Piracy woes in ‘SimCity’

Online sign-up requirement undermines entertainment in urban-simulation game

Electronic Arts/Courtesy

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On March 5, Electronic Arts released Maxis’s reboot of the beloved “SimCity” franchise. On March 6, virtual mobs of angry fans swarmed EA’s various social media outlets demanding refunds. On March 7, Amazon suspended all sales of the game.

The Twitter mob would have you believe that “SimCity” is the worst affront to its collective gaming sensibilities since “The Wand of Gamelon,” but it’s actually a highly detailed, highly addictive city simulator and a worthy successor to 2003’s “SimCity 4.” Resource trading, city-to-city transit and other multiplayer features add depth to the city-building experience, and seemingly small details, like the individual tracking of every Sim in a city, add interest and realism. No one in the mob would know that, though. None of them have played the game.

The problem with “SimCity” is that, in order to play it, gamers must be online and connected to EA’s servers.
The problem with EA’s servers is that they cannot handle the masses of people who want to play.

It’s infuriating, because “SimCity” doesn’t have to be an always-online game. Unlike other popular always-online games like World of Warcraft and StarCraft II, “SimCity” isn’t an inherently multiplayer experience. The developers designed the multiplayer features to enhance the game — which they do, when they work — but if you want to play by yourself, which also works, you still have to connect to the servers. This is not an accident.

Video games are a unique entertainment medium in that they require two major investments from the consumer — time and money — in quantities unrivaled by other media. As a result, some gamers try to cut costs where they can, usually in the money department. This leads to widespread piracy. For example, “The Witcher 2,” which came out in May 2011, was pirated more than 4.5 million times by the end of November of the same year. As of January 2013, it was legally purchased more than 2.2 million times — so in six months, “The Witcher 2” was pirated twice as many times as it was purchased over its entire lifetime on the market.

DRM, or digital rights management, is a method of combating this kind of piracy through online verification with a developer’s servers. In theory, if you’ve pirated the game, you won’t be verified with the servers and therefore won’t be able to play. This is EA’s strategy with “SimCity,” but it hasn’t exactly worked brilliantly for previous publishers. Blizzard Entertainment, for example, chose to make 2012’s “Diablo III” always-online, and it significantly reduced the number of times the game was pirated. However, as with “SimCity” now, “Diablo III”’s launch was a DRM disaster. For weeks afterward, players either couldn’t play at all or experienced in-game glitches, a fact that the anti-DRM crusaders still use as ammunition against the controversial practice.

Always-online DRM might help EA reclaim profits that would have been lost to piracy, but only at the price of potential paying customers’ purchases. “SimCity”’s botched launch has strained the relationship between EA and its customers: Tweets directed at the “SimCity” team threaten to pirate the game out of spite, furious commenters on gaming websites spew hateful insults at EA and perfectly rational people on those same websites are postponing (or even forfeiting) their purchases of the game because of the ongoing server problems.

It’s a shame, because EA has a great product in “SimCity,” and it’s getting lost in the battle between quality and profit — a battle that every art medium knows all too well.