SimCity’s launch woes: Another nail in the DRM coffin, a red flag for games reviewers, and bad news for consumers

SimCity

By on March 8, 2013 at 3:45 pm

SimCity’s launch isn’t going very well.

Far from the smoother European and Australian launch EA were hoping for, things have actually gotten worse. In fact, they’ve begun disabling “non-critical gameplay features” in an effort to bring their servers back under control — even taking the somewhat extraordinary step of disabling the game’s highest speed setting in the latest patch. Amazon has thrown them a vote of no confidence and is actively warning users of persistent problems with the game.

EA and Maxis are working hard. They’re working around the clock. And, eventually, they’ll get it under control. But in the meantime, hundreds of thousands of users are outraged about a game they can’t play.

What does this mean for gamers? And what does it mean for those of us who write about the games they play?

Who even understands numbers

Many games sites, including this one, were offered access to a review event where SimCity could be played in a controlled environment prior to launch. Many sites (although not this one, for reasons detailed here) published their reviews based on these events or, in some cases, on additional playtime on specific dedicated review servers. Some sites waited, played on the live servers — or tried to! — and then published their reviews. That’s fine — after all, what other options are there?

High-profile site Polygon initially gave the game a glowing 9.5 out of 10. Then, they knocked it down to 8. Then, they knocked it down to 4. There’s a collective gasp from the crowd. A four out of ten! That’s a genuinely bad score! That ain’t no seven.

No. It’s not. And it doesn’t matter, because Metacritic — which is the only reason publishers actually care about review scores — never alters a score, once it’s been published. So the Metacritic entry for SimCity from Polygon still stands at ‘95’. In fact, according to Metacritic, the critical consensus is sitting at a nice, healthy, 81. The servers could catch fire tomorrow, EA could shut down the servers, fire everyone at Maxis and flood the entire office with venomous snakes, and the Metacritic score would remain unchanged forever. Bonuses for everybody! Or not, as the case may be.

Meanwhile, the average user score is 1.7. Out of ten. Is anybody surprised?

It is broke, but can we fix it

We ditched review scores nearly a year ago here at games.on.net, for a number of reasons, one of which was of course that situations like this prove what we have felt for a long time: that review scores are utterly meaningless — especially when the independent third-party that collates them doesn’t even think they’re meaningful enough to bother keeping track of.

Games are changing from a product to a service, and this has been true for a long time. What SimCity shows us that attempting to apply the review model a service is at best difficult, and at worst impossible. In the review event, the service works! 9/10. On days one through fifteen, it’s broken. 4/10. On day twenty, everything is stable but it’s still missing features. 8/10.

When does it end? Are you going to keep updating your review for every major patch? Is this a score for the game as it should be, or for the game as you want it to be, or the game that it could be if only it worked?

As Tom Chick over at Quarter to Three puts it, “anyone who has reviewed it favorably at this point is reviewing it entirely on its promise.”

“If that’s how you want to evaluate games, have at it. There is pretty much no reason any game shouldn’t get a stellar review. The industry should be grateful for your enthusiasm.”

Harsh words. But, at the end, reviews are consumer advice for people who buy games, and it’s fair to say that consumer advice shouldn’t be based on promise. And with the entire model of buying and returning is changing, what does it all even mean?

Nowhere to turn

As Australian PC gamers, we often look to CD key sites to help us in our hour of need. Such is the volume of chaos brought about by this launch, however, that even key sites have been sucked into the mess. CJ’s CD-Keys, a popular key retailer, has offered free refunds and exchanges after all the CD keys they were supplied with turned out to be Russian language only. Their Facebook page is a PR nightmare, littered with angry complaints and shrieking demands from customers to see the key they forked over for.

Meanwhile, customers who do have keys and turn to EA for a refund are being told that Origin, in general, does not offer refunds on digital download games (unless you’re in the EU, where it’s mandatory). So you buy a game that doesn’t work (yet) and then if you change your mind and want your money back, well, you can’t. Unless you purchased it through a physical store, apparently — but good luck trying to convince EB Games to give you a refund on a game you’ve already redeemed to your Origin account.

(That said, the stories you’ve probably seen about EA banning people who ask for refunds are, flatly, untrue. Mr. Mark Serrels over at Kotaku Australia has written in-depth about whether or not Australians can demand refunds, and that’s worth reading too.)

