IMO: Cities Built On Sand

“And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand.”
- Matthew 7:26, King James Version


When I was back in school, before the days of reliable, always-on broadband internet, multiplayer gaming meant grabbing your controller and barrelling round to your mate’s house, plugging in, and getting down to business. Sure oftentimes that meant being reduced to a mere quadrant of an already pokey screen, but we didn’t complain because it worked, it was self-contained. We were playing and we were having fun. When I chose to make my first foray into the world of PC gaming, the prospect of playing against someone not only not in the same room but in another town, even another country, seemed incredible, but I quickly learned that it was often more trouble than it was worth. There were ping issues, IPs needed to be configured, arcane and indecipherable settings needed adjusting, it was a minefield. Brief snatches of success were dashed by disconnection notices. All too quickly I wrote off the online gaming experiment as a waste of time, and returned to single and local-multiplayer gaming. Perhaps in the future, I thought, I could return and try again, when the experience was more... assured.

Now I’m older but it appears that things aren’t any more reliable than they were.

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Pictured: the way it used to be.

Back then, these issues were legitimate concerns as the technology was still struggling to keep up, but this is not a factor today. The problem is that publishers are trying to convince players that the measures they have implemented are for their benefit, when in fact they are arguably the unwelcome result of an ever-increasing arms race between the publishers and the pirates.

In case you’ve been under a rock this past week, the launch of the eagerly anticipated latest iteration of the SimCity series has been wracked with problems. For a variety of reasons, some more questionable than others, the game requires a constant connection to EA’s servers in order to play. You may recall we’ve been here before with Diablo III, and you would think the lessons from that debacle would have been heeded before attempting a release of that nature and scale again, but no. It appears that either caution was thrown to the wind or estimates of server usage and demand were grossly in error, as vast numbers of players are reportedly unable to even log into the game they paid good money for. Disappointed fans are making their grievances known; currently Metacritic are listing a staggering 1,296 negative user reviews, compared to a mere 165 positive. Amazon pulled the game from its store for a brief time, although it has now been returned.

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Abandon hope all ye that enter here.

What’s truly tragic about this state of affairs is that by all accounts the game, once you get to play it, is very good. A bitter pill for those currently stuck on the outside of the glass box peering in. Calls have been made to issue a patch that enables offline play, but developers Maxis say that while this will be ‘looked into’, the game was designed to be a connected experience from the outset, with a lot of the simulation calculations being performed server side, and can’t just be cut off. Was it really wise to make this absolutely core to the experience without having the infrastructure to support it? Although the principle is wrong, if it worked flawlessly, or at least well for the most part, I doubt as many would have taken umbrage. Some are left wondering why the traditionally single player franchise has taken this turn, but the truth is we shouldn’t be at all surprised.

Games used to be a product, and in order to extract more cash from consumers, companies like EA want to turn them into a service. This is a model that could potentially have benefits, but if you're offering a service that has already been paid for, you better damn well be in a position to provide it, on demand, consistently, 24/7. Simply stating we're in some kind of transitionary period and the kinks are still being ironed out isn't good enough - if you have set a launch day, you better be ready to meet demand. These are the burdens that come with the path they have chosen to pursue.

Other commenters are stating this isn't a big deal and we should just go with the flow, that you have to put up with a certain amount of undesirable business practices to gain the privilege of playing. This should not be the case. Whatever practices put in place to combat pirates on the one hand or offer an enhanced online game experience on the other should never have a direct impact on players who have actually paid for the game, for the net result is a feeling of betrayal and negligence, and for those with less scruples, a decision to pirate the game they just purchased, because in most cases the pirated game will have all the DRM stripped out.

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I'll try.

The SimCity games have a fine pedigree and it's a shame to see their reputation marred because of the crowbarring in of unwanted and questionable features that no-one asked for. No amount of anti-piracy measures, no matter how successful, are worth the security if their inclusion adversely affects the experience of paying customers. The ends do not justify the means. If these kinds of games-as-services are being offered, a minimum expected level needs to be enforced and drops below this not tolerated. Customers are being denied refunds, which should be the minimum you should expect when you buy something that’s inherently broken. Denying them now is akin to owning up that they should have accounted for their service being this terrible, and that was a risk they had chosen to take. But this isn't booking a holiday in the rainy season; these are problems that could've been avoided, but want for EA's putting their own interests ahead of their customers. If only they would admit this it would be something, but they continue to hide behind claims of inadequate preparation, and are now desperately ripping out components of the game in order to ease the strain (but not the DRM, naturally).

