Roundtable: City Planning: Were SimCity launch issues avoidable?
On server woes, the press reaction and if we're ready for a digital future
For all the high-rhetoric about digital futures and an 'always connected' culture, it doesn't take much to suggest that perhaps the perception is much further away from the reality than we'd like to admit. Last week, presumably anticipating a healthy re-launch for a series which has earned a place in many hearts, and had been garnering plaudits from critics in nearly all of its pre-release coverage, EA decided on a level of server coverage for SimCity.
That level of coverage, and its subsequent scalability, proved to be a woeful under-estimation. In the pre-release penumbra which characterises the review process for many games with a heavy online element, some concerns were raised about the need for private servers and the likely disconnect between the game as experienced there and later, in the wild. Disconnect, it transpired, was not just a valid concern, but the defining attribute.
Gamers, first in the US and then Europe, have been subjected to long periods of waiting for available servers, disconnection in the middle of games and simple inaccessibility. EA has apologised, admitting that it was unready for the volume of players attempting to connect concurrently and offering players a free Origin title by way of compensation. In addition, the publisher has also actively sought to reduce demand for its own product by asking advertising partners to hold off on promotion and remove banner ads for the game.
How did this happen, especially so soon after EA's biggest rival was forced to issue its own apology after vastly misjudging the level of server capacity which Diablo III needed for a smooth launch? Has anybody emerged from the situation wiser, a winner or more well-disposed towards EA and its DRM policies? Below, the GamesIndustry International team looks at the launch and how it was handled and asks the question, what went wrong?
Okay, let's look at the extremes. In scenario A, which extends the benefit of the doubt to what may be its breaking point, EA reboots a classic PC series which had seen fairly major success, hoping to emulate that success but accepting it as unlikely within a reasonably niche genre. The Maxis team does a tremendous job, but, wary of crippling the project with unnecessary overheads, EA underestimates the levels of interest and provides a naive level of server access for the game.
Overwhelmed by consumer response and the sheer volume of traffic which follows high-scoring reviews, the publisher then attempts to scale up server provision as quickly as possible whilst making moves to bring the game online for as many people as possible in the interim. Eventually, realising that a series of misjudgements and poor communications have marred what would otherwise been seen as an excellent launch, the company issues official apologies and offers some recompense to upset customers. Reeling under the weight of its own success, the game struggles to make the positive impact which it deserves.
"People need to be able to spend their money confidently on games as a service which are delivered on time, intact and online"
In scenario B, we can afford to withdraw the olive branch a little. At this end of the spectrum we can take several more cynical views on why a company with such extensive experience in offering online games and their attendant server structure could manage to mismanage so effectively. Was SimCity sent out to die? Was there an element of 'no such thing as bad PR'? Was the patchy and inconsistent nature of EA's response indicative of a lack of concern or respect for paying customers? Should any publisher really have to be disabling elements of a product once people have paid good money for it? If this had been a game with the profile of Battlefield, would problems have persisted for as long?
We are, as per usual, likely to find the most truth at a point betwixt the two, and we're unlikely to ever discern exactly where that point lies. But the question of intention and blame, as important as it is, isn't necessarilly the kernel of this discussion. What worries me is that, if companies as big and experienced as EA and Activision Blizzard are either unable or unwilling to make the investment and organisation necessary to smoothly launch a game - largely via their own digital distribution service - and offer players the chance to play reliably under self-imposed always online restrictions, are we really at a point when we can expect gaming to move to a future of server-based and digital-centric software?
These issues are key to an inevitable future and must be addressed. If we're to retain and grow gaming's audience through this transition, and keep us all employed along the way, people need to be able to spend their money confidently on games as a service which are delivered on time, intact and online. For every SimCity or error 37, the prospect of that future takes a blow. Overstretching is an essential part of growth, but if we damage trust with every launch, we're only ever taking one step forward for each two back.
A week on from launch, now the game is working all but perfectly for most, it's easy to forget the rage of those first few hours. Were the angry tweets and outrage necessary? Is it really that big a deal?
The answer is yes, and not just because as both a Diablo and SimCity fan, I'm tired of sitting in my gaming onesie and making excuses to friends that want me to venture outside, only to get rejected by some overheated server. It's the same rage I feel when I slip a brand new game into my console, only to be faced with a patch that takes ten minutes to download or a glitch that breaks the game and wastes my time. When did the gamer become the smallest priority for publishers and developers?
"There's no middle ground for the traveller who wants to play SimCity on the train, no offline mode for the player with the less than perfect internet connection"
Because that's the real issue here. The decision to adopt always on DRM comes from a lot of things, the fear of PC game piracy, the opportunities for add-ons and micro transactions, the ability to collect so much data you know more about how BigWillyStyle1981 plays SimCity than he does. The one thing that decision does not take into account is what your player wants, and what is going to make the experience best for them.
The basics of customer service is the old cliche "the customer is always right" but in games it's starting to feel more and more like "the customer is a cheating bastard who can't be trusted." There's no middle ground for the traveller who wants to play SimCity on the train, no offline mode for the player with the less than perfect internet connection. Sure, you paid $80 for your Deluxe Edition, but you can only play when EA or Blizzard are watching, when they can keep an eye on you. And if they can't, because they couldn't look at the numbers of pre-orders, at their own sales projections, and say "we're going to need a bigger server," then it's the gamer that has to deal with it.
