Last weekend’s SimCity launch proved to be a trial by fire for EA – but I can only see this situation as one the publishing giant has won.
To recap: EA struggled to maintain server connections for swathes of SimCity players logging for launch.
The game requires an always-on web connection to support a variety of features: to support of both single-player and multiplayer, to run some of the game’s computations server-side, to track data for metrics, and guarantee some form of DRM.
But when the game’s servers can’t connect, users can’t play the game. And there was a lot of that last week, with forums, Twitter feeds and Facebook ablaze with frustration as the game went live.
SimCity is mostly running OK now, with more tweaks due. EA has admitted it underestimated the level of demand and server resource needed. It even offered disgruntled players a free game to keep them sweet.
EA is not alone in running foul of online connection problems disabling the launch of single player games.
Ubisoft has been regularly criticised for using over-zealous digital DRM for single players games, and Blizzard’s Diablo III has hit similar issues.
But this has all happened so much that many commentators and pundits have suggested that problems like this will force publishers to rethink their online strategies. (And they insist campaigning against it will speed up that shift.)
Well, it won’t.
"Every time a publisher has a widely-publicised
problemwith something like DRM or ‘always-on’
games,it’s isn’tanother nail in the coffin for that
strategy – it’s anothernail in the coffin for whatever
that strategy is trying to kill off."
The only ‘problem’ that SimCity represents for EA is that it has been a steep learning curve.
Every time a publisher has a widely-publicised problem with something like DRM or ‘always-on’ games, it’s isn’t another nail in the coffin for that strategy – it’s another nail in the coffin for whatever that strategy is trying to kill off. Because companies usually get smarter as they try and try again with things like this.
There’s a mix of factors that make this a certainty that centre on web connections and ease of access.
Despite all the connection issues for SimCity, in the long-term web connections are getting better and better for consumers. It’s this migration to better broadband and data access which, forgive me pointing out the obvious, is carrying us into the digital era.
And as for problems in the short-term? Well as publishers and developers encounter them, they simply find ways around it or fix them. Mobile and tablet games developers have made the biggest leaps on this. It will come to PC and console next: always-online games that are prepared to cope with a patchy signal or limited data bandwidth.
Ultimately, as the web gets better, and the delivery of games gets better, fears about connecting games permanently to the web vanish as they become more convenient. So SimCity players might be angry now, but they won’t be complaining once the service is fixed – or when their next game of choice launches without problem.
One point of umbrage some SimCity players have with EA is the claim that a few of the powerful simulation game’s computations are run on the server-side, so the EA mothership needs to be connected to each game running. Critics say this must be a lie, and yep, I’m sure that Maxis could turn it off with some work. After all, the original Sim City games worked fine pre-internet, right?
While the principle is fine, the reality isn’t.
Data sharing and publishers wanting a regular server connection stems from a deeper demand for in-game metrics and analysing player behaviour.
EA undoubtedly wants to keep abreast of player choices and decisions. Having detailed, granular information about what players are doing will inform both creative decisions and tweaks in-game while the game is live – and is dynamite for informing commercial decisions. (There’s a huge privacy issue related to this – but that’s another issue, and likely one to spawn just as much outrage when a publisher gets wrong or abuses the info it has on its customers.)
Whether gamers rail against this or not, the allure of what this offers publishers is too great, too powerful. Publishers are going it find ways to make it acceptable. They won’t stop because players say they should.
"But didn’t all gamers give up the argument to
an unconnected, uninterrupted experience the
minute the first Xbox achievement was unlocked?
At that moment, playing a game, even one with a
story and just one character to control in the early
days of Xbox 360 – which seems like so long ago
now – went from being a closeted, quiet thing, to
something broadcast and shared with others."
Artistically, all of this does spell out a pretty sorry story: the demise of a pure single player experience that can be enjoyed alone and without any technical interruptions. The opposite of that – an always-watched digital game, where your every move is logged and tracked, sounds worrying.
But didn’t all gamers give up the argument to an unconnected, uninterrupted experience the minute the first Xbox achievement was unlocked? At that moment, playing a game, even one with a story and just one character to control in the early days of Xbox 360 – which seems like so long ago now – went from being a closeted, quiet thing, to something broadcast and shared with others.
Other in-game notifications and the addition of dashboards has ramped that up. In-game video streaming is turning it into a business model. Things like a massive ‘share’ button on the PS4 controller become the logical conclusion.
So no wonder publishers have leapt on the long vaulted games-as-service model to support future games.
And it will be no surprise to see them learn from early mistakes to make better games than ever. Or at least make games that don’t give people reason to complain so much.