Now for Something Completely Different: The SimCity Fiasco

For the past 4 days, the gaming community has been ablaze with conflict, and pretty much all of it has been focused on one game, and one issue. SimCity’s always-online DRM.

Here’s a quick recap of how the situation has progressed on this issue. EA launches SimCity. SimCity servers are completely overloaded, and no one can play the game. Think Error 37 all over again. SimCity servers continue to be bombarded with millions of people wanting to play. EA announces they are to remove “non-critical features” for the game temporarily to lighten server load, and do so shortly after. Amazon stops sales of game. People start asking for refunds, EA gives none. Some EA forum mods threaten to ban those who ask for refunds. EA backpedals on the previous statement, but they still don’t give any refunds. Rumor has it EA hires hundreds of Chinese workers to post positive things about the game and the DRM, reports remain unconfirmed. EA asks third parties to stop marketing game until issues are resolved. People are still mad. The servers still don’t work. Tropico 4 goes on sale.

Millions, all screaming in pain.

Millions, all screaming in pain.

It’s safe to say that the SimCity launch has been the worst launch of any game ever. The only launch to come close to this nonsense has been World of Warcraft, or Diablo 3. But EA’s behavior and response to the launch have been, to put it nice, unsatisfactory.

Instead of delivering a GOTW this week, I feel that the situation has gotten way too out of control and it’s time we talked about it while it still remains relevant. I’ll recap the arguments for and against the game and the DRM, and give my thoughts at the end. Here are the most common problems:

I own a single player game, I don’t want to connect to the internet to play it.

Point: Unless I am playing an MMO or a game that is strictly defined as multiplayer, not single player with multiplayer elements, I am playing a single player game. What legitimate reason do I have, as a paying and legitimate customer, to sign in to a service and have my computer for the duration of my play be tied to the powers that be? It’s as if publishers think I and all of my other PC gaming friends are thieving lying bastards. While some of us PC gamers may pirate games, that doesn’t mean they are the majority, and that all of us should be put under 24/7 surveillance. Seeing as the paying crowd is FAR in the majority, we should be treated like honest people who can handle themselves.

Counter-Point: But games like SimCity and Diablo 3 do have multiplayer elements. Expecting not to have to connect to those games and play them is like expecting to play World of Warcraft offline. You can’t do it! And plus, if it works, why do you care? It’s not like it’s adversely affecting the game. In fact, in many cases it’s a better game because there’s multiplayer elements. Being able to jump in and out of your friend’s games seamlessly is awesome! Having your friends games influence your own and likewise is cool! I for one don’t enjoy being isolated in a game, and so I don’t mind or have a problem being always online.

Your computer is online 95% of the time anyway!

Point: When do you use your computer and it’s offline? Answer, you don’t, and the times that you do are very few and far between. The fact of the matter is, everyone who buys always-online games have to download them in the first place. If you can download the game, you can play the game. It’s as simple as that.

Counter-Point: But what about that 5% of the time? When I fork up $60 of my hard earned cash (Cliffy, that is in fact a lot), I expect to be able to play it wherever I want, whenever I want. That means 100% of the time. Not 90%. Not 98%. 100%. And I will settle for nothing less. Plus, games like SimCity and Diablo are games that were and would be perfect games to play during another Hurricane Sandy. The main point is, I don’t want a proprietary system in between me and my game. If the internet goes down, even for a couple seconds, I’m kicked out. If I wasn’t dependent on my ISP or my electric company, I wouldn’t have to deal with that. But I do. And that’s not okay.

SimCity is a social game at heart, built from the ground up with multiplayer in mind. 

Point: The GlassBox engine, the one that Maxis built specifically for SimCity, was designed so that social and multiplayer features were deeply ingrained into it. Maxis and EA took a bold step for SimCity’s direction and made it much different than it’s predecessors. If you aren’t talking to one of the dissenters, most would say they like it. There is nothing inherently wrong with the multiplayer features, they’re fine. Any game and idea can be done well if executed properly. SimCity’s new direction is a perfect example of that.

