Always-online SimCity burns to the ground | 10 Years Ago This Month
Everything goes wrong for EA's reboot, EA CEO John Riccitiello steps down, and the industry sends mixed messages on whether it wants women around
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It's finally happened. 10 Years Ago This Month has grown so extensive, so bloated, so shamelessly self-indulgent that it has been suggested we need a Table of Contents to help people navigate it.
I just want you all to know I consider this a tremendous achievement, and my next goal is to add an index.
Pity the SimCity
I loved the original SimCity, planning out my eventual metropolis from its humble village beginnings, building it meticulously and planning out the roads, trainlines, and power grid with an eye for where the nuclear power plants and airports would be.
And when I had grown the city as large as it would get (or simply started to lose interest in it), I would reach into the pulldown menu and unleash an array of disasters upon my unwitting SimCitizens.
In March of 2013, EA did basically the same thing with all the good will the SimCity franchise had built up over the years, launching the first mainline SimCity game in a decade, but doing it with an ill-advised always-online requirement, having apparently learned nothing from seeing Blizzard gleefully run full steam into the same sliding glass door with Diablo 3 just the year before.
Naturally, EA's servers fell down straight away. Two days later, the problems had only gotten worse, with plenty of bugs and lengthy wait times for players to get into a server. The Origin service was so hammered that people who purchased other EA games from Origin were unable to play them, either.
Amazon posted a warning on the SimCity product page and pulled the digital version of the game from sale
Confusion reigned supreme, with Amazon posting a warning on the product page and pulling the digital version of the game from sale, while EA spokespeople telling affected customers that they could request a refund, only for the company to then deny those requests.
EA desperately turned off "non-critical" gameplay features like leaderboards, achievements, and the time-accelerating "cheetah mode" hoping it would improve matters, but it did not seem to make a difference.
Yet two days into a true debacle of North American launch, EA was still confident that SimCity's international launch later in the week would go off without a hitch. It did not. In fact, it was so bad that EA asked its marketing affiliates to stop promoting the game on their websites.
Gaming websites still coming to grips with the idea of reviewing live service games struggled to keep up.
Polygon initially gave SimCity a 9.5 out of 10 in a review that went up the day before release, raving, " If addiction is a freight train, then SimCity is the roaring locomotive pulling you into the night." Uh, I think that was supposed to be a rave, at any rate.
On the day of release, the inability to sign in for many and the glitches experienced by those lucky enough to actually play the game caused them to lower the review score to an 8, as they advised would-buyers exercise caution while acknowledging the issues were likely temporary.
Two days after launch, Polygon lowered its score to a 4, saying the loss of cheetah mode and many multiplayer features that were part of the reason to require always-online connections in the first place made the game less fun on those rare occasions when one could actually connect to the servers.
Five days after launch, Maxis head Lucy Bradshaw let everybody know the core problem was "almost behind us."
Five days after launch, Maxis head Lucy Bradshaw made a post on the game's official blog to let everybody know the core problem was "almost behind us."
"I had hoped to issue an 'All-Clear' tonight, but there are still some elements coming together," Bradshaw said. "Tonight and tomorrow we'll be monitoring each server and gameplay metrics to ensure that the service remains strong and game is playing great."
Going by Polygon's reviews, that didn't exactly go to plan either. Polygon would roll out its final review update for SimCity a month after the games launch, bumping it back up to a 6.5 but noting that features like cheetah mode and leaderboard remained absent, substantially hurting the player experience.
Even in the midst of this, EA stuck to its guns on the decision to make SimCity always-online. Ten days into the game's launch, Bradshaw was pushing back on claims that EA forced Maxis to include the always-online requirement or that the company was trying to take players' ability to control their own games away, saying, "It's fundamental to the vision we had for this SimCity."
EA Labels president Frank Gibeau echoed Bradshaw's point that this was Maxis' vision, and also took issue with people portraying the always-online requirement for a beloved franchise with no particular online focus as a kind of digital rights management.
