Okay, I’m just going to warn you right now that this is going to be a rant and it’s going to be a very long one.
The more I think about this whole debacle with SimCity, the more angry I get. So I’ve decided to express this by presenting a situation that most people seem to forget. I would like to introduce you to Jerry.
Jerry is 32 years old with an office job and a live-in girlfriend. He used to play video games but in the past several years, he hasn’t had as much time to play games aside from a few a year. On March 4th, 2013, he goes into his local Best Buy to buy a new case for his iPhone because he accidentally ripped his old one when he sees an advertisement for the new SimCity game. This catches his eye and he remembers all the hours he sunk into SimCity 4 10 years before when he was in college. So he decided to pick up a copy and buys it along with the phone case and a Snickers bar since they were there at the checkout line.
He drives home, eating the Snickers bar along the way, and once he’s there, replaces his old phone case with the new one. He then decides to play some of the new SimCity game since his girlfriend won’t be back from work for almost an hour. He opens the case, inserts the disc into his computer and begins the installation. After the various steps, bells, whistles, agreements and various other signing offs of his immortal soul, SimCity (and Origin) has been successfully installed onto his computer. He may only have about a half an hour to play now but he gets right into it. However, he is unable to as he gets a message saying that he could not log into SimCity due to a network error.
Now, I’m going to pause here the story of Jerry and speak to you directly. Video games are a form of entertainment. They are in fact a play thing that we do to amuse ourselves. This can lead to various ideas that can at times take games to be more than a play thing and can be thought provoking or artistic or even cathartic. However, once constant that used to always be true is that video games are a product. Whether you were going to engross yourself in a drama filled storyline such as the one in Final Fantasy IV or just mow down bad guys in Contra, the process remained the same. You went to the store that was selling the game you wanted, you gave them the correct amount of money and they would give you your game. You would then take the game home, pop it into your console or computer, and play. Simple.
However now a new concept has been introduced. Instead of video games being a product, some video games are instead seen as a service. Now some titles want you to pay monthly or in some other timely increment for the ability to play the game. This concept…is fine. I don’t mind the idea of paying each month for the ability to play a game granted my initial investment was small. Which brings us to the game in question, SimCity. SimCity has attached to it what is known as always online DRM. It’s a form of protection that is designed to keep the game from being offered online for free as an illegal pirated download. See, if the game requires you to have an active internet connection at all times, it can constantly check to make sure that your copy is legitimate.
Now the developer of SimCity, Maxis, says that requiring that online connection allows them to implement a variety of different features and social connections in the game that previous SimCity titles did not have. That sounds pretty good, right? The great thing about technology is it can enable ideas previously not possible to become reality and give us new ways to experience entertainment, video games not the only medium who can benefit from this.
However, here’s where things change without some, including those who should absolutely be aware of this, not taking the following into consideration. Corporations and consumers have a basic understanding with any product that is made available. The consumer agrees to give money to the store provider which then the corporation gets a cut of and in return, the corporation gives the consumer a product in working order as advertised. With video games, this means you buy a video game and when you put it into the device it’s for, it works.
When you have new restrictions on the product such as always online DRM, the previous understanding no longer applies. A new one is in order and with the new restrictions comes new expectations. Requiring an constant internet connection means that the cost for playing that game is higher than it normally would be for a game without always online DRM. If I want to play the new Tomb Raider, I require a PC that is strong enough to run the game as well as a copy of the game itself. That means that I have to have a computer that’ll run me around $800 to $1000 as well as the $60 for the game itself. Tomb Raider also has multiplayer but if I want to play the main part of the game which is the single player campaign, I don’t need an internet connection, meaning that the internet connection is optional.
To play SimCity, I’ll need a PC roughly the same price, as well as the game at around the same price as Tomb Raider. However, I also need that internet connection that roughly costs me anywhere from $20 to $50 dollars a month or even more. This in essence makes that game by association a service, not a product. Now a small tangent. This could easily be avoided if the developers had decided to include an offline mode. In exchange for losing some of the new features the game implements, I have the option to play the game even if I don’t have an online connection at all times or at all. This alone is probably a deal breaker for many of you and that’s understandable but the main point is what this does to the consumer’s expectations.
