SimCity: Impressions

Transient

It's been just about three weeks since THAT launch. It would seem, at this stage, that gaming media has run out of adjectives to describe the debacle that was the release of EA and Maxis' SimCity. They were, for the large part, entirely correct. If the game you are attempting to review is so broken as to render it impossible to even play, and the only alternative is to play at EA-sanctioned locations, on EA-sanctioned servers, it behoves any decent game reviewer to raise hell. Now, however, that the dust has seemingly settled, and those of us early-adopters sitting with our free games squatting on our hardrives, is it time for a fresh look at SimCity?

I bought the game a week after its launch. The server queues and crashes were still being widely reported and complained about. Which is why, surprisingly, I have yet to have a single issue with SimCity's online connectivity.

I recognise, obviously, that out of earlyish adopters, I am in the minority. While I cannot account for my luck, I imagine it would have something to do with playing on less clogged European servers, free of those who may have picked up the game on its EU but were turned off their purchase by the invective being loudly flung around the internet. Whatever the reason, I've had a crash and queue free gaming experience so far. While this has no doubt softened me in regard to how I approach a review of sorts, there are still fundamental issues that need to be addressed.

To begin, this entire situation should never, ever have happened in the first place. It was painfully, almost stupidly easy to avoid. The launch of Diablo III and the issues surrounding that should have been EA's clear, textbook example of what not to do. Instead, it would appear, on the surface at least, that this precedent was at best only given cursory attention or at worst entirely ignored. In fact, it would appear that EA handled the release even worse than Blizzard. At least the latter did not have to halt online publicity, disable aspects of the game to cope with demand, have Amazon pull digital copies for fear of massive customer backblash, or be forced (and believe me, it was forced) to give out free games in order to placate their customer base.

The launch catastrophe has, in a bizarre way, both highlighted and distracted from the big issue at hand: this is another attempt to force an always-online DRM model on a game that simply does not need it. And let's not kid ourselves about it being DRM. It IS. No matter what Maxis or EA say about "online processing", the fact remains the vast majority of the game lies on my hardrive, and the majority of the work is done by my processor. This is not, in any way, a cloud game. Net-based save files are not a new thing, EA. Stop trying to act as if you're reinventing the feel, especially since you're re-invented wheel was, for a few weeks, square

SimCity just doesn't need to be online all the time. Almost two weeks playing the game have convinced me of this. The measly benefits you get from it (connection to the 'Global Market', for one) are not worth the potential trouble the DRM system requires. Say, for instance, I want to take my laptop with me to my grandparent's place in Cork. No internet, no game. Reliable broadband is simply not a consistent enough feature in our daily lives to be able to mount a game like this. It's a seemingly minor issue, but should my internet fail, I'll have no way to pay the game I paid premium price for. I don't feel like I own SimCity. I feel like I'm renting it from EA, who apparently have the right to shut off my access whenever they feel the need to. Even the multiplayer elements of the game, wherein you and your friends co-operatively build your own region of cities, is not integral to the overall game. It could have easily been given its own mode without affecting an offline single player element.

This DRM model and the chaos it has caused is not, in and of itself, what worries me. As I said at the start, while annoying, it is still manageable. It is instead the precedent it represents for the industry. While the launch has been an almost unparalleled publicity disaster for EA and Maxis, it still has not forced them to do a full u-turn. SimCity remains an online only game. No single-player mode seems to be forth coming, whether as a free update or more likely (this is EA we're talking about) paid DLC. Both companies have rode the tidal wave of negativity remarkably well, with a combination of humility, free stuff and an admittedly admirable social media update campaign mollifying players into waiting quasi patiently as they no doubt feverishly added more servers behind the scenes. If online-only is to quote Leonardo DiCaprio's Howard Hughes "they way of the future", then I'm very content to shove Mr Hughes into a shed where he can't do any damage. I don't want to have to add an extra two weeks to the launch of a game just because I know the server stampede is going to make it unplayable. That might sound like the biggest First World Problem ever, but think about it. You're not able to use the product you paid your money for because the service the seller has put in place is wholly inadequate, or not all aspects of the product can cope with demand. It's like buying a book that won't actually open for the first few weeks you own it, and when it does you find missing pages and have to wait until the publisher delivers them to you.

We're judging progress by how quickly a company can recover from an always-online launch. This. Is. Not. Good. This debacle shows that little to no progress has been made in this area since, for example, Diablo's launch, yet this still seems to be the paradigm being actively pursued. The internet is making publishers lazy. Better to rush out an incomplete game, weather the storm, and patch it later. We can't measure how well a release went because it was less terrible than then last. This is not the standard we should hold the industry. Demanding products that are complete and work on launch is our right as consumers. We can't breathe a sigh of relief if the game we've been anticipating is merely functional as opposed to fully and totally operational upon it's release. It won't do. It sets a terrible precedent. And it will allow publisher's like EA to continue walking all over its consumer base.            

The sad fact is that SimCity is genuinely good game, at its core. Sure, the city sizes can be maddening, and then there's all the stuff I just wrote, but its still bright, fun, deep, wholly enjoyable and insanely addictive. The example it sets, however, is deeply worrying.