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Monday, March 11, 2013

SIMCITY's always-online screams for urban renewal

I've been under the weather most of the past few days (not with flu but it felt like it) so this blog ground to a screeching halt. That didn't mean I was without entertainment though. For the most part that involved watching the FUBAR that Electronic Arts has made of SimCity since launching it last week...

SimCity, Electronic Arts, EA, Maxis, meteors, disasters
We built this city on DRM!
This is a SimCity game.  The fifth major one since the series launched in the late Eighties.  HOW in the name of all that's good and holy does anybody... anybody... mess up a SimCity game??

EA did.  And the bustling metropoli promised to millions of players have in less than a week turned into virtual ghettos of riot and violence that even Amazon.com decided to steer clear of: the online retailer halted sales of SimCity for both physical and digital download versions.

Just like Diablo III, the heart of the problem is that SimCity requires an always-online Internet connection.  Allegedly as a Digital Rights Management (DRM) anti-piracy measure.  To be honest it's worse than Diablo III: that game's always-online obligation is a supposed "necessary component" of its Real Money Auction House (never mind that some of us don't care about spending real money for in-game gold and items).  No, SimCity has to be online because most of the game's processing takes place server-side.

Yeah you read that right.  What used to be localized to your PC or desktop, wherever you happened to be, is now something that EA's corporate computers handle for you.  EA says it's because SimCity is now an online multiplayer game and one of its innovations is inter-city commerce such as buying and selling resources and even hiring virtual people to move to your town.

'Course, that's if the game works at all.  As of this writing EA is still struggling to meet the demands of players: some of whom are reportedly waiting twenty hours or more before they can successfully log in.

I'm not a lawyer, but that doesn't sound like a complete game that EA is selling with SimCity.  It's more like a licensed client application.  One that isn't living up to its advertised capabilities.  And EA is refusing to give out refunds (they are giving a free game to people affected however, whatever that will entail...)

This is by far the worst launch of a video/computer game in the history of anything.  The players are in an uproar, the game's ratings are plummeting (some established gaming news sites are refusing to even review SimCity) and some retailers are now refusing to stock it at all.  EA is acknowledging the problems and some in the company have suggested that an offline mode could be implemented.  Others however are saying that it's impossible: that the game was designed from the very beginning to require always-online in order to work.  That this was even considered at all makes one question EA's consideration toward their customers.  One alleged EA employee has gone public with what has gone on at EA that made SimCity an "embarrassment".

There is much more that could be said about this than is possible in one blog post.  However Erik Kain at Forbes.com has an excellent piece about the legal ramifications of always-online and how it is bad policy for both gamers and publishers.  Joystiq's Alexander Sliwinski also has some fantastic examination and analogy about what SimCity and Diablo III's always-online DRM means in terms of customer service and support.

In the meantime, I will not be purchasing or playing SimCity.  EA's negligence has even given me pause to wonder if their Dead Space 3 is worth plunking down my coin for.  Just as I won't be buying Diablo III until Blizzard gives us an offline mode... and I'm wondering if that company's Heart of the Swarm expansion for StarCraft II deserves an investment on my part as well.  I mean, why should I respect any company with my money if that company doesn't respect me as a consumer?