I hope this is a turning point, a warning to other publishers. I hope the developers at Maxis who have had their masterpiece (because that's the worst part, when it works the game is a cracking piece of PC genius) turned into a laughing stock are hammering on their bosses doors, asking questions. I hope gamers are writing emails full of angry words. I hope a few more expensive suits have sweat stains under the arms. There might be a time when we're ready for the always on DRM, for games that are never offline, wherever you are and whatever you're playing on, but painfully clearly, that time isn't now.
When the Penny Arcade Report published its largely positive review of SimCity earlier this month, it was accompanied by a separate article from editor Ben Kuchera, in which he openly questioned its validity. The circumstances created by EA for SimCity's reviewers, Kuchera argued, were entirely different from those that would greet the wider public at launch, and so any opinion arising from that should be taken with a pinch of salt, and perhaps ignored altogether.
Now, Kuchera is one of the better journalists working today, and I appreciate that his words of warning were more than many other reviewers offered, but to me it's still less than his readers deserve. If Penny Arcade really had such doubts over its own review it shouldn't have published it at all: offering no opinion on the game until it could be played in post-launch conditions, and very clearly explaining the reasoning behind that decision. To publish a review and simultaneously tell people to ignore it seems disingenuous, more for the benefit of EA's marketing plans and the critic's desire to make their voice heard than anyone reading the site.
"The always-on, service-like structure of many modern games presents significant challenges to the established review format"
This is the problem. Penny Arcade did more than the vast majority of other sites to raise awareness around the potential issues that a game like SimCity faces, but it still pulled the trigger on the same day as everyone else. Over at Polygon, where reviews and scores are malleable, SimCity has plunged from a 9.5 to an 8 to a 4 in the space of a week. I'm sure the site's legion of critics is extremely happy to be working under a system that allows them to be as right as possible in any given moment, but I fail to see the benefit of that system to the consumer. The Polygon team is smart enough to draw the same exact conclusions as Kuchera, and yet there it was: a misleading review, published at the first available opportunity. Polygon's score has now changed, but on Metacritic SimCity is still basking in that 9.5, and I wonder how many people bought the game on the strength of that recommendation. Again, the best available option was to issue a warning and simply wait until a proper review could take place.
This is not a takedown of two specific sites - most outlets took no counter-measures at all - but Polygon and Penny Arcade combine wide visibility with a generally smart approach to editorial. They quite rightly see themselves as progressive voices in the games press, and yet they are coming up short. The always-on, service-like structure of many modern games presents significant challenges to the established review format, but in all the discussion among the press about how to respond - in all the novel new scoring systems and well-meaning editorials - it's easy to forget that the best solution is the simplest and most obvious.
Our sister site, Eurogamer, still hasn't published its SimCity review, and in the meantime it has provided comprehensive coverage of the game's myriad problems - the same is true of Videogamer, Joystiq, and many, many others. Reviews from all of these sites will surely follow, but not because of some arbitrary EA deadline, and not because a critic is itching to be an authority, but because the time is finally right.
As someone who hasn't had any desire to play Maxis' city-building series since SimCity 2000, I watched last week's unfolding debacle like a rubbernecker rolling by a 53-car pileup on the interstate. And yes, I admit that I took a bit of glee in the staggering procession of futility that was the new SimCity launch. But it wasn't the misfortune of others I was enjoying; it was the fleeting hope that this DRM-related disaster was different, that it was so embarrassing to EA and so infuriating to gamers that maybe somebody would learn something.
Maybe EA would disavow always-on DRM after realizing the irony of fighting online theft by taking players' money without giving them a working product in return. Maybe gamers would finally stop buying into such schemes instead of simply complaining on forums as they hand their money over. Maybe SimCity would inadvertently build a better tomorrow by being an unplayable outhouse engulfed in flames today.
"Surprisingly enough, the one place where I'm still hopeful something important will be learned is in the gaming press."
That was my hope, but I knew it wouldn't last. EA seemed to get its act together a bit over the weekend, and SimCity now appears to be well on its way to functioning as advertised. As for lessons learned, EA will just launch its next primarily single-player, always-on DRM game with better server support. And gamers will just treat disastrous launches like this as yet another hassle in a hobby full of them, less a sign of a broken producer-consumer dynamic than a one-week launch delay.
Surprisingly enough, the one place where I'm still hopeful something important will be learned is in the gaming press. It looks like a number of outlets are finally waking up to the idea that launching broken games is actually unacceptable. GameSpot gave EA two days to remedy SimCity's launch issues, then slapped the game with a 5 out of 10 score. Destructoid waited an extra day and doled out a 4 out of 10. (Both sites gave the Diablo III an 8.5 last year, waiting at least a week after the game's DRM-hobbled launch to publisher their reviews.) Some would argue sticking a permanently mediocre score on a game that will likely spend the vast majority of its lifespan in a perfectly playable state is a disservice to readers. Personally, I would love to see more in the media realize that its readers are better served, both now and in the future, by a press that refuses to cut publishers any slack in their ongoing efforts to undercut consumers' rights.
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