SimCity Vs The People: Why Apologies Aren’t Enough

By Nathan Grayson on March 7th, 2013 at 10:00 pm.

Here’s an unpopular opinion: I think EA’s done a decent job with SimCity’s launch.

Aha! It’s also a misleading opinion, because I’m definitely not referring to the part where servers gasped and puked and died under the immense strain of North America’s unquenchable entertainment lust, recently leading to halting of sales on Amazon, among other things. It’s what happened afterward that sort of impressed me. EA responded fairly quickly (especially by its usual standards), communicated clearly what was happening, apologized profusely, went through the five stages of grief, and offered refunds to some people (not all, perplexingly) who felt like the early meteor bombardment of issues wasn’t worth waiting out. As far as disaster control goes, I’m more than willing to concede that EA’s mostly Doing It Right. But that does not – even in the slightest – change the fact that there shouldn’t have ever been a disaster in the first place.

To hear most major publishers tell it, “always online” is synonymous with “The Future.” It’s the greatest logical extension of “games as a service,” after all. And, in part, EA has offered acceptable service here. It’s owned up to what’s going on, kept players in the loop via various social media channels, and offered concrete explanations for near-comically instant server collapse like:

“Pre-Loads: We agree, pre-loads are very important, which is why we usually offer them (as we did for all of our last big releases like Crysis 3 and Dead Space 3). This didn’t come together for SimCity unfortunately, for which I again apologize.”

EA’s handling it, in other words. It’s on the case. But here’s the problem: that’s the publisher acting as a service – not the game. Which, of course, brings us to the elephant in the room: this just keeps on happening. Since time immemorial (or iMMOmorial, I guess), servers have gone toe-to-toe with day-one stampedes in much the same fashion as a turtle against an 18-wheeler: by, er, turtling. We, meanwhile, have been conditioned to react accordingly, with all manner of requisite gasps, averted gazes, and muscles clenched until they scream for reprieve. Then nature runs its course, and developers and publishers alike scramble to glue one billion bits of finely pulped turtle back together again.

Even between recent landmark crashes of the titans like Diablo III and SimCity, there’s been noticeable improvement on that front. That’s good. I’m glad that’s happening. That said, let’s be real here: it’s utterly astounding that this area – cleanup after the nuclear meltdown – is where we’re charting the most progress. Why not before everything goes kerplooey? Why does history keep repeating itself? Why do we keep starting at what’s essentially the same square one?

The cynical part of me wants to say it’s most cost-effective to weather the early storm with minimal resources and then settle into a happy rhythm after a couple rocky weeks. The flood recedes, life goes on, etc. But, whether or not that is indeed the case, the end result so far has been the same: services that are, at best, eventually functional – not good or great. And that’s no way to convince anyone you’ve got a worthwhile addition to their favorite franchise on your hands, let alone The Future.

A strong service – the kind people latch onto and ultimately demand as the norm – doesn’t just react. Its creators pay close attention, dream up intuitive new ideas, and actively seek to evolve whatever makes their underlying system preferable to the alternative (read: nothing). That’s why things like Facebook and Twitter were able to so deeply infiltrate our daily lives. That’s why iTunes and similar services made music sales viable again after peer-to-peer sharing terrified the music industry into sicking lawyers on everything with ears and a pulse. It’s why things like Spotify are supplanting them. To a lesser extent, it’s even why Steam rules PC gaming with a disarmingly gentle iron fist. The greatest weapon of a service is convenience. Once that takes the wheel, even features that are otherwise more expensive or intrusive tend to get a free pass into our hearts.

So why should we believe always online “games as a service” schemes are The Future when they can’t even get that incredibly fundamental tenet right – after years and years of allegedly trying, no less? Even setting aside the idea that features in the likes of Diablo III and SimCity arguably hurt their core experiences more than they help, the fact is, their basic functionality fails to make a compelling argument beyond “Deal with it [drops microphone, puts on sunglasses, rides away on world's smuggest eagle].” Not exactly the best first impression, huh?

