After the company that produced the games set in motion policies that would essentially ban Iranian accounts, October is poised to be a brutal month for Iran-based fans of the massively successful mobile games Clash of Clans and Clash Royale.

Last week, Finnish mobile game developer Supercell, majority-owned by China’s Tencent, pulled the trigger to ban in-app purchases for gamers based in Iran. After the next update is released, the titles will be fully inaccessible to them later this year.

In a statement written in Farsi on the developer ‘s website early last month, the Iranian gaming community first heard about Supercell ‘s decision when it revealed that it was not renewing its contract with Cafe Bazaar, an Android marketplace with more than 40 million Iranian users.

As a result, the declaration said, “Iranian players will no longer be able to play our games.”

The agreement between Supercell and Cafe Bazaar, which has now expired, was somewhat special in that it allowed Iranian users to make in-app transactions via the local banking system using the national currency, the rial.

For decades, Iranians have been cut off from traditional methods of foreign payment.

Supercell did not say why it is not re-opening its Cafe Bazaar contract, but the move marks the developer’s complete withdrawal from the Iranian market.

Both Supercell and Cafe Bazaar rejected requests for further comment from Al Jazeera.

The decision taken by Supercell is not the first time a big developer has left users based in Iran in the cold.

Since 2018, when US President Donald Trump’s administration unilaterally withdrew from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers and embarked on a “maximum pressure campaign” of relentless economic sanctions, Iranians have gradually found themselves shut out of global online services.

Although the sanctions are aimed at pressuring Tehran back to the negotiating table, the fabric of Iran ‘s online gaming culture has also been torn through.

‘Hardly more shocking’
When they heard of Supercell ‘s decision to essentially pull out of the Iranian market, many Iranian gamers were saddened, but not especially surprised.

The massively successful online multiplayer battle arena (MOBA) video game League of Legends, created by Riot Games, became inaccessible to users logging in from Iran a little more than a year ago.

Saman, a 24-year-old gamer who asked Al Jazeera to withhold his surname to protect his privacy, said, “The US has so many sanctions on Iran that news of further sanctions or further restrictions due to those sanctions is hardly shocking anymore.”

Saman, who a few months after it was released in early 2016, began playing Clash Royale and played Clash of Clans for two years before that, said Iranians are used to adapting to roadblocks for online entertainment.
“Some people will quit the game for others who are not limited, as with League of Legends and other games, but others will decline and use VPNs (virtual private networks) or other workaround applications to connect to the game,” he told Al Jazeera.

But still workarounds have disadvantages. VPNs that mask the Internet Protocol ( IP) addresses of users, giving them anonymity, can have a negative effect on the overall gaming experience by raising “ping”-a delay between the execution of an operation and the outcome.

Framing the prohibition

Supercell described its decision as not necessarily final, writing on its website, “Our players are more important to us than anything else, wherever they are … We will not shut this door forever: we will continue to track the situation and work with Cafe Bazaar to find a way back if possible.”

But the assertion didn’t seem to relax users like Reza Abbasi, a Quiz of Kings marketing manager, an online trivia game, and one of Iran’s most popular smartphone apps.

“In short, our customers are more relevant than anything else, but you’re living in hell and our services don’t cover hell, unfortunately,” he tweeted.

Iranian online gaming journalist Kasra Karimi Tar told Al Jazeera that Iranian companies are ‘unable’ to alleviate the fears of international game developers and publishers when push comes to shove.

There is nothing Iranian companies can do about this or offer any kind of promises to international partners, “he said.”

There was speculation that a number of major online gaming companies were involved in investing in development operations in Iran when Iran reached a nuclear deal with world powers in 2015, said Karimi Tar.

One thing that makes Iran attractive is that it boasts a huge, well-educated, youthful workforce that, thanks to a beleaguered rial, could be employed at a fraction of the cost of workers in other countries.

But the Trump administration’s blacklistings have changed the equation for international companies.

“If sanctions are lifted and businesses are not afraid to reinstate sanctions, it is obvious that many major video game companies will want to invest in Iran, especially because its workforce is much cheaper than other countries,” said Karimi Tar.

The factor for US-China

Karimi Tar claims that worsening Washington-Beijing relations may also have affected the decision of Supercell to exit the Iranian gaming market.

Supercell is a subsidiary of Tencent Holdings Ltd., a Chinese technology company. Tencent, a game-publishing behemoth, has made major investments in several game developers and publishers based in the US, including Riot Games, which developed League of Legends.

WeChat, the famous messaging app that has landed in the Trump administration’s crosshairs, which is seeking to ban it, and another Chinese-owned app from the US sector, TikTok, are both part of Tencent ‘s portfolio.

U.S. President Donald Trump signed a pair of executive orders in August, citing national security threats, setting in motion a ban aimed at banning US citizens from doing business with the Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat apps [File: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg]
Karimi Tar told Al Jazeera, “Tencent has made major investments in famous game production companies in the US, from totally buying out Riot Games to buying stakes in Epic Games or Activision.”
“Now that WeChat is being prohibited by the US government, Tencent will obviously strive to be more careful in its portfolio of game production so as not to neglect the most critical market in which it has invested.”

Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen said in an interview with TechCrunch in mid-September that he claims that the company is not subject to WeChat’s US executive order and will not be shut down because Tencent is only a partial shareholder.

Tencent did not respond to the request for comment by Al Jazeera on Supercell ‘s decision.

According to market research firm Sensor Tower, Supercell runs 14 apps and Clash of Clans and Clash Royale, two of the top-grossing mobile games of all time, are its most successful and lucrative projects, respectively.

Since its debut in 2014, Clash of Clans has produced around $7bn, while Clash Royale surpassed $3bn in lifetime revenue in July.

Throughout the planet, hundreds of millions of lifetime downloads have accrued from both titles. The bulk of player spending has been guided by the US in both games.

“Obviously, larger businesses will opt to leave the smaller market unscathed to continue their operations in the larger market, in this case, the US,” Karimi Tar said.