SimCity DRM Disaster: Maxis, EA Learned Nothing From Spore

February 10th, 2013 by


I’m a big SimCity fan.  City building games offer the complexity and strategy that someone like me can truly appreciate.  The last authentic SimCity Maxis developed, SimCity 4, was a technical marvel, but with a steep learning curve.  Despite its age, I still found myself dabbling in SimCity 4 on occasion for the last 8 years trying to master its complexities.  Then, while Maxis focused their efforts on their new project Spore, they outsourced development of the ill-fated SimCity Societies, which unfortunately did not live up to expectations.

This brings us to the present day.  Maxis has finally decided to grace the masses with a new, true successor in the SimCity franchise due for release in March 2013.  So far, the information released about the game and its new so-called “Glass Box” simulation engine points to a return to form for the franchise, and a modern twist on city building games.  SimCity‘s release, however, flirts with disaster by being burdened with the most despicable kind of Digital Rights Management (DRM) imaginable — “always-on” internet connectivity requirements, which there is never a legitimate reason to have in an otherwise offline single-player game.

Evidently EA and Maxis did not learn any lessons from the Spore debacle.  Having shamelessly laced Spore with crippling DRM whose only purpose was to punish legitimate game purchasers, the most ironic result of this was that Spore became the most pirated PC game ever.  EA was forced to respond, and in a desperate effort to salvage what little credibility remained, they withdrew the ludicrously restrictive DRM from Spore.  But the damage was already done, as thousands of gamers were already happily playing their DRM-free pirated software.

So why cripple a single-player PC game with mandatory “always-on” connectivity?  Well  let’s just ask Senior vice president at Maxis, Lucy Bradshaw:

“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.”

So basically, Bradshaw contends that the game requires more processing power than a single user’s computer can handle, therefore EA’s servers lend a helping hand.  I don’t believe this ridiculous nonsense on two fronts.  First, when today’s game-worthy computers have 4, 6 or 8 multi-threading processor cores, I say give me the option of letting my computer handle it by itself if I think I have the right specs.  Second, if I assume for a moment that Bradshaw is 100% correct that no single computer that handle the game, then evidently the development team are morons for making a game that no one’s computer can play.

But Bradshaw, why does SimCity need such an unholy amount of processing power?  Bradshaw has an answer for that too:

“Running the regional simulation on our servers is something we also use to support features that will make this SimCity even more fun. We use the Sim data to update worldwide leaderboards, where you get to see your city or mayoral standings as compared to the other cities in your region and between all of the regions in the world. And since SimCity is a live service, we’re also using the data to create weekly global and local challenges for our players that keep the gameplay fresh and surprising.”

The PR machine spins a great story, but if only there was an offline mode, GlassBox wouldn’t have to simultaneously process and stream data from every other player region.  I don’t want to know about your region’s crime stats anyways; I simply don’t care how I stand on the worldwide leaderboard either.  But maybe there are some people who do enjoy this kind of interconnectivity, so make it optional and let the player choose which play mode best suits him/her.

For me the biggest worry has to do with being at the mercy of EA’s servers.  As console gamers know too well, servers are not infallible and many gamers find themselves left with broken promises.  Likewise, end-user internet connections are not always dependable or even available at all.  Finally, with more and more ISPs enforcing data caps on their services, am I going to have to pony-up for a better internet package just so that I can use a single-player PC game?  Read that last line again, and fully absorb its unprecedentedly stupefying meaning.

This is not OK.  As a community and as customers we need to send a message that we will not stand for this.  EA is among the worst offenders for this type of contempt for the gaming masses who pay their bills.  I don’t propose to know how we can make them aware of our plight, and the tug of a new SimCity on my heartstrings is strong indeed.  I can only hope that in some small way, this article will make some prospective buyers informed about the issues at play before idly opening their wallets and further encouraging EA’s diabolical madness.

Excerpts used in this blog post can be read in full here: