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SimCity's launch debacle and the specter of DRM
by Kris Graft on 03/07/13 04:21:00 pm   Editor Blog   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


(Kris Graft is EIC of Gamasutra, and currently waiting in a SimCity server queue.)

Instead of actually playing SimCity (I've only been able to get in a few times), I opt to live vicariously through the people of Twitter, who at this very moment are probably complaining about server queues. This way, I've been able get all of the drama without the personal strife.

It's interesting seeing all of the reaction. There are a lot of different components to this ongoing launch debacle that speak to larger game industry issues, but the one that unsurprisingly has come up over and over is the specter of always-online DRM, a strict form of software protection that, if it were a human, would kick puppies. Probably.

As games-as-a-service models continue to proliferate, SimCity reinforces the argument that it's not DRM itself that is the bane of video games, but poorly-implemented DRM.

But it's not as simple as, "SimCity requires an internet connection, so therefore EA and Maxis are bad and evil." I think it's a shame that SimCity is coming apart at the seams, because the team at Maxis actually seems to have really thought about how constant connectivity can serve the gameplay. If you're going to require DRM, it needs to add value to the user experience, and if you look past the terrible launch, you can see that's what Maxis was striving for. Look at Steam, Minecraft or for that matter, video game consoles. As you all know, these are walled gardens, and the benefits of playing within these walled gardens generally outweigh the benefits of navigating the jungle that exists outside of those walls.

With any well-designed online-only game or free-to-play mobile game, for example, you want to connect to official servers. When DRM is transparent and adds value to the experience, even the hardest-core anti-DRM zealot wants eat up that DRM--that deliciously sweet, invisible DRM. That's because the best forms of DRM add enjoyment to the experience. In the best DRM scenarios, a game's design and the intended experience drives the implementation of DRM, and not the other way around.

Even though Origin, online connectivity and games-as-a-service are top-down initiatives handed down from the upper echelons of EA management, the designers at Maxis have done a great job with the online components of SimCity. Unfortunately, players can only experience that loveliness when they actually can get online.

SimCity is an example of great ideas and pristine design, executed within the confines of an overarching online business strategy. Unfortunately, the infrastructure clearly failed that business strategy, and therefore it fails the people who actually created the game, and ultimately the players.

Even though players are brimming with righteous wrath, clearly there's also a misalignment between the final product and player expectations, which has fueled anger. SimCity has traditionally been known as an offline, singleplayer affair. Now there's this newfangled online requirement thingy (DRM! ARGH!) that's ruining everyone's fun.

But many of the DRM-related complaints about SimCity, at their root, aren't really about DRM at all. They're simply manifestations of frustration with the simple fact that you can't play the game you bought. If the always-on connection served the experience in the way Maxis intended, only the biggest anti-DRM zealots would be complaining. When I boot up a PlayStation 3 or when Steam loads up and connects to the internet (Steam does have an offline mode, of course), people generally don't have the strong desire to take to Twitter and bash DRM. Why is that? It's because that DRM--and all "good" DRM--is invisible.

As much as a fiasco the SimCity launch has been, when you think about it, there are much better examples of truly Draconian DRM, even in recent times (by the way, the internet loves to call any kind of DRM "Draconian"). Remember when GameMaker's DRM went berserk and defaced devs' sprites? Or at one time, pretty much any Ubisoft PC game? Those were severe forms of DRM that were actually designed to punish people. Those forms of DRM were meant to be hulking bodyguards, totally in your face and ready to put you in a half-nelson if you even peeked at their digital rights. I don't really think Maxis and SimCity have taken that tack.

But in the end, whether or not Maxis had good intentions when implementing its always-online requirement is irrelevant when customers cannot play the game that they bought. After all, the road to hell (and bad DRM) is paved with good intentions and all that.

Once all of this stuff is ironed out, and this botched launch disappears from the rearview, I think SimCity will be thought of fondly, because in many respects, the implementation of an online requirement is meant to serve the core gameplay experience, unlike some other recent examples. For now, I guess I'll wait in a server queue while I read people snark about it on Twitter.

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Ian Welsh
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Yeah... well, the people who have been able to play tell me that the cities are too small and gameplay too simplified. And always online DRM sucks, which is why Steam doesn't have it. If that makes me a zealot, so be it.

Kyle Redd
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"If you're going to require DRM, it needs to add value to the user experience, and if you look past the terrible launch, you can see that's what Maxis was striving for."