The end

But the end user doesn’t care about that. The end user just knows that they’ve paid money for something they can’t use, money that they can’t get back.

It’s in the interest of games publishers — if they’re confident in their product — to get reviews out early, to encourage more pre-orders. If on the other hand they’re not confident in their product, reviews will often be delayed as much as possible to ensure that any existing pre-orders aren’t cancelled, and people don’t have a chance to read it before they hit the shops.

EA were confident in their product. They had no reason not to be. But they vastly underestimated just how good a job they’d done in marketing it, and they didn’t learn from mistakes of other high-profile titles which also suffered launch woes.

Within 48 hours, Diablo III had sorted out nearly all of their problems. 48 hours on, SimCity’s actively appear to be getting worse.

The difference, one might argue, is that Blizzard have experience launching MMOs and Maxis do not. But the end user doesn’t care about that. The end user just knows that they’ve paid money for something they can’t use, money that they can’t get back. They shouldn’t have to wait and see, and they shouldn’t have to keep an eye on reviews and hope — hope! — that those reviews update to reflect the latest service status.

In an ideal world, Origin would have allowed pre-loading, to keep the server traffic at a minimum on launch day. Beta tests would have gone for longer than 24 hours at a pop, and actually allowed users to try out the multiplayer features that are, supposedly, the key to Maxis’ new approach and, apparently, the number one cause of the current problems. Server capacity would have been scaled up hugely for launch, to handle that demand — or, hell, maybe even the drastic step of delaying the European and Australian launches could have been taken.

This is a bad situation, and it doesn’t appear to be getting any better. It remains to be seen whether EA will take any lasting PR damage from it all, but one thing is clear: situations like this do nothing, nothing at all, to convince consumers that always-online DRM and un-refundable digital download policies are acceptable.

Waving your hand and saying “It’ll all go away in a few days” or “online games are always a fustercluck at launch” isn’t an answer, and it ignores the very reasonable expectation that products paid for should actually work. We don’t have any answers, and certainly I don’t have any grand solution. But this is another straw on the back of the camel, and is a huge, huge missed opportunity on EA’s part to reassure people that always-online DRM needn’t impact their gaming lives.

Three months from now, when the financial year ends and we get a look at EA’s investor reports, we’ll have a better picture of whether or not any of this was more than a blip on the radar.

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116 comments (Leave your own)

Quite a few issues that could have been easily avoided by not enforcing their always online multiplayer version on consumers, I have no sympathy for them.

 

Not only are you absolutely entitled to a refund in this situation, but it is against the law for EA to tell you that you aren’t entitled to a refund.

link

Misleading consumers about their
statutory rights

The consumer guarantees cannot be changed, limited or
refused by a seller, manufacturer or importer.
It is also against the law for a seller to do anything that
leads consumers to believe their rights are limited, or do not
apply—for example, by claiming that no refunds will be given
under any circumstances.

Any misleading claims a business makes about consumers’
rights under the consumer guarantees are invalid and do
not affect a consumer’s right to obtain a remedy under the
consumer guarantees. These claims are also likely to breach
provisions of the ACL relating to misrepresentations or
misleading and deceptive conduct.

The ACCC should smash them. As usual, they won’t.

 

We are being sold broken merchandise, and it’s plainly criminal that refunds are not always available.

They just spend heaps of cash on advertising, and who gives a flog if the game actually works or not.

Pretty sad state of affairs, good article.

 

Two Words: “Class Action”

Make em pay for selling faulty products. Its the only way they will learn.

On the down side they most likely took a note from Steam’s book and put a disclaimer in their eula (but it doesn’t mean the eula will hold up in court).

 

Yes, in Australia it is illegal to tell someone they are not entitled to a refund.

The gaming industry has been plagued with this for ages. Day 1 Patches, DLC to fix things etc

It’s going to continue to happen unless the government steps in

 

What’s the current situation?

 

Origin will ban you if you do a charge back on your credit/debit card.
They won’t however ban you for asking for a refund which they will decline stating that refunds are processed ‘at their discretion’.

