EA: "DRM is a failed dead-end strategy"

EA Labels president Frank Gibeau responds to "conspiracy theories" about SimCity and puts his foot down when it comes to DRM

The recent launch of SimCity was a troubled one for Electronic Arts, as the company struggled to get its servers fully functional. Ordinarily, this wouldn't be good for any game's launch, but when a title is designed to be always online, and countless players therefore can't even play the game they just purchased, the situation quickly escalates. EA moved as fast as it could to rectify the situation, but some players felt EA's real intent was to force DRM on its customers. Maxis head Lucy Bradshaw's blog post seemed to only stir the pot, but EA Labels president Frank Gibeau now insists that DRM had absolutely nothing to do with the game's design whatsoever.

Speaking to GamesIndustry International at GDC this week, Gibeau commented, "That's not the reality; I was involved in all the meetings. DRM was never even brought up once. You don't build an MMO because you're thinking of DRM - you're building a massively multiplayer experience, that's what you're building."

Not only was DRM not a topic of internal discussion at EA, Gibeau said, but the executive also made it very clear that DRM is simply not an option for publishers anymore.

"At no point in time did anybody say 'you must make this online'. It was the creative people on the team that thought it was best to create a multiplayer collaborative experience"

Frank Gibeau

"DRM is a failed dead-end strategy; 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," he said with a laugh.

For EA and Maxis, Gibeau said it really was a case of building a completely connected world with an MMO-like infrastructure.

"It started with the team at Maxis that had a creative vision for a multiplayer, connected, collaborative SimCity experience where your city and my city and others' were [working together]; for better or for worse, and for right or for wrong, the lead designers and the producers and the programmers felt like they wanted to tell us a multiplayer, cooperative city story around SimCity. We had built a bunch of these and you could've gone deeper and deeper into your plumbing and managing toilets and electrical posts, but we felt there was a bigger story to tell and a bigger opportunity to chase with an always-on connected experience built around that concept. That's what we set out to design and that's what Maxis created and brought forward into the marketplace," Gibeau explained.

"At no point in time did anybody say 'you must make this online'. It was the creative people on the team that thought it was best to create a multiplayer collaborative experience and when you're building entertainment... you don't always know what the customer is going to want. You have to innovate and try new things and surprise people and in this particular case that's what we sought to achieve. If you play an MMO, you don't demand an offline mode, you just don't. And in fact, SimCity started out and felt like an MMO more than anything else and it plays like an MMO," he continued.

Gibeau acknowledged that EA probably should have done a better job in its messaging with the community, making sure that they understand the MMO nature of the title and the need to be always connected.

"I'm disappointed that we didn't do a better job communicating that upfront. I'm disappointed that we had a rough first couple of days in terms of underestimating how people were going to play the game and how the server infrastructure was going to hold up, but we responded the best we could, we got people to fix it as fast as we could," he said. "We had a majority of people come through who had a good experience and a bunch of people that didn't and that's not acceptable, but at the same time we tried to do make-goods with free games, we've been fixing and constantly tinkering with the experience and it's an experience that we want to continue to evolve over time. It has to be an online experience like an MMO where you bring out new events, new kits, new places to go, and that's more the vision for where SimCity is going."

Even with its problems, however, the game did quite well, selling over 1.1 million copies in its first two weeks, which Gibeau noted makes it "the fastest-selling and biggest SimCity we've ever built." Gibeau believes that part of the problem is the entire situation snowballed when the media started covering it.

"Some customers have had problems, and you're in the media; you know how some things can snowball, and unfortunately that's what happened here. We did the best we could in order to respond to that and made adjustments to the service but the game is continuing to sell through at a much higher expectation than we thought. The servers are now at 100 percent and there's plenty of capacity... and we're not the first or the last company [to have a problem like this] - Activision Blizzard, Steam, Ubisoft...everybody's had this problem and it was our turn I guess," he said.

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Latest comments (33)

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 9 years ago
The problem is transparency. Reading this:

