If there’s one thing we’ve learned since Tuesday, it’s that people hate digital rights management. And yet, despite gamers’ loathsome attitude toward the idea of DRM and restriction in general, more games, including Maxis’ 2013 SimCity, are adding new forms of infrastructure and gameplay that require games to phone home, which some consider the most egregious form of DRM. SimCity’s launch this week has only served to highlight these issues… but is DRM really the problem?
Today, nearly 40% of the world’s population has an Internet connection of some kind. That number is much higher if areas of the world where gaming is most prevalent. The most common arguments made about the follies of always-on DRM ask questions like, “What if I’m on an airplane?” and “What if my Internet connection goes out?” It’s rare to see a comment from someone who can’t play a game simply because they don’t have an Internet connection at all. There’s no doubt those people exist, but it’s clear that a vast majority of gamers interested in games like SimCity clearly have some kind of Internet connection. So why all the complaints?
Though few will come out and say it, it’s not too hard to read between the lines and assume that many gamers complaining about always-on DRM simply wish they could pirate the game.
It’s a common refrain among gamers and digital media enthusiasts that DRM only hurts the honest customer, since pirates will always find a way around it. Rampant PC game pirating proves that bit about the ingenuity of pirates is true. Many of the most popular BitTorrent sites have sections dedicated entirely to games, and with a quick search it’s not hard to find the latest PC game, sometimes before it’s been officially released. These games even come pre-cracked by “the scene”, meaning in just a few hours when your download is done, you can start playing instantly. It’s just like Steam, but without all that pesky “money” stuff involved.
One type of game you won’t find on these torrent sites? MMOs. These massively-connected games employ an infrastructure similar where key portions of the game only run on the game’s servers, and your computer mainly works as a front-end interface to those online instances. There are numerous advantages to an client-server relationship like this. Characters and worlds can persist even when you’re not online. Gameplay changes can be made instantly by changing server variables rather than having to patch each client individually. Your online account acts as a social interface, allowing you to have friends list, a guild, and true social gameplay. But all of this benefit comes with one fatal flaw: you can’t play if you don’t have an Internet connection.
That flaw is also a boon to game developers and publishers. PC piracy is “staggering”, according to Hotline Miami publisher Devolver Digital. If Ubisoft is to be believed, the piracy rate is over 90%. That number tends to be lower when games have a core focus on multiplayer, since it’s much harder to crack Internet-connected games. Piracy is practically nonexistent with MMOs, as it would require pirates to obtain proprietary server code, crack the connection between the game client and server, and possibly re-engineer the entire game, a feat that has yet to be accomplished.
And despite the popular argument that a pirated game does not equal a lost sale, the games that are impossible to pirate maintain some of the highest sales numbers on the market. Blizzard continues to make money with World of Warcraft, which had 11 million paying subscribers at its peak, and Diablo III, which caused a ruckus last year when it launched with an always-on requirement even for its single-player, has sold over 12 million copies and was the fastest-selling PC game ever.
With both of these Activision titles raking in cash despite rampant piracy, other publishers are starting to take note of this always-online model. That’s where SimCity comes in.
When Maxis and EA’s new SimCity launched on Tuesday, problems began almost immediately. First it was issues with downloading the game client from Origin, which was overwhelmed with the number of pre-orders for the highly-anticipated game. By the time people finally got SimCity installed on their PCs, new problems arose. That same flood of gamers immediately led to the game’s servers filling up. If you were one of the lucky few who made it in the game, the servers would often be laggy and unresponsive, leading to odd performance and simulation issues. And beyond that, the game quite simply crashed a lot.
This terrible performance continued on for days, and eventually Maxis responded by turning off what they called “non-critical” portions of the game in order to reduce server load, all the while adding more servers to meet the massive demand. Even with these features turned up and additional servers coming online, the issues persisted, sometimes seeming even worse than they were at the beginning.