 

nit001,

Dear god, WoW wasn’t useable for 3 days after any patch and people didn’t get so butthurt about it now did they? The game’s officially been out a day in most parts of the world and people are already screaming for refunds. That’s what happens when you hammer the servers, a freaking tragedy of the commons; the game was actually working for the first 2 days for most, and still is for me anyway but I understand for many it isn’t.

“Maxis’ new approach and, apparently, the number one cause of the current problems. Server capacity would have been scaled up hugely for launch, to handle that demand — or, hell, maybe even the drastic step of delaying the European and Australian launches could have been taken.

“…situations like this do nothing, nothing at all, to convince consumers that always-online DRM and un-refundable digital download policies are acceptable.”

Your article was good up until these points:

1. You can’t just ‘scale up’ demand, you as a writer for GON, of all people should know this. If you say double your server count on release then how do you let all those excess servers go? You can’t just repurpose them, you’ve already sunk tens of thousands of dollars into making sure people can play day 1 when EVERYONE ELSE wants to and not day 3, because god forbid we need the game right now. We’re Australians, get over the few day wait.

2. It’s not always-online DRM, at least from what we’ve seen, and I’m disappointed you didn’t research this as that’s just sloppy journalism
http://www.pcgamer.com/2012/12/20/maxis-explains-the-use-of-simcity-always-online-drm/

“GlassBox is the engine that drives the entire game—the buildings, the economics, trading, and also the overall simulation that can track data for up to 100,000 individual Sims inside each city. There is a massive amount of computing that goes into all of this, and GlassBox works by attributing portions of the computing to EA servers (the cloud) and some on the player’s local computer,” Bradshaw writes.

If I’m understanding that correctly, Bradshaw’s saying that offloading certain aspects of the simulation to SimCity servers is not only the way the game is designed, but a technical requirement. Bradshaw reflects this again in a later paragraph: “Trades between cities, simulation effects that cause change across the region like pollution or crime, as well as depletion of resources, are all processed on the servers and then data is sent back to your city on your PC. Every city in the region is updated every three minutes, which keeps the overall region in sync and makes your decisions in your city relevant to any changes that have taken place in the region.”

Anyone seeking a refund already (like some are) is an honest to god an imbecile; wait a week, and if you’re still unhappy with the game you’re playing then grab one (preferably before the 7 days are up).

The ACCC is also unclear on where licenses stand, as well as the fact that the product is fit for purpose for many; I know many aren’t even bothering to troubleshoot server issues or at least wait because, as I’ve said, they’re imbeciles.

This release is just a testament to the ‘gaming community’ and how ‘intelligent’ the majority are who go to the effort to review this as 0: Miraculously below many other titles that are actually awful (because we are impatient and want things NOW SO LET’S HATE ON EA AND NOT WOW, GW2, OR STARCRAFT 2 RELEASES THAT ALL GO SWIMMINGLY!) like MoH: Warfighter, Towns, Lost Planet, or the likes.

 

Loads sim city 4 ahhhhhh

 

GlassBox is the engine that drives the entire game—the buildings, the economics, trading, and also the overall simulation that can track data for up to 100,000 individual Sims inside each city. There is a massive amount of computing that goes into all of this, and GlassBox works by attributing portions of the computing to EA servers (the cloud) and some on the player’s local computer

Total and utter b.s.

Do you really believe that EA is funding a bunch of supercomputers to crunch these amazing numbers, or that it is viable to constantly stream the massive amounts of information which would be involved over the internet?

It is a transparent attempt to lock down the game and destroy it as a single player experience, so that EA has total control over it and the way that consumers use it.

As for calling people asking for refunds on a totally broken product “imbeciles”, well…

 

For the most part all of the PC gaming I now do is through Steam, Origin, Uplay. And yes these launches aren’t ideal, but the benefits outweigh a couple of days of launch mess. What about when L4D2 came out and was unplayable for a day, cause so many were trying to decrypt their preload (Preload’s aren’t that great when they are encrypted, so millions access the servers, and then you still can’t play the game).

I’m not defending the launches but I understand the economics of this. Why buy 10x servers you need for the rest of the games life for just day one? Unless you can set up some sort of cloud arrangement for the first week, it isn’t worth wasting your money. Maybe they need to charge more for early adopters to cater against the demand, who knows?

 

I think the issue is not that users are upset and angry that there are bugs on release, they’re upset and angry because they could have been so easily avoided if they weren’t so obsessed with their DRM.

