By John Walker on April 22nd, 2013 at 1:00 pm.
Why has the SimCity story gone away? It’s a good question. And the answer for it reveals much about how both the games industry, and the games journalism industry, work.
In March, shortly after SimCity’s disastrous launch (servers couldn’t cope, the game barely ran, features had to be removed, and the always-on DRM was seriously crippling the game), EA and Maxis’ PR went into damage protection mode. And one refrain we saw over and over was a line from Maxis’ studio head, Lucy Bradshaw, that the ‘single-player’ game had to “offload a significant amount of the calculations to our servers.”
On 12th March, RPS revealed that this statement simply wasn’t true. Via a source from inside Maxis, we learned that the server was doing no such thing, and that the calculations were running on the player’s PC. Two days later these claims were confirmed by a modder who had the game running indefinitely offline. It was clear that the message coming from Maxis simply wasn’t true. (There’s no better round-up of the events than the one put together by Kotaku.)
(One thing that’s important to note here: That the claims weren’t true does not provide room to conclude that Bradshaw was “lying”. Not knowing the circumstances within Maxis at all, there’s no way to know that Bradshaw did not believe what she was saying to be entirely accurate. Miscommunication, deliberate misinformation, we just don’t know, and as such accusations don’t help this discussion.)
So what to do next? Via RPS, and much of the gaming press, the reality that the servers were not running offline calculations became widely understood. So how did EA or Maxis handle this situation? With silence.
And if simply telling the truth isn’t considered an available option, silence is by far the most effective response in this industry.
When RPS first broke the story, only a few other gaming sites picked up on it. It was a big story, unquestionably, so why was it left alone by so many? That breaks down into two parts. Firstly, and most importantly, the story was based on an anonymous source. We of course know who the source is, and verified it until we were very comfortable running the story. But that wasn’t possible for other sites – they had the choice of running the story based on a “rumour” from RPS, or not at all. And that’s understandable – repeating rumours is often the gaming press at its worst, and with no means to verify our story, repeating it could have been risky. It could easily have led to legal threats being thrown all over. Which brings us to the second part – they needed some sort of confirmation, or at the very least a response, from EA to offer ‘balance’.
Not reporting the story couldn’t be immediately dismissed as capitulation, being in the pocket of EA, cowardliness, etc. (Not that it excludes it, of course.) What most sites would have done was immediately fire off an email to EA and Maxis asking for them to provide comment. We, of course, had done the same. And here’s where the power of silence played its first part.
EA and Maxis simply ignored all those emails. Sites may have received a, “We’re waiting for a response,” from their regional PRs, but that was it. And so if you’re running GamePow.com, and you’ve decided you can’t run RPS’s anonymously sourced story without giving EA a response, ta-da – no story on GamePow. And EA knows that.
Our efforts to get a response were equally futile. On the 12th March we were told by EA’s UK PR,
“I will have a response from Maxis for you shortly.”
On the 13th we were told,
“Unfortunately I am still waiting on a response, I will let you know as soon as I hear more.”
And from then on we heard nothing back, emails about it simply ignored.
Then on the 16th March, Maxis’ Senior Director of Worldwide Communications, Erik Reynolds, tweeted me out of the blue.
“No response was my fault not UK PR folks or Maxis. Not a PR tactic, just had to unwind the complex issues and gather right info”
An odd statement, certainly. Taken at face value, it would suggest they were preparing to response. They never have. So in hindsight, it’s only possible to interpret as his having instructed people not to give us (or anyone else) a response on this subject, and then left it at that. Which one might interpret as a PR tactic.
