Town Full of Criers: SimCity and Server Meltdowns

SimCity is a game whose history is rich and storied. Gamers who have played any iteration of the game will likely have their own memories of the series as well. Watching small hamlets explode into futuristic, technology focused cities with flying cars is always exciting to the player who created them. Watching crime infest blocks and blocks and fires level wide swaths of those same cities is equally as exciting (in a much different way).

The latest version of the venerable series has hit stores and already had legions of fans ready to play it. The problem was that they couldn’t play it, due entirely to no fault of their own. It’s not that there were last-minute shipping delays. No, EA requires the game to have an “always-on” Internet connection; a form of DRM determined to help stem to scourge of piracy that will inevitably hit the game. (Of course, EA has also released The Sims Medieval, which included a Pirates and Nobles pack, but that’s neither here nor there).

Since the game’s release on March 5, as of writing there are still numerous server problems actually preventing people from playing the game. EA is “working tirelessly to fix the servers,” but why did it get that bad to begin with? After all, this is the same company who launched Diablo 3 last year to similar problems, but swore they learned their lesson and wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. 

Apparently, someone missed a memo.

One of the ancillaries of video game launches is reviews. For a game like SimCity, EA is counting on positive reviews of the game to propel sales upwards. Right now on Metacritic, the game is sitting with an aggregate score of 82. Should the problems encountered to actually play the game reflect in the scores though? Joystiq for instance has a good article posted about whether or not customer service should be factored into the reviews of games.

Their argument is that games like SimCity and Diablo 3 should be considered services and not games, because of their always-on connectivity. Yes, there is a game at the core, but being required to connect to EA’s servers every time you want to play (and for the duration of your play) means that EA is playing a part in your experience as well. Actually reviewing the game as a service is a little murky though, because the service can obviously be up or down at any given time.

A game itself exists in a vacuum. That is, the finished product is largely the same throughout the entire course of playing it. There are bugs that could crop up which affect the gamer’s enjoyment (looking at you Elder Scrolls series) and there is DLC that can add new features to the game. The thing is, in those situations, if you don’t like a certain part of the game, you just don’t play it. Sure, there are sometimes game-crippling bugs that prevent you from playing at all, but most of the time that’s not the case.

That’s the problem with a game like SimCity being always on. You can’t play in an offline mode if the servers aren’t offering sessions; you’re stuck. EA’s decision to stop the scourges of the Internet from handing out copies of their game to everyone who says hello to them has fallen flat on its face. The idea behind it isn’t completely horrible, as EA does have a right to want to protect their assets (even if it is from the boogeyman that is piracy). If you don’t support the infrastructure though, then no one can actually play the game.

See, gamers aren’t paying for the “privilege” of using the EA Origin service; they’re paying for the game itself. Games have made it this long without having to be connected to a server to play a game, so why do publishers like EA think all of a sudden we’d enjoy doing so? Gamers aren’t looking to always have to be connected; we want an out just in case. We buy the game to play the actual game and are more than content to play it in an offline capacity while the infrastructure side of things is worked out. At that point, it’s likely we’ll happily sign on and share our creations with the world.

And what happens in a few years when EA decides to shut down the servers? Sure, there will likely be plenty more iterations of the game coming out and this year’s SimCity will be viewed as a distant memory in the minds of gamers. There will still be some people who want to go back and play the game just for nostalgic reasons though and they won’t be able to. Ever get the urge to go back and play Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion? Imagine if Bethesda required an always-on connection and had shut down the servers. You’ve then got a useless game cluttering your shelves.

There’s really no easy answer to the problem. Telling gamers to vote with their wallets won’t work, simply because it’s likely the day one sales of SimCity were staggering. Someone at EA will see that and think that gamers don’t mind the online piece of it and think that’s it a feature that should be included in all future releases. Gamers can’t boycott the servers and refuse to sign in, because doing so means they’re not getting the most out of what they purchased. Maybe instances such as Amazon pulling the digital download from their marketplace due to reviews will get EA to wake up and pay attention.

No, the answer lies somewhere on EA’s side. It’s an answer that unfortunately gamers really have no say in, because gamers aren’t the reason that they can’t play the game. Video games are an industry now and no longer a niche product, which means corporations like EA will look at the games within the industry as profits and losses. They’re perfectly within their right to do so, considering they need to mitigate their risks and trumpet their successes.

When gamers bear the fallout from corporate decisions though, that’s where you have to draw a line. Maybe it does mean voting with your wallet and not buying anymore EA games. Maybe it means factoring in the “service” part of a game in a review, speculating that it could go down at any point and lowering the review score a few points automatically. Or maybe we as gamers just have to suck it up and realize that sometimes to see the panel you really want to see at a convention, you have to sit through a few crappy ones.

After all the launch woes with Diablo 3 and SimCity, you may have to go through a few more Battlefield Earth panels to get the new Star Wars panels.