October is poised to be a brutal month for Iran based fans of the massively popular mobile games Clash of Clans and Clash Royale, after the company that developed the games set in motion policies that will effectively ban Iranian accounts.
Finnish mobile game developer Supercell, which is majority-owned by China’s Tencent, pulled the trigger last week on blocking in-app purchases for Iran-based gamers. The titles will be completely unavailable to them later this year after the next update is released.
The Iranian gaming community first learned about Supercell’s decision in a statement written in Farsi on the developer’s website early last month, when it announced that it was not renewing its contract with Cafe Bazaar, an Android marketplace with more than 40 million Iranian users.
As a result, “Iranian players will no longer be able to play our games,” said the statement.
The now-expired deal between Supercell and Cafe Bazaar was somewhat unique in that it allowed Iranian users to make in-app purchases using the national currency, the rial, through the local banking system.
Iranians have been cut off from common international payment methods for decades.
Iranian players will no longer be able to play our games.
Supercell has not said why it is not re-upping its deal with Cafe Bazaar, but the move marks the developer’s full retreat from the Iranian market.
Both Supercell and Cafe Bazaar declined Al Jazeera’s requests for further comments.
Supercell’s decision is not the first time a major developer has left Iran-based users in the cold.
Iranians have increasingly found themselves locked out of global online services since 2018, when the administration of United States President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal with world powers and embarked on a “maximum pressure campaign” of relentless economic sanctions.
While the sanctions are aimed at pressuring Tehran back to the negotiating table, they have also rippled through the fabric of Iran’s online gaming community.
‘Hardly surprising any more’
Many Iranian gamers were disappointed, but not particularly shocked, when they learned of Supercell’s decision to effectively pull out of the Iranian market.
A little more than a year ago, the massively popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) video game League of Legends, developed by Riot Games, became inaccessible to users logging in from Iran.
“The US has so many sanctions on Iran that news of more sanctions or more restrictions because of those sanctions are hardly surprising anymore,” said Saman, a 24-year-old gamer who asked Al Jazeera to withhold his surname to protect his privacy.
League of Legends is the world’s most popular video game in the competitive sphere, but Iran-based user accounts were cut off it from it late last year [File: Jean Chung/Bloomberg’Saman, who started playing Clash Royale a few months after it was launched in early 2016, and played Clash of Clans for two years prior to that, said Iranians are used to adapting to online entertainment roadblocks.
“Just like with League of Legends and other games, some people will leave the game for other ones that are not restricted but others will refuse and use VPNs (virtual private networks) or other workaround applications to connect to the game,” he told Al Jazeera.
But even workarounds have drawbacks. VPNs that mask users’ internet protocol (IP) addresses, giving them anonymity, can negatively affect the overall gaming experience by increasing “ping” – a lag between executing an action and the corresponding result.
Framing the ban
Supercell framed its decision as not necessarily permanent, writing on its website, “Our players, wherever they are, are more important to us than anything else … We do not close this door forever: we will continue to monitor the situation and work with Cafe Bazaar to find a way back if possible.”
But the statement did not seem to assuage users like Reza Abbasi, a marketing manager for Quiz of Kings, an online trivia game, and one of the most popular Iranian mobile apps.
“In short: Our users are more important than anything, but you live in hell and unfortunately our services don’t cover hell,” he tweeted.
بیانیهی فارسی سوپرسل در مورد پایان پشتیبانی از کابرای ایرانی:
خلاصهش: کاربرای ما از همه چیز مهمترن، ولی شما تو جهنم زندگی میکنین و متاسفانه ما تو جهنم سرویسدهی نداریم.https://t.co/rOQ3mQxHHR
— عباسآقا (@itsr3za) September 10, 2020
Iranian online gaming journalist Kasra Karimi Tar told Al Jazeera that when push comes to shove, Iranian firms are “powerless” to mitigate the concerns for foreign game developers and publishers.
“Iranian companies can’t do anything about this or make any sort of guarantees to foreign partners,” he said.
When Iran reached a nuclear accord with world powers in 2015, there was speculation that a number of major online game companies were interested in investing in development operations in Iran, said Karimi Tar.
One thing that makes Iran attractive is that it boasts a large, well-educated, youthful workforce that could be hired at a fraction of the cost of workers in other countries, thanks to a beleaguered rial.
But blacklistings by the Trump administration have changed the calculus for foreign firms.
“In the event that sanctions are lifted and companies have no fear of returning sanctions, obviously many important video game companies would want to invest in Iran, especially due to the fact that its workforce is much cheaper than other countries,” Karimi Tar said.
The US-China factor
Karimi Tar believes deteriorating relations between Washington and Bejing could also have factored into Supercell’s decision to abandon the Iranian gaming market.
Supercell is a subsidiary of Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. A game-publishing behemoth, Tencent has made substantial investments in many US-based game developers and publishers, including US-based Riot Games, which created League of Legends.
Tencent’s portfolio also includes WeChat, the popular messaging app that has landed in the crosshairs of the Trump administration, which is trying to ban it and another Chinese-owned app – TikTok – from the US market.
In August, citing national security risks, US President Donald Trump signed a pair of executive orders setting in motion a ban aimed at prohibiting US residents from doing business with the Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat apps [File: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg]“Tencent has made large investments in popular game development companies in the US, from totally buying out Riot Games to buying stakes in Epic Games or Activision,” Karimi Tar told Al Jazeera.
“Now that the US government is trying to ban WeChat, Tencent will obviously try to be more cautious in its game development portfolio so as not to lose the most important market it has invested in.”
In an interview with TechCrunch in mid-September, Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen said he believes the company does not fall under the US executive order for WeChat and will not be shut down because Tencent is only a partial shareholder.
Tencent did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on Supercell’s decision.
Supercell runs 14 apps, and Clash of Clans and Clash Royale, two of the top-grossing mobile games of all time, are respectively its most popular and lucrative projects, according to market research firm Sensor Tower.
Clash of Clans has generated about $7bn since its debut in 2014, while Clash Royale surpassed $3bn in lifetime revenue in July.
The two games have accumulated hundreds of millions of lifetime downloads across the world. The majority of player spending in both games has been driven by the US.
“Obviously, larger companies would choose to forgo the smaller market to continue their operations in the larger market – in this case, the US – unscathed,” said Karimi Tar.