Now that more is being expected from the consumer, more is now being expected from the corporation. Not only is the game expected to be as advertised and in working order, the game is also expected to provide its service at all times. So what happens when one party does not adhere to this understanding? We know what happens when the consumer doesn’t. They could be arrested for stealing the product off the shelves or their internet connection speed could be affected or that particular consumer could be banned from the service. The repercussions are in fact the same regardless of the severity of the expectations.
So when the corporation fails to meet their end of the understanding, you should be mad. You should be very mad. I mean, I could go to jail if I were to steal a copy of SimCity. I could have my internet speed throttled if I were to pirate it. What are the repercussions for the corporations? Well, lets look at other products and services for examples. Lets say I buy a table from Home Depot, already assembled. I just tied it down to the back of my truck and brought it home. I place it down in my kitchen and realize that the table is lopsided. Despite my floor being level, the table is not. Apparently, one of the legs on the table is not the same length as the others. What do I do? I take the table back to Home Depot and either get a refund or an identical table that is level. Because the product was not in working order, that unit will be discarded and the corporation is out a sale.
Lets look at an example with a service. I have my TV service with a company called Charter Communications. I pay them monthly for the service they provide. If one day my TV service stops working due to weather conditions or some other random occurrence, they are required to fix it. If the service is down for a certain amount of time, like an hour or so, I can call Charter on the phone and demand some kind of compensation, usually resulting in a partial refund of some kind. So when a video game fails to meet their expectations, I took am entitled to some kind of refund or compensation of some kind. What do you do when instead of being just a few consumers it’s your entire audience?
In case you don’t know, SimCity hasn’t worked properly since it’s launch due to Electronic Arts not having the servers capable enough to support all the gamers trying to play the game. The game launch a week ago. That is beyond unacceptable and what’s worse is the repercussions don’t match the failure to the consumer. Losing a lot of sales of SimCity is not enough. Imagine if I kept stealing copies of SimCity for a week. That would not end well. Instead, EA has only asked that people be patient as they fix the problems while not giving anyone refunds and giving people a free game of which has not been revealed to be anything good. A free game should have been offered practically each day the servers were not working properly.
That word patience. Don’t be. Imagine of instead of taking that table back that you just slipped a drink coaster under the short leg and called it fine. Imagine not complaining to the cable company about your service and having sporadic service until your bill came in the mail, of which was full price and of which you pay. Doing so means you have failed as a consumer and have let the corporation bulldoze over you and say that the understanding between corporations and consumers doesn’t not apply to you. That the corporation can do whatever it wants with you because you will just lay back and take it without opening your mouth. EA essentially sold you a broken product that would only fixed later through their service which means your product purchase was meaningless and practically an unnecessary purchase. Highway robbery at its finest.
And I do mean that the buying of the disc or download is unnecessary. I don’t recall a table ever requiring you to have an active internet connection at all times. Cable companies don’t even require you to buy the cable boxes for their services. They only charge you a five to ten dollar leasing fee that only applies there because the hardware is required. The box art and cardboard packaging for SimCity is not required and that doesn’t even apply to the download. So if I need the internet to play the game, that $60 was worthless. Another quick tangent: for those thinking that you can’t compare video games to cable companies and pieces of furniture, why? Why not? In terms of products and services, they are the same and even if they weren’t, I don’t see how that gives video games a free pass not to adhere to the same standards if not better other products and services must.
The problem with always online DRM is two fold. One, it means that the audience of the game is significantly limited. If someone who doesn’t have access to a constant online connection wants to play this game, they can’t, pure and simple. If someone wants to play it on their laptop and they don’t have a data plan, they can’t do it. If someone has an always active internet connection but has bandwidth limitations or download and upload caps, they have to watch how they play it. That means less people will be willing to buy the game and that means less money for EA.
