SimCity Vs The People: Why Apologies Aren’t Enough

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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