Counter-Point: A good sequel is one that can change enough to make it interesting, but still keep ties with it’s ancestors. The new SimCity reboot fails in the latter department, disregarding it’s roots with reckless abandon. SimCity was meant from the very beginning to be a single player game. EA likely took a heavy handed approach to management of the project, or Maxis’ new faces skewed what SimCity is all about, being the sole cause of a sprawling, healthy city. It’s not about building tiny squares of land and gloating about it to your friends.

Having an always-on requirement eliminates certain features like modding and big cities, and even worse, lack of saves.

Point: Non-always-online DRM (read: normal games) have the advantage of being able to do normal game-like things. Like saving. In the previous SimCity titles, part of the fun was seeing how your same city would have fared under vastly different conditions and progression. The new SimCity, due in major part to the DRM schemes, does not have that. Also, The fact that most game computation is done away from your computer makes it so your city is as big as the lowest common denominator. Meaning your cousin with a crappy laptop from 2008 can play the game, but you can only play what he can play. As a final insult to injury, awesome mods are prohibited from operation in this new mode of play. Modding is something that can drastically improve a game’s life cycle and replayability. The game could have had all these features had they not masked the DRM under “social” features.

Counter-Point: Those things aren’t guaranteed nor are all that necessary. Modding cannot be expected in all games, and it only works in some. Smaller cities allows for more experimentation with how cities develop. Lack of saves is admittedly not all that great, or even a good idea, but with every new thing comes the loss of another. Even though saves are always associated with games, that doesn’t mean it’s a requirement to have them. As I, the counter-point, have mentioned above, SimCity is a new game in a bold new direction. Some things may stay the same but others will drastically change, and you shouldn’t have a problem with that as long as it works.

I want to own my game, not use it as a privilege.

Point: When I buy a Sobe at my local Smith’s, I own that Sobe and are now free to do with it as I please. When I buy a T-shirt at Target, it is mine, and I do not sign a contract that dictates how I use the T-shirt. So why, when I buy a game, can I not have it act as my own property? With this always-online DRM, I am in theory buying a privilege to play the game, not own it. Sure, you do the same thing in Steam, but it’s not like Steam is standing over me in the sandbox, telling me what I can and can’t do with the sand. (Most) Games are products, and that means that games should abide by common and decent conventions of what it means to purchase something.

Counter-Point: Your Steam, your oh-so-beloved service has conditioned you into doing the same thing you are doing in SimCity, buying a license. You don’t own any games from Steam. You pay money to use a game, but not to own it. Acting like buying a game as a service is blasphemous is hypocritical and childish. It’s as if Valve has some sort of get out of jail free card. Like they are exempt from all thier crimes. Oh wait! They are. You’re just gonna have to suck it up and face the reality of the situation, that you own NONE of your games. What makes SimCity any different?

Who knows how long it will be until they start closing servers. I want to be able to play this game indefinitely, because I bought it.

Point: What happens when EA decides maintaining SimCity servers is unprofitable? What happens when one night they just pull the plug? I will be left with no game at all, and that’s not cool. 20 years from now I will want to play Legend of Grimrock again, because I remembered it was awesome. And it will still be there, because I didn’t have to rely on Almost Human to keep my game running. But say I did buy SimCity, and say I did like it. 20 years from now, I will want to play it again, because I remembered it was awesome. And it won’t be there, because I had to rely on EA to keep my game running. Do you see the problem with this picture? And I’d like to clarify, EA shutting down the servers is not a question of “if”. It’s a question of “when”.

Counter-Point: Realistically, how long are you going to play SimCity? A year? Maybe 2? And from that point, unless you’re a hardcore fanatic of SimCity, the next time you pick it up will be 5 years from now. That isn’t profitable, and you can’t expect any company to dump thousands of dollars a year into servers that only a few people will be using. Bottom line, what is a company’s goal? Make money. Servers don’t make you money, they lose you money, much more so in the near future when the landscape of people playing the game is barren. Shutting down servers is a sound decision, and there’s a 95% chance you won’t be the ones suffering from those server shutdowns.

It’s a necessary change, there is no way you will change the course of DRM.