"DRM is a failed dead-end strategy," Gibeau said. "It's not a viable strategy for the gaming business. So what we tried to do creatively is build an online service in the SimCity universe and that's what we sought to achieve. For the folks who have conspiracy theories about evil suits at EA forcing DRM down the throats of Maxis, that's not the case at all."
On a side note here, I'm guessing when Maxis had a vision requiring constant monitoring of the playerbase that would effectively act as anti-piracy tech, EA execs reacted more favorably than they would have to a vision of a self-contained offline game that players could mod or pirate as they saw fit.
Troubled launch aside, SimCity sold 1.1 million copies in the first week, and 2 million in its first four months despite the furor at launch.
"In retrospect, our biggest takeaway is that we are lucky that SimCity has an enormous number of loyal fans"EA'sFrank Gibeau
And as much as the always-online connection was framed as something fundamental to the vision of the game, Maxis somehow managed to update it with an offline mode less than a year after launch without compromising its vaunted artistic vision.
"In retrospect, our biggest takeaway is that we are lucky that SimCity has an enormous number of loyal fans," EA exec Frank Gibeau said when the often-offline update went live.
Gibeau's takeaway wasn't that the publisher should have avoided taking a beloved and predominantly offline series and warping it to require unnecessarily intrusive dependencies on the company. His takeaway was that you could do that and get away with it, provided you had a large and loyal enough fanbase.
It's a temporary PR black eye, sure, but what are people going to do? Not buy the thing?
I can't help but wonder how closely Xbox head Don Mattrick was watching this SimCity saga unfold at his former employer as Microsoft planned out how to break the news to everyone that the soon-to-be-announced Xbox One would require daily online check-ins in order to play games and place DRM limits on games that would impact not just the used market but also a person's ability to loan a game to their friends.
Go Go Riccitiello
As much as the SimCity launch was a five-alarm dumpster fire we just couldn't turn our gaze from, the biggest news story at EA in March of 2013 would have been John Riccitiello stepping down as CEO after six years.
"This is a tough decision, but it all comes down to accountability," Riccitiello said in his resignation letter, marking the last time in recorded history we have seen a AAA publisher CEO held accountable for pretty much anything.
"This is a tough decision, but it all comes down to accountability"John Riccitiello
No, Riccitiello didn't step down for sexually harassing an employee and then firing her because she rejected her advances. (You're thinking of the claims made against Riccitiello at Unity, and he didn't step down over that, and it was settled with Riccitiello denying all the allegations anyway. It's cute that you thought a CEO would be ousted for that, though. Stay gold, Ponyboy.)
Nope, the only thing a CEO is likely to be held accountable for is the bottom line, and even then, only sometimes. (For example, in eight years under Riccitiello, Unity has never posted a net profit, although it finally posted an operating profit on a non-GAAP basis in its most recent quarter, so maybe he's turning things around.)
But EA's shareholders in 2013 were not as understanding as Unity's. Riccitiello had spent much of his six-year tenure trying to turn EA from a packaged goods company to a digital services company, and while the company had some victories on that front, it also took a variety of Ls, some deserved, others less so.
Riccitiello came on board just as a push to build original IP at the publisher was gaining steam. That push yielded Spore, Skate, Dead Space, Mirror's Edge, Army of Two, Dante's Inferno (be quiet, Dante-loving pedants about what constitutes a new IP), the Steven Spielberg partnership Boom Blox, and Dragon Age, not to mention externally developed titles like Rock Band, Secret World, Kingdoms of Amalur, Brutal Legend, Shadows of the Damned, and Insomniac's first multi-platform game Fuse. (Okay, technically Ratchet & Clank Full Frontal Assault was on PS3 and Vita, but "second multiplatform game" doesn't sound as notable, and I can't even say first game for a non-Sony platform because they did the Facebook game Outernauts.)
And when Infinity Ward co-founders Jason West and Vince Zampella were fired from Activision, Riccitiello was quick to sign their new studio Respawn Entertainment and get them working on the game that would be Titanfall. There are a few bonafide hits in there, a lot of fondly remembered commercial flops, and some bets that were neither lucrative nor especially well-liked.