There is not one single aspect of SimCity that requires online-only DRM to work. Every bit of it could have still been included if there were an offline single-player mode available. This is one of the greatest lies told by publishers that include always-online DRM in their games - that it's somehow necessary in order for the game to function as designed. Total BS, and game writers should be examining this claim critically instead of just unquestioningly buying into it.

Benjamin Quintero
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Not only that but there are so many ways to grief players by jumping into their game and taking up a city and leaving it to die, or dropping parks all over their city to rake up the cost. The multiplayer aspect was an excuse for DRM not a well reasoned feature.

Alan Rimkeit
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@Benjamin Quintero - A player can create a private play zone with their friend(s) or play just by themselves.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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12 meaty paragraphs of text, and exactly zero attempt to describe how and why forcing the game to be online-only is actually making the experience better for the player. (Assuming that wasn't just bullshit.)

What incredibly important things would have been lost if the player was allowed to run their regions/cities in offline mode that models other players' neighboring cities with some simple inflow/outflow values?

Kris Graft
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Hey Bisse,

So this is starting to become me defending SimCity and its DRM. That's not the point of the article. If anything, I'm saying that SimCity's DRM reared its head and therefore is an example of "bad" DRM, even though Maxis intended to weave it into the game the best it could. You may be right! I'm not 100% sure what happens on the server side. I've been playing it more, and I can tell that I'm going to get the most out of this game playing it online with other people. I like being connected (when games _actually connect_).

Bisse Mayrakoira
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All reviewers I have read have just kinda shrugged their shoulders on the subject of player-to-player interaction. You, on the other hand, talked about PRISTINE DESIGN that ADDS ENJOYMENT TO THE EXPERIENCE and SERVES THE CORE GAMEPLAY EXPERIENCE. To me that suggests you have seen something going on in the game design that truly makes SimCity a multiplayer game, and you think something fundamental would have been lost from the design by enabling it to also work offline. Was this a misread?

I very much doubt this verbiage is intended to describe simple tacked-on achievements and leaderboards.

Nathan Mates
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There's a wide range of players and their preferences -- just look up player archetypes. Many of those archetypes can have an additional axis of introversion extroversion while playing. Some people only play singleplayer. Others must play with their closest 64 buddies.

For me, a good part of the appeal of sim games -- I much prefered Rollercoaster Tycoon to some of the SimCity entries -- is the what-if. What if I try placing this here? What if I unleash godzilla/an alien attack? It's entertaining after a few hours of focus to save, unleash the chaos and laugh for five minutes. Then, I pop back to the save. Playing what-if doesn't seem to be the main part of this franchise reboot. The makers would rather foist extroverted "playing with others" on the game instead. That's a radical departure from previous sim games. And not something that appeals to me in the slightest -- I've liked my 100% introverted sim games. Playing in or around griefers? No sale.

(Disclaimer: I was a programmer at Pandemic Studios when it was bought by EA. Left, voluntarily, in Nov 2009)

Kris Graft
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Hi Nate,

Yeah, I'm different from that. These days I play _mainly_ online games. The good online games know how to handle the griefers (you won't be griefed if you play a game privately with friends--unless your friends are griefers). I can totally see how long-time SimCity fans are disappointed with the focus on online play. I think that shift is the main issue here.

Kris Graft
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Hey all! So first of all don't get me wrong--I'm not some always online DRM apologist. I AM NOT AN ANIMAL!! Bisse et al, I'd love an offline mode. But I do feel like SimCity's DRM isn't as sinister as say, Driver's. It's, for better or worse, woven into the actual design of the game. End result is the same I suppose...DRM ends up rearing its head, out if cloak mode, and ruins the player experience. It's disappointing.

Kyle Redd
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Will you at least acknowledge that an offline single-player mode could have been included without any detriment whatsoever to the online portion? I have raised this question repeatedly to many different gaming writers over the last few years and have yet to get a single response.

Merc Hoffner
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Still waiting huh?

Kris Graft
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Hi Kyle,

Um, sure! Acknowledged. And Blizzard could've made an offline mode for World of Warcraft, populated with bots. My point is that SimCity was built from the ground up as an online game--that's how it was designed. It wasn't like someone made a game, then slapped punishing DRM on top of it. I think at this point we're touching on what I mentioned about player expectations. I wonder if this were called "SimCity Online" if people would be more forgiving.


I'm happy to engage in discussion, but I can't watch this thread 24/7! Cut me some slack.

Kyle Redd
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I take your point with WoW, though it's not really a fair comparison. WoW has always been described and advertised as a multiplayer-only game. Large portions of the game (notably raids and other endgame content) would have to be heavily redesigned in order to accommodate solo play.