The second paragraph is
On that note, those of you who can't tolerate EA's Origin and online-only games should tap out early before you get excited about this: Yes, you will have to register an Origin account in order to play, and yes, you must be online ["at all times" is struck out] while playing in order to start playing. EA has confirmed that you will not be kicked out if your connection is interrupted. Moving on.
This makes it look like the always-online aspect was not part of the original vision. Perhaps Gamespy didn't do a hard enough job of investigating this, and it was always meant to be online-only. But perhaps not. More transparency on EA's part would certainly have ensured the consumer knew what they were getting into.
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Alex Bunch Proof Reader, ZiCorp Studios9 years ago
Puts his foot firmly in mouth with "DRM is a failed dead-end strategy.... So what we tried to do creatively is build an online service in the SimCity universe and that's what we sought to achieve."
Which is another way of saying 'because we can't use DRM we'll use the online service to get the same results'!
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game9 years ago
Ok, if I may leave aside specific problems with SimCity, and focus on the "felt like an mmo" bits.
Recently, EA released "The Old Republic", which was supposed to be a big Warcraft contender, and instead had underwhelming commercial results which their recent CEO departure has at least been attributed to. Prior to that they had Warhammer online, that was supposed to be a big Warcraft contender, but burst least didn't lead to a CEO departure. EA partners have also been involved in APB, and presumably Kingdoms of Amular (they released the console game, not sure if the MMO was contracted to them). We both know the tragedies that followed them. And they released Secret World, I believe. Still going, but not having the planned impact.

Does this not indicate that maybe EA should approach MMOs with a bit more trepidation? Maybe build an MMO bomb shelter for instance? They seem to be cursed with regard to them.
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Show all comments (33)
Marty Greenwell Senior Software Developer 9 years ago
Anything that EA say about SimCity now will simply be seen as more PR spin - and this really does just look like more PR spin.
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Gareth Eckley Commercial Analyst 9 years ago
How many of the people who bought those 1.1m units have asked for a refund and been refused by EA?

Thank goodness for credit cards.
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Christopher Bowen Editor in Chief, Gaming Bus9 years ago
Words are meaningless. EA's actions speak louder than the words of one empty suit.
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Jason Alexander QA - Senior Tester, Blizzard Entertainment9 years ago
@Andrew Therein lays the problem. MMOs that have come out are all trying to be like WoW. Many people fail to see that folks have been playing for years and have made friends, met wives, and said goodbye to love ones. It’s even been in Pop Culture on South Park and in the News. You don't walk away from that cause something new comes along. Secondly I think DRM is getting confused with bad server issues. Those happen and will happen more as more people get access to the internet. That was EAs problem not DRM.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jason Alexander on 27th March 2013 8:31pm

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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd9 years ago
SimCity is not an MMO (and it's disappointing that you've not questioned or corrected this assertion), and its artificial requirement to phone home to a server absolutely is DRM by any reasonable definition of the term.

The time for PR spin that the game "needs" to be online ended as soon as it was in players' hands, and easily shown to be false.

Perhaps the fact that every always-on DRM launch for a single player game has been a costly PR and customer service disaster might have tipped EA off that this is a terrible idea?
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Tim Ogul Illustrator 9 years ago
Yes, Sim City is not an MMO and anyone who claims it is doesn't deserve a job that is related to video games. It is a game with online functions, but the core gameplay can work without online functionality at all, and players should always have had the option to play it in a fully offline mode if they wanted to. There should have been "full online" mode, there should have been "full offline" mode, and there should have been some sort of "digest mode" that would go online when it could, update information from other players when it could, and then come back, but would be perfectly fine if you never actually connected and would allow you to keep playing until you got around to it.

Is it possible that business played absolutely no role in the decision? Perhaps, but if so that paints the developers of the game out to be extraordinarily stupid, because the only justification for "online only" that are not extraordinarily stupid are those that involve EA potentially making more money off the product. Any mentally functional development team would have made the effort to include the option of an offline mode, for all sorts of reasons that have already been talked to death.
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Saehoon Lee Founder & CEO, Pixellore9 years ago
Ok, so even if I believe everything Frank says is true, I still don't think EA has got this right. Never mind DRM issue and server issue, but their "mmo" design decision about the Simcity doesn't seem to appeal to majority of the Simcity fans. Even in MMOrpg like games , you have to get the basics right first and then add that online features on top. The Simcity has to get the RCI stuff right, fix the traffic issue in a way people can understand the system better, make actual regional trading to work properly. All that can actually be done without needing a always online mmo like property. When the basics are done right and most of us are happy with the core elements of the game, only then let people look and see what they can do together , IF they want to do it together. Unfortunately, I think in this case, Maxis has failed to understand why the Simcity game series were loved by so many of us in the first place.
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent9 years ago
I'm with Robin.

To argue semantics after the fact is to trivialise the anger of those affected. Bad show.
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd9 years ago
@ Jason I generally agree, but consider that Guild Wars 2 which intentionally was designed from the ground up without MMO/WoW tropes being thrown in first is doing very well.
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Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve9 years ago
I can't believe EA is continuously stating points that basically accumulate to "this is our design, we set out to achieve what we wanted to do", which completely ignores the point that they didn't achieve what the customers wanted them to do.

