The Average Gamer

SimCity Woes

SimCity Concept Art Crash
Server lockouts, “non-essential features” and hordes of angry gamers. EA’s SimCity is off to a rocky start and none of it is unexpected.

For the past year, EA have been emphasising that the new SimCity has to be always online. It’s a fundamental part of the experience. Reviews acknowledge that you can’t build the perfect city in one location – you have to rely on your neighbours for certain services. There’s simply not enough space in the smaller maps to fit everything.

You could try to manage the entire region on your own but balancing five complementary cities is a difficult act to pull off. That said, I’m absolutely up for building Debbieville, the cleanest city in the world, surrounded by Rubbishtown, Watervalley and Oily Sands. Come to think of it, with no natural (and polluting) industry of my own, I’m probably just building Singapore, the city in which I grew up. Hmm…

SimCity DisconnectedTapping into the competitive nature of gamers, EA introduced leaderboards to compare your cities’ pollution levels, populations and dozens of other measures against your friends. They brought in achievements to guide players and provide that ever-rewarding “ping” of satisfaction when you’ve done something the developers wanted you to do. In an attempt to reduce the burden on EA’s servers, they’ve now classed these as “non-critical gameplay features” and temporarily disabled them.

Polygon, whose review I linked above, have been steadily revising the review score as time goes on, starting from 9.5, dropping to 8.0 and now 4.0 as a result of these features being disabled. Now I’m completely onboard with judging the product as it appears to consumers, but this is a little bit… insane. It’s been out in the US for three days. Every popular MMO has had server issues at launch. What are they going to do, adjust the score every time a server’s population dwindles and makes it harder for newbies to meet people?

No, my objection lies in the way online features were forced into a game that didn’t need them. By all means, build the multiplayer game with all the extra bells and whistles but the single-player offline issue could be easily solved by simply providing larger maps. Sure, this may require users with lower-end PCs to turn down the level of detail, but it would be a better game and one that people would be happy to pay for.

Over on GamesRadar, Hollander Cooper makes a similar point:

“Even though it’s arguably better for it (the social aspects add immense value to the city-building franchise), SimCity didn’t need to be an online game. It’s as simple as that. Being an always-on, connected social experience was a choice that the developers made without the infrastructure to support it”

The game launched in Europe today and DigitalSpy are tracking SimCity’s accesibility. Things were looking good this morning but as more and more people are logging on, they’re buckling under the load.

“1.00pm: Okay, now we are having some issues. The Europe West 1 server we were using was listed as ‘Busy’ and we have been unable to connect, receiving the following error message: “Unable to connect to the SimCity servers. Please try again.”

So, we switched to Europe West 2 but still had no joy: “Your server is still experiencing very high volume. You are now in a queue. They play button will become active once space is available.”

After a short wait, we decided to try Europe West 3. The game loaded up, but was unplayable. We received the following message repeatedly: “Unable to load city at this time. Please try again.”

“Even if it did work, there’s a chance I wouldn’t be able to play my city–the server I signed up for, US East 1 (the only one available when I loaded the game up), is marked as “Busy,” meaning I might need to wait 30 minutes before even attempting to log into it at all. No, that’s not a 30-minute queue, that’s a 30-minute timer, letting me know when I’ll be allowed to try and click play again. If the server is still full, I’m looking at another 30-minute timer.”

Way back in April of last year, Maxis producer Jason Haber said to Eurogamer:

“From the ground up it’s been a multiplayer game. I’m not surprised we’re getting some reaction like this. But I think once people see it in action – and at E3 we’re really looking forward to showing people multiplayer and how it works – hopefully that will show them why it’s such a great feature and it’s totally worth having.”

Yet the game that people are actually playing has barely any multiplayer interaction at all. You connect your city to another in the region and you share resources or pollution. There’s an autolog-style newsfeed, some leaderboards and… yeah, that’s about it. In an attempt to stablise the single-player experience, they’ve all but removed the features that make you feel like you’re playing with other people in the first place.

It’s time for EA to admit that this isn’t multiplayer. It’s inbuilt DRM, and it’s simply not good enough.