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.)
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.