EA has managed to get SimCity into the headlines for all the wrong reasons this week, completely ruining the launch of its connected new title, having it temporarily pulled from one of the world's largest retailers, and looking shameful as it offered mixed signals with refunds to some unhappy customers and then ban warnings to others.
The core of the problem is this: SimCity requires you to be permanently connected to the Internet, and data is constantly being passed between your machine and the game's servers. There is no option to play offline, and right now the servers are so overloaded with requests they simply cannot keep up. The game, as it currently stands, is broken.
SimCity shouldn't be broken. There are no excuses. It's a frustrating and painful experience, and the people getting burnt are the game's most loyal supporters.
These server woes are particularly egregious to many because they reflect a schism between gamers and publishers. One of the biggest causes of friction in our industry at the moment is the rift between established longtime gamers, who grew up predominantly with isolated single-player adventures, and modern publishers looking to transform their long-running franchises into service-led experiences.
Predictably, Maxis says this online requirement offers up a suite of social, connected features that just wouldn't be possible otherwise. The argument, it goes, is that that the 2013 version of SimCity just wouldn't work as a concept unless it's hooked into the Internet. So what we've ended up with is a product that, for now, just doesn't work at all.
Therein lies the problem. Publishers are becoming too eager to leap into their service-led futures without nailing the basics first. EA is trying to run before it can walk, and many more intricately network games have launched with fewer problems and, when the worst happens, recovered faster. SimCity is in a league of its own when it comes to network failure, but it's also not the only one guilty of the problem. The issue spreads to almost all online games: think back to the awkward launches of Diablo III, Guild Wars 2, Gears of War 2, Battlefield 3 and Bad Company 2. These problems are happening all too often, and need to stop.
It's frustrating, sure, and too often publishers and developers are left desperately scrambling to rush out apologetic tweets and grovelling forum announcements as they race to stem the entirely justified ire felt by their customers. But what of a month from now, when servers will likely have stabilised? Some people like to think Maxis is currently rearranging the deck chairs on its own personal Titanic, but I don't think these launch woes will obliterate the game from the offset. Yet they'll certainly stain its reputation.
Service-led gaming isn't inherently disgusting, but the idea shouldn't be wholly intertwined with absolutely every game on the market. Good services are almost completely transparent. You take them for granted, and you can't imagine life without the best ones: things like Netflix, electricity, Twitter, and your mobile phone contract. There can be agonising problems along the way, but by and large they are accepted pretty seamlessly into our lives. But when games attempt to be a service they seem inevitably destined to stumble out of the starting block. Even when SimCity has been fixed, many will still remain cautious. The service will never be able disappear into the background.
Games publishers rushing into the dream of connected, always-online versions of traditional single-player games seems to be a step too far at the moment. It's not a case of a faulty concept but of poor design and execution, and that's a real shame. To put it simply: until always-on can work flawlessly, developers should make sure there's an optional offline mode.
It's ghastly when things go wrong, but it's fantastic that developers are trying to rethink the way we play traditional games. Look at something like Dark Souls, and its oft-praised mechanics of having other players leave messages. These fantastic bits of game design that feel endearingly modern, and completely refresh the idea of a third-person RPG.
It's an incredible connected feature, and Dark Souls will still function if Xbox Live/PlayStation Network is down or your Internet drops at home. It's a lesser experience that way, sure, but the option is still there. And, really, the beauty of the Internet is that it should be giving us more options as opposed to less.
There's still plenty for publishers to learn, then. It's good to see the SimCity team trying out new ideas, but this aggressive pursuit of an always-on, connected service has affected the game and will continue to do so long after the servers stabilise. The problem is not the concept, however, and we shouldn't treat social connectivity as the villain in the sorry state of SimCity.