Maxis Insider Tells RPS: SimCity Servers Not Necessary

By John Walker on March 12th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

In all the fuss and mess of the disastrous SimCity launch, one refrain has been repeated again and again. While legions may be begging for an offline mode, EA representatives have been abundantly clear that this simply isn’t possible. Maxis’ studio head, Lucy Bradshaw, has told both Polygon and Kotaku that they “offload a significant amount of the calculations to our servers”, and that it would take “a significant amount of engineering work from our team to rewrite the game” for single player.

A SimCity developer has got in touch with RPS to tell us that at least the first of these statements is not true. He claimed that the server is not handling calculations for non-social aspects of running the game, and that engineering a single-player mode would require minimal effort.

Our source, who we have verified worked directly on the project but obviously wishes to remain anonymous, has first-hand knowledge of how the game works. He has made it absolutely clear to us that this repeated claim of server-side calculations is at odds with the reality of the project he worked on. Our source explains:

“The servers are not handling any of the computation done to simulate the city you are playing. They are still acting as servers, doing some amount of computation to route messages of various types between both players and cities. As well, they’re doing cloud storage of save games, interfacing with Origin, and all of that. But for the game itself? No, they’re not doing anything. I have no idea why they’re claiming otherwise. It’s possible that Bradshaw misunderstood or was misinformed, but otherwise I’m clueless.”

People were already perplexed by EA’s explanation of the impossibility of offline play. Kotaku ran a series of tests today, seeing how the game could run without an internet connection, finding it was happy for around 20 minutes before it realised it wasn’t syncing to the servers. Something which would surely be impossible were the servers co-running the game itself. Markus “Notch” Persson just tweeted to his million followers that he managed to play offline too, despite EA’s claims. And now with the information from our source, it would seem the claims just don’t hold water.

So what are the servers doing? Well, alongside the obvious, of being involved in allowing players to share the same maps for their cities, and processing imports and exports between them, they’re really there to check that players aren’t cheating or hacking. However, these checks aren’t in real-time – in fact, they might take a few minutes, so couldn’t be directly involved in your game.

“Because of the way Glassbox was designed, simulation data had to go through a different pathway. The game would regularly pass updates to the server, and then the server would stick those messages in a huge queue along with the messages from everyone else playing. The server pulls messages off the queue, farms them out to other servers to be processed and then those servers send you a package of updates back. The amount of time it could take for you to get a server update responding to something you’ve just done in the game could be as long as a few minutes. This is why they disabled Cheetah mode, by the way, to reduce by half the number of updates coming into the queue.”

Clearly an offline game that included a single-player simulation of the region system derived from multiplayer would be more challenging to develop, but our source assured us that it was far from impossible.

So how difficult would it be for EA to create a single-player game that simply did away with the multiplayer-derived aspects and just let us build? It seems that lies somewhere between “easy peasy” and Bradshaw’s claims of “significant engineering”. According to our source:

“It wouldn’t take very much engineering to give you a limited single-player game without all the nifty region stuff.”

EA’s claims about the necessity of online play – claims that more people are seeing for themselves not to be true, just by running the game with the internet cable yanked out – seem inexplicable.

We’d obviously be very interested to hear a proper explanation.

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321 Comments »

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  1. dtek says:

    Great summary of how I feel about the whole situation. Having created a handful of cities, both with and without a working connection to the internet, I can’t find any difference in the way my city runs up to the point the game phones home. It really is a shame Maxis was sold back in the late 90’s, but that was a different time when EA wasn’t such a joke.

    And thanks for the free EA game btw! I think I’ll take the free game coupon apology from EA, print it out, mail it to every executive. In the strongly worded letter that follows it, I’ll have just a little bit of crap smeared on the bottom of the page. Just enough to smell when you’re reading it, but maybe not really apparent that it’s there. I would go to those lengths to get a point across as it pertains to my beloved childhood game.

  2. Strangerator says:

    EA involved in unethical behavior? Next thing you know I’ll be hearing that there is corruption in politics…

  3. JamTheFab says:

    Then why did they disable Cheetah Speed? To sale that the servers are needed? I call this source BULL. They probably don’t even work at Maxis. Just some guy who thinks he knows stuff.

    • Kamos says:

      As the article itself explains (it would have been nice if you had actually read it), the cheetah speed was disabled to lower the load on the servers. It also says that the servers perform minor tasks, such as handling the communication between cities, contrary to what was advertised by EA, that is, that the servers performed a substantial part of the simulation.

      • Premium User Badge

        Malibu Stacey says:

        It would have been nice if you had actually read it

        Sadly as this place gets more popular, the likelihood of the above appears to decrease.

