patches to users. In some cases, developers use this feature specifically because users do not install updates from the store.
This can be a boon or a curse depending on the developer. Take this as an example:
Jack and Jill are playing a multiplayer first person shooter on their favorite mobile gaming device. Jack discovered that if he goes into the phone’s accessibility setting and enables the “Reduce Transparency” option a visual glitch is triggered that helps him see other players through walls.
The developer updates the game to fix this glitch and releases an update on the Play Store. Jill updates her game. Jack doesn’t. Even though the glitch is fixed Jack can still play against Jill. The developers have two options now:
- Make sure that all players need to be on the same game version when entering a match.
- This can cause problems with staggered releases or for players who don’t go to the app stores to get updates and they can’t figure out why they can’t play with friends who updated the game
- Force all players to be on the same version by auto-patching the game to the newest version by downloading updates when the game starts up.
In a lot of cases the second option is what the developers are going for. This is a boon for most people (except Jack, the cheater). However there are situations when this is a curse for the players.
Imagine you purchased a game that you loved for a $12.99. The game has been out for a few years, yet you still play and enjoy it. In order to earn more revenue from the game the developers update the game as a free2play game with content locked behind in-app purchases and advertising. Suddenly, your favorite game is changed and you are forced to see ads and, in some cases, pay to unlock content you already had access too.
If the game didn’t have auto-update features built into it, it would be your decision to keep the game as is and not update. This is a curse in this situation.
Multiplayer and Social Based Games
Of course there are games out there built from the ground up to leverage an active internet connection. For example MMORPGs could not exist without it.
Other games rely on it in order to introduce social features in games and have players compete against each other. From inviting friends from social platforms (like Facebook) to play-by-email and “live streaming replays” where the way you played the game (your actions) are sent to other people playing the same game in order to compete against your actions.
Back in 2014 I was working for a company in Iasi (Romania) called Mobility-Games. We were working on a match-3 game based on the Frozen IP, the game being called Frozen: Free Fall. It was a beautiful and pretty fair free2play game and it had a map system for accessing the game’s levels.
In the game you could connect your Facebook account and if your friends were also playing you could see their progress in the game. This would encourage you, or your friends, to compete and see who can get the furthest.
Social features like this are a good way to boost engagement with players and to even introduce new players to the game if they see their friends are playing it. A lot of games are actually built around the social feature part and it’s not an addition to the base gameplay.
For example, in Frozen: Free Fall if you didn’t have an internet connection you wouldn’t see your friends progress or be able to purchase things from the store (naturally). It was okay, you could still play the game as it was intended.
Other mobile games, especially newer ones, don’t build the social features around the game. It’s a cost and time saving measure, just require an internet connection and if it’s not there, don’t allow people to access the game. It’s cheaper and faster than making sure the game works with or without it.
The same reasoning applies for energy systems in games. Their primary reasoning for existence isn’t to get people to spend money on refiling the energy counter or lives. Their primary goal is to get the player to return to the game every X hours to play a bit more. This creates a habit which boosts retention.
Retention Gameplay Mechanics
You probably know what I mean by retention gameplay mechanism. It’s the daily logins bonuses, the free tiered VIP systems, the daily quest and weekly challenges.
These mechanics are built into the games for a single reason: to get you into a habit of coming back to the game every day. Log in tomorrow and you’ll get 30 rubies. Log in on day two to get 30 air strikes for free. Log in on day 30 and you’ll be able to spawn a Free Legendary Tier Hero.
A lot of times these retention mechanics are built into the actual game balancing and progression scheme. Without claiming them, you cannot progress. The game is balanced in such a way that you can only progress properly by making use of them.
Playing the game offline means the game cannot validate the rewards and you can’t claim them, otherwise you can just set the phone’s internal clock ahead by 24 hours and claim a month worth of them in a few minutes which would allow you to rapidly progress through the game. If the game’s economy requires them and they need a server connection to validate the claim then the game might as well not be able to be played offline.
It’s the same thing with the other mechanics mentioned above. I’ll write another post in the future where I’ll go deep into these kind of retention mechanics in mobile games but the current post should suffice given the purpose of this article.
Economic and Monetary Reasons
We’ve talked about the technical reasons for why mobile games require internet and it’s time to dive in on the Economic and Monetary Reasons. In the first paragraph of the post I talked about a possible-you starting up a single player game with no multiplayer component and noticing you can’t play it due to a lack of an internet connectivity. That was the premise for this post. The financial aspect of a mobile game are usually the main culprit for this.
Most mobile games released nowadays are usually free and rely on in-app purchases and displaying advertising in order to make money. In the following posts we’ll explore the remaining avenues (and the primary ones) behind the need for mobile games to have an active internet connection.
Display Advertisements in Mobile Games
Displaying advertising is the most common method of earning a revenue in free mobile games. We wrote and went into detail on how advertising works in mobile games in the article titled “How Do Free Mobile Games Make Money“.
In short, free mobile games are designed to be played in short bursts with levels lasting anywhere from 20 seconds to 2-3 minutes. At the end of every level an ad is displayed to the user. Get the player to play 4-5 levels, you get to show them ~5 ads.
By playing the game for 5-7 days straight, every day logging into the game 2-5 times then the developer can recoup his initial investment and make a profit from the user. Now in order to display and track the ads being served the game needs to have an active internet connection. When it’s time to display an ad the game reaches out to a server (usually owned by an advertising network) and downloads the advertising.
The server tracks if the ad was viewed completely and if the player clicked on the ad.
Advertising can be done offline if the developer caches (locally saves) the advertising resources with the game. However the online component (internet connectivity) IS required to provide proof to the advertisers that it was really displayed.
