I was there at 12:01AM on March 5th for the launch of SimCity. I excitedly waited at my computer to receive an email from EA Origin to confirm my purchase code and start my download. To kill time, I scanned the SimCity forums to see if other people were waiting like myself. There was a fair amount of skepticism, people frustrated that their codes had not arrived precisely at the stroke of midnight or upset that the game was not available for early install like midnight releases on Steam. I felt a little irked myself, as nearly half an hour passed and my only interaction with the game was checking the increasingly angry forum posts. Then, shortly after 12:30AM I got my product codes, started downloading, and installed the game onto my PC.
The next twenty hours were a mad rush of building, destroying, budgeting, appeasing, and compromising my vision for the world’s perfect metropolis. I slept a restless three hours, with vision of rural neighborhoods and yellow industrial zoning appearing before my closed eyes. When I awoke, I booted the game back up and thrust myself back into Maxis’ city builder. Sure, some of the little bugs of the game were standing out. I was soon frustrated with how quickly I ran out of space for my city, or how the intercity economy of my region was all but dead. But despite the game’s obvious flaws, I kept clicking away.
That was until the evening set in. I had noticed a little message in the upper right hand corner of my screen, informing me that the servers were going off and on. However,it did not seem to affect my game until, while placing a new hospital, the building selection tool disappeared. I assumed it must have been a server issue and disconnected my game. I have yet to play another minute of SimCity since that disconnect.
The past week has been a tumultuous one for Maxis and EA. They have been slammed in the press, verbally thrashed on social media, and can barely put out a press release that doesn’t sound like a whimpering dog with its tail between its legs. EA’s apologies ring about as hollow as ever, getting no more than a collective eye roll from the games industry. Meanwhile, Maxis has come across as disappointed in themselves and legitimately sorry. Unfortunately, neither approach will be able to give customer’s back their missed week with the game.
Consumers and loyal fans who waited until the witching hours of the night to play this game have a right to be angry and frustrated with publisher and developer, alike. Both parties talked a great amount of game and reassured all that they were confident in their launch. Then hid behind a wall of silence for the first 48 hours while their servers crumbled beneath the weight of their fan base. Even EA’s promise of a free game for the trouble leaves a bad taste, certain to be further soured when the selection of complimentary titles is released. However, we cannot expect the mammoth publisher, nor its developing partners to learn from this debacle. The only people we can rely on to guide the industry forward and avoid these always-online woes are the people who spend their hard-earned money.
I, personally, never blamed EA or Maxis while I furiously tried, time and time again, to log into the SimCity servers last Friday night. I only could blame myself. I had sat on the sidelines, watching and reading about the difficulties that plagued Diablo III when it was released. My gut told me that SimCity would have these kinds of problems, but when the positive beta word-of-mouth started rolling in I couldn’t help myself. But there I was, sitting at my computer watching old episodes of “30 Rock” while secretly praying I could get back into the game I had so feverishly enjoyed.
The reasons for SimCity’s poor launch has something to do with their lack of foresight and failure to appropriately gauge their launch. But it has even more to do with the business of games and the direction of the industry. Multiplayer has never been more important to publishers and online multiplayer makes video game executives drool while imagining the World of Warcraft dollar signs. The last few years has been a quest to find the next addictive, online, social multiplayer experience. This has come at the expense of some beloved franchises, and has stolen resources that could have been used to make great core single player experiences. But until publishers can see continued value in the single player experience, we will keep hearing words like, “always-on DRM” and “online multiplayer experience”.
Gamers have faced issues of this sort before and many times before have been subjugated to the whims of the industry. Things like the online pass, DLC, tacked on multi-player, and micro transactions continue to leak into beloved franchises, turning fanaticism into cold, hard cash. As a community, us game-lovers have always adapted and never rebelled. I would like to think that SimCity is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but my gut tells me otherwise. Instead, I fear that before a calendar years passes we will hear about another previously single player game shouldering the always online challenge. People will gripe and grumble and put down their $60 thinking, “Not this time, this time will be different.” And it might be. Eventually these launches will be more accurately measured and such headaches can be avoided. So while others scream, “Never again!” I’m inclined to say, “Not until next time”.
Unfortunately, SimCity’s legacy thus far is simply a soapbox for pundits in the always-online debate. The game is flawed to be sure, but could have served as a game that brought old fans and new together for some pretty great experiences. Let’s hope that it does. Let’s also hope that the game can turn itself around so that when we talk about SimCity a year from now, we’re comparing our booming urban landscapes and not telling stories of server woe.
Looking ahead, one of the biggest games soon to approach the always-online quagmire will be Bungie’s Destiny. I highly doubt that anyone anxiously anticipating this game is having seconds thoughts. But what if Destiny has these problems as well? What if this becomes something expected and we all have to plan for aggravating days of server issues with a game’ launch? Is there a point where people will be fed up? Probably not.