We’re Ready for ‘Always Online’ — SimCity Wasn’t

I can't help but feel bad for EA Maxis. This is SimCity we're talking about, one of EA's flagship properties. Let it be an object lesson to others: You can't do this stuff half-baked.

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Electronic Arts

Back in 2004, a little company called Blizzard released a game — maybe you’ve heard of it. For nearly a decade, that game has run almost without fail, and the only way to play it has been with a persistent Internet connection. The dictate “always online” is part and parcel of the World of Warcraft package. Double-click the game’s Battle.net-based launch icon without an Internet connection and you’ll get nowhere. If you’re in a rare no-Wi-Fi coffee shop or on a flight without wireless Internet service, you can’t play. That’s simply how WoW rolls. If you find it confounding, well, you might as well expect your computer to run without electricity.

Ergo SimCity: There’s been some hand-wringing in the press about SimCity being an “always online” game, as if EA Maxis had been obligated to make some different game entirely. As a guy who prefers offline games, I sympathize with those of you mourning SimCity‘s metamorphosis from a game that’s playable anywhere to one that mandates an Internet connection. It is what it is. EA pulled no bait and switch here. Love it or leave it — and you can always leave it — SimCity was designed from the ground up as an online game. You don’t have to be WoW to justify doing this: We live in 2013, not 1993.

What isn’t justifiable is the way SimCity met its doting public last Tuesday, March 5. You’ve probably seen the news about the Hindenberg of a game launch, and if you’ve been trying to play the game, you are the news, intermittently dropped or unable to play at all. That, according to EA, is because the game launched with too few servers, or as EA Maxis honcho Lucy Bradshaw put it in the first of several official mea culpa blog posts, “a lot more people logged on than we expected … [more] people played and played in ways we never saw in the beta.”

How EA screwed this up is anyone’s guess. How a corporate entity as massive as EA, with over 9,000 employees and operating revenue of over $4 billion annually, didn’t have all of its bases covered and safety nets deployed — not to mention redundant safety nets and extra bases and frankly entire batteries of failsafes — for the latest game in a series as patently popular as SimCity is astonishing. By contrast, when ArenaNet launched Guild Wars 2 last year, company president and co-founder Mike O’Brien was so adamant about maintaining a healthy player-to-server ratio that he told me he’d temporarily “turn off sales” if that’s what it took to keep the experience grooving (fortunately, despite Guild Wars 2‘s instantaneous popularity, this wasn’t necessary, and the game’s gone on to sell over three million copies to date).

Tom Chick perfectly captured SimCity‘s launch fiasco as only Tom Chick could in his one-star Quarter to Three review, noting:

The problem with SimCity isn’t just the launch issues, which are bad not just for locking people out of the game they’ve bought and implementing one of the worst server queues I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen so many of them). The mismanaged launch also impacts the people actually able to play SimCity. Electronic Arts has addressed the server load by literally slowing the game down for everyone and disabling significant social features that are supposedly a selling point.

To be fair, EA Maxis’ Bradshaw claimed on Sunday that “the core problem … is almost behind us” and that “players have been able to connect to their cities in the game for nearly 8 million hours of gameplay time and we’ve reduced game crashes by 92% from day one.” Though to be doubly fair, TIME Tech editor (and SimCity series sage) Doug Aamoth, who’s been trying to play the game since last week, confirmed to me this morning that throughout the day yesterday (Monday) he still couldn’t connect to the server in North America where he’d been working on several cities, and eventually had to resort to a server designated “Antarctica” (wherever that actually is…who knows) to start a new city.

I’m not convinced, as some seem to be, that we’re not ready for “always online” games. It’s not a question of can or can’t — we’ve been doing “always online” for over a decade — but of will or won’t, as in “Will game companies spend the time and money building out infrastructures capable of supporting players from the get-go?” While it’s annoying, we’re accustomed to spotty connectivity during an “always online” game’s preliminaries. But by the second or third day? Through the first week? Longer still? First impressions matter. All those one-star Amazon reviews — 1,667 out of 1,902 so far — are never, ever going away.

I can’t help but feel bad for EA Maxis. This is SimCity we’re talking about, one of EA’s flagship properties. I’ve interviewed Lucy Bradshaw about other EA games like Spore. I’ve spoken with few designers more enthusiastic about what they get to do for a living. I’m sure no one at EA Maxis planned to screw up the launch…and yet they did, badly. Let it be an object lesson: You can’t do “always online” half-baked (and if SimCity‘s launch is your definition of fully-baked, it’s time to reevaluate your criteria). If you’re trying to hedge server and support staff costs against the inevitable concurrent player drop-off that typically follows these launches, then for goodness sake rent what you expect to be redundant six months to a year down the line. Overcompensation should be the watchword here, not “good enough.” There’s simply too much at stake.