EA Keeps Digging

by northernbeholder

Last year I finally got fed up with Electronic Art’s cavalcade of stupid press releases, especially their decision to gut singleplayer in all future releases. I went so far as to predict EA’s death, as their abandoning of single-player was the equivalent of digging their own grave. Now EA has released the latest iteration in the SimCity series, and it seems they’re still shovelling as fast as they can. So fast that I need to talk about it before leaning back towards something vaguely history-related. Vaguely.

For those not familiar with the history of this venerable franchise, it puts the player in charge of building and managing a nascent metropolis, starting from an empty patch of pristine wilderness and growing to an awe-inspiring urban snarl of steel and concrete.  To get from A to B, you must build infrastructure (ranging from roads, power lines and water treatment to hospitals, schools and transit hubs) to support industry to attract residents to fund your commercial districts, so you can tax the lot and balance a budget to expand and fund the next borough.  You also have tools to terraform the landscape itself, creating or mowing down forests en masse, raising mighty mountains or carving deep canyons.  It’s essentially an enormous sandbox in which to build a model city, and as the series went on (the current release being the fifth, not counting spin-offs) the depth of the simulation increased, allowing you to see your city interacting with itself in ever greater detail.

It’s also been a single-player game. Always. They got bigger and better and more complex but they were always a single-player experience, because how would you make multiplayer out of a slow-paced city-building simulator?

Well, EA found a way.  They took a normal SimCity map and chopped it into tiny neighborhoods. Compared to what you normally have to work with, the new city zones are postage stamps, which means a nice long game building a metropolis just isn’t going to happen. That little postage stamp is going to fill up pretty fast. The idea behind this is that it’s impossible for each little neighborhood to be self-sufficient, so it specializes in one particular function, then trades with the others.

So, that doesn’t sound too bad. Building and managing lots of little interdependent boroughs adds a new layer of complexity to the game.  However, you can only ever personally manage one place at a time. If you’re not managing a city, it freezes in time. No income, no building, no anything.  You can’t effectively develop a region on your own, and it’s meant to be that way. All the other little postage-stamps are supposed to be run by other players.  That’s not in and of itself a bad thing, but the way they programmed it so you couldn’t, if you chose, run a whole region’s worth of cities on your own is aggravating, as the tiny size of the plots makes a long, enjoyable game of building and tweaking basically nonexistent. There’s just no room. Honestly, when I first saw the region map and the itty-bitty squares for each city, my first thought was “This looks like a knockoff city-builder facebook game.”

Of course, requiring co-op is just their flimsy excuse for using always-online DRM (which is in addition to the game needing to run on their Origin DRM), going so far as to perform necessary game functions server-side rather than letting your PC run it.  And of course their servers have collapsed and died almost immediately upon launch, making it impossible for many players to enjoy their $60 purchase.  Consumers making the entirely reasonable request of a refund for their unusable product have been threatened with having their Origin accounts banned, which would cut them off from all products purchased through that service.

Recap: EA forces multiplayer functionality into a purely single-player game, the necessary design compromises of which seriously affects the traditional core gameplay of the series; fails to make their always-online ‘service’ work; and threatens to ban customers for the crime of asking for a refund for their nonfunctioning product.  They have since promised a free game to everyone affected by the issues, but that’s a rather feeble olive branch after their earlier behaviour.

It’s a real shame, too, because the actual sim part of the new SimCity is amazing. The cities come to life like never before, tracking thousands of individual factors, right down to each virtual citizen, and representing them all visually for your viewing pleasure.  It’s got quite pretty art direction as well, and they have taken a page from the Anno games and their ilk by introducing natural resources and the need to extract and refine them for trade and other uses.  When it comes to the underlying systems, I’m willing to say it’s quite possibly the best SimCity game to date.  If only EA hadn’t felt the urge to cripple it with their obsessive need for multiplayer and DRM.

EA is still losing money every quarter, and I wonder if this is part of the reason why.  Consider for a moment how much this all had to cost.  Not only have they laid out all the cash to fund the actual development of the game systems, they then had to pay to incorporate net code and get all the co-op functioning, to chop the game engine into parts that could function separately over a distant internet connection, for server farms to run that code, bandwidth for the servers, power for the servers (including the considerable air-conditioning needed to keep a server farm from melting itself), and staff to maintain and upgrade the servers. And all that stuff with the server farm is an ongoing cost.

That’s going to be a lot of money, and for what? The exciting opportunity to face outrage from your consumers and weather a storm of terrible press? To rid themselves of another cluster of unwanted consumers? EA, this is why you’re posting quarterly losses. Stop wasting money on these systems that hamstring your games and outrage your customers.  Just make quality entertainment.  If it’s good, and doesn’t come bundled with a big, spike-studded sign reading “WE DON’T TRUST YOU” which occasionally falls over and maims us, we’ll buy it. And you don’t have to keep paying for new signs.