      • Julio Biason says:

        Hm…

        1. Servers store messages about events and then process them.
        2. Cheeta speed probably generates more events per second than any other speed.
        3. More events means servers receiving more messages per second.

        I think you’re in the right track, sir.

  4. Yosharian says:

    Holy crap, incoming shitstorm…

  5. kyvitti says:

    this was the first game i bought when i bought my first PC. ten years and you cant make a F**KIN singleplayer game. WTF WTF WTF WTF

  6. kyvitti says:

    i will boycott and never purchase it till they do make a single player version i cant stand some of the people online like ADHD kids that cant stop hopping around and doing retarded crap on a FPS “ONLINE” multiplayer game. F**K MP, i have hours of fun Gaming all by by damn self. and had a ton of fun ALL BY MYSELF playin SIMCITY4 Rush Hour. Thank God i still own my copy from a decade ago.

  7. Beelzebud says:

    This is what it looks like when a company only cares for short-term gains, and doesn’t give a crap about longevity. I’m sure some MBAs are getting rich right about now, at everyone else’s expense.

  8. Morcane says:

    People need to let go and move on with their lives.

    SimCity 5 is a crappy game, it won’t get any better.

  9. Oryon says:

    EA lying to their customers through their teeth? What utter nonsense!… http://imgur.com/uhBneD5

    Seriously though how much more until people stop validating this kind of crap by not giving them any more money.

    • SanguineAngel says:

      Haha that’s pretty funny

      I do wonder if certain employees are making the practice so obvious accidentally on purpose in an act of not quite open rebellion. I mean, this sort of thing has been going on for years and years and it is very common – almost expected. I’ve known publishers who have had “reviewer wars” on competing products; creating numerous fake accounts to not only give their own products positive reviews but to also slate the opposition.

      So to see so many cock ups over this on the fake feedback side is strange.

  10. BrightCandle says:

    There isn’t just the problem of sometimes on DRM there is also the problem that the game mechanics are broken. While we may be blaming EA for the DRM being present they certainly aren’t responsible for small city sizes and the broken game mechanics. Indeed if you look at the EA statements about servers its all about Maxis adding more, Maxis are the ones implementing everything here and they are the ones that implemented the sometimes online DRM that broke with the release of this game.

    EA are evil little critters and they have forced this rubbish out the door but Maxis are the ones that accepted it and shipped this product. Credit needs to be placed where credit is due. This insider has told us what we already knew and already said months before the game was even released. Whistleblowing to try and make EA look bad will only do the same to Maxis because its their engineering skills that seem to be lacking here and causing all the problems. Presumably they chose what the beta looked like and they are the ones that failed to produce a decent test of their systems. Maxis is 99% at fault for all the problems we are seeing, not EA. Obviously EA owns them but it appears the Maxis studio is rotten.

  11. Premium User Badge

    Zephro says:

    Called it.

  12. Iskariot says:

    EA has become the worst gaming company on the planet.
    They are unreliable, untrustworthy money grabbers.
    I am glad I decided not to buy ME3 and Sim City.

  13. Superabound says:

    Never buy another EA or Maxis game again. How fucking stupid do they think people are? A large portion of the simulation fanbase are nerdy computer engineers who figure out shit like this for fun, OF COURSE someone would eventually discover/reveal that the PR people are lying.

  14. SanguineAngel says:

    To those adamant that this connectivity is solely about Piracy – I would suggest that that, at least, is actually a minor concern. The real reasons publishers are desperate to force all games online all the time I suspect is far more direct – they want to be able to continually sell to us with microtransactions and they want to control the lifespan of content and control the way we use their software. Piracy is also an issue but i think it must be a minor concern.

    I don’t think it’s a conspiracy or anything. Obviously they won’t say that sort of thing outright since a normal consumer won’t react well. But really – it just makes sense. A company that is solely interested in money is going to use all the tools available to it to make money. Most publishers don’t really care about games at all.

  15. Lemming says:

    I guess I’ll patiently await an offline-crack for for this before I purchase then!

    The thing that amuses (perplexes?) me the most about this is how EA thought they could ever bullshit the entire internet. Seriously guys, history is not on your side.

  16. sophof says:

    The good news I get from this is that the developers are as frustrated as I imagined them to be. Well, at least 1 is, but that’s probably an indication of more. The fact that they are not really on-board with ideas such as these is actually a big deal.
    There might even be an employee built offline-mode crack someday, although the dangers involved for that person are probably significant.

  17. jmtd says:

    You’ve given away their gender! ‘he/she’ would better protect their anonymity.

    • Julio Biason says:

      … unless the informer is a “she”, in which this is a clever plot in misdirecting the source.

