If you went to Amazon on Thursday and tried to buy the new SimCity, the first major release of the classic urban planning PC series in 10 years, you wouldn't have been able to. Amazon wouldn't sell it to you.
Why? Because the servers of the game's publisher, Electronic Arts, were in such a disastrous state that very few people could actually access the game. And those who could were seeing server issues disrupt their save files. So Amazon decided to pull it.
Server problems wouldn't normally hamper a video game's launch, unless that game is developed by EA. In an effort to combat piracy - or something, it's not quite clear - EA deployed an online-only Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology through its Origin service for SimCity, which came out on March 5. That means in order to play the game, you need to be online at all times and connected to EA's servers, even when playing the single-player mode. When player demand starting causing the servers to fall, it also brought down nearly every player's ability to play any aspect of the game.
EA moved fast to address the problem but not fast enough. A string of press releases addressed the issue with mounting seriousness, culminating with EA's decision late Thursday to actually begin removing key features of the game to help keep the servers online. For example, the company eliminated the mode that lets players speed up time to accelerate their city's growth. A blog post by Kip Katsarelis, SimCity's senior producer, details the company's plans to address the problems, but did not offer concrete information on when the changes would happen.
And in an email sent out on Friday to EA's marketing affiliates, the game publisher announced that it has "deactivated all SimCity text links and creative and we ask you to please remove any copy promoting SimCity from your website for the time-being." Wow.
Gaming site Polygon addressed the issue, docking SimCity 1.5 points from its original stellar score of 9.5 for the ongoing server problems. Then it updated it again, dropping the score to 4.0. Kotaku told fans, under a heading titled "Should You Buy This Game?" a big, bold "NOT YET." Even The New York Times decided to address the topic, apparently taking a philosophical approach by asking A Game That Can't Be Played: Is It Still A Game?
As of now you can at least buy the game from Amazon again, if you really want to. Both the physical and downloadable versions are back up for sale, with a special note warning, "Many customers are having issues connecting to the 'SimCity' servers. EA is actively working to resolve these issues, but at this time we do not know when the issue will be fixed."
These issues aren't going away: Take one look at the physical version of SimCity's limited edition on Amazon and you'll get a good idea of the breadth of the backlash. The product is on its way to becoming the worst rated item in the Amazon marketplace, with an astounding 2,796 1-star reviews compared to just 70 5-star reviews, at the time of publication. If EA can't fix this fast enough, SimCity may garner as much Amazon hatred as 2008's Spore, another EA title (ironically from Maxis and Will Wright, the same team that created SimCity) plagued by the company's self-imposed DRM measures. (Ironically, Maxis is earning the sympathy of some players who prefer to blame EA.)
Even more telling is the review marked "Most Helpful," happens to be a facetious take on the game, including satirical gems like, "Thankfully, the game never actually loads. I was looking for a program where I could zone out, and stare at my computer screen in a meditative state for hours on end with no interruptions."
The Biggest DRM Failure
The point isn't just that SimCity is a great game plagued by a bad launch. The real question is how big an impact these kinds of DRM debacles have on game sales - and on DRM technologies.
EA's online-only DRM is not alone in the gaming industry. Blizzard, makers of the Warcraft and StarCraft series, tried similar tactics with the release of Diablo 3 last year, angering thousands upon thousands of players locked out of the overburdened severs. But as Wired's Chris Kohler noted, Blizzard fixed the issue in a matter of days, and the game went on to sell millions and lead the PC market in 2012.
If companies solve these issues fast enough, the backlash bubbles for about a week before everything goes back to normal. And nothing substantive changes. Publishers like EA get to keep pushing the limits - revising the terms of digital ownership through brute force.
We can only hope things will be different this time. SimCity proves once and for all that online-only DRM is an utter failure. It doesn't even do much to combat piracy - making legitimate customers feel more pain than the pirates.
There's a big difference between protecting content reasonably - perhaps with activation codes or secure disc-based DRM - and asserting authoritarian control over the people who actively want to pay for your product. The first priority should be treating paying customers with respect.
If You Don't Like The Terms, Ignore The Product
Those hosed by EA don't have much recourse. EA is not offering refunds for digital copies, and fuming in online communities doesn't seem to have much effect on the giant company.
Going forward, the only real solution may come from the most helpful 1-star review on Amazon, from a user named Malor who earned more than 7,700 recommendations. He noted that SimCity is not a typical game with a beginning, middle and end. It's a toy, and you used to be able to buy that toy and play with it. But now, Malor wrote, "You don't even get to buy your toy. Rather, you rent a toy from EA, who lets you play with it only in very limited, circumscribed ways, only on their servers."
Malor's final recommendation offers perhaps the best approach: "You would be wiser to take three twenties out of your wallet, and light them on fire." In other words, don't waste your time or money on products with draconian DRM, no matter how intriguing they might be otherwise. Only when DRM affects sales will EA and other publishers take this situation seriously.
Image courtesy of Electronic Arts.