EA's new IP push under Riccitiello saw a few hits, a lot of fondly remembered flops, and some games that didn't qualify as either
Outside of those games, EA under Riccitiello also made an ultimately unsuccessful push to challenge Activision and Call of Duty for control of the first-person shooter market. 2011's Battlefield 3 was a respectable effort at that, but the 2010 Medal of Honor reboot and 2012's Medal of Honor: Warfighter follow-up fell notably short of the mark.
EA under Riccitiello was also aggressively acquisitive, with an up-and-down track record right from the start. He kicked his stint as CEO off with the 2007 acquisition of Bioware and Pandemic Studios from his former employer, Elevation Partners, in a deal worth $860 million.
The BioWare half of that deal was defensible thanks to Mass Effect and Dragon Age offsetting Star Wars: The Old Republic, which did not live up to initial hype but continues operating to this day. On the other hand, the Pandemic part didn't age as well, with EA shutting the Mercenaries 2: World in Flames studio down two years after buying it.
Then there was Riccitiello's big investment in social games, the $400 million deal for Playfish in late 2009. (Interestingly, EA announced its big-ticket purchase on the very same day it was laying off 1,500 people, which is always great for morale.)
About $100 million of the Playfish deal was contingent on reaching performance milestones, and we can guess not many of those were reached as the Facebook social game bubble burst before long and EA pulled the plug on every remaining Playfish game a month after Riccitiello's resignation.
Riccitiello also bought EA's way further into mobile, paying $750 million for Plants vs. Zombies creator PopCap and $17 million for Angry Birds and Cut the Rope publisher Chillingo. (If that one seems cheap, remember that developers Rovio and ZeptoLabs actually had the respective rights to those franchises, so EA was buying little more than a mobile publisher with a good eye for what worked in mobile during the era of $0.99 games.)
Riccitiello's tenure came at a pivotal time for EA and continues to shape the company to this day
And we wouldn't know it until a couple months after Riccitiello had left, but he had also been putting together an exclusive ten-year deal to make Star Wars games (along with EA Labels president Frank Gibeau) that has defined a significant chunk of the publisher's non-sports output since then.
Clearly, Riccitiello's tenure came at a pivotal time for EA and continues to shape the company to this day. But for all those new additions, the foundation of EA's future success was already being laid when Riccitiello had joined in April of 2007. And that foundation was Ultimate Team, a new loot box-driven twist for the FIFA franchise that first appeared the month before Riccitiello's arrival in the Xbox 360 release of UEFA Champions League 2006-2007.
Ultimate Team pre-dates Riccitiello's stint as CEO, but it fell 100% in line with his vision of EA as a digital services company, and its expansion to multiple franchises and platforms under Riccitiello would eventually become the core of EA's business.
In 2021, EA's annual report specified that Ultimate Team game modes had grown to account for 29% of its revenues. That's just Ultimate Team revenues; that number doesn't include sales from the FIFA, Madden, NHL, NBA, and UFC games required to play the Ultimate Team modes in the first place. (And those games can do pretty well on their own, with Madden an NPD Top 5 seller every year since 1999 and FIFA in the Top 20 every year since 2011, even cracking the Top 10 a few times.) I'm guessing EA didn't want people to know how reliant it was on a game mode frequently viewed as gambling, so it decided not to include Ultimate Team revenues in its 2022 annual report.
When Riccitiello announced his departure, it seemed clear that people around the company had some inkling of what was to come. When Kotaku responded to the news with an article highlighting an assortment of dunks on Riccitiello pulled from Twitter, EA COO Peter Moore defended his old boss in a post on Facebook, criticizing it for "reveling in what, due to their self-smugness, they don't realize is a sad day for our industry." The sentiment was even echoed by people whose paychecks weren't signed by Riccitiello, like Epic Games' Mike Capps, former IGN editor Hilary Goldstein, and a number of analysts and industry-watchers.
"That company used to kick ass. Riccitiello was the single largest reason it stopped"An ex-EA executive
Industry consultant Scott Steinberg even pulled out our favorite prediction horizon, saying, "Ten years from now, he'll be hailed as a pioneer for implementing these [online, social, and free-to-play] initiatives well before many peers."