No-one asked for SimCity to always be online. Not one potential customer. Many, many people have voiced this, but it always falls on deaf ears. The designers should design games for the customer, not themselves, and it's ridiculous that they keep defending their "vision" when no-one is arguing that they didn't achieve their vision, they're arguing that the vision was wrong.
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Caleb Hale Journalist 9 years ago
Even if Maxis had built SimCity with all these online connectivity features in mind, accessing it should have been an option, not a mandate. I guess I'm glad to hear someone from EA admit DRM is a dead-end strategy, but it doesn't seem the company is being truthful about why DRM is doomed to fail. Namely, it's an unsustainable business model, riddled with the types of pitfalls that piss off customers and essentially gives the game a quiet expiration date once EA decides to start shutting down servers.
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Paul Shirley Programmers 9 years ago
'DRM is a dead end' - which actually means 'the words Digital Rights Management and their acronym are dead". Just the words, 'always online' just works better as DRM while sounding innocent.
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Jonah Falcon Writer 9 years ago
If Origin isn't DRM, why can't I access my Dragon Age: Origins DLC if I'm offline?
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Jason Alexander QA - Senior Tester, Blizzard Entertainment9 years ago
GW2 is a great game...but they had there own model...but it was not pitched and hype as a contender to WoW when it came out the others were. I have even seen gamers' compare Elder Scrolls MMO and say WoW is finished. I don't think it's that simple when talking about MMOs in general.

As for the DRM these companies want to protect their IPs and this seems to be the way...soon every publisher/DEV will have there own service to get there games from. As this transition happens things like this will occur. The problem people have is the change...If you want it to go in another direction, discussing it on Forums and blogs is not going to solve anything.
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Taylan Kay Game Designer / Programmer / Marketer 9 years ago
"At no point in time did anybody say 'you must make this online'."
And pray tell, at which point did you guys think it would be a good idea to take out offline singleplayer altogether?
" don't always know what the customer is going to want."
Really? I mean, REALLY?! You didn't know people wanted to play it offline?

You've got to be kidding me. The nerve of these people is astounding, calling DRM a failed strategy in one breath, defending always online in the next.
"Gibeau believes that part of the problem is the entire situation snowballed when the media started covering it."
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises9 years ago
They ruined the Sim City brand name with this game, should have called it DRM City instead.
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Randy Marr Customer Service Representative, Blizzard Entertainment9 years ago
For the same reason you can't with Steam.
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Josh Freeman Studying Computer Science, University of Huddersfield9 years ago
Why are people so angry about this? Was people angry when Final Fantasy 11 came out and it was an MMO so you -had- to be online unlike any other FF game?

I just do not get it... They decided they wanted online, it is their game, they own it, they can do what they want and I am sorry a lot of people did not like it, but a lot do, i love it. I find it FAR more enjoyable to play coop with a friend, i don't want to play solo and so the game wouldn't have interested me if it had not of been for the online play.

As for DRM in terms of protecting against pirating, can you blame them? You cant defend something that protects stealing and sure there are a few innocent people out there who don't always have an internet connection but go blame the people who steal games, not the developers.
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William Usher Assistant Editor, Cinema Blend9 years ago
It was pretty obvious what consumers wanted and an offline mode was one of them. I was keeping track of this right after the first mention of "always-on DRM" came into the fold and just about everyone who commented or heard about it was not pleased at the always-on aspect. Either they purposefully tuned out everyone (even during the public AMA on Reddit) or...yeah...they just tuned everyone out.

Also, I don't ever remember Maxis or EA saying that SimCity was an MMO before the fallout. They just refer to an always-on/always-connected experience but they never mention MMO...added to this, MMO's can't be modded to work in offline mode like SimCity unless you have a private server.
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Tomis programmer 9 years ago
@Randy Marr - you can't with Steam what? There's an offline mode, just so you know.
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Paul Smith Dev 9 years ago
Steams offline mode is an odd contraption with its "you have to be online to turn on offline mode" It wouldn't even let me play deus ex.
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Spencer Franklin Concept Artist 9 years ago
"You don't build it for yourself. You know what the people want and you build it for them." —Walt Disney

Yeah... EA/Maxis might need to take this more to heart...
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Tomis programmer 9 years ago
You only need to tell Steam to save your password when first running it online, then you can always run it offline. Also there are games (i.e. Arma2 ) that you can simply start from their installation directory and they will not check for Steam's presence.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 9 years ago
EA has some serious issues with their understanding (or lack thereof) of what customers might want. They seem to pick the way they feel like doing it and if that doesn't suit the customer, tough luck.

I preordered Battlefield 3 for my PS3, spend a couple of hundred hours on it, and bought some of the DLC. Then a year or so ago I bought a PC and switched to gaming on it.

