Full disclosure: I have not played (or bought) the new SimCity.
It’s an important distinction to raise. Criticism is sometimes directed to those who raise umbrage with a product or experience without having gone through the apparent necessity of sampling it in the first place. In this case, not purchasing the game is the ultimate form of protest: it demonstrates to EA and Maxis that as a consumer, the questionable state of SimCity as it currently stands directly influences my buying habits and will not be tolerated.
There are two critical sides in the debacle that is SimCity: that of EA and Maxis, and that of the consumer. Neither side is wholly innocent nor entirely guilty, something that’s been lost under the noise of DRM and the perceived value of a persistent, connected experience.
SimCity’s launch has gone from bizarrely humourous to painful in an incredibly short period of time. The humour stemmed from the repercussions of the decision to couple the game to a persistent, online experience, in the form of a clumsy inability to address the number of players that they must surely have had some indication of prior to launch.
I am no advocate for DRM, but to raise heated vitriol in EA’s direction for implementing it in SimCity would be fairly hypocritical. I own an alarming amount of games on Steam, and while the service it provides is mostly excellent, it still remains a form of DRM. I have never been supportive of the restrictions that Steam places on consumers, but its benefits currently outweigh its flaws. While GOG remains my ideal provider of digital downloads owing to their consumer-friendly oriented policies, Steam retains the lions share of new titles: granted, I could simply avoid new titles, so I will label it an inherent weakness on my behalf.
If EA choose to go down the DRM route, then that is their prerogative. Server related woes are nothing new for online titles (has everyone forgotten the woeful Half-Life 2 launch?), and while EA certainly dropped the ball in launching SimCity, it was always going to be a temporary setback. If a game is designed to be played in a certain way, then no valid complaint can really be levelled at it unless the system is inherently broken beyond its teething problems.
However, this is where the ugly side of this story rears its head. The marketing campaign for SimCity consistently pushed the merits of the connected system, and explained how many of the game’s simulations would be processed by a server rather than the client. In the initial post-launch difficulties, Maxis claimed that an offline mode would not be possible to add to the game, given the number of calculations processed online. This proved to be a complete fabrication. Kotaku discovered and demonstrated a 20-minute offline period if the connection dropped, and RockPaperShotgun were shown the game running offline for an infinite amount of time, after a modder discovered a setting in the developers mode. This same modder analysed the data being sent from the game to the servers and concluded that they were inherently simplistic and arbitrary: in other words, the complete opposite to what Maxis claimed was the case. Furthermore, when this discrepancy was raised with EA and Maxis, Lucy Bradshaw, head of Maxis, artfully avoided directly addressing it and reiterated her original statements with careful omissions, in what was the most blatant example of weasel-worded PR that I’ve seen in recent years.
Let me make this perfectly clear: this is absolutely not ok. The issue here is not the DRM itself, but the fact that EA and Maxis completely lied about their justification for the system, and further lied about the way the game functioned. No amount of PR, free games or whatever other morsels of ‘goodwill’ that EA is trying to shovel down our throats will substitute for failing to directly address the facts on hand.
While this in itself is disgusting, I’m appalled that it does not seem to be raising a large enough reaction with the gaming press. With a handful of notable exceptions, no so called ‘gaming journalist’ seems compelled to carry out some investigative journalism and completely hammer EA and Maxis on this. I am no journalist and I certainly make no claim to the contrary, but anyone who purports to be a games journalist that has done nothing but fire a few simpering emails to EA’s public relations department are deluded. In any other field, this abysmal lack of fundamental journalism would be ridiculed and labelled a farce, yet it apparently does not seem to matter if the field in question is video games. Let’s not forget that gamers are the leaders of the industry, not the big AAA publishers. We can survive without them, but they sure as hell won’t survive without us.
That brings me to the other side of this: the role of the consumer. I purposefully decided not to purchase SimCity prior to its launch as I did not want a part of the new experience. I disliked the always-online aspect, and I voted with my wallet. I’ve been having a complete blast with SimCity 4 instead. While it seems like there’s a large contingent of enraged commentators, the game still sold an absurd amount (statistics place it in the realm of 1.1 million): if this perceived backlash exists, then who is purchasing the game? Who handed over their money and proved to EA that despite a monumental disdain for their customers, they’ll still make money? If EA’s profit book still comes out smelling of roses at the end of it all, then why should they bother cleaning up the massive pile of fetid garbage that’s propping it up?
This bothers me, because it sets these issues out to be non-critical precedents for other major companies to learn from. We decided that Steam was a decent system despite its flaws, but we complain when other companies attempt to emulate it. We berate those companies for not instantly matching and surpassing Steam’s high levels of service, but we forget what Steam was like when it launched. We are outraged when facts turn out to be half-truths or complete lies, but the product in question still makes a huge amount of money. What will it take before this two-toned, hypocritical nature of consumers finally becomes unified?
I can’t say I really want to go through the catalyst for that to happen.
Over the last month or so we’ve all witnessed the many failures of the SimCity release. It’s been quite a mess – lots of server failures, hacks, code leaks, complaints about DRM, conflicting information, and so on. I’m not much of a simulation fan, so I’ll focus on these problems instead of the game itself.
