Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The SimCity Deception

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 14, 2013

I’m a developer. I recognize the impact of software piracy all too well. Stating it as simply as possible: Software piracy remains a serious problem for game developers, which also makes it indirectly a serious problem for gamers, too.

Now that is out of the way. But I want it noted that I sympathize with the developers on this point. As piracy continues to clobber profitability, developers and publishers naturally turn to sometimes desperate measures to try and limit its impact. I understand the urge.

But I am not one who believes that the ends justify the means. In my opinion, the means are just as destructive to the hobby as piracy ever was.

My first taste of just how publishers were shooting themselves in the foot was the day I ended up downloading a hack to bypass the copy protection for Wing Commander. I’d wanted to play it again, but couldn’t find the documentation, and it had been so long since I’d played that I’d forgotten the doc-lookup answers. After installing the hack and realizing just how much more convenient the hack made playing the game, I came to the realization: The pirates were actually playing a superior product than the one the honest consumers were stuck with.

I’m talking about what is commonly getting referred to as “always online DRM.” Jealous of the profits from massively multiplayer online games and the buzz around ‘cloud computing’, publishers have started taking the approach of making ALL games have an online component. That way they can have the advantages of a server-based game even for what may be a primarily solo experience, tying every game to a unique user account that must be active and used by only a single user at a time. And it gives them the opportunity to take advantage of social networking and some of those other hot buzzwords while they are at it!

What this REALLY does is the following:

1. It treats the game as a service when it is to the publisher’s advantage for it to be a service.

2. It treats the game as a product when it is to the publisher’s advantage for it to be a product.

3 It screws the consumer over quietly, in a way that they won’t notice until long after their money is spent. Then, when it’s no longer convenient for the publisher, they stop supporting the game. In the old days, that simply meant that there were no more updates, and what you got was what you got. Now, it means the game becomes unplayable. Forever.

Points 1-3 are all about screwing over the gamer.

Now, the publisher is completely within their rights to create whatever steaming pile of “service/product” they are capable of squeezing out, and trying to foist that upon the consumer. Just as it is the consumer’s right to tell the publisher they can shove that “service/product” right back up where it came from. I’m just making a statement here because I don’t want to see the gaming community start accepting this as the “new normal.”

The latest example is EA’s SimCity, a game which already had some pretty serious problems even without the servers being completely incapable of handling the loads forced upon them – a problem which had been long predicted by pretty much everybody BUT EA. Legions of gamers complained that they could not play the game they’d just shelled out big bucks for, and it’s launch week was a disaster.

In response to requests to enable an offline mode – a feature that would have saved the launch in the first place, the Maxis (EA) general manager claimed it was just not possible – online play was just too heavily woven into the fundamental architecture of the game. She claimed, “With the way that the game works, we offload a significant amount of the calculations to our servers so that the computations are off the local PCs and are moved into the cloud. It wouldn’t be possible to make the game offline without a significant amount of engineering work by our team.

Oh, well. There IS that. Then I guess it was really stupid of them to slack off on the load testing and underfund the server farm, then, huh?

Except it is appearing more and more than the statement is – well, there’s no other way to put this – a lie. Whether said general manager knew it was a lie, or it was simply one she passed on out of ignorance, we won’t know.

First, a Maxis insider blew the whistle anonymously to journalists that the game was quite playable offline.

Then people ran tests, discovering the game could run for several minutes even after their Internet connection was switched off. So whatever online component there was, it was a rare event.

Now a third-party modder has created a hack that allows the game to play offline just fine – in fact, better, as you can go outside the very restricted borders of the unmodded game. There is one major problem – no saving or loading – but depending on how that is handled, this could be an issue that is solved before the weekend is over.

Which means that anybody who wanted to pirate SimCity and grab this mod (once the saved game issue is fixed) and doesn’t give a crap about the online / regional features will once again have a superior product to the one the honest consumers are stuck with!

EA is banking that gamers will be short on memory and long on forgiveness, or just plain not give a crap.

I, personally, hope gamers will not let this sort of garbage become the new normal, will vote with their wallets, and make publishers realize that the only way to win in the long term is to play fair with their customers.

Considering EA is a gazillion times richer and more successful than me, I suspect EA’s going to win this one.

Now, I’m not saying that making a game that is fundamentally tied to an online experience and not playable offline is necessarily a bad thing.  I’ve MADE those kinds of games, and may do so again. And I’ve played a few MMOs in my time… but many of those MMOs no longer exist, and their boxes and installation discs sit in my “gaming closet” as mute testaments that out of all the money I spent on them, I now have nothing to show for it but some old screenshots and some memories. Which may be enough – I don’t have any real regrets – but I’m also a lot more hesitant to jump into future games that are only limited-time services.

