SimCity, Lies, And Respect

by Adam Biessener on Mar 21, 2013 at 11:35 AM

The whole debacle with SimCity seems to get worse for EA every day. Hackers recently got the game to run perfectly well offline, which is troublesome on a level beyond the general irritation of having to needlessly suffer through server problems since the game launched. Maxis misled us, and that's a much larger problem than any connectivity issue.

Maxis general manager Lucy Bradshaw told Polygon, "With the way that the game works, we offload a significant amount of the calculations to our servers so that the computations are off the local PCs and are moved into the cloud. It wouldn't be possible to make the game offline without a significant amount of engineering work by our team." That kind of tricky engineering work can apparently be done by hackers and modders messing around with the game in their spare time for a week.

The idea of SimCity running in an offline mode is borne out by Kotaku's tests of the game simulating merrily along for 20 minutes with an unplugged connection, an anonymous Maxis insider directly refuting Bradshaw's claims to Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and Mojang boss Markus "Notch" Persson's personal anecdotes. Though there may be a kernel of truth somewhere in Bradshaw's statement, the implication that the GlassBox engine simply can't function without the computational power of EA's servers is, according to all evidence, false.

(It's worth noting that the offline hacks do not appear to include regional trade, but the simplicity and highly abstracted and asynchronous nature of those relationships makes me very skeptical that EA's servers are supplying computational power of any meaningful benefit.)

Nevermind whether or not SimCity lives up to your gameplay expectations, or even how you feel about being forced to always play online in a genre that has always previously offered offline gaming. The trouble with Bradshaw's statement is that she is at the very least taking an extremely liberal view of what "a significant amount of...calculations" means in an attempt to run damage control on the botched launch of a game that many fans are disappointed by. In an industry where gamers have no choice but to accept developers at their word in almost all cases, especially for products and services that are not out yet, this breach of trust is a profound insult to consumers.

Publishers, developers, marketing materials, and PR representatives all try to paint their products in the best possible light - that's understood. The press, if we're doing our jobs right, try to cut through the thousands of little lies of omission and gaudy feel-good statements as best we can. Consumers - you - have little recourse in most cases but to absorb the information released by game companies and/or interpreted by us in the gaming press. This fragile linkage through which knowledge flows about pre-release games and the inner workings of launched software and services is subject to corruption at every level. Consumers rightly become incensed with the press when a glowing and uncritical preview paints an illusion of a game that was never going to exist. The idea of a company releasing flatly untrue or grossly misleading statements in the first place is far more insidious to the relationship between the entertainer and the entertained.

Barring anonymous developer leaks or unusual events like source-code leaks, the entertainment we purchase from the EAs of the world is a black box to consumers. There's no way for us to know just how Radiant AI is really driving Cyrodiil's townsfolk when they're offscreen, or what kind of "significant calculations" Maxis' servers are running. We trust that while companies are telling us what they think we want to hear, those statements are at least rooted in reality. When the original information is based on half-truths or outright falsehoods, the entire process breaks down.

Confronted with irate gamers who want to play in their simulated civic sandboxes without dealing with MMO-like infrastructure issues, Bradshaw's statement constructs a reality in which Maxis' designs were just too far ahead of their time to function on current PC hardware. Always-online is a regrettable necessity in order to let Maxis' amazing work function, and once the servers are ironed out we'll all agree that it was for the best. The evidence that has come to light in the past weeks brings us back to the common-sense explanation for SimCity's online requirement, which is that EA felt that it was the only way to curb the piracy it feared.

As a journalist, I'm frustrated that I have to rely on larger communities like Reddit to wring the truth out of SimCity's code with the kind of brute force only thousands of annoyed gamers and hacktivists can apply. As a consumer and a SimCity fan, though, I'm infuriated by the unbelievable disrespect shown by EA and Maxis toward their consumers.

I would feel much better if Maxis had come out and said, "Hey, we know always-online is a pain for some people. Unfortunately, we feel like we have to take these extreme measures to ensure that rampant piracy doesn't prevent us from making money on SimCity. We're doing everything we can to soften the blow with our sharing and social features, and we think that this is the best decision to ensure a healthy and vibrant SimCity franchise for decades to come." I can disagree with a statement like that - I cannot believe that treating customers like thieves is ever the right decision for a gaming company - but I can respect Maxis' desire to make money off of their hard work. Games are expensive to make, and I am happy to financially support the developers who create the types of products I want to see more of. That at least makes the transaction honest; if I sufficiently disapprove of Maxis' stance on anti-piracy measures, I can avoid buying their game. We can part ways amicably, or I can decide, like I did in Diablo III's case, that I like the game more than I dislike the service, and make purchasing decisions accordingly.

Being misled to the extent that it now appears Maxis and EA have done with SimCity, though, is the kind of disrespect that makes me want to shout my anger through the Internet as loudly as I can. How do I trust anything coming from the publisher now? Does anyone seriously expect me to give them the benefit of the doubt that the CFO misspoke when he proclaimed a microtransaction-based future for all EA games? Why should I believe anything about Origin other than that it's an intrusive and annoying way for EA to get out of paying Valve the 30-percent cut to get its games on Steam? Dead Space microtransactions, the many irritations of the BioWare social service sticking its unwelcome nose into my single-player RPGs, multiplayer service shutdowns for everything from sports to shooters - why should I forgive EA for any of those blatantly anti-consumer policies and actions?

GI senior features editor Matt Helgeson made an excellent point on a recent GI podcast that the presence of microtransactions in $60 games makes the relationship between gamer and developer a nakedly mercantile one. Instead of the amicable bond between entertainer and entertained, we are engaged in an entirely mercenary transaction between wallet and in-game marketplace. That's not how I see myself or my gaming hobby, it's not how I like to spend my leisure time, and it's damn sure not how I want to be treated as a gamer, a journalist, or a person.