on Mar 13, 2013
We have reached the point in the crisis where the gaming media is dangerously close to running out of lede paragraph puns and jokey article titles. Sham City? Sim Shitty? Sim Sleazy? SinCity? There’s only so much we can do with the phonics we’re given. If this crisis continues we’ll run out of lame-ass jokes entirely and be forced to come up with proper headlines.
The SimCity story continues to be a mess. Just to outline the basics for those of you who get your gaming news by jogging past people discussing old IGN threads, the story so far is thus: The new SimCity “reboot” released with this always-online stuff that was either DRM or social networking and multiplayer, depending on who you asked and how cynical they were. The servers couldn’t keep up with the player demand, nobody could connect, the game was broken and crashed a lot, cities would revert to some hours-old state without warning, blah blah blah. It’s the same stupid crap that happened when Diablo III released as a multiplayer-only title, only much worse.
We got a few patches, and then more, and eventually Maxis disabled a lot of the multiplayer features just to give the servers a break. Most painfully, they disabled “cheetah” speed, meaning players that run out of money need to spend more time doing nothing while waiting for the next in-game hourly payment to roll in. All of this brought stability at the expense of making the entire online system completely pointless. (But still mandatory!)
But let’s look at some public statements. Keep in mind that this stuff is a couple of days old at this point. If you need up-to-the-minute news then you should know better than to read my blog. I just got around to playing Max Payne 3 this week, for crying out loud.
As I mentioned on Twitter, I really hate it when gutless, irresponsible, and dishonest corporate hacks bungle things and then cower behind a polite, earnest, and personable face. Yes, I know this is what public relations is for and this is just how business works. I don’t really expect John Riccitiello to come out and admit he doesn’t know how to run a multi-billion dollar publishing company without driving its dependable cornerstone titles into the ground. Then again, Steve Jobs was able to take tough questions and admit mistakes, and that guy did okay.
But whatever. The EA public relations punching bag this week is Lucy Bradshaw. Laying aside her conciliatory tone, let’s look at how EA (by way of Bradshaw) reaches out to fans to explain what’s going on:
In the last 48 hours we increased server capacity by 120 percent. It’s working – the number of people who have gotten in and built cities has improved dramatically. The number of disrupted experiences has dropped by roughly 80 percent.
So… they have more than doubled their server capacity. And they’ve disabled large portions of the game. And doing this has only reduced the problem by 80%. This suggests that their initial server capacity was way, WAY off. If gutting multiplayer, removing cheetah mode, and adding 120% more servers still hasn’t fixed the problem, then they were off by a ridiculous amount.
So what went wrong? The short answer is: a lot more people logged on than we expected. More people played and played in ways we never saw in the beta.
Keep in mind that all that stuff with Diablo III was, what? Ten months ago? That’s recent enough to be firmly in our memories and still relevant to today’s market, yet far enough in the past that EA/Maxis should have been able to plan against this same fate. They should have made sure they had plenty of extra server capacity, plus more, plus a little extra extra just in case. But instead they had a tiny fraction of what was needed.
Even if there was an “unexpected” demand for SIM FRIGGIN CITY, ONE OF THE MOST ICONIC GAMES OF ALL TIME, EA still shouldn’t have been caught unaware. They publish a huge percent of all AAA videogames, and they have sales data, buying trends, pre-order figures, ad response figures, and a host of other data. They should be able to look at pre-orders and have a very good idea of how many copies they were going to sell.
Still, this is a predictable spin on the story. I suppose “Oh gosh we had no idea how much our customers would LOVE our game!” sounds better than “We had no idea what we were doing and didn’t plan ahead”.
The good news is that SimCity is a solid hit in all major markets. The consensus among critics and players is that this is fundamentally a great game.
Yuck. It’s in extremely poor taste to start crowing about what a “hit” the game is while people are still stuck in a twenty-minute queue waiting to enter the server so they can try and start a city before their next crash.
And while the “consensus” is indeed that it’s a good game, I can’t escape the notion that this is a fundamentally broken game, even if the multiplayer worked perfectly. See, you can’t save. Which means you can’t revert to an earlier save. Which means you can’t build a massive city, unleash all disasters, then reload and go back to building. I’ve been playing SimCity since the first game, and that’s the only way I’ve ever played. Also, the fact that maps are now dramatically smaller also makes the game that much less interesting. I always enjoyed building dense cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Yet what I’m hearing from players is that you can fill up a map in bout an hour or so. (Well, maybe it takes longer now that they’ve disabled cheetah mode, but it’s still a fraction of the size it was before.)
This game would be a tough sell for me even if it didn’t require Origin and wasn’t completely broken.
Also, I want to head off predictable line of criticism:
Shamus! You can’t judge the game until you’ve played it for yourself!
I would like you folks to meet these people:
Pfft. EVERYONE knew that this would happen. If you were dumb enough to buy the game at launch then it’s your own dumb fault.
If you two guys would lock yourselves in a room and try to kill each other, that would be super. I’ll be happy to argue with whoever survives.
And to get us back in your good graces, we’re going to offer you a free PC download game from the EA portfolio. On March 18, SimCity players who have activated their game will receive an email telling them how to redeem their free game.
I know that’s a little contrived – kind of like buying a present for a friend after you did something crummy.
Actually, it’s more like giving someone store credit after they’ve had a bad experience in your store. Oh, you didn’t like shopping with us? Well here is a propitiation that’s only useful if you shop with us again. Still, I give EA some credit here: It’s nice to see them trying to gave people reason to keep Origin on their computers.
One final note is that this whole idea of an “MMO city builder” was already attempted four years ago. And it ended in failure. Maxis broke away from their winning formula to copy a failed contender and then botched the release despite the ominous warning provided by Diablo III.
This isn’t just a single mistake. This is multiple levels of failure perpetrated across several years.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.