All of this came to a head on Thursday when Maxis announced that they were disabling “Cheetah” speed, which many could argue is a major gameplay component. On top of all that, Amazon temporarily stopped digital download sales of the game, citing the server issues, and EA asked all their advertising partners to immediately cease promoting the game. These moves destroyed any confidence gamers had left that Maxis and EA could resolve these issues in a timely manner. In less than a week, SimCity’s reputation went from high anticipation to a rocky start to an unmitigated disaster.
The question on everyone’s mind? Who to blame. There’s no shortage of finger-pointing going on, and until very recently, communication about the issues was limited at best. And since EA and Maxis weren’t talking, they left a void for gamers and the press to talk for them.
The most common blame for the launch issues is the always-on DRM, and it’s not hard to see why. People don’t like to be restricted and told what to do, especially gamers. We want our games how we want them, when we want them, at the price we want them. With our voices we cry out against DRM, but with our wallets we still say we’re fine with it. Corporate publishers like EA and Activision can get over temporary PR nightmares, but sales figures don’t lie: very few complain about DRM when it comes to MMOs, and though a small contingent still cries foul at Diablo III’s always-on requirement, millions are still happily enjoying the game.
It’s easy to look at the SimCity situation to justify that DRM is an issue, but ultimately it’s an easy scapegoat for the real problem: those involved with making the game simply weren’t ready. The DRM wouldn’t have been a big deal for SimCity if everything had worked flawlessly from moment one. It’s likely that it even would have converted naysayers. But things were far from flawless, and we’re just now starting to get a picture of why.
When SimCity features were disabled in order to reduce server load, the realization sunk in that we’re not playing like we used to. Over ten years ago, SimCity 4 let players build whatever they wanted on their own computers, firewalled from the rest of the world. Now, in our always-connected world, everything we do touches a server. In order for order to be maintained with this interconnected world Maxis has created, a great portion of SimCity has to be run on servers, even when we’re playing by ourselves. It’s the reason why the game’s global economy works, but it’s also the reason the cities in the game are so small — no matter how powerful our computers are, the servers must be able to handle the simulation at a massive scale.
Today, Maxis explained that the biggest problem with this whole launch was they didn’t anticipate how players would want to play the game, and it completely overloaded the servers’ ability to keep up. The fact that triple the number of servers are running today than at launch day highlights just how much the demand and behavior was underestimated.
Throughout this whole ordeal, gamers have been clamoring for Maxis to “just enable offline mode!” as if it was some simple switch to flip. This overload situation shows that it’s not quite that simple. The server infrastructure isn’t just to make sure you paid for SimCity, it’s vital to the game running. Without it, the files on your computer would be useless.
Make no mistake — I’m not apologizing for these problems. Measures could have been taken every step of the way with more time, money, and research. EA didn’t allow gamers to pre-load the SimCity client from Origin, even though they’ve done it for other games in the past. It’s taken way too long for additional servers to come online when they should have been ready to go. And Maxis should have held more extensive beta tests to get a better idea of how players would want to interact with their cities.
For now, things seem to have calmed down. With more servers, most people are getting into the game without trouble. Game features are being turned back on. The client is crashing less. EA hopes the issues will be completely fixed this weekend, and they’ve even stated they’re going to offer a free PC game on Origin to anyone who bought SimCity. However, issues still persist for some users, and the whole situation leaves us with little or no incentive to even attempt to play the game without assurance that our progress will be there the next time we load our cities.
There’s no question that always-on games are going to become more and more prevalent for both PC and console games. MMOs, Diablo III, and now SimCity are just the first steps to this brave new world, and Activision’s Destiny, if successful, will only cement this business model for games of all types. If it’s a necessary evil, developers need to justify the online experience by adding value that comes from the always-connected experience. And there’s no doubt they need to spend more time testing and preparing.
Whether we like it or not, always-connected games like SimCity will be the norm before long. One day, we’ll see one launch without issue. The future is here, and it lives on the Internet.