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Why every mobile game needs a cloud back-end.

Back-end services have become essential to shipping, operating, and improving modern mobile games. Here's a summary of the services we find essential for Zipline's studio titles.

Mike Arcuri, Blogger

July 9, 2012

22 Min Read

Wolf Toss is now pushing 1.8 million installs, and I’ve previously described how we brought it out simultaneously on iOS, Android, and the Chrome Web Store, the differences we saw between these platforms, and the challenges and opportunities unique to each.  

Today’s post is one I’ve meant to write for a while - what our studio team has learned about the cloud services support necessary to release and operate a successful mobile game.


Almost all modern mobile games integrate with a 3rd party analytics service, and for good reasons.  We use ApSalar for our titles, and we learned in our first week of testing Wolf Toss in Canada that our tutorial and overworld map was too confusing, as shown by massive drop-off between the tutorial and initial levels.

We spotted this right away and fixed the problem in our first revision before the worldwide launch.  Later, we rolled out many more purchasable items to the in-game store and we could measure the positive effect on ARPU (+110%).  

The key takeaway here is that you have to spend some time thinking about your most important questions, design the analytics that will support you in answering those questions, and test it all before your game launches.  As long as you’re learning about your game, every day it’s live is valuable to your business.  If you have incomplete analytics – you’re flying blind.


An obvious integration for free-to-play titles, it’s very important to capture some financial value from players who don’t make direct in-app purchases.  We gave players the option of earning Wolf Toss coins with Tapjoy for offers and AdColony for video ads, and we were able to monetize an additional portion of our player base.  The mantra here is let your players pay to enjoy your game however they want to pay.

Crash reporting:

We’ve written about the importance of crash reporting for mobile games before, but its value can’t be overstated.  If your game crashes for some people, those people will leave 1 star reviews in the app store and halt your game’s growth.  

Yes, there are a lot of different phones and tablets to support, with various OS versions, GPUs, and CPUs.  Most independent game studios can’t possibly do manual testing on all of them.  

But you can handle this like we did with Wolf Toss by limiting your release to devices that meet certain minimum requirements and carefully monitoring and fixing crashes in the field to ensure that more than 99% of all your players have a positive game experience. We use Crittercism to capture performance info and crashes in real time, and to track the relative performance of each version we release.


Lots of games integrate Facebook and or Twitter, but how best to integrate these depends on the game design.  In Wolf Toss, we supported incentivized social actions (likes and follows), and allowed simple social media sharing via the appropriate client-side SDKs whenever players completed levels.  

Our new title, Slots Tycoon, implements player profiles and gifting via the Facebook social graph, but has custom Moai Cloud services to both provide a personalized list of “friends who also play this game” and manage gift giving and gift receipt between friends.

Support for in-app purchases:

When players make a purchase, watch an incentivized advertisement, or complete an incentivized offer, they better actually get their virtual currency or other virtual goods.  It’s also important that the players who have earned a lot of virtual currency and goods in your game can continue to play with the stuff they’ve earned after switching to a new phone or tablet.  Wolf Toss has simple Moai Cloud services for receipt verification and player state restoration to handle exactly these cases.

The next step beyond these baseline in-app purchase services is to configure all your in-game store inventory via a cloud-hosted data store. The first day of our initial (limited geography) release of Slots Tycoon, we decided we were missing a key price point in our store and we were able to both add a new in-app purchase and adjust all the purchaseable item names for players live. We started getting in-game purchases at the new price point the very next day. That kind of quick turn around is extremely valuable even before your game has millions of installs.

Player loyalty programs:

Privacy is a concern in mobile apps and UDIDs are obviously not going to be around forever. In Wolf Toss, we form a customer connection via a clear opt-in model.  Players who choose to register for Wolf Coins with an email address get extra coins immediately and are eligible for seasonal contests and promotions related to the game.

This service also enables creative social media promotions with in-game rewards to the participants and/or winners.  On a technical level, the cloud services supporting this program create the user accounts, connect email addresses and device ids, validate the email addresses, trigger the automated coin rewards for sign up, and allow game administrators to initiate awards to either individual players or groups.

Push notifications:

Local and push notifications are pretty well understood these days – at least for mobile-social games with significant online services backing them up.  But one of the first things we learned after adding push notifications to Wolf Toss is that different players have very different opinions about push – from something helpful and innocuous to an unwelcoming marketing annoyance.

In our upcoming games like Slots Tycoon we’re using Moai Cloud services to query groups of players based on engagement level and purchasing habits, and will be sending push notifications and special offers only to the most interested player groups.

Customer support:

A game with IAP and over a million players will have a steady stream of customer support and refund requests.  Wolf Toss leverages User Voice for support and feedback, a standardized form for support requests, and a Moai Cloud web service for our support team that provides a history of all purchased and earned in-game currency for players.

When someone has a support problem, we can view their economic transaction history to validate their claim, then grant them additional in-game currency or items to address their issue with a few clicks in a web UI.

Leaderboards and achievements:

This is old ground for all kinds of video games, and Game Center supports these features directly.  But the mobile world is at least 50% Android, and it just makes sense to have a single back-end solution.  Wolf Toss uses Moai Cloud leaderboard and achievement services, and sends redundant information to Game Center on iOS devices.  After all, why not let iOS and Android players compete for top scores and full achievement lists?

In total, there’s quite a lot of back-end engineering work and 3rd party service integration required for a modern mobile game, even if the core game logic and player data is not handled on the server.  The good news is that most mobile games have the same basic needs and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel for each mobile title you ship. There are also a lot of high-quality service providers offering specific app and game services, from analytics and crash reporting providers, to mobile game cloud platform as a service companies.

What other back-end services are you finding essential to your mobile games?  I’d love to continue the discussion in the comments section.

- Mike Arcuri.

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