As of now, I very much dislike always online requirements in games that are – based on their legacies – primarily single-player. I consider them a tremendous misstep, especially since they continue clinging to the notion that connected features are something to be shoved down my throat with all the care and subtlety of a watermelon making its journey down my gullet with the help of a sledgehammer. I want a choice, not an oppressive “take it or leave it” manifesto.

I also realize, however, that I haven’t seen a single one of these things stick their initial landings or catapult a preexisting series to new heights. And maybe it’s because they’re simply a bad fit or have been added foremost to stop piracy in its tracks, but who knows? I’d say my game time is probably weighted 70/30 in favor of single-player games, but I also understand that we live in a society that’s growing more connected by the day. And you know what? In many cases – for instance, aforementioned services like Spotify, Twitter, and even the prospect of things like Google Glass – I like that. On those fronts, the standard bearers are high-quality services that enrich my ability to communicate, learn, consume entertainment, and share things I care about with my friends on a daily basis. I’m a child of the digital age, a cyborg wannabe whose electrically humming veins cry out every time I go 20 minutes without checking Facebook. Who’s to say games can’t make something similar? Who’s to say they can’t make something better? Something that knits disparate elements of our day-to-day lives together just as seamlessly? With fun, no less?

So I don’t think I’m ready to declare this grand experiment the new Frankenstein’s monster on the block just yet. Do I want everything to be always connected forever no matter what? Of course not. And naturally, I’m still extremely worried about possibilities of server shutdowns when SimCity 2014 (or whatever they end up calling it) comes out, the hurdles always online creates for modding, and other incredibly pressing issues. But I’m also not opposed to the idea of some big-budget publishers having a go at it. Because somewhere, beneath all the baffling design decisions and gasping pieces of server wreckage, there might be an excellent evolution of a genre or game series just waiting to be unearthed.

You probably don’t agree with me. I don’t blame you. After SimCity’s initial stumble off a cliff into a nice, cushion-y pile of broken glass and shattered expectations, I barely even agree with me. That’s what happens when our only points of reference for, well, anything are achy, breaky, and half-thought-out. We eventually learn to go in expecting disaster after disaster. So far, unfortunately, we have not been wrong.

Good services just work. Sure, there’s a hiccup every once in a while, but by and large, they become nearly invisible to us. Part of the background. As if they were always there. However, so long as gaming’s variations on the theme continue to make grotesquely gelatinous slapping sounds as they bellyflop, they’ll never achieve that. So for crying out loud, everyone, get the basics right already. Because, as is, I have quite a bit of trouble declaring these things “growing pains” when I barely see any, you know, growth.

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293 Comments »

  1. Urfin says:

    Thank god for piracy, eh :)

  2. frightlever says:

    It’s like the prisoners dilemma. On the one hand you maximise your time with the game by buying early to make the most of the window of opportunity that EA will provide servers to run the game (what, typically three years?) on the other hand get in too soon and you’ll be maximising your frustration with the experience.

  3. Milky1985 says:

    ““Pre-Loads: We agree, pre-loads are very important, which is why we usually offer them (as we did for all of our last big releases like Crysis 3 and Dead Space 3). This didn’t come together for SimCity unfortunately, for which I again apologize.””

    If they are important they preytell why were they still not active yesterday, housemate got his copy of the game and couldn’t even INSTALL it from the disc because it was not release day yet!

    All they did by doing that is add another surge of server load by having everyone in the UK download at the same sodding time. But apparently its important, i don’t believe the “didn’t come together” either, they put the files on a server and let people download it, if they came out and said “we didn’t want people making server emulators early” i might have believed them.

  4. oceanclub says:

    Now, EA support staff are seemingly banning people for requesting refunds.

    http://www.dsogaming.com/news/sim-city-released-connectivity-issues-spotted-ea-refuses-refunds/
    P.

  5. Chris says:

    Ah, schadenfreude, it gives so much and asks so little.

  6. Spoon Of Doom says:

    It hurts me to see SimCity being violated like that. I’m a fan of the series, wasted countless hours with various iterations of the series, and when this one was announced after years of the apparent death of the series, I nearly shat my pants in joy.

