Mobile Games, Root Access, and You: We need to talk.

There are several things I dislike when it comes to mobile gaming. First of all, it’s all those clones of popular games floating around as bootlegs. Second of all, it’s those talking animals that spit back a phrase, but higher pitched and faster. Third of all, it’s mobile games that lock rooted Android users out of their apps. Buckle yourself in, because I have some things to say on the matter. This might be a long, wordy one.

Let me start out this article in a similar way that I did my No Man’s Sky reflective: the background of where I’m coming from, here. I’ve had a rooted Android phone pretty much as long as I’ve had a cell phone. Tinkering around with the various customization options rooting gives is probably one of my favorite things about it. On my current phone, the OnePlus One, I’ve been running a custom ROM since day one.

Now, there are plenty of things you can do with root access that a normal Android user couldn’t do. Naturally. For instance, as per the real meat of this tirade, you can cheat mobile games with in-app purchases. I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty details of rooting an Android phone, but I can tell you that it modifies the system files in order to give the user access to them. This, in turn, allows users to make changes to apps, data, and files that weren’t intended to be changed.

The vast majority of root users use this to give their phone more utility. For instance, if the phone is no longer receiving updates from the manufacturer, oftentimes there’s a custom ROM available that will upgrade the version of Android you’re running. It allows developers to fine-tune their system settings so that they can better understand the environment they’re working with. Rooting allows for things even as superficial as changing the way the Android system looks.

A level up from that, we have a popular framework that allows further changes to a phone’s system files. Android themes and custom ROMs are fairly easy. Enter: the Xposed Framework. By itself, it doesn’t do much. Developers publish modules that give users more control over their apps and data. One of my favorites is SnapPrefs, and it does exactly what you’d expect: further customization for Snapchat and subtle improvements.

I really discovered the benefits of Xposed when Nintendo released their first mobile game: Miitomo. For me, it was a day-one download that crashed every time I tried to open it due to the fact that I had root access. Ironically enough, there’s now an Xposed module that allows users to get around that exact issue.  For the most part, this doesn’t really annoy me. I can keep root, and I can use Miitomo. It’s not too lively anymore, but it’s still good for a little fun now and again.

For apps like Android Pay and Pokemon Go, which brings up this issue, it’s a lot harder to get around the security checks they have in place: SafetyNet. Android Pay isn’t my main concern here. In my opinion, both Android and Apply Pay never caught on because it needed to be implemented on a large scale. We’re having enough trouble getting chip and pin payments to catch on. Cool it.

Now, Pokemon Go. It’s impossible not to have heard of it, and it’s near as impossible to avoid what people have been saying about Niantic’s business decisions regarding things like third-party tracking apps. My only say on this matter is that if your game is inherently broken to the point of people not being able to play it as intended, then take a step back and re-evaluate the things that are affecting your game and only your game or your app, what-have-you.

I just wanna have Pokemon buddies, man. (via Sportsrageous)
I just wanna have Pokemon buddies, man. (via Sportsrageous)

Third-party apps and trackers were born out of the necessity of the tracking system’s bugs. And as a response to that, instead of working with someone who was able to track blips of data across the entire world without using Niantic’s API (application program interface; something that developers use to integrate things like Twitter and Facebook logins through their apps) down to the very second, Niantic shut it down. This alone really upsets me. So many devs are passionate about their work and get nothing for it. So there’s that issue.

Then it became apparent that some players, especially those with root access, were spoofing their GPS location to catch better Pokemon. Excuse me, but I live in a rural area. There are literal farmers playing this game to the best of their ability in the middle of Kansas. On the other hand, there are players in New York spoofing their location to Paris or some other country. It’s a two-way street, and it’s a bit more complicated than just “oh hey this feature is broken and the community found a workaround”.

Let’s take a look at some numbers. First of all, Pokemon Go has reached over 100 million downloads on Google Play. We’ll assume that this comprises about half of Pokemon Go players despite the fact that Android holds almost 67% of the smartphone market. About 30% of Android phones are rooted. If these statistics carry over to Pokemon Go and its 100+ million downloads, Niantic locked 30+ million users out. Oops.

The problem with this is that the percentage of root users who cheat mobile games is tiny. So, instead of haphazardly slapping a literal safety net and punishing players, which have a high probability to be developers that root their phones for their job, or phones that come out of the box with root access (much like the OnePlus line), maybe go after players that are spoofing their location to cheat. Go after players that are skirting around microtransactions. Go after players who are actually cheating. Don’t go after people who root their phones for fun or for customization (who have already found a workaround to SafetyNet).

This turn of events raises discussion about Niantic’s business practices. Whether out of necessity or just laziness, people found ways around the limitations of Pokemon Go. The fact that the game was seemingly released several months before it was ready is one thing. Unfortunately that happens all the time in the gaming industry. The fact that Niantic treated an estimated 30% of Android users the way they’d treat legitimate hackers and spoofers is another thing. With the game’s already-dwindling user base, it’s not the time to suddenly remove support for root users. Even further, it’s not the time to make one blanket change and ignore the game’s broken fundamentals.

Instead of Niantic becoming increasingly defensive, at this point acceptance would be the best route to take. Of course a small percentage of players will always cheat their way around the rules. Of course someone will develop a mod to make things more convenient. Shutting players out will cut it down, but won’t have the effect that Niantic wants. You want people to play your game, you want people to enjoy it.

So let them.


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