SimCity Blackout Is Just One More DRM Disaster
By Chris Kohler
“Just so you know,” my fiancee said to me, “you’re going to lose me to SimCity.”
This was no idle threat. Throughout our relationship I had already lost her to Skyrim for roughly 150 hours and to Diablo III for something approximating that. I am happy to play a game for a few hours and then move on to the next one. She plays fewer games, but exhausts every last drop of enjoyment out of them in marathon sessions that would make Rand Paul blush. This was my fair warning that she expected SimCity, the first edition of the classic metropolis-building simulator in 10 years, to be one of those releases with her sleeping about three hours a night, more as a formality than anything else.
She’d played the beta, her city falling victim to meteor showers and zombie attacks. She knew how to avoid those mistakes at the big show. She’d conspired with our friends Dan and Stan to link their cities up to form Danville, Stanville and Wedgeville, collectively the Tri-State Area. She was ready to stop dreaming and start building.
As you might imagine, this is not what happened next. Electronic Arts’ long-awaited release of SimCity on Tuesday should have been an occasion for a worldwide collective all-nighter of urban planning, a nonstop bacchanal of factory building, endless intricate min-maxing of grids of pavement. 12 a.m. Eastern Tuesday morning should have been SimCity’s finest hour.
Instead, the whole operation seized up and shit the bed. EA, a technology company with a market capitalization of over $5 billion, could not muster the online servers necessary to handle an influx of players looking to build their cities. This was entirely a problem of EA’s own making, as SimCity was not designed with an offline mode. Even if you don’t want to team up with others and join your cities together, you can’t just build your personal metropolitan layouts in peace: Every player must be constantly connected online, as a draconian step to crack down on piracy of this PC-only game.
Hey, launch hiccups happen, right? Everybody all tries to connect at once, servers get throttled, and you figure out a way to make it work. Trouble is, as of this writing EA hasn’t figured out a thing. SimCity is still totally busted. It’s difficult to log in: Nearly all of the servers are full, and when a player does find one that’s available, attempting to log in usually throws back an error. And you can’t try again until a 20-minute counter finishes ticking down.
Ah, but if the servers are full, that means at least some people are playing the game, right? Yes, but not really. Players are finding that the servers, choking to death on the player load, aren’t saving their game progress. After spending hours playing through the game, many players are confronted with an error screen, forcing them to choose to either roll back their city to a previous save point or trash the whole thing.
In other words, SimCity is currently in the midst of a disaster that makes zombie attacks and nuclear meltdowns seem tame. Electronic Arts’ attempts to fix the problem have not only been unsuccessful, they’ve been making the SimCity blackout even worse, at least from a public relations standpoint: EA said Thursday that it would actually begin removing features from the game in an attempt to get it to run. At first it was non-core features like achievements and high score leaderboards. By the end of the day EA had ripped out the “Cheetah” gameplay mode, which speeds up the passage of time so you can develop your city more quickly.
What’s next? Will EA determine that the skyscrapers are just too tall?
In response to Wired’s request for comment, an EA spokesperson referred us to a blog post by SimCity senior producer Kip Katsarelis, who wrote that Electronic Arts would be adding new servers until the player base could be fully accommodated, and that it would prioritize stabilizing this situation before it turned the game’s features back on. She did not give a timeframe for the resolution.
There won’t be any long-term repercussions, my now long-suffering fiancee said as we drove to work Thursday morning, as the blackout stretched into its third day. There had certainly been short-term ones: On Metacritic, the game currently has over 1800 user reviews that average out to a 1.7 out of 10. And Amazon removed both the downloadable and physical versions of the game from its store, with a note that reads, in part, “at this time we do not know when the issue will be fixed.”
But once this is all solved, she said, it’ll be like nothing happened. She has a point. This is hardly the first DRM-related controversy that’s come up as a new game was released. Remember the great wailing and rending of garments over the launch of Half-Life 2 in 2004? That game simply required you to pop on Valve’s server for a split-second to do a one-time confirmation that you had a genuine game, and then you could get to playing. But gamers, used to instant gratification, were up in arms when this process resulted in some slight delays. “Message boards on Half-Life 2 fan sites were buzzing with talk about the delays and the frustration people felt about being kept from playing,” the BBC News reported at the time. It reported that fake programs promising to unlock your copy of Half-Life but that actually contained a virus were spreading around to impatient players.
And now? The once-reviled Steam service, required to play Half-Life and looked upon as useless bloatware in 2004, is now a beloved addition to any gamer’s desktop. Half-Life 2 was celebrated as the game of the year.
To take a more recent (and more closely analogous) example, there was Blizzard’s launch of Diablo III last spring. The situation was almost exactly the same: Fans, already upset that Blizzard required them to be connected online to play the role-playing game, got their games home and encountered what would become known as Error 37, a full-to-bursting server that rejected their advances. What happened then? Within a few days, Blizzard solved the problems and all frustrations were quickly forgotten. Diablo III went on to sell 12 million copies in 2012, the biggest PC game of the year by a country mile.
The lesson there was: If you screw up and don’t properly plan for the launch of your service, so what? If the game’s good enough, players will stop complaining the second they get in.
Of course, Diablo didn’t also have the issue of erasing players’ progress. Another recent game that did was Ubisoft’s PC version of Assassin’s Creed II, released in 2010. If your internet connection dropped during play for some reason, you’d immediately lose all your progress since the last save point.
What happened there? In fact, the bad PR and outcry from fans over an anti-piracy scheme that seemed to hurt legitimate players far more than it did pirates caused Ubisoft to reconsider. By the next year, it had dropped the always-online schemes, and Assassin’s Creed III only required a single activation.
So maybe there’s a chance that this debacle, whenever it ends, will conclude with Electronic Arts allowing players to enjoy the game without having to connect online. Or maybe EA is willing to suffer through weeks of terrible optics if it means achieving the long-term goal of converting traditionally single-player genres into online experiences. And SimCity is pretty good. The Metacritic user scores might be low, but the reviews from writers who played it before the public got in and overloaded everything were universally positive. So it all might blow over, in the end, with nothing changed.
Either way, I’ll know when the worst is truly over: It’ll be when I look around and realize I haven’t seen my fiancee in days. Then everything will be fine.