Game Fight!: Sim City 5 vs. Gamers

by Seth Macy

Man oh man, do I want to get some city building on, and I want to get it on, like, NOW. So you can imagine how excited I was to learn about a new iteration of SimCity, the city simulator. It takes all the addictiveness of cocaine but makes it cheaper and arguably less detrimental to a healthy heart. The reviews came out and the game was deemed "GREAT" by excited city-building nerds everywhere.

Kids and adults alike waited for the game to be released so they could join in the fun of building and destroying cities; cities filled with people like you and me. Maybe those people in the game are sitting in their virtual apartments, on their virtual computers, playing a virtual city building simulation. Or maybe WE'RE the SIMULATION! Is your mind blown yet? Good. Because now we have to go into the dimension that exists on the side opposite the screen to your virtual city: reality.

Do you remember that 1990s Winona Rider movie "Reality Bites?" Now it's more than just the name of a coming-of-age movie, it describes the difference between the game at review time and the game when released. In case you haven't heard, SimCity is a super great game that no one was able to play at first. In an effort to curb piracy, to play SimCity you need to be always online. Being always online means there needs to be a warehouse full of servers, chugging along, powered by coal probably, or maybe baby souls. These servers exist to verify that the copy of the game is authentic.

This is going to get a bit wonky, so bear with me. Basically, the technology works like this: When a player switches on their game, it sends a message to one of the server computers. Inside the message is a note that is sealed with wax. The server then inspects the wax seal for authenticity and examines it for signs of tampering. If it is determined that it is both authentic and not tampered with, the server reads the note, which says "I am a real copy." This satisfies the server, which then sends back a message to the client computer that says "You are allowed to play your game now."

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The problem was, when everyone turned on their computers to play SimCity, there were too many of these wax sealed messages arriving at the servers, and so the servers demanded better treatment and went on strike. This left players unable to play the game at all. Russ Pitts, Features Editor and Co-Founder of Polygon.com, explained it to me much more eloquently. He made no mention of the wax-stamp authenticating algorithm.

"The server failures (as far as we know now, based on a handful of conversations with the company) have very little to do with DRM tech and very much to do with plain, old, boring server supply and demand." Supply and demand being a metaphorical way to describe wax seals.

Dang, he has a point. Basically the disastrous launch of SimCity and Polygon's now infamous reduction in review score (from a 9.5 pre-launch to a current 4) was caused by a failure to adequately support an always-online system of DRM. But DRM is the worst, right? "The reality is that games companies do not - and cannot - base their business model on expecting that 80% of their product will be consumed but not paid for. Especially in the case of online games that require constant server upkeep and maintenance."

He's right again. I'm starting to think that Russ Pitts is grounded in reality as far as his views on DRM are concerned, especially in pointing out that DRM has become a necessary evil. Arguments based on facts have NO PLACE in gaming discussions. This is Game Fight!

But if the DRM didn't exist, would these server problems even have been an issue? Maxis says it was their idea to implement such a system, so the problem with the servers falls on their heads, not EA. Which is a relief, because it's too easy to hate on EA these days. I imagine there are corporate people wearing suits whose job it is to figure out which path would cause the least amount of unclaimed revenue: launching with DRM and having the servers melt into lava from the stress, or no DRM at all, making paying customers appreciated but also uncommon.

In our conversation, Pitts points out that there are people who will never, ever accept DRM. Ever. And so no matter what happened with this launch, "for the anti-DRM camp, the mere existence of a DRM strategy is abhorrent. They were going to be angry about this issue whether the game functioned properly or not." Pitts posits that had the DRM worked as expected, "the mainstream consumers would probably have never noticed."

As for the game itself, Pitts said "I wish everyone who wanted to could be playing the same game I played for my review, including me. Maxis created a truly amazing experience. It was far better than I expected it to be. The fact that what is available now is not reflective of the experience I had is frustrating, because I'm still convinced there's a 9.5 game in there."

Man, Russ Pitts is good. I'll give him credit. You see, I was hoping I could spin this whole thing into an emotionally driven diatribe against EVERYTHING corporate, punctuating each scathing criticism of EA with with multiple punctuation marks, mostly exclamations and questions. But Pitts talks a lot of sense. Yeah, the DRM sucks forever, but companies lose money on PC games pretty hard because everyone just shares the floppies with their friends. I know there are a million excuses out there from the anti-DRM crowd ("I'll pay when you make a decent product, once decent enough that I'll stop paying nothing for it!"), but DRM is here to stay. Hopefully it will become increasingly less intrusive as time marches on. After the disaster of SimCity, I have a feeling it will. Eventually, we won't even notice DRM at all. The transition from where we are today to a future where we are all owned by multiple corporations who harvest our organs will be so gradual that it will be practically seamless.

I guess the loser of this Game Fight! is... well, me. This piece was supposed to be all salacious rumors and ridiculous hyperbole. Instead it's a look into how wax sealed envelopes help you play games. Point: SimCity.

Don't give up the Game Fight! The fray rages on in the Game Fight! archive.