Dragalia Lost was launched in 2018 as a statement of objective from Nintendo in collaboration with Japanese developer Cygames.
Nintendo may have first hopped into the field of mobile games in 2016 with the liftoff of games like Miitomo and Super Mario Run, but this was the first authentic property the company had created exclusively for mobile devices.
This free-to-play game had a striking multi-region launch campaign collaborating with renowned Japanese musician DAOKO, banking on the game’s conquest at home and abroad.
And it was a blow. Less than a year after takeoff, the game has achieved over $100 million, with a constant stream of merchandise following soon after. Yet, as of the previous month, Nintendo and Cygames published the game’s final update, and this week, it was disclosed that the game would shut down on November 29th after just three years of operation.
Without any information from Nintendo of an official offline interpretation or archive to memorialize the game after servers are shut down, the game is no longer available to the public. So the fans are performing across the community to preserve everything they can of a game they committed to over the last few years.
Free-to-play games have grown from an oddity to the most booming sector of the games industry. In 2012, the mobile games demand hit $9 billion in revenue when free-to-play revenue systems were only starting to evolve more popular, questioning the standard of games charging a one-time entry price.
Unsurprisingly, the industry has adapted to cater to players in this bustling area. Yet, for every headline grandiosity of the phenomenal revenue-generating triumph of titles like Pokémon Go or Fortnite comes a host of titles that fume out within a year or sometimes even less. Japan is one of the most influential regions for free-to-play games, particularly on mobile, where tags like Uma Musume: Pretty Derby have smashed into the top 10 highest-grossing mobile games globally despite only being available in a single nation. Yet, games based on remarkable properties like Bandai Namco’s Tales of Luminaria have struggled, shutting down in under six months.
Even successful games eventually must end, as seen with titles like Kingdom Hearts χ, which closed down in 2021, six years after venturing on mobile and nine years from its Japan-only browser takeoff. Yet, in a market increasingly overlooked by these massive revenue-generating free-to-play titles, these games’ inheritance (or lack thereof) is designing an ever-larger accessibility problem. Whereas it’s effortless to plug in a retro console to relive reflective games from your childhood or realize beloved classics, always-online free-to-play titles are unreachable when a developer or publisher drags the plug.
Unless we listen in the next few months before the game’s definitive end of service, Dragalia Lost — a historically significant title regarding Nintendo’s affinity with mobile gaming — will satisfy the same destiny as thousands of others in the genre. But, once that ensues, and after all, is lost, what is left of the time and money players spend on these games? Or the time consumed in developing games that are now impossible to play by anyone?
For as extended as free-to-play games rose from an anomaly to the most lucrative sector of modern gaming, the debate has followed. Gacha mechanics and loot boxes have evolved into a source of legislative research and outright bans in several countries, particularly in Europe, because these games generally accumulate revenue from exploitative gambling mechanics. Although many players appreciate hundreds of hours of free content without expending a dime, narratives like the player who paid $100,000 on Diablo Immortal are far from distinctive.
Admittedly, the problem of always-online games becoming inaccessible due to server closures is not new. For example, as World of Warcraft rose to eminence in the 2000s, a flood of MMOs was soon observed, almost all of which have since shut down. While comparable private server efforts are, in theory, possible for mobile titles, the sheer amount of games, and the necessity to archive regular updates and limited-time events alongside the volatile compatibility of ever-evolving mobile platforms, this becomes a near-impossible assignment.
As this market grows and even long-running titles are retired, the background of such closures has led some participants to reassess their relationship with the acquisitions they made. At the same time, these games were active David LaBerge was an active player of the contest from its launch and ultimately paid over $1,000 on the game by the moment of its closure between them and their associate.
“It was always pushing to be a free-to-play game, but they were showing preorder packs that included earlier access from the closed beta,” LaBerge states. “In my mind, expending $50 was like buying a new game. However, I can express that we both had spent $1,000 between us by the end. So at the end of witnessing a Marvel movie, we would go home and slip $20 each on characters and skins from the film we just noticed and grind out some action.”
Since the game’s closure, they realized that while this wasn’t their first free-to-play title, the venture and its sudden closure made them more skeptical of playing such games.
Without such an offline understanding being offered, many games are lost. Even those that do suggest such a system are typically limited. For example, the closure of Kingdom Hearts χ came with a movie viewer for story content, while the game’s newest mode story, Dark Road, has been finished and will be playable entirely offline later this month. The gameplay of the remainder of the game, however, is now wholly inaccessible. Still, this offline update also offered a way for players to view their in-game buys for medals used in battle. Aniplex USA delivered a similar offline viewer with the closure of the English rendition of Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica but, similarly, without the gameplay enclosed for players to revisit the incident after servers were pushed offline.
Such updates are generally exceptions to the norm. It needs fan projects in the neighborhoods of those games facing closure to do what they can to archive their games pre-closure. Some assignments, like those witnessed for the Japan-only puzzle game Puchiguru Love Live, have fully playable private servers that keep these games alive as close to their active state as possible. Most aim to keep the memory of these games busy by recording and accumulating together whatever investments and snippets of gameplay they can move earlier to servers are shut down.
An offline manner has yet to be announced by Nintendo for Dragalia Lost. So a project systematized by Sei, a community associate and administrator of the r/Dragalia Lost Discord server, with the approval of the rest of the community, is endeavoring to archive the game they value, which may become the only way for these players and interested outsiders to revisit the game years into the tomorrow. Their project seeks to rescue story content and past possibilities through video archives while data mining the application to save scripts, assets, and side content in all languages. Yet even with many volunteers, it remains a race against time.
Players in the Dragalia Lost community are integrated with the concept of losing the money and time supported in these games. While some don’t mourn their time or money expended, their feelings toward the genre have changed alongside this news. It is the case for Natalie, who paid 15 hours a week and over $200 on the game over its lifespan. “I will not consume any money on another gacha game and have claimed off free-to-play live benefits like Dragalia Lost,” Natalie explains. “I do not like to get invested in another title that will be carried away from me once the development cost and possibility cost become too high to explain keeping the servers running.”
These will only grow in years, with billions in player spending, years of development time, and thousands of hours of player engagement lost yearly. While headline-grabbing premium experiences have traditionally shaped our perception of the games industry and its evolution, free-to-play and gacha games top the charts of the most prosperous titles of the last decade. As things stand, the absence of software protection in the sector results in history-defining large and small gaming artifacts being lost. And who’s to tell if a fan archive is safe when a cease could cause even that to be lost forever?
Players will hold their memories, and fan communities can do what they can to keep these memories alive. For example, some fans of Dragalia Lost are operating on fan fiction to tie up loose ends or fan art that depicts their love for the experience. But while memories will remain, the experiences of developers and players won’t. A book isn’t gone once it goes out of print, but a free-to-play game is a juncture the upkeep cost becomes too high.