 

nit001,

Steam give refunds and Steam actively helped people get refunds from Ubisoft after the From Dust release.

forumrabbit,

“WoW wasn’t useable for 3 days after any patch” Not sure what WoW you played but I played for 4 years solid and sure some patches had kinks but never was the game unusable for 3 days.

As for the always-online being a technical requirement. So what? They didn’t need to build it that way. They chose to. It just gives them a neat little cop-out when it comes to the always-online argument.

And of course, no game launch is perfect but this is really bad in comparison to others. There’s a big difference to bugs on release and not actually being able to play at all. Not to mention, they’re having to disable features to try and fix things.

It’s also quite clear that no effort was put into stress-testing the servers during beta which means that instead of the minor server overload hiccups you get with online multiplayer games you have this massive issue instead and really the only imbecile around here is the person trying to defend them.

 
Pandaemonium

See the biggest problem i have is the server issues. I have seen so much rage at this game with most people not realizing that the actual game itself is quite good if you can actually get in.

 

forumrabbit,

You are very quick to wave your rights as a consumer. That’s your choice.

Don’t expect the rest of us to “suck it up” so to speak. These company’s should be held accountable for their actions.

 

If you buy in AU from a overseas storefront (which I believe Origin would try and claim to be, despite regionalising the product to us and gouging the crap out of us), I wouldnt think the AU law applied. somewhere in the T&C it will say “all purchases subject to the law in XYZ country”, probably the US.

If our ACCC took them it would be good :) much like the EU guys did.

Also, same applies to CJ’s, dont know if you could claim a refund via them by “law”, more rely on their good will.

 

raven1417,

I’m not picking on Steam here raven1417, I’m just pointing out they have a disclaimer in the Steam eula that says you can’t use Class Actions against them.

 
Lord_Apophis

forumrabbit:
nit001,

This release is just a testament to the ‘gaming community’ and how ‘intelligent’ the majority are who go to the effort to review this as 0: Miraculously below many other titles that are actually awful (because we are impatient and want things NOW SO LET’S HATE ON EA AND NOT WOW, GW2, OR STARCRAFT 2 RELEASES THAT ALL GO SWIMMINGLY!) like MoH: Warfighter, Towns, Lost Planet, or the likes.

A game is released, you can’t play it, of course it deserves a 0. – It certainly doesn’t deserve a 10 for not letting you play it.

 

forumrabbit: Your article was good up until these points:

1. You can’t just ‘scale up’ demand, you as a writer for GON, of all people should know this. If you say double your server count on release then how do you let all those excess servers go? You can’t just repurpose them, you’ve already sunk tens of thousands of dollars into making sure people can play day 1 when EVERYONE ELSE wants to and not day 3, because god forbid we need the game right now. We’re Australians, get over the few day wait.

As a writer for GON I do, absolutely, know that servers can be purposed to something, then repurposed later when they’re no longer needed.

When TF2 went free-to-play, here at GON we repurposed heaps of our servers into TF2 ones to meet the demand. Then we repurposed them again when demand went down.

A company with the resources of EA absolutely can afford to requisition more server capacity in data centres across the world when necessary, and at short notice.

forumrabbit:2. It’s not always-online DRM, at least from what we’ve seen, and I’m disappointed you didn’t research this as that’s just sloppy journalism

The game literally can’t be played offline. This is the definition of always-online DRM. I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make with the GlassBox engine but SimCity is, absolutely, online-only.

 

Meanwhile, Arma 3 launched with only 1 major hickup on the exact same day… and no one cared because they were too busy paying $90 for Sim City and not being able to play it.. If they had bought Arma 3 for the $32.99 they’d had not only gotten a brilliant game even in its Alpha buggy state, but they would’ve been able to buy it 3x over.

I think this is case enough to show that Pre-ordering is obsolete and that the Crowd Source model that Bohemia and many other developers have employed is in fact the superior solution (as its designed to reward early adopters- whereas pre-ordering punishes early adopters because they get a much worse game for maximum price- crowd sourcing they might get the same quality sure, but they got it for way way way cheaper than they would’ve had they pre-ordered).

I hope this goes to convince developers that the Pre-Order model is dead.

 
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