SimCity, Always-Online DRM and EA
Sim City has definitely had a dramatic release. News has been surfacing from every gaming website with reports about SimCity and how the servers have been overcrowded and unstable since its launch a few days ago. While I am yet to play SimCity, a friend of mine did pre-order it and he has been venting his issues to me. So why are SimCity’s servers such an issue to people who want to play? It is because you have to always be online to play- even single player.
This process is called always-online DRM and so far, nothing good has come from it. Always-online DRM is not services like Steam and Origin that make you sign in to play your games, always-online DRM is the idea you always have to be connected to a game’s servers even if you want to play single player. Besides SimCity, the most recent game to use this method of controlling how we play our games was Diablo 3. Some of you may remember Diablo 3 had a terrible first few days because the servers were overflowing and they kept crashing. This is basically what is happening with SimCity.
Companies who decide to have an always-online DRM do it because they say it stops the game being pirated. I am sorry, but that is the biggest pile of made up nonsense to ever come out of someone’s mouth. Do publishers really think making the game always online will prevent piracy? Pirates will find a way, there are already a few Diablo 3 torrents that allow you to play offline if you look hard enough. All always-on DRM is doing is hurting consumers who paid EA money to legitimately buy SimCity more than it will hurt the people who have paid nothing. Pirates will not be having these problems because they will be playing offline, where EA can not see them.
There is a term in economics called consumer sovereignty. That is, consumers decide what products companies make by buying, or not buying, a product. It is evident backlash is already occurring as plenty of users have been asking EA for refunds. Refunds EA will not give.
Is it fair to feel cheated though? I, myself, would say no. I was going to buy SimCity on launch day in Australia, and get started on my review. However, as soon as I read a news story about the servers, I suddenly remembered Diablo 3′s problems.
To play the devil’s advocate, EA had no way of knowing how many people would buy SimCity. They also had no way of knowing whether their servers would be able to hold that many people. There were closed beta weekends, but not everyone was given codes. Sim City had no open beta, so there was no way of testing how many people the servers could hold at full capacity. I understand that people who bought the game on day 1 expect to be able to play right now, but sometimes unforeseeable circumstances arise.
Honestly, an open beta would have been the ideal way to test servers. By the time the closed betas were rolling out, SimCity was probably close to being finished. So why did they not have an open beta to test their servers? DICE and EA did it with Battlefield 3 a few weeks before that game shipped. Battlefield 3′s open beta was unplayable for the first few days as they made adjustments to their servers to make the game compensate for the amount of people. Once the game was finally released, everything ran fine. Unlike SimCity, though, Battlefield 3 did not require users to be online all the time.
While the news about Sim City’s servers surfaced, Polygon released their review of the game. Their review was played on pre-release development servers. Polygon gave the game a 9.5/10. However, in an updated review score on 5th March, the game’s score was dropped to 8/10. Russ Pitts, the reviewer, justified this change by commenting on the fact that SimCity is pretty much in an unplayable state because of the servers. However, today, Mr. Pitts once again lowered the score to 4/10. His reasoning for dropping the game again is “EA’s decision to remove certain features of the game in order to attempt to stabilize server performance has resulted in a dramatic change to the way SimCity is played and, in my experience, has not stabilized the server situation.” The two features EA dropped until servers stabilise is the ability to speed up time, and leaderboards. I do not think this is a fair way to review a game. Okay, so the servers are not working the way they should at the moment, but that does not mean the game deserves a lower score. As a game, Pitts thought SimCity was “perfectly engineered to dispense the maximum amount of fun in the most efficient way possible.” I also understand and encourage readers to read the writing, not just the score, but how can one even contemplate lowering the score of a game just because it is going through unforeseen problems?
Chances are I will still buy SimCity (not just because I have to review it), and chances are I will enjoy it. However, I do not think server issues within the first few days of launch make the game a failure. Nor do they mean you should get a refund for you game. Any reasonable person can see the servers will be fixed. Many people see EA as a company that just want everyone’s money. While this could be true, the only way they are going to get anyone’s money at the moment is by fixing the SimCity servers. And guess what? That is what they are trying to do.