Let’s Argue: SimCity

What a catastrophe. The SimCity launch has been pretty amazing to watch- a train wreck in slow-motion. Ben and I asked ourselves what Maxis should do now, and this is what we each came up with.

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Given the cascade of problems the launch of SimCity has faced, what should be EA’s solution?

Colin:

Dial it up. I admit that I don’t really know how code works that well- the practicality/impracticality of this suggestion is beyond me. But what EA should do is turn up its online dependence, not down.

First order of business, of course- more servers. More more more. And keep them stable, and keep them online, and make it work. You completely underestimated everything about this launch, which I’m sure is clear to you by now. Fix it. No two ways about it.

You’re going to have to do more than that, though. You’ve disabled features in your game to make it run better– limiting city size before launch, limiting simulation speed after it. And even if you can get your existing server structure back up to speed, those issues will likely remain. So how about this: make the servers do more. Diablo 3 ran on computers it had no business running on, because the servers handled some of the workload. If you’re going to make always-online a requirement, you should make it a pro, not a con. Use the extra processing power to make the game even better. Fix simulation speeds and city size with the help of the servers.

Always-online isn’t popular, but it IS the future. We are going to see a lot more of it. So figure out how to make it work now, don’t back down only to mess it up on your next try.

Ben:

I have no doubts that within the next few weeks, most of the problems surrounding SimCity’s disastrous launch will be solved. They clearly misjudged the demand, and were left holding the bag when the allocated servers were crushed under the weight of the millions of customers pouring in, eager to get their SimCity fix. EA is pouring their efforts into damage control, adding servers as fast as they can while offering free games to affected customers.

Their efforts will certainly help in the long run, but it’s not the most efficient solution available. You and I both know that the latest SimCity was built to be played online, cooperating with friends and strangers to build the most effective region, but releasing an offline patch would go a long way toward comforting the playerbase. It turns their game into more than an error screen when the servers are full or under maintenance, and silences the critics of the “always-online” model. Even if there weren’t server issues, there will always be players who are determined to play by themselves, despite the intrinsically worse experience.

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What are the chances of these troubles damaging Maxis’s reputation, and the sales of any future always-online games?

Colin:

I think there will be a lot of aesthetic damage, but real damage? No. There will be a lot of people on the internet crying about it for quite a while, and that is unfortunate. That may sting the old pride. But these are the people who cried about Diablo, and then spent all the money they had on it. I love em, but man, hardcore gamers are usually all bark, no bite. Or at least not enough bite to keep Diablo from setting some sales records.

Mind you, this is assuming this all has a happy ending. The last impression is the lasting impression. If the game gets ironed out in the end things will be peachy keen. If they don’t fix this… well, yes. Maxis and always-online games have a big problem on their hands. Selling a defective product and never fixing it would pretty much destroy any respect they had in the industry.

Ben:

In the short term, Maxis will take a beating. Customers can’t play the brand-new, $60 game they just bought, and they have every right to be fuming about that. However, over the coming months, as they continue to tweak the game and it starts to run smoothly for everyone, the furor will die down. The game will still be a massive financial success, and we’ll likely see Maxis release a wide range of expansions. They’ll still have their detractors, but the world at large will forgive them and move on.

It also seems likely that this event will do little to slow our advancement toward an always-online future. Most of the industry is moving online with digital downloads and cloud streaming, and since servers can be used to offset some of the technical requirements found in most games, we’ll see more and more titles that ask users to keep a constant Internet connection handy. We’re simply experiencing the growing pains associated with a new technology.

Users have every right to worry about it souring their favorite pastime, but despite what some loudmouthed member of a message board might preach, developers aren’t trying to ruin our experience. They just want to make awesome games that everyone will enjoy, and if they think a constant Internet connection helps them achieve that goal, we should be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and judge the execution.

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How necessary is always-online DRM as a solution to the problem of piracy?

Colin:

Necessary. Pirates are a tremendous problem. But how is EA’s solution? Half. Assed. Fighting piracy with anti-piracy measures is like trying to blow out a fire. If you don’t blow hard enough, you’re just fanning the flames. Pirates are savvy users of tech, or at least friends of savvy users of tech, and building a chest-high wall to try to stop them is a joke. They will hop right over it, and it is only your legitimate customers that will suffer. If you are going to try to fight piracy, you need something that shuts them down, hard, and does so without pissing off the people that actually do pay for their copies.

Steam is a part of the solution. Valve’s digital distribution platform has done wonders to make PC gaming more appealing, easy, and secure, but you can’t rest on that. It takes two to tango, and if your partner doesn’t know the steps, you’re just going to trip over yourself. Developers working in concert with Valve both need to have solid plans to fight piracy, they can’t just count on Gabe Newell to watch their asses.

Server side processing is the single best solution. Lighten the workload on your customer’s computer, provide better features that way, and make always-online an inseparable part of the code and package. And if you’re not going to do that, don’t screw around with anti-piracy at all. You’re just going to piss people off, and lose sales and goodwill.

Ben:

It took me a long time to realize that piracy doesn’t have a universal solution. What works for one developer doesn’t necessarily work for the other. I’ve seen some creators lose their homes because they were too trusting, while others made it big, relying on the honesty of their fans. Always-online DRM may be one of the most effective ways to keep illegitimate copies at bay, but it also angers customers who believe it violates their rightful ownership of whatever they buy.

How do you make an always-online game without angering fans? You give them something that normal methods of distribution or protection can’t provide. Steam is an incredibly strict platform, yet it’s adored by almost everyone because it provides a level of convenience that’s hard to find elsewhere. Steam games are easy to install, update automatically, and often sync your progress to their cloud servers. It’s a much more pleasant experience than piracy will ever provide, and doesn’t treat customers like criminals.

Blizzard tried something different for Diablo III; its servers accomplished much of the background technical work traditionally handled by the player’s computer. This allowed weaker computers like the MacBook Air to run this technically advanced game with relative ease, and kept users from avoiding the consequences of death. Maxis is also utilizing server infrastructure, but in addition to propping up weaker PCs, it allows them to try exciting things with their brand-new “GlassBox” engine that even the most powerful rigs would struggle to accomplish without cloud server support. How many city-building simulators can claim to track 100,000 individual citizens at once, in addition to all the other advanced calculations involved with creating a thriving ecosystem?

Unfortunately, Maxis have been unable to effectively communicate this to consumers, so they’re experiencing a fiery backlash from hundreds of voices wondering why they can’t just play their game offline. You can create the world’s most awe-inspiring feature, but it won’t mean much if no one knows why it’s so special.