And I really am not keen on publishers redefining what it means to ‘own’ a game in such a twisty way that it deceives customers and ultimately hurts their experiences, and hurts gaming as a whole as a result.

So I guess that’s really the point of my rant. If you are okay with this trend, by all means, enjoy these games! A lot of people worked really hard to make this experience for you. But do so consciously, and do what you can to alert other gamers of the pros, cons, and repercussions. There are far too many games out there to play which are free of these kinds of deliberate crippling that are quite worthy of being played and enjoyed just as much. Your money will determine the course of gaming.

As always, have fun!


Filed Under: Biz, Geek Life - Comments: 13 Comments to Read

  • Walter said,

    Just wondering: How do you feel about CD keys? Most people I know in real life have no qualms about having to put in a CD key during installation, but I’m seen some pretty vitriolic responses to CD keys online.

    I’m wondering because I want to make it so when you buy the game, you have an account at my website that stores what games you’ve bought and what your CD keys are. You can download the installer (with your CD key embedded so you don’t have to type it in) for Windows and Linux (and Mac later, if I raise funds for a development rig). Finally, you can download a “free” Android app that unlocks the game when you enter a CD key (so you don’t have to buy the game again). Does this sound like a good plan, or would it anger people?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    That’s what I used in Frayed Knights and Void War. I haven’t received any complaints personally about it. The downside is – it’s easy to hack, too. That’s actually deliberate. Not that I wanted to encourage people to pirate the game – far from it – I just felt it was important to put minimal protection on it (to “help keep honest people honest”) that did not inconvenience legitimate users.

    Ultimately, my goal is to make games that people will want to buy. NOT to defeat the people who want to mooch it.

  • Matthew P. Barnson said,

    My wife and I were just discussing a similar topic to this yesterday. Forgive the back-story.

    Back in 2007, we each shelled out $400 apiece to buy iPhones for one another. Apple sold them totally “unlocked” at the time, as you owned the device outright. It completely lacked an App Store of any sort, so the only way to load anything other than videos and music on it was to jailbreak it and install Cydia, where developers were hard at work creating solutions. It wasn’t pretty — and sure wasn’t supported — but it worked.

    Eventually, Apple got on the ball and released an App Store, and it became a huge success. We loaded up our iPhone original editions with tons of apps for various needs and recreation, and it was fine.

    Then Christy wanted an upgrade. More space, mainly. So we bought an iPhone 3GS for her. Worked great. But we noticed something: newer games weren’t coming out with versions for the older iPhone 2 (original) platform. Worse than that, games that used to work great on the iPhone 2 had incompatible updates, leaving the kids that we passed the phone on to without the ability to play the latest version of a game.

    Live-withable, but irritating.

    Eventually, I bought an iPhone 4, Christy got a 4S, and we handed down old phones yet again. A co-worker had an old 3G he sold me for a hundred bucks. And other than the old original iPhones, everything could play everything.

    But in the last few months, we’ve made a disturbing discovery.

    Not only can those old phones not play newer versions of games we had long enjoyed, but the games were being REMOVED by Apple from the old phones! And when we try to restore the old game from a backup, we find they are removed there too. In addition, some games have an online component, so suddenly the save-games we’ve played for years are no longer available on the device, because we have to register an off-line account in order to play since the servers no longer support such an old version of the game, even in Single Player.

    We’d expected planned obsolescence. But we didn’t expect that we’d be robbed of the good for which we spent our hard-earned cash four or five years down the road. And heaven help you if you ever re-format the thing; all those apps are gone forever, and the utility of being able to play even old games are history.

    Maybe they are hoping we don’t notice or something. And in truth, some of the games have been played-out for a long time. But it’s painful to realize that in the relentless pursuit of profits, those who previously were devoted customers are left alienated because the developers or publisher REMOVED the ability to play a legitimate copy of the game.

    This isn’t something I realized when I bought into the ecosystem six years ago. It’s the new face of planned obsolescence, and it’s a transformation from “you can’t play new stuff” — which is well-understood — to “you can’t play the old stuff”, which is undocumented and unwelcome new behavior.

  • Adamantyr said,

    I swore off buying any more EA products awhile back… and so far, it’s looking like it was a good decision not to backslide for SimCity.

    One aspect of software piracy that is worse than any technical issue is the casual acceptance far too many software users have to it. One buys the software, while the other hacks it, and nobody cares.

