SimCity’s day off

Posted by CB Droege

One of the most anticipated games of the year has crashed into the market and broken lots of hearts.

We’ve got a problem whent it comes to gaming journalism and fandom. We want to love the titles for themselves, but can’t help but let our impression be tainted by something outside of its control. The recent SimCity launch is a perfect example.

I’m sure I’m not telling you anything new when I relay that the SimCity launch was a dismal failure. The game was more popular on release day than even EA had anticipated, and the servers upon which players were intended to play went down like a Janga tower on a wobbling table. The game has been down for two days straight, meaning most people who paid between $60-$80 dollars for the game - depending on which version they ordered and when - have been unable to play.

Now, we’ve gotten news that EA will be shutting down “non-essential systems” within the game, like leaderboards and such, to save traffic, and get the game running. At the time of this writing we’ve yet to see if that will work. Now personally, I think it’s important to take some perspective pills in situations like this. Yes, you may have paid good money for a product which is currently not functioning, and it may be frustrating when you’ve been looking forward to the game for so long, but it is only a video game, and you will get to play eventually. In the mean-time don’t you have dozens of other titles you haven’t played out yet that you can jump into for a while, and let the Origin guys fix their stuff?

By many reviewers’ accounts, the game itself is fun and interesting, but the scores they’re giving are blasting the game for poor network connectivity while the Origin service is keeping players out. First, that’s all temporary. Second, that’s not the game’s fault. I’m sure the SimCity devs are yelling at the Origin guys right now just as much as the fans are. They see their game being torn apart in the media for Origin’s failure.

And that’s exactly what it is: Origin’s failure, not SimCity’s. The game may be a bit different from the SimCity titles you’ve played in the past, and you may not be fond of those differences, but the always-on-ness and the current connection issues, that’s all on Origin, a service for which this is their first major online-only release.

The real failure of Origin, of course, is that it’s not Steam. Gamers love Steam because it’s a reliable place to get and play their games from many publishers. EA made a business decision to stop publishing through Steam a couple years back, and so they have their own competing service with Origin. The concept of Steam and Origin are the same, and they both require an internet connection to function.

When Steam goes down, no one can play the games that they paid good money for, just like Origin. The difference: Origin is new. They are untried, unpracticed. They are having the growing-pains issues that Steam was working through back in the 00’s, and still isn’t immune to. New games on Steam are frequently unplayable for many hours or even a whole day after release because of crowded servers, but that doesn’t make news because it’s Steam and people like Steam.

This is combined with a fan-base who are seeing something very new. SimCity has, for a very long time, been a game for one person to build a city, perhaps a massively unwieldy, unrealistically huge city. The franchise invented the city management simulation genre, and for a long time had the market cornered, but since SimCity 4, many competitors have entered the genre. Cities XL, Cities in Motion, and City Life, just to name a few, are all vying for a piece of the pie that SimCity baked first.

Making another game that reaches for the same pie-plate would have satisfied some long-time fans of the franchise who have been waiting for the SimCity take on this modernizing genre, but it would have been and entry into a crowded market. Thus, they made the decision to do something new, to try to conquer new space, and potentially revolutionize the city management simulation game again. They made the game a social thing, meant to be played with friends or, if you’re brave, strangers whose decisions impact your own. They raised the stakes by making the saves games inaccessible to the user, forcing their decisions to be permanent and have real non-undoable consequences.

Personally, I think these are great changes which will be interesting to give a real shot to once the servers are working and my friends and I can try our hand at developing a region of cities together. No, it’s not the SimCity I know from the past, but I, unlike seemingly the rest of the gaming world, don’t always need for my games to be exactly like their predecessors. Besides, if I want that play style I still have SimCity 4 and all those other SimCity poseurs that I could play.

If this game had been called Cities in the Mist, or Cities with Friends, or My Dear City, or even SimCity Online, anything other than SimCity, it wouldn’t get nearly as much flack as it’s currently getting for not being the game we expected. It is its own game, and deserves to be judged on its own merits, not held up to an ideal we each constructed in our minds over the last decade.

Of course, if it had been called anything else, it may not have sold as well - and we wouldn’t be seeing these server problems anyway.

Should Origin have been more prepared for release? Yes. Is it a great injustice to you personally that they were not? No. In fact, it was in the EULA that you agreed to when you purchased the game, that it would not always be available due to potential server woes. EA and Origin has learned much about how to release a major online game from this adventure, and the next release will hopefully be smoother, though I wouldn’t expect perfection ever, as the online world is a fickle one: servers, fans, journalists, all of it.

Today your heart may have been broken, but then again, there is always tomorrow.