At E3 2012 last summer, we had a chance to check out the latest game in development at Maxis, a relaunch of SimCity. We enjoyed what we saw, finding it fun and promising. It seemed to be on the right track to offer a load of new features built upon the GlassBox game engine, while streamlining and improving the best parts of the original games we loved so much.
There was one feature which always concerned us though: SimCity only works if you're connected to EA's servers. Call it what you will, but this form of DRM had a large segment of the fanbase up in arms. What if I want to play by myself somewhere without internet? What if the servers go dark? Look what happened to Diablo 3, right? EA didn't listen and they certainly didn't learn and now everyone is suffering for it.
When Maxis devs took to Reddit for an AMA (Ask Me Anything) two months ago, legions of gamers asked, even begged to make the game playable offline. The entire AMA turned into an attack on DRM, generating nothing but bad PR for the game. Here's just a segment of the sort of responses:
And every single one of these Redditors was absolutely right. SimCity launched Tuesday and since that day the game has simply not worked. It's a disaster. Server issues - ones that everyone with common sense predicted - hampered the launch. Players can't sign in or they're getting booted mid-game, the servers were taken down entirely for a period of time, and most unforgivably, players are even losing their progress. For obvious reasons, the user scores on Metacritic are as low as can be (see below), and media outlets reviewing the product (service?) don't know how to handle the situation.
How does one review a game that does not work? How do we objectively review a game that players purchase for their own money that does not work on their own computer unless they connect to EA's service, a service that can end (or not work) at any time? It's an interesting and relevant, if scary, part of the industry now. Publishers push anti-consumer practices such as this on players so they can maintain a sense of control, prevent piracy, and monetize their products. It's the reality of free-to-play and social games in a connected world.
The problem is, SimCity is not free-to-play.
Paying customers are not getting what they paid for, and understandably, there are consumers looking for a refund. Fortunately, EA global community manager for Origin, Marcel Hatam, understands this and on the day of launch, recommended on the official SimCity forums that if players feel let down, they should seek a refund:
Except, you can't. That very same post was edited and now reads "3.) Please review our refund policy here: https://help.ea.com/article/returns-and-cancellations". Hatam said users can seek a refund but they actually cannot. Just check out Origin's infuriating tweets:
Bought a game, cannot play it, cannot get a refund. One of the world's biggest video game publishers, commanding one of the largest player bases across a wide range of mobile, social and other platform products could not launch SimCity, despite their experience in online environments and despite seeing this happen last year with Blizzard's launch of Diablo III.
We can dissect, analyze and complain for days on why this happened and why it was preventable, but for players, the immediate concern is what's being done about it right now. Polygon - who scored the game with a 9.5/10 then lowered it to 8/10 - got their hands on an internal memo sent out to the dev team by Maxis general manager Lucy Bradshaw, and needless to say, they're feeling the pain:
"I'd like to say that it's not fair – that the game score shouldn't be punished for a server problem. But it is fair."
"SimCity is an online game and critics and consumers have every right to expect a smooth experience from beginning to end. I and the Maxis team take full responsibility to deliver on our promise."
"Trust that we're working as hard as possible to make sure everyone gets to experience the amazing game we built in SimCity."
"Maxis is working 24/7 to deliver on our promise."
[Update (March 7) - Polygon has re-updated their SimCity review, lowering the score again to 4/10].
As for the questions everyone wants answered, we don't have answers and that's an equally important issue to recognize. Kotaku sent the following questions to EA representatives and paying consumers deserve answers, especially when they cannot attain refunds:
1) Despite EA's experience with online games and the precedent of Activision's shaky Diablo III launch for that always-online game, EA's now had an always-online game that players have been struggling to connect to for three days. How did this happen? How was EA not better prepared?
2) EA statements have indicated that server maintenance is ongoing. But as it stands right now you have paying customers who can't play the game they paid for. What is EA doing to make that up to the customers?
3) SimCity uses its online connection to connect player cities and support online challenges, but it seems clear now that some sort of offline mode would appease many fans. Is EA going to enable this option for the game?
4) Part of the anger I see over this is the assumption that this is, ultimately a DRM step that is only hurting valid, paying customers. How does EA see the DRM aspect of this?
5) What changes is EA implementing to keep this from happening again?
Here's Bradshaw's response which avoids the questions and completely fails to put fans at ease:
Thousands of players across the world are playing and having a good experience — in fact, more than 700,000 cities have been built by our players in just 24 hours. But many are experiencing server instability and consequently, the rollout in North America has been challenging. It's also now evident that players across Europe and Asia are experiencing the same frustration. Our priority now is to quickly and dramatically increase the number and stability of our servers and, with that, the number of players who can simultaneously access the game. We added servers today, and there will be several more added over the weekend. We're working as hard as possible to make sure everyone gets to experience the amazing game we built in SimCity.
No one cares how many cities were built when they cannot connect. Players want answers, their money back, or to just play the game and they're not getting any of these things. The publisher and developer have punished players with this system, a system they need to buy into, and look what's come of it. Not only are the paying players hurting, and not only are the developers dealing with unimaginable stress levels and working hard to rectify the issue, but retail partners are also suffering.
In an email to its LinkShare program affiliates that was leaked to Polygon, EA Origin has directly asked that partners "please stop actively promoting the game," explaining that they've "deactivated all Sim City text links and creative and we ask you to please remove any copy promoting SimCity from your website for the time-being."
"To be clear we are continuing to payout commissions on all SimCity sales that are referred, however we are requesting that you please stop actively promoting the game. We will notify you as soon as the SimCity marketing campaigns have been resumed and our promotional links are once again live in the Linkshare interface. We apologize for any inconveniences that this may cause, and we thank you for your cooperation."
And to think, if EA and Maxis simply let players play offline, like all of the classic SimCity games, and just as many players asked for before launch, none of this would have happened.
SimCity will get more servers this weekend and it won't be long before the online "service" works as intended, but the game and its failed launch serves of another example of what happens when publishers try to control players with anti-consumer practices. There's no benefit to players forcing them online and our question is, what happens when EA stops supporting the game down the road?
Follow me on Twitter @rob_keyes and let me know your thoughts on the SimCity situation!
For a little light and fun read on the SimCity franchise:
[Update (March 8) - Lucy Bradshaw posted an official SimCity update to apologize for the situation and reiterate that they're continuing to work towards building up server capacity. EA will be offering a free PC game to players who've registered their game prior to March 18th]
Header art from idealimus