SimCity was one of the first PC games I ever played when it was first released in 1989 – I was just 7 at the time. You’ll understand then why this game holds a particularly dear place in my heart, and why the launch of its most recent iteration has been somewhat upsetting. What exactly went wrong with the launch, and more important – is the game any good?
It is fair to say that this past week has been an absolute PR disaster for EA Games and their Origin DRM system. There’s even a petition over at change.org with 22,000 signatories, asking EA to remove the always online DRM from SimCity and not to use it in future.
Always-On DRM & The Atrocious Launch
Like Diablo 3, the new SimCity comes with controversial DRM technology that requires you to have a persistent online connection in order to play the game. There’s a weak excuse that the game is multiplayer only, but that’s simply not true – it is purely to prevent piracy. There is an argument both for and against this kind of DRM, but the fact is that 9 months on, Diablo 3 has yet to be “cracked” – if you want to play the game, you need to actually buy it.
Now whether piracy is actually detrimental to game (or music, or movie) revenues is an argument for another time. Suffice to say, SimCity 2013 requires you to be online, authenticated with EA servers. There is no “offline mode”, and if you don’t have an Internet connection, you cannot play the game.
EA claimed that “players were playing the game in ways they had not expected”, but the fact is that there were not nearly enough servers commissioned to handle even the US-only launch at the beginning of the week. Players were simply unable to log in for hours on end, as the technical teams brought servers up and down, applying quick fixes and patches that seemingly had no effect. With no offline mode, millions were unable to play the game they had purchased. They were understandably furious.
EA further stoked the fires of discontent with its no-refund policy on digital downloads – “please wait, we are working on the server situation, but no you cannot have a refund” was the official support stance.
Regarding recent confusion: In general we do not offer refunds on digital download games. Please review our policy https://t.co/nn5xsqVNKh
— Origin (@OriginInsider) March 7, 2013
Users took to the forums and Metacritic to express their anger. At the time of writing, the user score is no les than 1.7/10, from over 2,800 angry gamers. Most of them of course, have yet to play the game. The worst of the critic scores were made in a similar snap judgement on launch day.
A day later, EA made the decision to remove “non-essential” functionality from the game – leaderboards and such. The following day, Amazon withdrew sales of the game – both physical and digital – due to overwhelming complaints and refund requests. With the global launches looming, the server situation did not improve.
Cheetah mode – the highest speed setting (and most server taxing) – was also removed, and remains so as I write this. At this point, the European and UK launch was underway and the whole situation started again. Finally, by Sunday afternoon, almost a week later, with now double the number of original servers running, things have stabilized and 9 out of 10 times I can immediately enter my preferred server. Jumping around servers is also possible, but problematic due to the fact that your region is only saved on the server you play on, so entering a new server means starting a new region.
It has therefore been a rather frustrating launch for many fans, but it’s a shame that so many people have chosen to give bad review scores without even playing the game, for if they did, they would realize that actually it’s a damn fun game.
For those who are unsure about the online component, let me explain. If you’re already playing, and the server goes down, or your Internet goes out, you are not booted out to the main menu and prevented from playing. A message will appear at the top left of the screen saying you’re unable to connect to the servers, and the game will attempt to reconnect. While they’re offline, your city cannot be saved, but if you just continue to play, they will come back online and your game will be automatically saved as soon as possible.
If you attempt to quit the game when your city hasn’t been fully synced, it’ll warn you and sit there until has saved. Annoying, yes, but I haven’t lost a city yet.
The biggest complaints appear to be one – why are we forced to play multiplayer? And two – the city limits are far too small compared to previous games.
The first is easy to dismiss if you’ve actually played the game, because it’s simply not true. When you start a new region, you can mark it as private. Only you will then be able to claim the cities in your region. That was easy. The fact that the game has online DRM does not mean you have to play with other people, and personally I choose not to.
The second complaint is accurate in that the physical size of the cities you can make has in fact been drastically reduced (presumably in order to cope with the sheer level of independently operating AI units within the game) – but it also misses the point entirely. Instead of creating one immense and unrealistic city that contains everything one could possibly ever need, you now create smaller, more realistic and specialized cities.
All of the cities within a region now interact – by sharing resources, volunteering services (at no extra cost) – and the bonus features unlocked in one city are made available to everyone else in the region. In this way, there’s a lot more progression. You start a region from scratch, but the second city you build will have a few free services and some unlocked features from the first, leaving you free to concentrate on a further specialization.
Each city now develops an individual character and feel to it – something which is both more realistic, and for me, a lot more fun. In the region I just started – my wife began with a heavy coal industry and was pollution riddled.
I moved in next door and let them handle the dirty laundry (trash and sewage etc) from my city, whilst I was free to concentrate on higher education and clean energy, unlocking superior technologies and facilities she could then make use of. We then started another adjacent city focussed on oil initially, then turning to tourism and gambling.
The funds from this will go on to develop one of of 4 possible “great works”, like an arcology or international airport. So whilst the individual cities are indeed smaller, in practice, it just doesn’t matter.
So Is It Fun?
From my perspective, the new SimCity feels more like an actual game, rather than a detailed city builder sandbox. It is no longer concerned with the minutiae of laying ground pipes for water, just as long as you have enough. That said, there’s now more detail than ever to the cities and individual sim behaviour – every single person or business – is now an AI agent that the game simulates with their own goals and daily life patterns.
Yes, some elements have been simplified such that you only need to lay roads for water, power, and sewage; but at the same time, it represents the most thorough city simulation ever.
I should also note that yesterday was the first time I went up to bed first, leaving my wife downstairs for “just another turn” – AKA 3 more hours. This is in fact, the only game she has ever been addicted to – she is not a gamer. For that I’m grateful, that she finally understands my passion for gaming – such is the strength of the new SimCity – when it works, that is.
So there you have it, SimCity 2013 is an incredible game that has been mired somewhat by a badly planned launch and restrictive DRM. But are you really going to let that get in your way of enjoying one of the best game of this decade? I certainly won’t.