Phone Games from a Systems Perspective

Once upon a time I used to teach software development (at the 3rd year through grad levels), and one of the subjects I taught was “system analysis.” Towards the end of September 2023 I started playing phone games for the first time, and it occurred to me that one subset I liked a lot would serve as a good example – not in enough depth to count as a “case study” in the pedagogical sense, but complex enough to expand students’ thinking about systems. I think it’s also an interesting example even for people who never expect to analyze systems professionally.

The definition of “system” I used when I was a Computing professor was “a collection of parts, with relationships among them, interacting with an environment across an interface.” The parts and relationships can be anything, not necessarily related to software or computers. The solar system is (duh) a system – the parts are celestial objects, and primary relationships include orbital paths and gravitational effects. The US government is a system, usually described as consisting of three parts: judicial, legislative, and executive (though, as you can imagine, there are lots more parts and relationships when you delve into more detail).

Software (Mostly) Components

So, when you start delving into phone games on an Android device, a few parts are fairly obvious. As for purely software parts, you use Google Play to download your game, and the game itself to play. Most games I looked at involve multiplayer aspects, and that requires “servers” – collections of computers running software that manages whatever interactions you have with other people. “Client/server architecture” is a big part of how the Internet works.

Those servers are a critical part of keeping a multiplayer game working, and the company that runs them needs money to keep them going; in all likelihood they see the aspects of the game that require servers as a way to generate income. A lot of phone games are free-to-play (sort of; some seem to be “pay to win”), and the money thus can’t come from paying a one-time fee as happens with desktop and console games (well, one time per update or down-loadable content (DLC)). So this introduces more parts, all related to money. This involves two “subsystems” – other systems that are parts of the overall “main” system. The two main money-acquisition mechanisms are ads and in-game purchases.

The “ad server” subsystem selects videos to play. At least, that’s what it looks like from the gamer’s perspective. Behind the scenes, there is infrastructure taking care of several other aspects of getting money to those who run the servers:

  • Google Play, which gets used if you click “install” on the ad.
  • In many cases, you get in-game rewards when you play the full ad (often 30 seconds’ worth), so the ad server has to feed information back into the game. This means communication isn’t a one-way street; it requires some form of “communication protocol” – a set of rules about what information gets passed back and forth.
  • A payment infrastructure, that gets money from the gamer to those who run the servers. This requires a mechanism to deal with money transfer, so there are relationships (and more communication protocols) with banks or other online payment systems.
  • Some means of picking which ads to serve, which may involve some means of associating with each game some information about what kinds of ads make sense, and yet another protocol between games and the ad server.

In-game purchases are simpler, and involve their own protocols with some of the same elements as ad servers. The primary protocol is a means of communicating to the payment server (often Google Pay, for Android games), which, completely separate from the game (so you don’t have to give out your financial information to a lot of companies you don’t really know you can trust), has its own protocols for letting you confirm that you approve the purchase and letting the game know the purchase is complete.

Non-Software Components

You could call everything above “the system” and be done with your analysis – and a lot of software professionals might do that. But there is always an issue of where to draw the boundary between the system and the environment. For example, where does the solar system “end”? The Oort cloud? The heliopause? The systems analyst has to make a choice; defining the boundary depends on what purpose you intend for your model of what is going on.

The word “model” is critical. There is a “fundamental law of data modeling:” the only completely accurate model of the real world is the world itself. Because of limitations of the human brain, a model always leaves some things out.

For the gamer, there is at least one more component: the financial institutions in which you store the money you use to pay for in-game purchases. Those are not just money-transfer subsystems. The way in-game purchases work, you’re likely to make a large number of small purchases in a fairly short amount of time, and the financial institutions’ fraud detection systems may flag your account as suspicious and suspend payments (guess how I know). This requires you to interact with the financial institution to (a) unlock your account and (b) prevent it from being locked again in the future. At this point in the development of artificial intelligence, that’s likely to involve talking to human beings, who are thus also part of “the system.”

Finally (at least, for the purposes of this particular essay), there is the very complex subsystem that works to encourage gamers to pay for in-game purchases: the collection of marketing and psychology experts, and their huge body of research and practice, about what motivates people to spend money, and what that “subsystem” tells the game developers (those who design and construct the software) to include in gameplay. A “good” free-to-play game gives you an enjoyable experience, but offers enticements that, for example, speed up slow activities, such as building new facilities in a game with city-building aspects, or which appeal to aesthetics, such as cosmetic upgrades to your characters or buildings. The temptations start small, with microtransactions such as a dollar or two for a minor benefit, and work up to more and more expensive bonuses. When someone makes lots of small purchases, especially while engrossed in an activity that captures their attention, they may not notice how the small purchases are adding up.

In some cases, there are things to buy that are essential to completing the game, or at least to achieve some of the in-game goals that other players are completing. People refer to this as “pay to win,” and all the gamers I’ve talked with about this hate it.


For someone like me, who has done system analysis for decades, picking apart how a system works is fun in and of itself. For my former students, and perhaps for future students of my colleagues, seeing how a system like this works is educational, and helps prepare them for jobs where they will help develop such systems, or other very different kinds of systems. I’d like to think this way of looking at some games is interesting for the average gamer, too.

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