Not everyone was positive on Riccitiello's tenure. One former EA executive clearly didn't think much of him, telling us Riccitiello was "much more obnoxious than impressive," adding, "That company used to kick ass. Riccitiello was the single largest reason it stopped."
Obnoxious? Yeah, I guess that checks out.
As someone who has covered this industry for decades now, this was all a bit strange to me. The rush of people coming out to defend an executive leaving his post due to shareholder unrest, the sheer amount of coverage for an executive transition, the speculation about who would be next in line for the EA CEO role, all of it was abnormal.
And while that speculation heavily centered on people with past and present ties to EA, we didn't hear much talk about EA Sports' executive VP Andrew Wilson, who would ultimately land the job with strong consideration no doubt given to how he had grown the FIFA franchise and the Ultimate Team mode in the mold of EA's digital vision for the future.
And while we can look back with the benefit of hindsight and talk about how EA and Wilson have followed a blueprint that was formed during Riccitiello's time at the company, our own Rob Fahey was pretty on-target with his take before Riccitiello had even cleaned out his office.
"Be under no illusions, though," Fahey said, "whoever replaces Riccitiello will continue Riccitiello's work. Smug expressions of triumph from soi-disant internet campaigners are misguided. Riccitiello isn't leaving because of microtransactions or social gaming; he's leaving because he couldn't get microtransactions, social gaming and all the rest of it up to speed fast enough (although there may be an element of disquiet at just how badly some parts of the market were being alienated by the way the strategy was being pursued, of course).
"His replacement will have to steer the ship through some rough seas - but the course he's setting is already plotted. Wherever EA goes now, it's Riccitiello's legacy it'll be pursuing."
Woman. Whoa, man.
We're still more than a year away from the games industry's iconic failure to lift a finger to aid the women it had spent years convincing to get involved in games, but it should have been clear to anyone paying attention that there were issues with the way gaming treated women.
On the positive side, we had the #1ReasonToBe panel at the Game Developers Conference, which was supposed to be about women in games sharing their reasons for being in the industry and what they get from it. On the negative side, #1ReasonToBe was an explicit response to #1ReasonWhy, a trending hashtag from the previous November in which women shared their experiences in gaming as #1ReasonWhy there aren't more women in gaming. And if you read our write-up of the #1ReasonToBe panel, it sounds less like a call for women to join the industry and more like an attempt to suggest ways to fix the industry so it will be worthy of encouraging women to join.
Of course, there were other signs that maybe we as an industry didn't have our act together on this front, like #1ReasonToBe panelist Brenda Romero resigning from her position as co-chair of the IGDA Women in Games SIG because just hours after that panel, the IGDA featured scantily-clad women dancing at its GDC party for the second year in a row.
"We had some [companies] that said... 'You can't have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that'"Dontnod's Jean-Maxime Moris
We also had Dontnod creative director Jean-Maxime Moris revealing that multiple publishers flat out told the studio they wouldn't publish Remember Me because it had a woman protagonist.
"We had some [companies] that said, 'Well, we don't want to publish it because that's not going to succeed. You can't have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that,'" Moris said.
(This was not the first time we had heard something along those lines.)
Dragon Age lead writer David Gaider responded to the Dontnod revelation by calling it "accepted industry wisdom" that games led by women won't sell, but questioned the logic behind it.
"To say that about female protagonists - that they just don't sell [is myopic]," he said. "Over the last ten years, how many titles have had female protagonists? And we're supposed to accept, from those particular titles, that a) that constitutes a pattern, and b) the only reason those games were unsuccessful is because they had female protagonists? That is a real leap of logic... There is lots of that in the industry."
This same month, Square Enix had announced that the Lara Croft-starring Tomb Raider reboot sold 3.4 million copies in its debut month, which it said fell short of expectations.
The lead writer on that game, Rhianna Pratchett (who we linked above coining the #1ReasonToBe hashtag), likewise shared her thoughts on female protagonists in games, and while she was speaking more from a narrative frame than a financial one, her comments apply to both just as well.
