SimCity Burning: A Warning to Microsoft, Sony, and All Publishers on The Dangers of Always-Online DRM
Why it's just not worth it.
March 7, 2013
It has been out for three days, and SimCity is broken. Seriously, unplayably broken. As a long-time fan who's been looking forward to this week for many years, this is a huge, frustrating disappointment. The worst part? The main issue isn't with the game itself, but an entirely unnecessary and completely avoidable always-online DRM system that's keeping millions of fans from playing the game they paid for, when they were told they'd be able to play it. If there is one good thing that comes of this disaster, let it be yet another lesson to publishers like EA and Activision/Blizzard, and platform owners Microsoft and Sony, who may be considering always-on DRM in next-gen consoles or PC games: don't even think about it. It's a pipe dream, and to attempt it is to invite an enthusiasm-draining catastrophe with every single game launch.
Here's what the past 10 years of online DRM has taught anybody who's paid the slightest bit of attention: it never works right, at least at first. And while it might be largely successful in stopping piracy (as Diablo III effectively has), it exacts a terrible price: the trust and enthusiasm of the most loyal and enthusiastic gamers. These are the people who are dying to get their hands on new games, the ones who eagerly spend on pricey collectors' editions and DLC - all of it sight-unseen. If treated well, their word of mouth buzz can generate more game sales than a site like IGN ever could. They are also the ones who will always be affected most by the inevitable screwups that always-online DRM will bring.
I'm no network engineer, but it's obvious even to me that the infrastructure required to allow millions of gamers to play at once without issue is extremely complex. That means there are simply too many points along the line where it can break down, and it only takes one to make a game that's dependent on servers completely unplayable. It's also a system that invites technical disaster and locks out gamers who travel frequently or serve in the military. Failure is virtually assured.
SimCity is currently working just barely well enough for me to grab this screenshot.
You, the publishers, might think that it'll be different when you try it - that you'll get it right where others failed, and the fancy new proprietary always-online DRM technology you've invested in is foolproof. Here's the reality, reinforced by this week's events: you will almost certainly fail, and the payoff of zero piracy isn't worth the cost. In PC gaming, publishing giants Ubisoft, Blizzard (and by extension Activision), and now EA have all attempted it, and all have completely botched the launches of some of their most highly anticipated games. While you might eventually stabilize your servers after the initial spike in demand and get things humming along, constant login queues and downtime have turned many of your greatest allies into your worst enemies. You'll have hamstrung your own momentum.
Yes, MMORPGs and most free-to-play games will always have this problem, because being online is an integral part of their design. It's what the O in MMO stands for, in fact. But games like Diablo III and SimCity are not MMOs. They don't need to be connected to be enjoyed - I know, as I've played both primarily in single-player thus far. In SimCity's case it's especially ridiculous, as you're not even playing with others in real-time. Despite Maxis' insistence that it was built from the ground up to be a multiplayer game, its designers' best efforts couldn't shoehorn essential multiplayer into a game that is inherently single-player. Certainly nothing that's worth not being able to play at all because a server's down. Not to us.
We don't need to add the unfortunate downsides of MMORPGs to games that don't have or need the upsides which come with that necessary evil. Piracy is awful, and most gamers can only imagine how it feels to have to watch as your expensively produced product is stolen with impunity. But this is an overreaction that runs a very serious risk of doing far more harm than good.
But forget about money for a moment. There's also the question of preserving gaming history. As we saw with THQ last month, publishers aren't immortal. They can die, and had THQ implemented always-online DRM in Darksiders II, all copies of that game might've died with it when the rights to the series weren't bought up by another publisher. As bad as it must feel when thousands - or even millions - of people are playing your game without paying for it, surely the idea of everyone who did pay for it losing access to a piece of your work that they love is even more appalling.
I feel terrible for Maxis, who I'm almost certain didn't come up with the idea to make SimCity require an online connection. That development team put in years of their lives on a game that, when it works, is astonishing in a lot of really interesting ways, and watching it sabotaged by DRM has to be absolutely crushing for them. And I feel awful for gamers out there who waited 10 years for a modern successor to a classic PC game, only to find a frustrating technical mess.
Just remember this, publishers and developers: if you choose to go down this road, and there comes a time when you're frantically scrambling to fix your overloaded and failing servers, with hordes of angry customers howling for refunds and swearing off all your future games forever (as Maxis is this very moment, and Blizzard was last year)... it didn't have to be like this.
In closing, here's what SimCity looks like when it's working mostly as intended: