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Opinion: SimCity launch debacle comes down to mismanaged expectations Exclusive
Opinion:  SimCity  launch debacle comes down to mismanaged expectations
March 15, 2013 | By Patrick Miller




SimCity has been out for about ten days by now -- a veritable eternity in the games industry -- and the outrage surrounding EA and Maxis's unfortunate launch continues to burn brightly. But what is it about SimCity, specifically, that has kept it in the crosshairs of public opinion for so long? After all, online games get off to rocky server-related starts all the time.

From my perspective, the SimCity problem isn't just that the servers weren't working, it's that the SimCity fans who loved the series enough to buy the new version at launch were never expecting a game with such a heavy focus on multiplayer, nor were they expecting an always-online game to begin with. And when they found out that the new online features and requirements were preventing the game from working at all, it set off an explosion of overall dissatisfaction with anti-consumer trends in the games industry -- something that other devs, especially those tasked with reviving a much-loved classic IP, should be particularly careful about in the future.

The SimCity bait and switch

When I think of SimCity, I think back to the countless hours I spent playing SimCity 2000 on my Mac Performa 475, building (excuse me -- "plopping"), zoning, tweaking, troubleshooting, and generally obsessing over city after city. The "goal" was simply to suss out, through trial and error, the rules that made the game work; the bigger my city grew, the better my understanding of what made my Sims happy.

That right there is the core of SimCity, and judging from the overall tone of EA's SimCity promotion, EA and Maxis seemed to get that, too; if you go and look at the promotional materials over at SimCity.com, mention of multiplayer features and the new Live Service seems like an afterthought. And the system requirements do not indicate that the game requires a persistent internet connection, just that a broadband connection is required.

On the contrary, most of the new features sounded like EA and Maxis were doubling down on doing core SimCity mechanics better than before; trumpeting the ability to look at individual Sims, building multiple cities at once, adding specializations, and so on. In other words, SimCity fans thought they'd be getting a new SimCity, just like the previous ones except better, with a few neat-sounding online features that might spice up the core SimCity design a bit.

However, Maxis and EA were building SimCity to be a proper Online Game, built to rely on an internet-connected infrastructure and mechanics that encourage playing with other people. Whether or not SimCity was conceived from the get-go to be an online game doesn't really matter when it comes to player expectations. What matters is that SimCity was released as an online-only game despite the fact that the core SimCity game mechanics don't depend on a persistent online connection the same way that, say, an MMORPG does.

Essentially, consumers wanted a SimCity, and EA wanted a "SimCity Online," because always-online games are harder to pirate, offer more opportunities for EA to track player analytics, and generally make it easier for a large software-selling company to make money. If Maxis could make a game that made both the customer and the publisher happy, they win; consumers get the game they want, EA gets the game it wants. But if either party is unhappy, Maxis loses.

Server issues ignited DRM resentment

Every time a classic game IP is resurrected into an always-online incarnation on the PC, game enthusiasts will complain about it, but that usually won't stop the game from selling. In general, no consumer is a fan of always-on DRM, or any of the other anti-consumer practices common in mainstream triple-A games, but as long as the DRM doesn't get in the way of a consumer's ability to play the game, their desire to play the game will usually win out over their anti-DRM convictions. (In other words, the people on game forums who claim that they won't buy a game because they really like playing their games on laptops during long airplane flights may be vocal, but publishers will not bend to their wishes.)

I suspect that had the SimCity launch gone smoothly, no one would have cared. Some players would have probably enjoyed the extra layer of gameplay and complexity that the connected features added, and for the people who didn't like the online stuff, they probably would have still enjoyed whatever remained of the core SimCity design, and ignored all the connected stuff.

But the launch didn't go smoothly. In fact, it failed in probably the most catastrophic way possible; the people who loved SimCity's core design the most -- so much that they either preordered it or bought it on the first day -- couldn't play it right when they got it. Instead, they opened up the game and discovered that they needed to connect to a server, and they couldn't do it. Why did they have to connect to a server? Not because of the core SimCity design they loved, but because of all the newfangled features and requirements that, in their eyes, was superfluous to the core SimCity experience.

Since the players literally hadn't had a chance to try out new social and online features, all they saw was a bunch of stuff they didn't care about getting in the way of the game they've loved for over 20 years. That made them mad, and when Maxis exec Lucy Bradshaw explained the problem as simply resulting from overwhelming demand, it made them madder, because they were never expecting an online-centric, online required game to begin with. And when gamers get mad, they'll blow other seemingly minor design quirks into deal-breaking flaws, hack your game to try and "fix" it, and eat up all the negative press about your game they can find.

Doing things differently

It's no secret that we're already living in an always-online world, and when it comes to large publishers and triple-A games, DRM is the norm rather than the exception. So, given the reality that EA and Maxis require SimCity to always have an internet connection, what could they have done differently?

Proactively manage player's expectations. Reviving classic IPs is common practice in the game industry, because it's easy to sell someone on something they've already bought once before. In this case, however, it seems that the SimCity IP had a hidden liability; people wanted to enjoy the new SimCity in exactly the same way they enjoyed the old SimCity, and the new SimCity wouldn't let them do that. Had the new SimCity been pitched early on as an always-online evolution of the SimCity experience, players might have been more forgiving.

Don't mess up. This one is obvious, but perhaps seeing SimCity get crucified in the court of public opinion will drill it into other devs and publishers that launch simply has to go off without a hitch or risk torpedoing your game altogether. If that means prying some extra money out of the coffers for stress testing or delaying launch, then so be it -- you don't get a second chance at a first impression.

Fixing access is more important than fixing design. At the end of the day, people who bought your game just want to play it, however flawed it may be. When Diablo III launched last year, it was arguably in even worse shape than SimCity. Not only were the overloaded servers preventing many players from playing the game at all (either in single player or multiplayer mode), but the game shipped without several of the features that were supposed to make the online component appealing in the first place (the real money auction house and player vs. player functionality, for example).

However, Blizzard managed to fix the server problems within a few days so players could get on with their demon hunting before the internet hate machine had revved into high gear, so even though players had complaints, most of them were still playing. If Maxis and EA had been able to deploy a special offline mode -- even only for the first few weeks while they had ironed out server issues -- their most vocal critics would have been too busy playing the game to rant about it.

Don't underestimate the love-hate relationship between players and publishers. The game industry may exist to sell entertainment, but this ain't no Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Many game enthusiasts still feel long-running resentment over industry practices that treat paying customers like criminals -- especially fans of an older franchise like SimCity, I suspect -- and whenever your DRM gets in the way of their game experience, there will be hell to pay.

Patrick Miller is the editor of Game Developer magazine. Follow him on Twitter @pattheflip.


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