    But apparently, the remains of the old Sim City from which they are cloning have been contaminated with something, producing the abomination that was SimCity Societies. Then they cleaned their test tubes, their needles and all of that stuff, brushed off the mold and insects covering the body and tried cloning again, but apparently it wasn’t enough and now new, horrible mutations are plaguing the actually good (even if not perfect) game underneath.

    It’s somewhat like an alternate version of Jurassic Park, where their first try in cloning dinosaurs gave them platypuses with some scales on their backs, and the second one left them with actual dinosaurs – but without legs, just laying there, rolling back and forth, with a single, misplaced arm growing out of their butt.
    Sure, you’ve waited so long for real dinosaurs to come back, and those technically are dinosaurs and are therefore kind of almost completely, but not entirely, unlike a thing which is a little bit awesome, but you wouldn’t really want them as pets and instead go with lizards or something.

    Which I guess would be SimCity 4 in this metaphor. I’m not sure. I’m too distracted by thinking about dinosaurs and why the lizards of my youth suddenly seem to have feathers in today’s literature. Seriously, raptors with feathers? This is not the world I grew up in.

  7. jalf says:

    The hilarious thing is that many gamers wouldn’t really mind games “as a service”, if that’s truly what we were offered. The only group which consistently fears and dislikes this is the publishers. They want us to pay for games as if they were a service (with monthly fees and/or microtransactions to secure a constant income stream), but they sure as hell don’t want to provide a service. Because a service implies effort, competence and guarantees. It implies that in return for our neverending stream of payments to them, they have to provide consistent and neverending content and playability. It implies that the servers have to be there whenever I want to connect to them, both at launch day (regardless of popularity/server load) and 7 years later when I decide to replay the game. And it implies that they maintain the game and update it and improve it. Even after the first three months.

    No publisher wants all that. Because delivering a game as a service means they have to actually do something in return for the supposedly greater and more long-lived revenue stream they demand.

    Entitlement meets incompetence, basically. We can’t do this, and we won’t do this, but we want all the advantages that we’d have gotten for doing it.

    • barcharcraz says:

      well said. Looking at a game like Anno 2070, which has always online DRM and is pretty much a game as a service we can see that there really is new content coming out and continued support. I think part of the problem is that nobody has really figured out how to make content quickly enough and polished enough to really make the whole service thing work. Even blizzard has trouble getting the right mix of content and release speed with WoW and they have been at it since 2004.

      • malkav11 says:

        Anno 2070 doesn’t have always-online DRM. It has an offline mode, it just disables certain features. It does do server checks and it’s lumbered with uPlay even on Steam, so it’s not real far short, but the distinction is still meaningful. A -lot- of the current issues with SimCity could be fixed if they had an offline mode, even if they still really wanted you to play online.

  8. Synesthesia says:

    I wonder what will happen to us people who dont live in europe or the US, whats gonna happen when we get low priority to their servers, and a laggy, crappy service? There are still oceans in the internet, these fuckers abide by them, and until internet services re completely ubiquitous, this is not a practice we should endorse.

    Fuck you ea, etc etc.

  9. theworm says:

    BTW Nathan, you’ve been quoted on the BBC (bottom of their article) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-21712910

    • Durkonkell says:

      I saw that. I don’t think they did RPS the courtesy of actually linking to the original article though, which I think is probably a bit rude.

      It read a bit like “we don’t have a proper games journalist here, so we nicked an opinion from somewhere that does”. I guess it’s their theoretical impartiality at work.

  10. Smashbox says:

    But Ann’s explanation didn’t make any sense!

  11. demicanadian says:

    Any body? What about Ann’s body? We want to see it.

  12. analydilatedcorporatestyle says:

    Any Pics of Ann? Most forums I inhabit it’s an unwritten rule that you have pics of Ladies

  13. tberg says:

    Annie are you ok? are you ok Annie?

  14. clive dunn says:

    You’ve been hit by
    You’ve been struck by
    A smooth criminal

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