Unfortunately, EA doesn't have any concept of "Steam Play"; their solution for me was to pay all over again for both the game and all the DLC. Even better, since I live in Japan, they refused to let me use their English-language website or Origin client to do this. Today I installed the Origin client again to check up on the situation, and it's still the same. I talked to an EA customer service rep. and he told me that the language is locked to geolocation on the IP address, he's already asked for this to be changed, and there's no indication this will ever happen.

The result? is now about $400 richer and I don't see much chance I'll ever purchase anything from Origin, despite them having a lot of games I'd like to buy.
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Mary Hilton Community Manager, Reclaim Your Game9 years ago
It's more than apparent that EA is only in business to serve themselves at the cost to their customers. Every time someone in an official capacity opens their mouth, it becomes painfully obvious that EA has decided that pleasing customers is an option and not a preferred action.
"No DRM"-since when is having both Glassbox and Origin installed in the game and on your computer not DRM? By every single definition of the word, they are.
Nobody wanted this game to be an MMO. Nobody wanted it to be on-line all the time. EA decided that both were necessary and in essence, told their entire customer base, "Your wishes do not count, and shut up already."
They're still doing it, by trotting out all the suits and making them say stupid things.
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Jason Alexander QA - Senior Tester, Blizzard Entertainment9 years ago
@Andrew Ihegbu

Everyone knew Square was making a MMO for 11 and loved it because 12 was already know to single player I see no error in their ways.

("Because a company makes products for the consumer, not for themselves.")
Companies make products to fill a need existing or not. When you think people are making things for individuals you get the entitled arguments such as these. "I don't like this" "This would have been better" "I want this and that" "You make things for me"

They are a company and are allowed to change their model anyway they like. If you don't like your free to move on to other products that's how this economy thing works.
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Paul Shirley Programmers 9 years ago
@Jason Alexander: sure they're allowed to do what they like. They're also supposed to tell the customers WTF they've done, not let them find out only after parting with money. Of course that can't happen because too many would have "moved on to other products" instead of trusting EA and pre-ordering.

Who in their right mind will preorder an EA product again?
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 9 years ago
@ Jason
When you think people are making things for individuals you get the entitled arguments such as these. "I don't like this" "This would have been better" "I want this and that" "You make things for me"
And that's another form of entitlement. The company thinks it knows things better than the consumer, and gives the consumer what it makes, rather than listening to what is actually wanted. DRM is a case-in-point: The consumer doesn't want it, but the publisher forces it onto them. Now, yes, the company has the right to make products like that, but it obviously raises the public's ire when someone who's paying money for something finds their views ignored. "Don't like it, don't buy for it" is just as entitled an argument as "I want this now".

Of course, we don't have to take anecdotal evidence for it. How many people bought Torchlight 2 after finding the always-on DRM (oh, do excuse me, the RMAH) of Diablo 3 a turn-off, for instance?

And one final thing: At what point should a company start listening to the consumer? At what point does the consumer's opinion hold enough weight that the company should change the product? 1 person? Of course not. Buuuuuuuuuuut... How about 500? 1000? 10,000?

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 29th March 2013 8:31pm

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Jason Alexander QA - Senior Tester, Blizzard Entertainment9 years ago
I agree I don't like it either and the rumors going around about PS4's and XBOX's no Used games idea makes me worried to. I think they(EA) should meet half way with online at start-up. But some people are not going to like that either.

It a tricky subject! Economics vs. Consumer Sanctification.

Coin anyone?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jason Alexander on 29th March 2013 10:07pm

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Charles Ellis CEO & Lead Developer, Portalus Games9 years ago
Considering that SimCity has shifted over 1 million units in its first two weeks, I'd say that only with at least a few thousand people deciding to contact them, representing many dozens of thousands of similarly concerned players, would it begin to impact their decision making.

The reality for SimCity is that with this particular incarnation they've clearly gone for a larger audience and they're probably counting on the majority of their customers to be outside of the "core gamer" demographic, and thus have a less demanding attitude towards the product.
They likely figure that many of those players would simply engage in a different activity if they found that they were unable to log into SimCity due to either server issues or network trouble, and not request a refund or lambaste the developer for making that choice.

Obviously I'm not in a position to say whether this is an accurate depiction of their thought process, nor if that view is correct about their average customer.

Personally I have no issue with the idea that they would decide to make an always-online game, even in a traditionally single-player series like SimCity. However, like most people in this thread I agree that the biggest issue here has been one of setting players' expectations. My thoughts on this are too long to reasonably post here, so I wrote this blog post.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Charles Ellis on 31st March 2013 6:37am

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