Point: Publishers really love the idea of squeezing out piracy as much as possible. Is there anything you can do to stop publishers from trying to make as much money as humanly possible? Shareholders in EA and Ubisoft and Activison will demand that they do something about this “rampant piracy” problem. And execs will conform, and put harsher and harsher DRM schemes into place, even if it hurts both their corporate image and their customers, because it’ll rake in just a few more dollars. That’s just how business works, and no amount of petitions or screaming in forums will change that. On the bright side, hopefully Google will kick ISPs asses into gear and get them to stop ripping us all off, and we get better service as a result.

Counter-Point: There is one thing we can do to stop this increasingly ridiculous state of affairs. We vote with our wallets, as many have said. We show our dissatisfaction with DRM and such by simply not buying the game. We don’t buy the game, we scream as loud as we can wherever we can, and publishers will get the message. We don’t like DRM. And in a perfect world, that will be enough to make execs reconsider their decisions and start focusing things that fight piracy at the source, like better service and more reasonable prices.

You’re being an entitled impatient little brat, stop complaining.

Point: Everyone who has ever complained about DRM is being an entitled little brat. You can’t expect anything and everything to be fulfilled just because you cried hard enough. That may have worked on your parents, but this is the real world. Instead of the developers heeding to your every last word, you heed to theirs. They make the content, they make the rules, and you are going to have to deal with it. If you don’t want the game, don’t buy it. Let those who like the game play it in peace. So shut up and take what you’re given. Beggars can’t be choosers.

Counter-Point: Bullshit. That’s just a piss-poor attempt to try and dismiss any people who have legitimate concerns and critiques on games. How else are games supposed to improve but by criticism?  Complaining and not being satisfied with a game is a natural and healthy part of playing it. If people never complained, do you know how many crappy games we would have, or how few good games we would have? I would even go so far as to say we should act entitled. If we act like the developers and publishers should be serving us, they will! That’s the way it’s supposed to be. The consumers lie at the top, and everyone else lies below them, because we have the money and we will demand what we want.

Conclusion:

I hope I didn’t sound too biased, and I hoped I represented each side of the argument fairly. If all had gone to plan, you shouldn’t even know how I feel about the whole “always-online” business anyway. Well, if you don’t, prepare to have your conjectures crushed or confirmed. I have a vehement hate of always-online DRM. I have loved seeing SimCity crash and burn in a spectacular ball of flames. It’s satisfying to know that my arch-nemesis is  crying in fetal position. That being said, I hope both my fellow gamers and EA have learned their lessons. For the gamers, that they shouldn’t preorder a game or buy it on launch day, and also that they shouldn’t support this anti-consumer bull anyways. For EA, that always-online is the worst possible incarnation of DRM, and that it is a lose-lose for everyone involved. For scoring a small handful of extra sales they have royally screwed over their ENTIRE PLAYERBASE. I hope that the message is resoundingly clear among everyone involved in the industry that we hate DRM, and this type in particular, and that this is not to be tolerated.

But in all likelihood EA will willfully disregard this launch and further perpetuate this mess. They will probably use the GlassBox engine on other projects, and make those games always-online. Other publishers will follow in their footsteps and we’ll all walk down into the firey pits of hell. I have grim hopes for the future, and that the only thing that will stop this course is an industry-shattering crash. Only then will big names start to reconsider their priorities.

But that won’t happen. At least, probably not.

 

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  1. #1 by Sam Hale on March 11, 2013 - 1:25 pm

    I think you put it best when you said it’s a lose-lose situation. As much as I delight in EA failing for their mistakes (ie: Medal of Honor: Warfighter) what’s really tragic is how out of touch EA has become. This is a publisher responsible for so many great franchises; I fear this is only going to teach EA to take less risks with their products. This will ultimately hurt the industry. I hope EA is listening to their customers but I fear they aren’t.

    • #2 by SuperSN on March 11, 2013 - 1:32 pm

      As far as I’m concerned, EA wants to appeal to the men in suits more than the men and women with controllers (or keyboards). EA’s reckless disregard for anything customer related is a real downer. Maybe one day we can both be satisfied with EA’s performance. But today is not that day.
      Thanks for commenting, dude!

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