Reynolds (with the apposite handle “@buzzspinner”) has a disarming way on Twitter. After his tweet, a number of other people piled in with accusations, and his responses were pitched to imply that Maxis were victims in all this. They were trying their best, and it was all so heartbreaking for them. Many backed off in reaction. But within it, the same immediately obviously dubious lines were coming out, not least,
“This is a disappointing thing bc we dont want to but we also want to say the same thing we’ve been saying since GDC12″
Linking to an article I’d written, painstakingly pointing out how often their story had changed since GDC 2012, I suggested this is “not a thing you’ve been doing.” His responses had nothing to do with anything. After I pointed this out Erik replied suggesting he would try to sort out an interview, but, “yesterday I shut all of them down so the team can focus on the more important things”. I noted that it was sad that addressing these questions wasn’t considered important. He then added,
“We’ve said something officially every day since 3/5 to be transparent with our fans. Maybe not through your site, but no silence”
This was another clever statement. Maxis had done no such thing, but – so far as I have been able to tell – instead had sent out responses to questions asked long before the RPS story had broken. So it was that sites were running their interviews with Maxis that not only couldn’t have addressed the key issues, but only further repeated the statements that our coverage had revealed to not be the case. What they’d done is continued to wallpaper the internet with the debunked claims, after the fact. Not only were sites not reporting the reality of the situation, but they were in fact continuing to report the nonsense.
The conversation with Reynolds concluded with his apologising for not having sent RPS a statement in response, as I had repeatedly said was all we’d asked for.
No statement has been sent since.
And that’s the second stage of the silence tactic. RPS ran the story as far as we could without any response from EA. We’d revealed the issue, confirmed the issue, and discussed the issue. But without EA or Maxis giving us some sort of statement, other than to just repeat ourselves, there was nothing new we could say. And EA and Maxis knows this. So we, like most of the industry, haven’t written about the story since the middle of March.
Silence is a powerful weapon in the industry. The mad truth is, when it comes to gaming controversies, if you ignore it it will go away. This article is a fairly futile attempt to not let it, and to make sure our readers know that EA and Maxis never spoke to us, never responded to any of our questions, and never sent so much as a statement.
And they got away with it! SimCity sold over a million copies in its first couple of weeks, despite barely working. Many reviews ran before the game had been played properly, giving it huge initial scores, failing to recognise how disastrous its simulations were after the first 10 hours or so. The line about server-side calculations is still being stated as fact, with some major journalists losing their minds on Twitter with anyone who dared to question it. EA and Maxis are still sticking to their utterly ridiculous claims that the game was built as an “MMO”, despite that being patently untrue in every possible interpretation. And incredibly, at GDC last month, they were arguing that their game demonstrated how outdated “DRM” was – as if the always-on weren’t the most destructive form of DRM imaginable!
The principle is if you keep saying the same thing over and over, people will start to accept it. And heck, that couldn’t be more true. Sites reporting the nonsense from GDC showed it, reinforcing this latest angle that the game is an “MMO”, despite it featuring literally none of the identifying features of an MMO, from the “massively” part onward. The reason for this, of course, is because we all accept that an MMO has to be online – of course it does – so if they say “MMO” then they hope that association will be made to their game, despite how comprehensively it’s been shown to not need to be running online at all. Their response, perhaps even impressively, was to double-down on the online nonsense. It worked.
This tactic isn’t unusual. PRs very frequently will ignore emails they just don’t want to/have been told not to answer. Silence is by far the most effective means of spreading silence. With a press so frequently under the spell of the belief that one must offer ‘balance’ to report anything, stories will simply go unreported if one side refuses to comment. (Let alone the implicit idiocy of telling a massive corporation what news you are going to write about it before you write it, so they can shut it down before it ever sees daylight. It effectively boils down to asking for permission to run a negative story about a company. Journalists need to pull their heads out of their arses and start having the integrity to run stories they know to be valid, and then asking the corporation for comment.)
The credulous press (edit: please understand that here I’m referring to “the credulous portion of the press”, rather than being mad enough to suggest that the press as a whole is credulous!) is then flooded with “positive” stories, which they dutifully report, and the questions and controversy slide off the bottom of everyone’s news feeds.
And that, you see, is why the SimCity story went away.