EA’s Facebook Game Fiasco: Why We’re Not Ready for Always-Online

Is EA's abrupt shutdown of multiple Facebook games, including The Sims Social and SimCity Social, just the way it has to be for online-only gaming?

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Electronic Arts

A few weeks ago, I wrote about EA’s troubled SimCity launch, arguing that despite the company’s obviously unintentional and truly unfortunate ineptness, the problem wasn’t so much the game client’s need for an Internet connection as the company’s inability to competently execute its “always online” strategy — a strategy it trumpeted from the start. We’re ready for always-online, I wrote; it’s EA that wasn’t, and waving the game’s failure around like an anti-always-online picket sign seemed disingenuous, or at best, misguidedly nostalgic.

That’s still my view, writing as someone who spends a fair lot of time in parts of this country without reliable Internet access. Over the holidays and sometimes for weeks on end during summers, if I want to play an MMO like World of Warcraft, I have to drive into town and game from the public library — that, or accept latency spikes so high using a farmhouse satellite connection that I’ll only attempt “safe” activities, avoiding dungeons, raids, PvP and combat in general.

But to paraphrase — was it Voltaire? — we can’t let the comprehensive be the enemy of the sufficient. Yes, roughly one-third of people living in the U.S. don’t use broadband, but only 19 million can’t actually get it. Games increasingly fold consistent Internet access into their design. I have no qualms with this. Lights require electricity. Cell phones require cellular networks. Digital games and computer applications increasingly require some form of continuous Internet access. If Microsoft’s next Xbox requires an Internet connection, as it’s rumored to, I’ll care whether it’s stable and seamless, not whether it’s ontologically justified. No one’s forcing us to buy TVs, cellphones, computers, or game consoles.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not strictly an always-online apologist. Just because I embrace the paradigm doesn’t mean I think companies should get away with behaving poorly or unfairly to customers. As I wrote in partial defense of Microsoft Studios’ creative director Adam Orth:

Instead of tilting at windmills, I’d argue our time’s better spent holding companies to account for poor design choices related to persistent Internet requirements, from botched launches and ongoing server stability issues, to ensuring companies provide full refunds when products fail to deliver, to answering questions like “How do you maximize player creativity and choice (think modding) in this shift from local to cloud-based content?”

I was just scratching the surface with that list, of course, not trying to be comprehensive. Among the many Internet-related issues worth paying attention to in an online-only world, a pretty big one would be: How long should companies feel obliged to make online-only games available to the public?

Case in point, EA yesterday wrote that it would retire three of its Facebook gamesThe Sims Social, SimCity Social and Pet Society. “After millions of people initially logged in to play these games, the number of players and amount of activity has fallen off,” wrote the company. “For people who have seen other recent shutdowns of social games, perhaps this is not surprising.”

Except that it was a surprise, especially considering EA’s “Sims” pedigree here. Take The Sims Social, which has over 9.4 million Likes: a cursory scan of the roughly 5,000 comments left so far on the game’s Facebook page suggests players are seriously displeased and in many cases extremely so (in multiple tongues, even). How many players did the game have when EA decided to can it? What does “fallen off” mean anyway? Doesn’t a company like EA owe its players — many of whom spent actual money on SimCash (the game’s secondary currency) — a better, more thorough explanation than these few, vague paragraphs?

I’m certain we’re ready for always-online gaming and have been for years, but it’s abrupt, unexpected actions like this that makes me just as certain companies like EA aren’t. (Excusing that abruptness by pointing at other shuttered social games just makes it worse, EA.) And no, it’s not enough to simply shift the view, to define online-only games as fundamentally mercurial, no more beholden to player wishes than the weather. That’s as wrongheaded, in my view, as the other extreme: demanding online games always include some form of offline play.

Some years ago PC game developer Stardock released a Gamer’s Bill of Rights, an attempt to codify some of the things players have a right to expect from game publishers/developers. While a few of the entries need updating — I don’t know that I agree with the line “Gamers shall have the right to play single player games without requiring an Internet connection” — I still believe in the idea of a bill of rights. I’d rather not interact with companies at the all-or-nothing level, say, of a boycott. That sometimes gets results, but it’s also the crudest form of speech. More interesting might be a system that established thresholds of community responsibility, perhaps outlining levels of support like a Kickstarter initiative. If we knew what it took to sustain an online game at its outset, perhaps we’d feel more invested…or at least be better prepared to deal with its demise in the event player numbers plummeted.

