So less than one year later I find myself writing another entry on how people can’t play a game because of online DRM restrictions. Things tend to happen in twos on this journal.
Ah yes, SimCity. The fifth iteration (if you don’t count Societies) of the illustrious simulation game franchise that launched Will Wright into a career which would only end at Spore and radically changed gaming as we know it.
I do believe that, strongly, that SimCity did indeed change gaming as a comprehensive whole. It demanded a much more intuitive level of gamers to work in a game that had no real clear end objective beyond mere survival. While I can’t state definitively that it was the first simulation game of its kind it is a clear starting point for the concept that was later refined in SimCity 2000. Ahh, the days when calling something 2000 was trendy. Good old 1993.
But anyway. I’m sure many of you know what’s going on. EA, in the latest of a series of new publisher initiatives to “Kill Piracy” (read: kill used games) instituted a measure in the Digital Rights Management software, known as DRM for shot, forcing players to be always online while playing the latest SimCity game.
SimCity promised users larger building scales, the chance to play multiplayer games, the opportunity to make a city specialize in a certain field, all fun stuff. The game basically promised everything everyone had in SimCity 2000 with hints that users could actually work on one city simultaneously and take on different aspects of it. Players would be able to install their game on any computer and log on to EA’s Origin system (an ignorant man’s Steam) and play the same city using Cloud storage.
So what happened? Same damn thing that happened with Diablo 3. Too many users trying to get online to servers that weren’t built to handle the load. And I do mean the exact same thing. People bought the game digitally, over Amazon and the shit was a literal re-enactment of “Error 37”. The servers couldn’t handle the load, shut down, and then came the rage.
Unlike the Diablo 3 debacle though, something much more interesting is happening this time. With the previous game Blizzard told audiences to effectively “Shut up and deal with it” as there was little that the player base could do short of boycotting. The Grey Market which forced online play, still labeled as a cash grab, was fully integrated into the game. In turn, there were constant problems of players hacking accounts and stealing items from other players. As far as I know no one has deduced a means of bypassing this problem and players claim that Blizzard has patched the game enough that it has finally gained all the functions it was supposed to have at launch.
Ten months later.
This is how people defend Blizzard to me. They suck at it.
SimCity though, actually surprised me as press releases about the game started filtering out. At first I didn’t see a point to writing a journal entry after Lucy Bradshaw, general manager of EA’s Maxis Label outright owned up to the mistake, promising free DLC to early buyers. She claimed that the always online DRM was too integrated into the game to remove or disable. Meanwhile she claimed that over 70,000 users were online playing the game. I wish I had a more official number to back this but I’ve been led to understand that at launch over 250,000 units were sold. This means that if my speculation is correct, less than a third of the player base could enjoy the game at launch. If you know the proper numbers do tell me. I’d be happy to correct it.
Still, she apologized and I’ve always respected people owning up to a mistake, even if it might be a hollow gesture.
And then it got interesting.
As of this writing it turns out that game hackers took the former statement as something of a challenge and then modded the game. Within literal days they’d found a way to disable the always online feature and giving the players the option to build beyond the city limits that the game originally imposed by accessing the developer tools.
What’s more, an article broke today revealing that those who are stuck always online can actually be attacked by other players without their consent by means of being sent natural disasters. I’m not kidding about that. You can check. Also players who use the cloud storage have a chance of losing their game progress outright for no discernable reason!
The entire thing has gone from being a spectacle of outrage to something I find rather sad. EA’s DRM policies are the very height of diabolical because they cannot provide players with the very service the end user paid for. The players are outraged and justifiably so that this has happened and Maxis employees are stuck in the middle. Maybe I’m sentimental but a part of me feels that Maxis is in a situation where the employees are forced to back what EA says and don’t even have the luxury of leaving for the sheer fact that they’ll be labelled as the guys who worked on the new SimCity as the company progressively decides to shirk the player along it’s fellow major publishers. Meanwhile, retailers in my area at various outlets have openly told customers not to buy the game until its damn well fixed because they deserve it.
For me, I’ve long since abandoned every online DRM except Steam. Why? Because Rockstar’s Social Network let me play LA Noire for a grand total of one day before expiring my license (and never helping me fix it), EA is the fucking devil, and UPlay is just non-existent. The folks at Extra Credit tried to make the argument that Origin would add some healthy competition to a monopoly but really it was just EA trying play catch-up to Steam. The only problem was they couldn’t and can’t match the level of service that Steam provides after years of flying under the radar as the big consoles proclaimed “PC is dead” gradually tweaking the service until the only other online retailer who could compete was Good Old Games and that group went DRM free to do it. It’s become a known trend that if you spend your time trying to enter a market years after a rival product has succeeded then you better be doing it better or at least be innovative.
For now I side with what Jim Sterling over at the Jimquisition said about this. I’d even go further: this is the beginning of a war. A war that was predicted the day PC players couldn’t trade their games away. At some point PC systems would become too easy to upgrade, too powerful to ignore, and easily able to emulate the same level of graphics, if not surpass, of consoles. It’s happening. Indie developers are running in droves to PC distribution and aside from the few that remain on the Xbox Live Marketplace and Sony Store, the only PC competition will be on the mobile game platforms.
It will be an ugly, drawn-out war as players avoid purchasing games at launch to avoid DRM and later DLC expansions for favour of a complete iteration with mod support. Gamers will be called pirates and ingrates for demanding quality out of a non-essential service, even by their own kind. That includes if they decide to buy the game.
So, I guess we’d better win it.
And so too does this work exist.