Sim Sh***y

The greatly expected new Sim City launched this week, and it promptly became apparent that it was not going well. Was it because the core gameplay was broken? No. Was it because no one bought it? Just the opposite. It was because EA decided that the game requires an always on internet connection with no local saving. Your game, your beloved city, is not saved to your hard drive. It is saved to “the cloud.” This means if the servers go down or do not work right, and they have not since the US launch on Tuesday, you may not be able to play, might randomly lose your city, or could suddenly suffer from the non-functioning of various other services including friends lists. This is not a good week to have your product rhyme with sh***y.

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On a personal level, I have been dying to get my hands on the new Sim City ever since I learned of its existence. I purchased a new gaming PC complete with gaming keyboard, mouse, and headset as well as a Dell monitor specifically to play this game. While some folks grew up hopping Mario over things or murdering their friends in Goldeneye, I cut my gaming teeth simming things. I played the original Sim City 2000 on my homemade 286 running Windows 3.1. I have fond memories of my brother and me wasting many a summer evening as kids building ridiculous scenarios in the original Sims. I remember when a buddy of mine got Sim City 3000, and I would ignore everyone else at sleepovers just to play it on his Windows 98 machine. Maxis Sim products are at the core of my gaming nostalgia. So, at 3 AM EST on Tuesday morning, I sat down into front of my gaming rig, downloaded Sim City from Origin, got into the tutorial, and then realized that I was an adult and should probably go to bed.

It took three more days before I was able to play the game for real again. On Tuesday evening, I was able to play the game on the Oceanic servers, but could not save my game. I could play, and had poured about an hour into a city when the game crashed. I figured that I would lose some progress, but when I logged back in, the game had no idea that I had ever started a city. Thinking that this was a fluke, I started over. This exact process – play, crash, lose everything – happened to me twice more, and I walked away defeated. Wednesday, I could not play at all. The only parts of the game that I saw were various server error messages. It was not until Thursday at 1am EST that I was finally able to play the game for a sustained amount of time with only minor glitches using the Eastern Europe servers.

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EA, the publisher of Sim City, is getting slammed all over the place for this. Amazon is selling the game with a warning to users. Games journalists are venting their frustration in reviews and editorials. EA even seems to be backing off the marketing of the game. The really sad thing is that underneath the broken server architecture lies a beautiful, if not perfect, gaming experience. When I finally was able to play, four hours slide by before I knew it. The visuals are the best in the series. The music is pleasant. The mechanisms for building your city are both accessible and deep. The city maps are too small, and the game structure basically forces you to work with other players in your city’s region to ensure that everyone has the resources that they need. This may not fit with people’s view of Sim City as a fundamentally single player experience. Personally, I am looking forward to being able to play somewhat cooperatively among the Tech’s Last Call staff in our own region.

Yes, I love the game, and, yes, all of the current server issues will eventually stabilize. Also, I have never shipped an online focused game and can only imagine how difficult it must be to create the server architecture to power it. I’m just a tech journalist. However, fundamentally breaking a gaming experience by shoehorning in a mandatory online component into an essentially single player game is unacceptable to the point of being ludicrous. This may be a great way to fight piracy and an interesting new gameplay mechanic, but as with any great idea, it is all in the execution. This is not some indie game that 3 people built in their spare time. This is one of the biggest games of the year from one of the biggest publishers in the industry. I have heard several places that if the servers had not malfunctioned, this would not even be a story. I am not sure that I agree. It is crazy that I cannot save my city to my own hard drive. The cloud, to me, does not seem like a safer place than my own storage. Sim City has always been a single player game. If they want me to have to authenticate to prove that I am not a pirate, that is fine, but cloud storage means that if I am without a steady Internet connection, I cannot play at all. The “always on” aspect will always limit how people can play, but the core of that argument is true. If the servers had worked, I would just be a minorly annoyed but overall satisfied player.

However, the servers did not work. EA, with their insistence on always on gameplay, broke the game. On top of that, they are not giving refunds to people, like me, who only bought the digital version. This is more than just bad for gaming. This is a shameful business practice. Even the free game that they are giving out to for people who bought Sim City does not quite make up for it. EA gets rich on something they broke.  This seems to be somewhat of a theme with EA. Last year, the face a lot of heat with the issues over the ending of Mass Effect 3. It boiled down to the fact that the oversold the ending in the marketing rather than Bioware making a fundamentally bad ending. More recently, there has been controversy over their use of micro-transactions in Dead Space 3 (and Mass Effect 3 before that) even though those are both full $60 retail releases. Just this week, they had to react and clarify statements that they were going to include this micro-transaction strategy in all future games. Apparently, they just meant mobile games, but this does not eliminate the fact that they are starting to use micro-transactions to squeeze money out of consumers that already spent $60. Let us not forget that this is the same company that releases a “new” Madden game every year despite the fact that they are gloried roster updates with little gameplay innovation. It starts to show why EA got ranked as one of the worst companies in America by Consumerist.

So, what do we as the Internet do about it? The obvious answer seems to be not to buy the game. This is definitely an option. If we vote with our wallets, maybe EA will be forced to be less shady in future. I am not going to say “don’t buy the game.” The only thing that this might teach EA is not to make another Sim City, and that is not what I want. However, just seriously think about where your gaming dollars are being spent. Think carefully whether the Sim City experience is worth supporting not exactly consumer friendly business practices. For me, for now, it is, but these decisions should not be made lightly. In end, we are the ones buying the products, and it is our votes that should count.