This is the first post in a new series I’m calling “Two Cents.” Instead of letting important video game news and stories pass by undiscussed, I’ll be gathering up interesting articles from around the web and adding my perspective and commentary. I won’t always be the first one to deliver the hottest scoops, but I’ll be sure to add in my two cents.
Last week, EA and Maxis launched the latest iteration of its popular SimCity franchise directly into a hotbed of controversy. The problem? EA just couldn’t keep up with demand. The always-on DRM and forced multiplayer components practically melted the game severs, effectively locking people out their $60 purchase. A fumbled attempt to save face by deactivating game features to lighten the load on servers and offering a free game to affected users was not enough to stop the plummeting review scores and harsh criticism.
The most unfortunate part of all this is that SimCity sounds like a great game… when it’s actually working. This led to a lot of angry conversations about how games that rely on their services should be judged. Is a game’s quality enough to make up for a week of connectivity issues? Or does a game live or die by its up-time during launch? This article on Joystiq by Alexander Sliwinski summed up my feelings with a perfect analogy:
Comparing this to the restaurant industry, the game is the food and the internet-required connection is the table service. Back of the house and front of the house. What we’ve seen following the launches of Diablo 3 and SimCity are people paying money to walk into the restaurant on opening day and not being served a meal. In a restaurant there would be immediate and dire consequences for such poor customer service. In the video game industry, there’s no shortage of apologists justifying the outcome. Nobody genuflects to poor customer service excuses in a restaurant. Any restaurant review would treat the meal and service as one singular expression of the experience. - Alexander Sliwinski
Video games are huge, living, breathing things compared to what they used to be, with lots of moving parts that can break at any moment. However, at the end of the day, they are still consumer products that need to deliver on their promises day-one and every day after. Companies that don’t prove to customers that their services have just as much value as their games find themselves in EA’s situation… And it’s going to take more than a free game to earn back the goodwill of the community.
Always-on DRM isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but there is plenty that can be done to prevent another “SimShitty” situation. Community managers need to stay extremely active and work to be as transparent as possible to handle the “front lines” of the crisis and help guide the conversations. Publishers need to plan actual betas that stress their systems and provide useful feedback, not glorified PR tools with 1-hour long play sessions. Finally, publishers need to better justify their reasoning for requiring a constant Internet connection. Piracy is an issue worth addressing, but paying customers don’t want to hear about it if it means they can’t play the game they just payed for. I’m not saying that these are easy things to do or that I have all the solutions, but they are important steps in closing the rift between gamers and publishers caused by catastrophes like SimCity.