"You've got a situation where female characters do get scrutinized more than male characters do, and in some ways can be seen as holding a banner up for female characters," she said. "A lot gets heaped on their shoulders. Lara Croft gets a lot more scrutiny than Nathan Drake does, as a female. Nobody talks about how well Nathan Drake is representing men, or male characters in games."
If most games go down as failures even when they check the same boxes as the industry's biggest hits, we're maybe a little quick to write off the AAA space's once-in-a-generation attempts to go beyond accepted industry wisdom.
We'll wrap this section up with something that I had completely forgotten, but now think was deserving of far more scrutiny and pointed criticism than it ever received. That would be Sony patching out the "Bros Before Hos" achievement from God of War: Ascension that was rewarded for completing a boss battle against two of the three women Furies, a battle that ends with the player brutally stomping one of them in the face from a first-person view and then impaling her on spikes adorning the arena's edges. (Content warning there, the link is what it says on the tin.) The achievement was renamed "Bros Before Foes," and Sony explained the decision to patch saying, "The text was offensive to some members of our community and impacted their enjoyment of the game."
"The text was offensive to some members of our community and impacted their enjoyment of the game."Sony Santa Monica paints a target on unhappy fans' backs
As if the original achievement weren't bad enough, I'm actually more dismayed by the suggestion that they were changing it because "some" members "of our community" were offended. It wasn't changed because the developers had second thoughts, or because they realized the joke ran counter to the values they would like to hold as a studio and an employer. It was changed because some fans whined about it.
That line is not only washing Sony Santa Monica's hands of blame for the choices that led to that achievement in the first place, it's clearly signalling to any reactionary misogynists upset by the move that they should direct their anger not at Sony or the developers, but at anyone who spoke up about it. Absolute cowardice, and the sort of thing that really should have made the industry's utter silence in the face of an organized hate campaign a year later entirely unsurprising.
What Else Happened in March of 2013
● BioShock Infinite released to glowing reviews, giving the games industry its harvest-or-save poster child for a game that receives a massive critical reappraisal over the years.
● Square Enix CEO Yoichi Wada resigned, with Yosuke Matsuda announced as his successor. Wada had held that role since Square first merged with Enix in 2003, and it would be the drastic downgrade to earnings expectations after the disappointing Tomb Raider launch (the biggest project for the former Eidos divisions since Square Enix acquired them in 2009) that brought his term to an end. Matsuda would last almost a full decade in the role, but earlier this month announced he would be stepping down from the role.
● Jerry Bruckheimer Games was confirmed to have shut down. You don't need C.S.I. to tell you this was closer to a Bad Company than a Top Gun. It wasn't exactly Gone in 60 Seconds, as it never shipped a title but somehow lasted five years before facing Armageddon.
● Jason West retired from Respawn Entertainment three years after founding the company but before its first game, Titanfall, had been announced. After Activision fired them in the wake of Modern Warfare 2, West and Vince Zampella had answered the Call of Duty by signing with EA to make an Allied Assault on the action genre with uh… F-1 World Grand Prix 2? Look, this is a lot harder to do with a guy that mostly worked on the same thing for his entire career.
Call of Duty 2: Big Red One.
● PopCap's James Gwertzman gave a fascinating GDC presentation about how piracy in China really benefited Plants vs. Zombies, calling it "an incredibly efficient way to distribute your IP very widely." He was gone from the EA subsidiary three months later. His body was never found.
Wait, wait, cancel that. I'm being told he co-founded PlayFab soon after and is doing fine. Sorry, bad assumption on my part.
● Yacht Club Games announced its formation and showed off its debut game, the excellent Shovel Knight, at PAX East 2013. Happy anniversary Yacht Club!
Good Call, Bad Call
GOOD CALL: With rumors that Microsoft would block used games on the Xbox One even though Sony had indicated it wouldn't be doing that on PS4, Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter mocked the very idea.
"We think that Microsoft would be foolhardy to do so if Sony does not, as we believe that gamers will favor the console that provides them the greatest number of options," Pachter said. "In our view, should one manufacturer block used games and the other doesn't, the latter manufacturer would most likely gain more than 20 percent market share."