Two, always online DRM is a business model that hasn’t been proven to work. Before the game was even released, we in the know of this industry knew there was going to be problems. Game sites knew it, gamers knew it, everybody knew it. Which means that both Electronic Arts and Maxis knew it as well. They knew that they would have problems when the game was released and they decided to do it anyways because the understanding between corporations and consumers was a distant second in their minds. What was important was securing that initial income and then just fixing it later while acting humble and apologetic while offering some game for free that’s really of no consequence to them anyway.
Now lets come back to Jerry. After several minutes of trying to connect, Jerry eventually gives up and takes the disc out of the computer. He repackages it and watches TV until his girlfriend comes back home. See, Jerry is not an avid gamer and as such, does not follow the latest video game news and doesn’t know that this is a known problem of the game. So the next day, he goes back to Best Buy and returns the game for a full refund. Like he should. Jerry doesn’t get to play SimCity, and EA loses out on money.
Gamers may be different as they know that eventually the problem will be fixed but they too will not trust EA with this kind of business model and the sales will suffer from that audience as well. However, EA won’t be the one to take the brunt. Maxis will. Even if the always online DRM was their idea, it was EA who provided it. They are the ones that failed the consumer and their own developer. It’s not like Maxis owns Origin or runs all the servers. EA has to manage all of that with them yet Maxis will ultimately be hurt by this more than EA.
So what about after launch? After all the problems have been ironed out and everything is stable? Well, lets change Jerry’s story a bit. Instead of at launch, lets say Jerry picked up SimCity a few months after launch. Yes, we’re going into the future as Jerry now picks up his copy of SimCity in June. He comes home, Snickers eaten and phone case put on, and installs the game. This time he’s able to connect without issue and immediately starts to build his city. Everything goes fine and when his girlfriend comes home, he saves his progress and has dinner. The next day he starts the game up after work and plays some more, again saving his progress after he’s done for the day. The following day he starts up his game to find that the server did not save his progress and he has to do what he did the following night all over again. Or maybe the server completely wiped his city and he has to know start over. Maybe nothing happened and he can continue his city like normal. Any of those could have happened.
Even if nothing happens to Jerry and he plays the game until the servers eventually are discontinued and his purchases has been completely invalidated since it was really a temporary service rather than an actual product purchase, it doesn’t change that it was never necessary. It doesn’t change that in a competitive market like the video game industry where a lot of people only buy a few games brand new a year because games run you $60 a pop, something like always online DRM wastes your time and prevents you, the consumer, from doing what you want with your purchase. What’s worse is it doesn’t prevent pirating at all! I’ve already seen several copies of the game pirated for download. Sure they have the same problem as those who bought the game legitimately but the difference is those who pirated the game are $60 richer. It doesn’t change the fact that I am not going to bother with SimCity because there are too many games coming out right now like Tomb Raider, Bit.Trip Runner 2, God of War Ascension and Gears of War Judgment that will work out of the box for me to put up with SimCity’s DRM nonsense. Hell, I can download Sim City 4 off Steam for $20 and play that and have a good time. Which I did and am.
Do not shrug this off as no big deal. Do not tell anyone to be patient or to quit complaining. If the game works fine for you, know that you are the exception, not the standard and that doesn’t mean that your lack of issues or understanding of the situation invalidates others problems. Stand up for yourself as a consumer and let your voice be heard so that corporations know that this will not be tolerated. Contact the Better Business Bureau, write complaints to EA directly. Hell, don’t buy the game or wait a week or two. Game sales in the first two weeks are the most important. Doing so will stop your anticipated game from being dragged down with its arbitrary business practice and stop people like Jerry from being duped. Online connectivity for certain features is a mode, an optional part of the game, not a requirement. Always online DRM is never required and don’t let anyone tell you different. Diablo III did this last year and now SimCity has recreated this same problem this year. Should it happen again, do not let this slide. There’s always other games more deserving of your attention. Now if you will excuse me, I have tombs to raid, runners who need to jump and a Sim City to build that won’t be lost due to it being unable to load at this time.