4 comments
AtaeHone
AtaeHone

Your argument about "not forcing to buy consoles" only works if the NextBox is always-online. And not bought it will remain.

For currently existing platforms (yes, that includes the IBM-compatible PC, because it is apparently timeless), adding always-online factors to single-player games is an act of elitist segregationism so popular in the decadent capitalist West. No, seriously. You guys might have all-encompassing, reliable, cheap broadband (but I sincerely doubt it's available even in every house of every city with a population of over one million, because there's a gajillion technical limitations to the existing infrastructures for delivering it to people). We in the Soviet Union don't even have full Internet coverage of the glorious hero city of Moscow, and I am loath to think what goes on in the less developed areas of the Motherland. When my ISP's uptime became less than the downtime, I spent over a year using various rickety DSL ISPs until decent dedicated cable Internet was available in my district (and even that occasionally had downtime which in your world would be "no-game time"). This is the capitol city of a country member of the G8 we're talking about. And all "luxuries of the civilization" scale down geometrically in Russia as you get farther away from Moscow. All other CIS countries exist in similar, if not worse, conditions. That's a huge chunk of the currently-existing game-buying market right there that EA and Microsoft are willing to ignore out of the blue.

Unless game publishers are willing to take the plunge of alienating non-American customers for all eternity, always-online in single-player is a BAD IDEA. The fact that you don't seem to understand that means that you are caught in the same loop as Mr. Orth and those like him: "I have these things, therefore I have to assume everyone else does too and let's pretend everyone who doesn't, doesn't matter". Sorry. Not how it works in the real world of grown-up people. Remember the argument he used to defend his position? "Why would I want to live [where they don't have Internet]?" Yeah. Don't go there. I thought TIME was above that level of pettiness.

The current gaming industry is already struggling with building games too expensive to be able to recoup the development costs with record-breaking sales (Tomb Raider is a wonderful example of that). Adding intentional alienation of a majority of the potential customer base with a service that can and WILL increase the development costs AND incur server maintenance costs? Sure, if you like burning money for no reason.

JackR
JackR like.author.displayName 1 Like

On the contrary, "Gamers shall have the right to play single player games without requiring an Internet connection," is more applicable today than ever! By the very description of the game--Single Player--it is just you, no one else, and should not require the involvement of anyone else! How do you think that this would benefit the end consumer in any way whatsoever?? The product fails when Internet is unavailable, when the company servers are unavailable, when the servers are turned off, when hackers bring the network down, when the next game console arrives and Microsoft wants you to buy it. This entire conversation is about nothing more than corporate greed, trying to control how, when and where you use products which, if people like EA have their way, you don't actually own; and most importantly, when you stop using them! "No one’s forcing us to buy TVs, cellphones, computers, or game consoles." Yet that is exactly what EA and Microsoft want to do!

I can still play the original Legend of Zelda now, 27 years later. It is part of history! I own it! It still works! Can EA promise the same with the new SimCity? Can Microsoft promise that for every game that would appear on an Always-Online system? No, they can't! This entire scheme is designed to rob the consumer and tell us where to step off and buy the latest products, because your old products got turned off!

Well I'm telling Microsoft and every other game publisher where to step off! I will NEVER buy an Always-Online system, game, or anything else that tramples on my rights! I am not alone, and every person I discuss this with is completely against it, as well. The only reason you haven't heard a massive outcry from the more casual gamers is because they are not yet aware of the problem. Yet disasters like SimCity, and every angry avid gamer, are fast educating them. If Microsoft and EA want to commit suicide in this manner, they won't be missed.

sproketz
sproketz

Months later and SimCity still doesn't work. Games don't save, are deleted, rollback, people lose progress, entire cities and not a single word from EA about when or even if they are fixing it or acknowledge there is a problem.  How about writing a piece on that?  Put some pressure on these EA dirtbags. They're con artists as far as I can tell. Still putting out ads for their game about how great it is when it doesn't even work STILL after all this time. Criminal if you ask me. They are no better than people who pickpocket. Yet, not a word about it from the gaming media. It's like its not even happening.

niemla
niemla

Are these fools not aware that ISPs like Comcast are charging A LOT for broadband? They're selling it at different speeds and also applying bandwidth caps with fees for going over your limit. Since we stream movies and TV, being online /all the time/ will be EXPENSIVE, and probably MORE SO as Comcast and its ilk jack up rates and lower services quality. How can gaming companies not see this conflict?! It enrages me!