      But, at the same time, if it’s a “he”, people may think they say “he” in an attempt to make people think it is a “she”, as per above.

      IT HAS WORKED! YOU’VE GIVEN EVERYTHING AWAY! I KNOW WHERE THE POISON IS!

  18. Themadcow says:

    And yet I’d still say that Dragon Age 2 was a far bigger kick in the teeth to it’s fanbase than this game is.

  19. JD Ogre says:

    Congratulations on falling for EA’s attempt to shift the blame.

  20. lightfoot256 says:

    The moment they introduce offline play I’ll be happy to hand over my money; until then I’m happy with SC4 — especially now that I’ve learned it runs great in VirtualBox on a mac :D

  21. Judas says:

    EA lies to customers?

  22. Premium User Badge

    Erithtotl says:

    I think this surprises absolutely zero people.

    The claims to the contrary were all couched in the kind of ‘plausible deniability’ speech that all marketing, PR and even project management people speak.

    If EA really wanted to shift the workload to the server, they should have made the game largely streaming and the UI a thin client. This would have given the added benefit of allowing them to make Android, iPad and other versions of the game and people could play with their friends on other systems. But clearly they did not do that.

  23. warsarge says:

    Requires large amounts of server resources? Nope. From the http://www.simcity.com/en_US/blog/article/simcity-update-5 Simcity web site blog post, posted by the Assistant Producer Kyle Dunham:

    …we’ve begun upgrading several of our servers to both increase their capacity and mitigate connection issues. This process has been going well and we successfully upgraded 10 servers yesterday: NA West 2, EU West 1-4, EU East 2-3, and Oceanic 1-2. Today we’re working on upgrading our remaining servers, so bear with us as we take them offline one-by-one to perform these upgrades. While this is going on, we also released the new server South America today, bringing our total server count up to 24, including our Test server.

    24 servers (NOW), including a test, so 23 production. It’s hard to tell what they started with, but digging through the 5 updates, I get:

    Update 1 – Added 4 new servers (EU West 3/4, EU East 3, Oceanic 2)
    Update 2 – No mention of new servers
    Update 3 – 1 new server (Antarctica)
    Update 4 – No mention of new servers
    Update 5 – 1 new server (South America)

    So it sounds like they started with no more than 17 production servers, and added 6 over the last few weeks.

    So 23 servers are running everything (registration, authentication, cross player interactions, region stuff, etc) but the item that interests me the most is the region work. Which, even given the most beneficial “looking through a glass darkly” interpretation of EA’s claims, must be done server side. It requires to many horses or something.

    Taking away the overseas servers that I know about (EU East 1-3, EU West 1-4, Oceanic 1-2, Antarctica 1, and South America 1), that leaves 12 US servers.

    I’m having a hard time running a solid number to ground, but update 3 mentions “Tens of thousands of new players are logging in every day”, and update 4 says “…8 million hours of gameplay time”. Both updates may include all players (US, Europe, etc).

    But these numbers seem to indicate hundreds of thousands of players, and potentially tens of thousands playing at once.

    The region processing cannot be very CPU and/or RAM intensive at all. How could it be? 23 servers CPU’s and RAM for tens of thousands (at least) of players at once. The amount of CPU/RAM slice per player must be very thin indeed for this to work at all.

    And if the thin slice theory – (TM) is correct, than once again, I circle back to how come this couldn’t have been done on the client? The client whose available resources in CPU and RAM are almost certainly going to exceed the very small amount available per player on the server?

    Again, I come to the conclusion that the server component is completely about control, and not in the least about offloading processing power.

    Like everything I post, everything above is my opinion, and not a statement of fact.

  24. Premium User Badge

    Continuity says:

    Damn it EA, always going the extra mile to earn my disdain.

  25. iainb says:

    EA lies? Shocking! Shocking I tell you!

  26. waltC says:

    It is indeed a craptastic game design. I agree that it should take minimal effort to create a local, true single-player mode that doesn’t require an Internet connection/network. EA shot itself in the foot here by not shipping the game that way. If they wanted to go multiplayer with some network-only features and approaches–fine. What’s killing them with this game is the fact that they neglected the local, single-player, offline mode of play–which is precisely what many were expecting the core game to be. The player should make the choice about multiplayer–not EA. It’s fundamentally dishonest to trade on the reputation of a single-player, local simulation like SimCity, only to require a network which is unnecessarily invoked in the game to create DRM of the worst kind–a game that won’t even *run* if the EA servers are down or are taken down permanently.