Enforced multiplayer is not the future of gaming, no matter how much the industry attempts to push it on us. Expecting player interaction to generate its own value in place of a quality scripted experience strikes me as being somewhat akin to reality TV. I have no desire to be dependent on faceless unknowns with no agenda. To paraphrase Sid Vicious, I’ve met the man on the server, and he’s a [expletive deleted]. In the SimCity fiasco, players are reporting that their games are being adversely affected due to negative influence from another player building their city in the same region who is, for lack of a better description, just arsing about. The system only works if everyone is playing together and working towards the same goal. So why should I expect cooperation from a random I've never met? What's in it for them? Of course you can make your region private, but that pretty much defeats the point, and reduces the always-on requirement to a lack of processing power and a method to keep tabs on you.

I have no issue with extra content being provided not working if I don't use it, but when it leaves someone unable to play the single player version of a game they legitimately purchased, there's something wrong. Not everyone wants or is even able to play online, and we managed to have convincing city simulations running on our own PCs until now. Unless people 'vote with their wallets' and refuse to buy games which have this crippling DRM included, the practice will continue. They have yet to learn that you foster a good experience with your customers by respecting them, looking after them, and not treating them like a money pot which can be siphoned until dry. This is only going to become more true if companies pursue the kind of long-term service agreement that triple-A publishers like EA and Blizzard seem to be chasing. More trust is required.

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Warning: the mayor of the city next to yours may be a complete tool.

Trust is also an issue when it comes to the Cloud. SimCity saves nothing locally so if something goes awry and your save gets lost, there are no backups, as players have already found out. Entrusting others with your data only works if they can be relied upon to keep it safe and to deliver it when needed. Companies are unwilling to trust their customers because if it backfires then they have lost sales, but a lost sale due to piracy and a lost sale due to someone deciding that purchasing isn't worth the hassle count exactly the same.

I trust Steam, even though it contains DRM, because it has never let me down, and the DRM never colours my experience of using it. I've never tried to log in to find the service unavailable. I've never had a game crash because of it. It performs its function admirably and rarely impedes your play or gives cause for concern. Admittedly it wasn’t always this way; Steam had teething problems when first released, but the key difference is that Valve are a company that players trust to make the right choices to benefit them. If Origin worked as well then there would be no problem, but it doesn't, and by forcing players to use it, EA are only hammering yet more nails into their coffin.

Smaller indie developers seem not to have issues like this. They offer their products on a DRM-free, trust basis. Even distribution sites like Good Old Games and Steam have shown that if you make the process easy and the price fair, then gamers have no reason not to use you. But if you treat your customers like chumps before they've even forked out for your item, how do you really expect to be treated in return?

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Dr Wright is always right. It's, like, in his name.

Longevity is another issue. We have seen countless once vibrant MMOs and other shared user world games become ghost towns, abandoned by users in their droves. We can acknowledge that such games can have a limited shelf-life because of their multiplayer nature, but will you or I be able to purchase this game several years down the road and expect it to still work? My copy of SimCity 4 works just as well now as when I bought it, and you can even buy SimCity 2000 and play it flawlessly on a new machine thanks to sites like Good Old Games. EA would like you to believe that the community for their new iteration will be buzzing for years to come, but we all know that the market moves much faster than that.

Add day one DLC to the list; DLC that apparently you have to own even just to see other people's cities that use it, and it really becomes hard to see their business practices as anything other than an exercise in how much they can rip off their customer base without affording them any legal recourse to retaliate, complain or respond. A chat transcription has gone viral involving a customer being refused a refund and further told that if he continued to question the decision, his account would be banned, blocking access to all his purchased games. EA have since stated that this isn't the case, but are still refusing refunds. They continue to avoid the blame. Senior producer Kip Katsarelis stated on EA’s forums:
"What we saw was that players were having such a good time they didn't want to leave the game, which kept our servers packed and made it difficult for new players to join."
An argument that might make some sense if this was some sort of limited, scare item, like a fairground ride you have to stand in line for, but it's not. It's a video game. Everyone has their own copy and should be able to play it. They are reportedly offering a free game to all players who experienced problems connecting, but that doesn't make it right again. They knew the game they were making would have these implications well ahead of time, and did nothing.

Benjamin Quintero over at GamaSutra quite rightly states that we aren’t ready for this kind of constant connection requirement, but is pessimistic about the future, implying that all our complaints about games like SimCity and Diablo III will be for nought, as long as we continue to buy them. I’d like to think we’re not that complicit and will think twice before handing over our hard-earned simoleons to shady corporations who don’t respect us.

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Last stop: this town.

I feel sorry for Maxis; as stated previously the series has had a fine run and it’s a shame that this reboot has suffered such a disastrous launch. That's the real tragedy here; that with a different outlook, this could've been something really great. But no-one's going to see it that way; all they're going to remember is that they took a chance, and got burned.

One final word from the Transport Advisor:

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Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go offline and play some SimCity 2000, available on GOG for $6. By myself.

Last updated: 18/04/2018 06:35:43

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Tags DRM, EA, maxis, simcity
Category Feature

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