Always-online games always seem to have the same issues (though some worse then others) at launch. Just look at games like SimCity, Diablo 3, or Assassin’s Creed 2. These are all traditionally single-player-focused games that were locked down to force an always-online internet connection. If this trend is going to continue, developers and publishers need to consider some very important things moving forward.
Scale well. Launch worldwide. This is the most important part of releasing an always-online game. If you can’t scale, then you’ll face the same issues that almost every MMO and other always-online game release encounters. Companies seem to forget what the "cloud" really means and wire up their own imitation of one instead.
The "cloud" is not a collection of servers you own. It is an opaque service that you talk to without having to worry about load balancing, data synchronisation, or downtimes. Companies like Amazon and many others offer a cloud service that anybody can buy and use. This is where your always-online services should live. Not on your own servers, not on a homebrew cloud.
The reason for this is twofold. First: it’s not cost-effective to cater for the launch-time rush of players. To avoid downtimes during the biggest peak, you need many more servers than the standard operating capacity. Because of this, only the standard number of servers is used at launch, and the sheer volume of players chokes the entire service. I assume companies wave this off as unavoidable, but they need to remember that launch time is also the time that people can still return games. It’s the worst possible time for a failure. Spinning up a thousand more Amazon cloud servers for a week would easily cover the peak usage period during launch time, and then those servers can be shut down. You only pay for what you use.
Second: It allows a simultaneous worldwide launch. This is becoming increasingly important in the connected world as people in other countries notice when they don’t have access to the same thing that the rest of the world does (I should know, I’m still waiting for Fire Emblem: Awakening to release here!). In the case of SimCity, there weren’t any servers in Asian regions, and countries like South Korea had to connect to off-shore servers to play the game. This isn’t acceptable, and is a problem that cloud providers already take care of. They deploy servers all across the world so you don’t have to.
Don’t lie to us. I guess when this comes to EA, they’re already having trouble with this one. But when somebody claims that creating an offline mode would take "significant engineering", but is then contradicted by another claiming that the online requirement isn’t necessary after all and that the game can run just fine in offline mode, you start to realise that there’s some serious bullshit happening.
If the always-online requirement is an anti-piracy measure, then tell us. If it’s not, then there should be a very convincing reason why it’s there. Personally I can’t think of any reason why SimCity should be always connected, especially after the previous 4 games worked just fine without the internet. The social and multiplayer region thing is nice, but should not be mandatory.
From what I understand, the new game has a maximum city size that is much smaller than the previous games in the series. This is pretty much guaranteed to be due to the limitations of the online server. One of the appealing things about the series is that you can manage the city on a large scale. To make the cities smaller has nothing to do with the "vision" of the game, as EA are claiming – it is a pure server capacity issue. This needs to be transparently communicated to users.
Always offer a fallback solution. What happens when EA decides that hosting SimCity servers is no longer cost-effective and shuts them down? Are they going to patch the game so that it works offline? Will the game simply be unplayable after that point? These are important questions that need to be answered when the game launches, not when it shuts down. People still play SimCity 4 today, and that was released 10 years ago. If that game depended on servers to be online, then I doubt they would be able to as EA would have shut down the servers by now.
This is something that Valve had to communicate when they first launched their Steam service. From reasonably early on in the life cycle of Steam, users demanded to know what would happen if the Steam service went offline. Eventually they communicated that they have the ability to shut off the online requirement and would be able to push the button should that be needed. Whether you trust Valve to do so or not is a different matter, but then again, that all depends on whether or not the "don’t lie to us" policy is kept. Online requirements have exploded in popularity since Valve paved the way with Steam, but fallback solutions are rarely considered, and sometimes even actively opposed. Steam’s offline mode may be clunky and difficult to use, but at least it exists. The same thing cannot be said for SimCity or other games with always-online DRM solutions.
Sometimes the offline fallback just isn’t possible – this is the case for many MMO games. But consider this: if a game is no longer commercially viable and the servers need to be shut down, then what does a company gain from not releasing the server code for community use? They have just shut down a server and will not boot it back up again. That code is basically dead. Companies should do the right thing with this dead code and give it to the community. Hardcore communities would then be able to host their own servers and continue their adventures. This is a perfectly acceptable fallback that is often ignored because of the corporate ideals of ownership. Sure, writing your game server might have cost you $100 million, but now it’s useless. One man’s trash is another’s treasure – give it to the community so they can do something with the game that you discarded! Cyan Worlds, developers of Myst Online: Uru Live deserve a lot of credit for taking this path and open-sourcing the server code for Uru and letting the community host their own servers.
Fortunately it’s not all bad news with SimCity. Their peak period has ended and they’ve improved the server code to reduce waiting times. I think they’ve also said that they’re increasing the city size limit and improving the various gameplay bugs as well. But EA aren’t showing any sign of offering a reasonable fallback or from stopping their misleading and occasionally outright false statements to their user base. I really hope that EA and other publishers and developers pick up their game if they plan to release more always-online games in the future.