    Well, I’m one who does. Part of it is that I had my eyes opened early, owning an orphaned home computer system as a child and teenager. I saw small companies fold and die, needing money to keep going and not getting it. Naturally in most cases it was inevitable, but I realized early on that copying games I could buy was a bad practice if I wanted MORE games from that publisher.

    When I went back to school for my C.S. degree back in the early 2000’s, I was appalled at how many of my students openly ripped off software, media, and music. Many of them were poor students of course, but I was disturbed how many of them were completely clueless as to the ethics of it. Some of them even stayed at a Christian fraternity.

    I got into the habit of challenging them about it. I didn’t say they SHOULDN’T do it, just that they were stealing and should just admit they were a thief. Many were reluctant to do it, but when confronted with the evidence, it was hard to deny. They’d offer weak excuses like “the big company has so much money it doesn’t matter” or “I can’t afford to buy it right now”. Or my favorite: “Well, what if I really NEEDED it?”

    The point is, if someone has no ethical issues stealing software, even after having it pointed out to them, that same callous behavior will show up in other activities. And is that someone you really want as a friend?

  • tom said,

    “The pirates were actually playing a superior product than the one the honest consumers were stuck with.”

    I think the same thing every time I have to sit through the anti-piracy warnings at the beginning of DVD movie. Only people who buy legit copies of movies have to watch that. The pirates remove the warnings.

  • Xian said,

    I voted with my wallet for what it is worth. Sim City 5 and would have been an instant buy for me, but requiring me to be online to play single player is where I draw the line. I have put up with ever increasing invasive DRM, limited installs, and such but a required constant Internet connection is where I put my foot down and said no more, they can keep it.

    One major concern I have is that if the game requires a server to play, then once they turn off the server your purchase is worthless. EA doesn’t have the greatest track record in that regard either – 2 or 3 years on their sports titles and they pull the plug. In contrast, I can still play my decades-old original Sim City and Sim City 2000 just fine.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    That is exactly why I never bought Diablo III. I was looking forward to it, but the always-on DRM (and the big FAIL of that system at launch time) was enough to convince me that there were better ways to spend my money. Seriously, I’m enjoying Torchlight II and D3 might as well not exist.

  • Tesh said,

    I’ve never liked the “games as service” mentality that has been creeping into the industry. I want them to be a product that I pay for once and can reinstall and use however I see fit. My spending habits show this… but apparently, I’m not spending enough to move the industry.

  • Corwin said,

    I swore never to buy another EA game years ago; relented once to my regret and now NOTHING will convince me to buy one. When I’m at home, always online doesn’t really affect me, though I don’t like the concept at all. However, often I am away from home using my laptop and I don’t always have access to the net (or it’s very expensive access). Therefore, I want SP games which I can play anywhere and everywhere. If that limits which games I buy, then so be it.

  • alanmcl said,

    You just know how the next meeting is going at EA:

    GM: Godammit people, the business requirements document said all the game codes would be on our data center!

    Engineer: Well, we thought the license verification algorithm was enough… as we went along it just made more sense to put core game logic on the clients…

    GM: Well you thought wrong! Get started on a patch to move all the game codes to the DC!

    Engineer: But the data center capacity is…

    GM: Shut up and start moving those game codes! And make sure you get it right first time for the next EA game!

  • Xenovore said,

    EA has long been dead to me. Their stuff is crap to put it mildly, and they obviously lack all respect for gamers.

    I’m enjoying Torchlight II and D3 might as well not exist.

    Having played both, I’d say the game-play in Torchlight II is every bit as good as in Diablo 3, if not better in some ways. What I do miss in Torchlight 2, however, is the atmosphere and sense of world that the Diablo series delivers.

  • BarryB said,

    Do you really think people will “vote” with their money to not buy even this? There will always be enough people available to make bad decisions based on the PR they’ve bought into. Even after all this, they will complain for a bit, go out and do something else, then get emotionally sold on something else by Madison Avenue very soon.

    EA is simply Too Big to Fail. Not because they have federal subsidies, but because they can afford to take punches that would knock out any less well-cushioned company. They’ll be back, and they’ll invest in simply learn that they must take care of the server end better, next time. That’s all.

  • FuzzyDuck81 said,

    Mentioning the old doc-lookup style of protection reminds me of an instance of it that i actually rather enjoyed – in Fallout 2, where you meet the bridge keeper, who will ask you a question about X perk on Y page of the manual & kill you if you get it wrong (iirc it was a guaranteed random encounter at some point), but being a classic Monty Python homage, if you answered with, eg. “do you mean the X requirement or the Y requirement?” he’d be the one who didn’t know & would get killed.