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Always On

Much has been said over the last week about EA’s horrendous launch of the new SimCity. As someone who enjoyed previous SimCities, I’ve been following the discussion that has followed the launch and I’m not writing this with the idea that I’m adding something fascinating and new to the discussion, rather, I’d like to look at the hows and whys.

We’ll start with a bit of backstory. The story here is pretty simple: EA, wary of the quantity of sales lost to piracy on previous PC-only releases such as Spore, set out to make a new version of SimCity, where the game was inherently tied to EA’s servers. The idea was by making the game an online game, piracy would be impossible as, well, you can’t pirate a rack of servers.

So far so reasonable; it’s fair enough for a firm investing huge amounts in a new title to want to protect itself from freeloaders and pirates. It makes business sense to do something like this, which — as far as I can tell — is the big problem here. What seems like a good idea in a boardroom isn’t necessarily a good idea when applied to the real world. In the case of the computer gaming industry, for example, the best options are often the most innovative ones.

EA face a multi-pronged big problem; it wouldn’t have been absolutely the end of the world if they’d made a multiplayer game which kept itself connected to the cloud. That would seem fair play and wouldn’t really have caused any difficulties as to play said online game you’d need to be online anyway. They’ve not done that, though, creating the other big-problem-prong. EA have released what’s essentially a single-player game, bolted multiplayer on the side and then insisted that the entire thing is one big multiplayer online experience.

Arguably this is a problem of marketing as much as anything in that EA have failed to get across their view that the always-on “features” are in fact features, rather than the bloody great big hindrance everyone seems to think they are. Oddly, Maxis (the developers) often come across as the good guys, hindered by a horrible corporation — that is, despite Maxis being owned by EA since 1997. These two tweets typicised this opinion:

We’ve established that SimCity has legitimate DRM concerns, and EA thought they were on to a fairly decent way of addressing them, by building the game into an always-online experience. Sadly this hasn’t particularly worked, only drawing attention to the DRM rather than seamlessly blending it in.

The answer, then? I’d imagine it would’ve been something closer to the Valve approach: show your customers some respect (ie don’t assume they’re all thieves) and treat piracy as a service problem rather than a crime problem. People are going to pirate your stuff regardless of how much DRM it has on it. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if SimCity became one of the most pirated games of all time.

And what happens then? EA goes back to its shareholders, says it’s lost out on 400,000 sales because of piracy and they insist for more DRM, which, if you don’t really understand what you’re doing actually sounds like quite a good idea.

Which is the problem, really. EA have come out of this whole thing looking like they don’t understand how its target audience works. And that’s a dangerous position to be in.

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