updated 01:27 pm EST, Sat March 9, 2013
Maxis Sim City server problems continue, EA offers free game
Electronic Arts and Maxis launched the newest iteration in the venerable Sim City series earlier this week. While initially praised for its accomplishments and integration with other players by previewing media, the game was marred by monumental server and connectivity issues. Since launch, Electronic Arts claims to have brought on 150 percent more server capacity, as well as shutting down some in-game functions to lighten the server load, but the problems persist. Electronic Arts is offering a free title to people who register the game prior to March 18. The issue, and a similar issue with Diablo 3 emphasize a disturbing trend in gaming -- the requirement to log into remote servers like EA's Origin service to play the game, even in single-player.
The evening of the launch, players following an installation were greeted with server queue timers. The timer did not represent when the player would be able to access the game, but rather when the next login sequence into the mandatory gameplay server would be attempted. Little lessening of this over time was coupled with no meaningful response from Electronic Arts or Maxis until Thursday and Friday.
On Thursday, an exchange with Electronic Arts went viral, detailing a conversation one user had with customer service. The user requested a publicly-promised refund, and when denied, threatened to start a chargeback with his bank. The EA representative counter-threatened the user with a complete termination of the user's Origin account.
A post on the Sim City blog from Maxis senior vice president Lucy Bradshaw claims that the server increases are working, saying that "the number of people who have gotten in and built cities has improved dramatically. The number of disrupted experiences has dropped by roughly 80 percent." Apocryphal information gathered from Twitter and internet forums may belie this somewhat -- a large number of players still seem to be having problems with a continuous connection to the servers. This may be from shaky ISPs on the consumer end, but the continued problems with connectivity point to continued issues with the Electronic Arts servers.
The fallout from the problems continues. Electronic Arts has stopped marketing the game. Amazon has stopped selling the digital version of the game, and is warning customers about the technical issues with the game. The game's fastest mode, "cheetah," has been disabled, and the Polygon reviewer (who has downgraded the game review score as a result of the technical issues) says that the omission of the fast speed makes the game play totally differently as a result of the omission, and the game suffers for it.
A movement is in place for Electronic Arts and Maxis to enable true single-player mode in the game. Maxis isn't doing so at this time, citing design decisions, as well as the game having to "offload a significant amount of the calculations to our servers so that the computations are off the local PCs and are moved into the cloud." Bradshaw claims that "it wouldn't be possible to make the game offline without a significant amount of engineering work by our team."
The server-centric nature of major releases, either for computational reasons in the case of Sim City, or digital rights management poses a problem for the future of gaming. While the cessation of game server support has happened for years, some of the current crop of games such as Sim City require a persistent connection, and an available company-provided server to play single-player. Server discontinuation for any title isn't just a possibility, its a guarantee, and the date is determined by game companies evaluating incoming revenue from a title, the user base, and how much it costs to maintain the servers.
Blockbuster title Halo 2 has already had its multiplayer support dropped on Xbox live. PC server support for multiplayer will cease this summer. Electronic Arts periodically announces server shutdowns for older titles. Generally, the titles dropped are less than five years old. Also problematic is the shutdown of monetized titles, or so-called "free-to-play" games supported by micro transactions. When the server shuts down, any users of the title still playing lose not just the time investment, but the financial investment into digital goods in the game.
Diablo 3 servers will shut down eventually, and so will the hardware suffering under the player load for the newest Sim City. The 24-year old original Sim City and sequels Sim City 2000, Sim City 3, and Sim City 4 are all still playable, and will be so (given proper hardware or emulation) well after the current version is discontinued. When Battle.net support is stopped for Diablo 2, the single-player mode will still function. Halo 2 is still playable for single players, or at LAN parties. The same won't be said for Diablo 3 or Sim City. With the inevitable closures of the servers for these new titles will come the complete inability to play the game in the future.