But that is absolutely not the case with SimCity or Diablo III. Both EA and Blizzard advertised their respective games as being completely playable solo, and in fact SimCity has barely any mutiplayer mode at all. There is absolutely no part of the gameplay itself that could only work online, and it would take only a miniscule effort to patch the game to work offline.

So my issue is with the way game writers such as yourself interact with the publishers regarding this topic. Whenever EA has stated that online-only DRM is critical to the game, I would expect you or whoever else is interviewing them to at least challenge that claim, instead of just nodding your head and then parroting their excuse to the rest of us. Otherwise it feeds into the notion that the gaming press is too cozy with the companies you are supposed to be covering critically, acting more as an extension of their PR departments instead of an independent, un-biased entity.

And yes, I think that gamers would be a lot more forgiving if it had been called "SimCity Online" from the beginning. I am fairly certain EA avoided calling it that specifically to maximize sales, particularly from non-core types who are familiar with the series but would not have bought this version if they knew ahead of time of its online requirement. That's actually another good question the gaming press should be asking but clearly are not.

Merc Hoffner
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Just yanking your chain :P

Bisse Mayrakoira
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"Maxis actually seems to have really thought about how constant connectivity can serve the gameplay"
"the designers at Maxis have done a great job with the online components of SimCity"
"there are much better examples of truly Draconian DRM"

Frankly, my gut feeling is that what I'm hearing about is just always-on DRM on a single player game, as terrible as always, except hitting a bit harder than usual due to their technological incompetence. And to make it worse, they are insulting their customers' intelligence by claiming some completely insignificant Facebook-quality game mechanics are the reason for the game being always online, rather than the DRM.

You are clearly claiming some parts of the game that are only possible to do in always online multiplayer are genuinely good and compelling. I have no idea what those parts are supposed to be. Browsing all the reviews currently on Metacritic did not help. Mind enlightening me?

Gavin Koh
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Looks like EA have just further hammered the nail another inch into the wood.

What's on the lid of this coffin?

"DRM Gaming"

Ubisoft almost got themselves trapped inside a coffin, while Blizzard almost got obscured by the media storm surrounding theirs.

Nowadays, it takes just a whiff of DRM and everyone gets stoked up. I guess suits never learn: Wrapping DRM around an entire game will never be the solution. Education is...

But who exactly is championing this education? If you don't educate, you will always wind up getting "free advertising" on the irreputable sites, which leads to the need to implement draconian measures. A vicious cycle indeed.

It's no wonder more customers are looking to the indies in droves... especially games without an iota of DRM implemented in them (take a look at the heated discussion about DRM in Miner Wars 2081 for example).

One of my favorite resources for DRM is over here:

I guess they can chalk one up for the latest incarnation of Simcity and add it to the list.

John Drinkwater
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I recently (yesterday) got back online after a week of a faulty phone line, and as it happened suddenly did not have the fortune to log into Steam in offline mode. The majority of the titles I have on Steam are not non-steam, so would not run at all.

What I did do, beyond skipping through fields at all my new‐found free time, was turn on my PS3, and play some PSN titles (Sam & Max mostly) and through Uncharted 3 againÖ itís not just that the DRM on the ps3 is invisible, it doesnít require a network connection to allow you to play games. I didnít even touch Minecraft because 99% of my time in that game is SMP, I donít have anything beyond test worlds on my hdd, but at least Mojang have the foresight to have a play offline button.

I cannot help but expect the coming SteamBox to rid Steam of its current online/offline duopoly and replace it with a better cookie-like system, or this same post will repeat but for that hardware and platform.

Alan Rimkeit
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This is an interesting development.

Thousands Sign Petition Demanding Removal of SimCity DRM

Simon Ludgate
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I suppose the follow-up headline would be:

EA doesn't care what people say so long as they keep forking over cash.

Bart Stewart
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A big question here for me is this: if you make a sequel, to what extent should your new product be designed to respect how people enjoyed the original? Not because they're entitled to it, but because serving existing fans is good business?

I'm not a mindless hater of DRM. I support the right of creators to profit from their work. But I also don't think punishing the innocent, non-piratical gamer with an unnecessary always-connected leash is right or effective. Adding optional multiplayer capabilities would have been fine; *preventing* offline single-player enjoyment as a side-effect of imposing a DRM system produces a radically different and less playable product.

Whether excluding those who like the original offline Sim City to attract online gamers proves to be a wise business decision is something I guess the full sales numbers will explain... if we ever see them.