In-App Purchases and Online Transactions
In-App Purchases are the second driving force behind revenue from mobile games and they can only exist and be performed when a game is connected to the internet.
Mobile games use in-app purchases in order to establish a recurrent revenue source. Instead of having users pay $4.99 for a game upfront, they could instead obtain tens if not hundreds of dollars from the same user over the course of 1 week up to years of having the player as a customer.
If you want to read more on the subject of in-app purchases I invite you to check out another one of our articles titled “Why Do Mobile Games Have In-App Purchases“. In the article we explain how exactly in-app purchases work (from how the game has access to your credit card details to the legality of in-app purchases and sharing in-app purchases).
Analytics and Tracking
Analytics and data tracking are the driving force behind the modern mobile gaming industry. The very existence of an internet connection on gaming devices lead to them being the biggest boon for developers and publishers.
Analytics and data tracking allows the developer to know what you are doing in the game, how you are doing and what you are interested in. Using them, devs can figure out if a game is badly balanced, if people are purchasing their offers from the shop and if you like the game.
Things that developers normally track are plenty but I have a small list below. We’ll follow the list with our explanation on why that data is important.
- How often you log into the game
- How much you play the game when you open it up
- What you purchase
- How far in the game you have gotten
- Are you stuck in a specific level
In a previous chapter in this article we talked about Retention Gameplay Mechanics. Analytics, Retention and Advertising go hand in hand. If you’re wondering why developers track how much you play the game, it’s to determine if they can sneak in more ads. Here’s a quick and simple example of how this works:
- Developer releases a game called Master Gladiator
- Developer purchases advertising for the game and you see the advertisement and download the game.
- The developers calculates that he paid 25 cents to the advertising company to bring you into the game
- Dev now knows that he needs to make more than 25 cents from you playing the game in order to make a profit
- You start playing the game and play it for 10 minutes.
- In this 10 minutes you finish two levels and see 3 ads in total.
- The dev makes 1 cent each time you watch an ad.
- He calculates that you would need to watch 26 ads in order to make a profit.
- If you play once per day and see 3 ads that means you’ll need to play the game for 8 days straight.
- Developer tunes the game to make levels shorter so you can finish more levels in a game session
- In the 10 minutes you spend playing a day you now complete 5 levels and see 7 ads.
- The dev makes 1 cent each time you watch an ad
- He knows that you need to watch 26 ads in order for the dev to make a profit from you
- If you play once per day and see 7 ads then you need to play the game for 3 days straight.
This is how analytics and advertising go hand in hands. They get data from you and figure out how to change/update the game in order to maximize the profits based on how much it cost them to bring you into the game and how much they make from you playing the game.
The analytics aren’t just used for advertising purposes. They are also used to track down issues, bugs and mechanics that harm the game. If 20% of the players stop playing the game on level 5 then it might mean that level 5 is too hard or broken so they have to look at it and do changes.
Imagine playing a strategy game where the player gets demolished by the enemy if the enemy makes a squadron of a specific unit. In the old days of game development if this issue wasn’t caught during testing, it would have taken months until enough people complained and the dev would work on a fix. This is where analytics is actually helpful for both the player and the dev.
You wouldn’t be able to have any kind of analytics without an active internet connection that reports the data. Imagine if all mobile games you download required you to have a valid physical mailing address and every day every single developer would send you forms and polls for you to complete at your home.
Security and Anti-Piracy Methods
Security and Anti-Piracy methods are a byproduct of an active internet connection and is mainly used in free2play style games although some premium games (looking at you, Ubisoft) also use them. For mobile games the fact that you download the game from the store acts as a security and anti-piracy measure.
You need a valid store account to purchase/download the game and in-app purchases are being performed via the data from said account.
The idea is that you need a connection to the internet to validate that you have a purchased copy. Picture this situation, you purchase an RPG on Android, pay $2.99 and download it. You take the APK from your phone and give it to a friend for free. Developers really don’t like that so they add an authentication method to the game that requires you to log into the game.
When you play, the game calls a server owned by the dev and the publishers and goes something like:
- “Hello server, is the account JackAndJill@hill.com a valid account that purchased the game?”
- “Hello game, JackAndJill@hill.com is a valid account that purchased the game”.
- “Okay thank you server”.
- “Hello server, is the account JackAndJill@hill.com STILL A valid account that purchased the game?”
- “Why yes game, nothing changed. Still valid”.
- “Alright, it says here that JackAndJill has 2 000 000 gold coins in the game. Do you have any transactions/purchases from them that says they purchased the coins?”
- “Yes game they purchased 1 999 990 coins 5 minutes ago. They had 10 gold coins for free form the tutorial”
- “See you in 10 seconds server”.
The game also uses the whole game<—>server communication to validate that the items and currency the player has in the game was obtained legally and not hacked/obtained via hacks. The server keeps a list of transactions and history of the player’s earning/item acquisitions in the game and validates them.
Can you play mobile games offline?
Yes you can still play some mobile games offline. There are many games that are designed to be played without an active internet connection however a lot of the free2play game developers out there don’t take the time to separate online components from the game and just display a pop-up that blocks access to the game when the game cannot reach their servers.
In some cases this can be bypassed by setting up a local http server on your device and have it return a valid response to the game. I actually did this for a few games using my Android phone where I checked the domain the game was trying to reach out to and re-route the domain to ping to my localhost (the web server running on my phone). Since the game only required to validate internet connectivity I could play the entire game completely offline without being bombarded with ads or having my access blocked.
Where To Next?
I write extensively about the mobile gaming industry, their tactics and how greed influences a game’s design, subjects which were brought up in this post.
I believe that you might be interested in more articles on game monetization. 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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