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The SimCity Debacle – 5 Ways SimCity Shows Everything That’s Wrong With Modern Gaming

9ijkhzv2it9zivjd4sxoThe inevitable server queues are still a problem, as everyone knew they would be. Just like with the Diablo 3 launch (and indeed any launch for a game that requires an online connection to play) SimCity fans have spent money on a game they can’t play. But the game has far more problems than the server queues.

In fact, in many ways SimCity highlights all of the problems with modern gaming, or at least modern mainstream gaming. While indie devs are offering more and more appealing packages to consumers via offers like the Humble Bundle, big publishers are struggling to compete and they’re wringing every penny from us that they can. And it’s not just cost that is widely disparate between indie and AAA games. Crippling DRM and always-online requirements are exclusively the preserve of the biggest and the greediest publishers, and EA is the worst of them all.

In many ways, SimCity shines a light on everything wrong with modern games. A series that has a hardcore fanbase that crossed into the mainstream, it’s beloved by its fans. It is now however unrecognizable to those same fans. It exhibits everything wrong with modern games and it clearly shows the big publishers derision for the fans that support them.

SimCity is maybe not a terrible game. In fact, it seems to have a lot of good ideas and a good deal of innovative gameplay. I might really like it, and so might you. Nonetheless, these five issues with the game are some of the biggest threats to gamers that we have experienced, and if we buy into them here, expect them in every game from here on. They are:

simcity-20o5. Always Online

The saddest thing here is that the zeitgeist is slowly shifting on this issue, as gamers reluctantly concede that they are almost-always online anyway. It seems we have already abandoned this battlefront and ceded it to the publishers. The problem though is that we’re not ALL always online. It’s just that most of us are, and those are the ones that seem to be saying that they don’t care about others who aren’t. They say, “I don’t play games on the go, so why should I care about other gamers who do?”.

Well you should care because it’s not right. It benefits publishers a lot, and us gamers not-at-all. It’s a way to sell us micro-transactions and secure virtual economies of goods we don’t want, and a way to punish all gamers for the actions of a minority of pirates. Why have we stopped fighting this? Apathy? Selfishness?
As a result of always-online, when traveling with a laptop we can either forlornly think of all the games we can’t play, or mess around trying to get a 3G signal on our phone to tether to our laptop (or some similar nonsense). I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t want to be trying to find decent 3G where I live (where there is terrible reception) to play a singleplayer game.

There’s another alternative I guess. I hear Sim City 2000 is amazing.

SimCity Server Queues4. Server Queues

And of course with Always-Online, we have server queues. Even when we’re promised there won’t be. Even when we’re shown racks of servers all ready for release day. Still, we have queues.

And sometimes those queues aren’t even queues. A queue moves, and eventually you get to the end (or start) of it. But with SimCity, many gamers have been completely unable to play.

From Kotaku:
“We are aggressively undergoing maintenance on the servers and adding capacity to meet demand,” read a statement posted to the game’s official Facebook page last night. “Performance will fluctuate during this process. Our fans are important to us, and we thank you for your continued patience.”
A note on the Maxis message boards indicates that servers are being added over the next two days, presumably referring to Thursday and Friday.

Hey publishers, we’ve been here before. Every single time. If we let them get away with this its only going to get worse. It used to be you could take home a game, pop it in and start playing it. Sure, maybe there was a code wheel or something, but (if it worked), you could play that day. Imagine a world where you bought a game, then you got to play it a week later. We’re in that world now. If we put up with it, we’ll end up in a world where we buy a game in March and put a reminder in our diaries to try and play it again in April.

SimCity Small City Size3. Misrepresenting a game via its title

Maxis have made spin off games to the main SimCity series. Games like Sim City Societies allowed them to explore different systems and experiences for the series fans. While SimCity Societies was a very different game to the main franchise entries, this new SimCity is even more different. With a focus on tiny areas, multiplayer resource sharing and a streamlined, focused design, it’s very, very different to something like SimCity 4.

So why is it branded “SimCity”, a series reboot. It’s pretty obvious why, at least to me. Because that name has traction. That name will sell, even if it’s not accurate. Even if the “City” is about 12 blocks square. (That’s significantly smaller than the “town” I live in. They should have called it “Sim Neighborhood”.)

Of course this is nothing new for EA. When the Bioware name carried weight, they renamed all their studios. Bioware East, Bioware West, EuroBioware, Bioware Ultimate, Non-Bioware. I’m being facetious, but the point stands. EA will use any name they think will make them the most money, even if that practice irreparably damages the brand in the long run.

SimCity2. Less ambition than 15 years ago

Ocean Quigley says SimCity was built to run on “your Dad’s PC.” Despite this, complaints about the games performance, even on powerful PC’s has been widespread. Certainly it’s understandable that EA and Maxis would want SimCity to run on as many PC’s as possible, but is this a good idea when its at the cost of complexity or depth?

SimCity has some truly impressive levels of simulation going on for the environments that it renders, but these environments (as we’ve discussed already) are tiny. In Sim City 2000 you could build sprawling Mega Cities that Judge Dread would have trouble policing. In this newest edition, Bergerac could probably handle things. Maybe with occasional backup from Lovejoy.

Ocean Quigley continued, “We need to keep in mind that Sim City is a mainstream game, it’s not a game that is only going to run on high-end gaming PCs… That is just a performance decision. Given that was the performance constraint we decided to work under, we built a larger region environment and a bunch of the multiplay to work with 2km cities.” “We’ll eventually get around to expanding the city size, but I can’t make any promises as to when.”

Since when did we hear such excuses in classic titles? Do you remember when Elite came out, and David Brabben said it was too hard to portray a galaxy in a game, so it would have just five planets? No, neither do I. Because it didn’t happen.

We shouldn’t be playing games today that are overshadowed in scope and ambition by games we played fifteen years ago. Designers can come up with a million excuses for lacking ambition, but we should respond with a lack of enthusiasm for the compromised products they produce.

SimCity Social1. Trying to make all solo gameplay experiences “social”

I remember reading about SimCity’s social features and thinking, “Oh, that’s neat”. I imagined I would enjoy running a city close to my friends, sharing my coal with them in exchange for them filling their dumps with my refuse. A bit like how they come to my house with beer, but I have to clean up after them.

Crucially though, I thought this would be a fun feature to play with – to mess around with, then forget about when my city-building got serious. SimCity games are absorbing and life consuming, and I normally play that sort of game when I want to get away from people, not interact with them.

But SimCity wants to be Facbook now. You’ll have a wall. You’ll cooperate. And not just with friends, its likely that you will end up playing with strangers. And if one of those strangers decides to troll you, they will be able to seriously disrupt your city, as well as everyone else in your area.

Now other than the occasional Godzilla attack or zombie plague, I want to be in control of the destiny of my own city. I want the little Sims to thrive or suffer based on my decisions, not anyone elses. I may TRY the multiplayer, but I don’t want it to be the only option.

In my recent article on the problems with Dead Space 3, I mentioned that shoe-horned-in multiplayer compromised that game. Similarly Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer was surprisingly, fun, but it was a feature that no one wanted. At least in that case though, it was optional.

SimCity OriginalThe truth is not all games need to be social, and there is never a good reason to exclude the singleplayer component of a game because you want to promote the less-popular multiplayer part. The set up in SimCity forces you to work with others. Your area is small, and you will never have all the resources to survive and thrive without working together.

Encouraging people to work together is laudable, but sometimes I want to live or die based on my own choices. I want to take responsibility for my own (cities) fate. If I can do that while playing without being online or waiting in a queue too, all the better.

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