    Also, EA has made direct statements to the extent of of stating that the network was “required” because the mean PC hardware capability was so low in performance terms that that the online servers were “required” for number crunching…;) Yet, many of EA’s games require or recommend and sometimes actually use far more resources than this game requires (as the requirements are listed on the SimCity website.) There’s no reason saves need to go exclusively into “the cloud,”–EA should follow Steam and use the “cloud” (such a silly aphorism) merely as a back-up to local save game storage. As well, the game design deliberately truncates city size and game performance because the network becomes the bottleneck as opposed to the local computer on which the game is being run.

    Why would EA undercut such a powerful simulation franchise in this way? Did the company delude itself that no one would notice? Hah! It seems like everyone and his mother has noticed. EA should fix this. We’ll see.

  27. Derek Smart says:

    It’s bullshit.

    The game is a standard client-server architecture design that EA shoe-horned an “Always-on” DRM solution to. That, on top of the crap that is Origin, is the root of the problem.

    Any dev with access to tools (e.g. Wireshack) should be able to prove quite easily that SimCity can run off-line for an extended period of time. Like any DRM which requires an Internet connection (e.g. some versions of Starforce, SecuROM require it), it will eventually try to phone home, not be able to, then quit.

    Part of that phoning home is not just DRM, but also the game’s ability to update it’s servers with your in-progress data.

    The game does require an active internet connection to run, but NOT for the reasons that thus far EA/Maxis have given.

    If you regard the game as as pseudo-MMO of sorts, you’d at least buy that notion because after all, an MMO needs an always-on connection.

  28. avo says:

    Cue console version in a year’s time not requiring always on

  29. securitywyrm says:

    Wow. My opinion of EA was “Meh” prior to purchasing SimCity, dropped to “Screw these guys” after SimCity purchase, went back up to “they suck” (between ‘screw these guys’ and ‘meh’) when they announced free game, but now that it has been revealed that they’re straight-up lying about game features, I’m at “I was ripped off” and will be pursuing refund for SimCity based on false advertising.

  30. boschefreddy says:

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  31. Sman says:

    Wow so many people saying so many things about single player, multiplayer or always online drm. I as a consumer reading this signed up just to post my opinion.

    I preordered the game even with my hate-hate relationship for EA (played the cancel series of sims online if anyone remembers) because I love maxis and sim games. I also liked the fact that the game was portrayed as single or multiplayer. I loved the idea maxis had made the game this way. Having my friends around playing with me sounded like the best news that I have ever heard. Sim city of course is a single player game but being able to do co-op on bigger events for the region was nice.

    Not sure how it stuck in my head that we would be able to design a region or design our own city but that is not the case. Maybe previous models made me think a newer version wouldn’t exclude features they had already mastered. Or why I thought that traffic and people would react the same since it worked in the past. Or why I even thought the economics of the game wouldn’t die as your city aged. With that being said anyone who says this game is not broken is an idiot.

    On the note its designed to be a multiplayer game and not a single player I understand the point of view. Although the multiplayer that was promised to me doesn’t even work. You can send your friends money or trade between cities! (was always needed) Well that’s a falsey, only 1 time out of dozens of times I have tried did this feature work. Okay it the online requirement that makes it work! Why the hell is it not working if that’s the only server sided calculations the server has to preform. We are not talking about running mass battle, epic dungeons, or even loading 200 trillion fake sims on their side of the servers. Great works don’t recognize resources, other cities never get resources, and the population transfer of workers that should be going to other cities in the region are not.

    All I want is what I paid for and I think that is the same as everyone here. We want a game that is not broken whether it be single or multiplayer. We want what EA promised in its advertisements. I am obviously oblivious about DRM until now, but I can promise future looking I will not be including myself in preorder of anything with that stench. As for EA I have refused to give them money for years. Why after all this time that I finally changed my mind? I guess the fantasy that Maxis had any control over the game that it launched.

    If anyone from Maxis is actually reading this I have a suggestion. Whether or not its public tell EA that you want to create your game your way. (fuck off nicely) Don’t be a puppet and let them ruin a great franchise. I recall Maxis fighting for stuff when EA first bought Maxis and I hope someone there continues to fight for whats right not only for us as customers but you as the creators of the series that has started such a great debate.

    Sincerely,
    Ahh who gives a fuck~

  32. Branthog says:

    Now that we’ve dealt with all the lies about DRM and always-on and server-side-processing, can we move on to all raging about how shit the actual game itself is? Fixing all of these connection/server/always-on things are fairly meaningless, when SimCity — the actual game underneath it all — is an utter piece of shit that undermines the last two and a half decades of the franchise by turning it into a shitty Facebook game (at best).

  33. Virtuous says:

    The truth has finally been revealed. EA has been caught lying once again! On top of that the game design is crap. EA layed a big one this time.