If you don't remember what happened (or used the Table of Contents to skip the end of the SimCity section above), Microsoft did indeed announce the Xbox One would have restrictions on used games and a daily online check-in requirement. It didn't go over well and the company reversed course within weeks (well in advance of launch), but the debacle didn't do the Xbox One any favors.
Pachter's guess about Sony's market share is incredibly true if you include Nintendo's systems in the equation because the Wii sold almost 102 million systems while the Wii U fell short of 14 million. But that's kind of a gimmee because Pachter didn't expect Wii U to flop as hard as it did, so let's just look at Sony's share of the high-end console market that Nintendo has effectively opted out of every since the Wii.
In 2013, IDC had the PS3 and Xbox 360 running neck and neck, with an installed base of 77 million for the former and 76 million for the latter. Basically, a 50% market share either way.
Microsoft stopped reporting Xbox One hardware sales in 2015 when it was abundantly clear they would not be comparing favorably to the PS4, so we don't know for sure how many Xbox Ones were sold. We can go with Ampere Analysis' 51 million assessment as of the end of Q2 2020, which was right about the time Microsoft effectively discontinued the Xbox One line.
We have a much better idea of the PS4's lifetime sales, as Sony reported sell-through figures for the system on a quarterly basis through 2019, with the number hitting 106 million up to that point. Compare that against the Xbox One figure and Sony had a 68% market share for that generation compared to 50% for the PS3 generation. Give a few more percentage points for PS4 sales that came since it stopped reporting sell-through at the end of 2019 – remember Sony said it was ramping up PS4 production in early 2022 – and yeah, Pachter's 20% market share prediction may have been too conservative. Good Call.
BAD CALL: American McGee stopped short of our favorite "consoles are dead" prediction, but in the wake of the PlayStation 4 reveal, he was saying that the upcoming generation of consoles would struggle against mobile and VR.
"More than anything it's interface that's going to drive the most significant change," McGee said. "Things like Oculus Rift will radically change people's demands and expectations, that's where the real revolution is going to start. Nothing will be able to compete with full immersion and seamless interface being powered by a processor stack in your pocket."
Sometimes revolutions need to simmer a while, sure, but the PS4 generation did just fine, the current generation is set up to do even better, and this still reads like a clear Bad Call for now.
BAD CALL: While McGee and others across the industry were lamenting the imminent downfall of consoles, Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell was going truly next level with it, telling people that mobile games were over.
"All the money's out," Bushnell said. "Do I really want to do a mobile game that's one of 300,000, where discoverability is everything? You really have to have a little more sizzle on the steak."
So if mobile was over, what was going to replace it?
"I think the next big game opportunity is Google Glasses [sic]," Bushnell said. "If I told you all my ideas for it, I'd have to kill you. And the Oculus Rift. The game business reinvents itself every five years. The last five years have been the days of mobile gaming and shortform gaming, exemplified by Rovio with Angry Birds and Zynga with Farmville. And that is over."
The mobile market has definitely reinvented itself from the Facebook and $0.99 models that Farmville and Angry Birds used, but I don't think we can call it "over" by any definition.
GOOD CALL: Dishonored creative director Harvey Smith wasn't responding to Bushnell or McGee when he told us reports of single-player games' demise had been greatly exaggerated, but he may as well have been.
"What people say each cycle is, 'Fill-in-the-blank is the new thing,'" Smith said. "And if you're old enough, you remember when it was live-action video games. At another point it was MMOs. At another it was social games. At another it was multiplayer shooters. And none of those things are bad; they're all great. But what the reality seems to be is we keep adding types of games and finding new player groups for those. The market seems to be expanding."
BAD CALL: Sources with knowledge of the situation told us that LucasArts was on the chopping block after being acquired by Disney as part of the Lucasfilm/Star Wars acquisition. A LucasArts representative told us that was "100% not true" and "everything is moving ahead." Two weeks later, Disney effectively shut down LucasArts, choosing to license out Star Wars games instead of making them internally.
The Good Call/Bad Call format doesn't have an option for Outright Lie and the representative might not have been clued into the developer's fate, so we'll just put this down as a Bad Call.
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