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.