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Why SimCity Turned into an Online Slum

SimCity, the 2013 edition and the fifth iteration in the city-building simulation mega franchise was much anticipated from the fans of the series for more a decade after the last game, SimCity4, was released in 2003.

The new edition promised updated and improved graphics, refined gameplay, interactions with other players and a graphically expressive and easier to navigate user interface, which piqued the interest of many and even made into my top 5 list for most anticipated games of March 2013.

The game finally got released couple of days ago. Longtime fans, who were looking forward to this week for many years, felt great elation as they got to buy the game and install it to their computers. Upon starting the game, the players realized that the decade of wait was all for naught. SimCity was broken.

SimCity is a Ghost Town
All the players who were itching to jump into the city building simulator and start the process of erecting their metropolis, were met with a game that was filled with freezes, errors and crashes. These issues included network outages, difficulty in saving progress and the chief concern and reoccurring issue where the game would not let the player connect with the server, and in essence; not allow them to access the content they paid for.

It seemed that no matter how much money and effort one had spent to acquire SimCity, it was dead set on rejecting the player’s advances. The game was unplayable.

Whereas server problems in other games result in putting off the multiplayer part of the game to focus on single player content; in SimCity’s case, this meant inability to play any part of the game. SimCity is one of the few games that demands the player to remain connected to the internet and the game servers to experience any part of the game, even its single player portion.

All this comes due to EA’s lovely decision to add Always-Online DRM to a game that Maxis has taken better part of the decade to develop.

Always Online DRM
DRM is short for Digital Rights Management process technology, which is built with the specific aim to limit the use of the digital product after its sale. This Always Online DRM variant, also known as Persistent Online Authentication, is supposed to limit the users’ access to the digital product to only when they are connected to the internet by requiring the product to be perpetually authenticated by the online servers.

In the past, this system has been employed by game publishers like Ubisoft, for Silent Hunter 5, The Settlers 7, the PC port of Assassin’s Creed II and Driver: San Francisco; Blizzard for their much-anticipated Diablo III and now by EA for SimCity.

Each time, this system has, without fail, generated countless user problems, inaccessible content, player lockouts and in the end; It eroded the good will of their paying customers.

The Backlash
Due to its intrusive and obstructive nature, Always-Online DRM has always met with controversy, outrage and disdain from gamers around the world and SimCity’s case is no different.

Unable to access the game they paid for, players around the world started expressing their outrage through rants, blogs, negative reviews and even a petition to remove the DRM. Even the official EA/Maxis’ Reditt AMA session was not safe, as people from the game’s community flooded the AMA with Anti-DRM comments.

The outrage and backlash was so strong that the online retail juggernaut; Amazon not only placed a disclaimer over the SimCity’s description, but also decided to pull the digital copy of the game from its retail service, EA had to issue a public apology over the game’s server problems.

There was also a stark difference in the reviews that came before the launch of the game and the ones that came after. The people who got to experience and review the game before the servers were tested, and the DRM became active sang praises for the game and the improvements it brought.

On the other hand, the reviews that came afterwards totally panned the game; calling it buggy, broken and unplayable. Revealing the fact that the new SimCity game is actually a great game, the thing that holds it back is implementation of its DRM.

Despite that entire hullabaloo, EA has still stuck to its guns regarding the core complaint and the thorn in everyone’s eye; the Always-Online DRM.

Always-Online DRM, a Necessary Evil?
In spite of all the bad will and bad press that this DRM garners, despite all the after sales issues that it creates, why do publishers like Ubisoft, Blizzard and EA continue to support this apparent monstrosity?

As mentioned before, the purpose of any DRM is to limit use of the product. In terms of this industry, the intent of most DRMs and in particular, the Always-Online DRM, is to curb piracy in games.

What is Games Piracy? In general terms, it describes any form of action or method by which a person gets to acquire and play a game, that is being sold for a price in the market, for free.

For the people that are part of gaming industry, this is akin to theft, as it deprives them the revenue that the sale of their product might have generated in the market. In the current economic climate, most publishers and developers see it as their primary hurdle to long-term sustainability.

In an interview with Gaming Industry International, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guilmot explained the piracy situation with the following words:

“On PC it’s only around five to seven per cent of the players, who pay for F2P, but normally on PC it’s only about five to seven per cent who pay anyway, the rest is pirated. It’s around a 93-95 per cent piracy rate, so it ends up at about the same percentage. The revenue we get from the people who play is more long term, so we can continue to bring content.”

93-95% Piracy!? Now while the numbers may be grossly exaggerated, they do allude to the severity of the situation for the producers as well as the development teams of the gaming industry.

Very few people will dispute the fact that the publishers and developers, of the games we play, deserve the money from the sales of their games in return for the investment of time, money and effort they impart on the product that we all get to enjoy. The problem, however, is not that they want to limit piracy through DRMs but the nature of the DRM and its effect on customers willing to pay.

The DRM Issue
The issue most gamers have with the Always-Online DRM is not that it aims to control piracy. The main issue with such DRM is its intrusive nature and overwhelmingly negative effect it has on the user experience. The requirement of remaining online and remaining connected to the game servers might be too much to ask from paying customers.

The concept of remaining online might seem routine when we look at how gamers have been playing games that utilize this mechanic for years. Games like World of Warcraft City of Heroes, Everquest and Neverwinter Nights have been requiring players to be online for more than a decade. However all these games are MMORPGs.

What companies like Blizzard and EA seem to forget is that Diablo III and SimCity are not MMOs. The core experience of these games is single player, and in SimCity’s case, the multiplayer doesn’t even revolve around real-time interactions with others. This creates issues as demands of singleplayer experience differ to a great degree from multiplayer ones.

Abandoning the Customers:
Ryan Lashley, the author of aforementioned petition  sums up the issue quite succinctly:

“When I, And millions of other people, buy a game that has a single-player experience. We expect it to work regardless of our connectivity to the internet, or quality of our connection. EA has made this impossible, so many people with an unstable connection will not even be able to play the game in the first place, let alone anyone who wants to play on the go/with no internet connection.”

What the publishers also seem to forget is that most of the world is not privy to high speed broadband internet connections that can offer a service which can handle the requirements of such a DRM.

Let’s, just for a moment, look aside from the reality in rest of the world and shift our focus at the largest market for the gaming industry; United States of America in the year 2012.

A report by the Federal Communications Commission stated that 19 million Americans don’t have broadband connections and a survey, sponsored by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and conducted by the Census Bureau, revealed that 40% of US citizens reported to have no broadband or high speed internet and 30% had no internet access at all.

Keeping these results into context, is it wise for these publishers to deprive 40% of their largest market from the use of their product? Who can they, as well as gamers from around the world, turn to for fulfillment of their demand? You know, as well as I do, that answer to the last question is; The Pirates.

What now?
Even though the experience has caused a great amount of pain to the developer; Maxis and the customers of SimCity, EA still refuses to grant their customers with the option of refunds. Instead, they rely on verbal apologies and offering free game from their library; which essentially amounts to store credit.

On the other hand, the frustrations of EA’s paying customers have reached a fever pitch and many from the SimCity community have resorted to give a call to pirate the game.

All this has the makings of a vicious cycle where no lessons are learnt. Pirates start getting better experience than paying customers, leading to a larger percentage of pirated downloads and eventually causing publishers like EA to believe that even more DRMs are needed.

Unless the companies begin to realize that what they are doing is not a form of negative reinforcement but a positive reinforcement to the people who pirate their games, the situation at hand will not get even close to getting better.

A situation where the publishers watch their profits dwindle, and players have their gaming experience deteriorate perpetually.