I wanted to do a blog post about SimCity. But then I realised that all I had to say about the game can be exemplified by this one story.
A few weeks ago, Virgin Media decided to throw a hissy fit and I didn’t have internet access in my flat for about 3 days. It was apparently a local disruption, which was first going to be resolved at midnight, then the next day at 6pm, then the next at 4pm and then the next at 2pm. Pretty typical of any ISP. Anyway, the initial disconnection happened whilst I was trying to load into my city on SimCity. As most gamers know by now, SimCity was met with a lot of controversy as it forced users to be always online for a single player game. As it turns out, if your connection drops whilst you are loading into a city, you will more than likely lose your city to the ‘SimCity could not load your city at this time’ error which means SimCity will never load your city ever again.
When my internet came back up, I eagerly booted up SimCity and was met with this error; I tried again a few hours later, a few days later, and still the same error. I resigned myself to my loss. In my case, I lost a city that I had put probably in the region of 6 hours into. And it was a central city in my region, the one which provided all the money by extracting oil. Without it, my small residential suburb city and my tourist city was absolutely ruined. Hence, my inability to load that one city, which I assume is just lost to the abyss of EA somewhere, utterly destroyed my region.
What bothers me is that this would not be an issue if I had local game saves. Instead, it seems SimCity game saves are stored in some nebulous EA cloud which is prone to lightning storms and frequent “Your city could not be loaded at this time” messages or even the dreaded “Please rollback your city” message which means you might as well start over.
The reasoning behind this always online policy was supposedly because EA had to do calculations server-side. It later transpired that this was a complete lie. They said that SimCity was designed to be a multiplayer game, with multiple players controlling different cities in a region. Sure, this might be the optimal way to play, but SimCity can be played single player too. I have a good friend who I did share a region with, but I later abandoned it because I wanted to try new designs without fearing I would wreck his cities. So I started my own single-player regions and invited no one, and tried to micromanage a bunch of cities at the same time. It’s difficult because region-play is often problematic and buggy and things never update all together. But why should I have to be forced to play online all the time when I’m just doing things by myself? Why is it that I can’t play when the servers are down? It makes no sense, and EA should not forget about it. I have totally given up on SimCity now; I got maybe 20 hours out of it and they were fun, but I cannot abide by this kind of ridiculousness.
The only reason I can see why always online is still enforced is that it is a form of DRM (digital rights management). It stops people pirating the game, at least for the first few weeks, as the DRM is harder to crack. Ubisoft did the same thing with its games until it backed down from public pressure and the bad publicity. You know why? Because always online DRM sucks and it does nothing to prevent piracy and everything to annoy users. After a few weeks, the cracking scene will bust that sucker wide open and have a working offline version of whatever game you so please.
So with the recent announcement of the always online Xbox One (not fully confirmed yet, Microsoft is being decidedly shady about this), you can imagine my apprehension when considering a console which will lock up if I don’t log onto the internet at least once a day.
See, the thing is, for most of my life, I will be connected to the internet. I know this is the 21st century and that most people are always connected to the internet in some form. But the internet powers to be are fickle and there will be times where I find myself flung back 20 years and be unable to get online. Those are the times where I most likely want to be playing games.
When Virgin Media went down, I played a few games I had installed on my laptop in my free time, in lieu of the hours of internet videos and MBs of cute kitten gifs I usually watch. A few years ago, when I went on holiday to Malaysia, my brother took his Xbox 360 along with him so he could play even without an internet connection. I believe we had a good time beating Tales of Vesperia.
The point is, gaming is not, for me at least, synonymous with online gaming. I still play many single player experiences which should not require an internet connection. In fact, most of the time, I prefer single player games. I prefer their immersive worlds, their poignant stories and their ability to absolutely suck up hundreds of hours of my life. I have always preferred RPGs, small indie games and simulation games over the big online FPSes or MMOs. The only multiplayer game I play regularly is League of Legends, and only because I have good friends to play with. I would otherwise avoid online communities like the plague.
Furthermore, I resent the idea of having to pay for online services. Xbox Live has never been a good deal for me, I just don’t do enough online gaming to justify a subscription price. And when there are times where I would like it, it really sucks that I can’t opt to just have it for a week without having to find one of those special cards. For example, one of the disappointing things about Mass Effect 3 (you know, besides the ending), was the fact that to even get a good ending, you needed to play the multiplayer. Now I had played the multiplayer on a PC demo and quite enjoyed it. But I chose to get ME3 on the Xbox 360 because that’s where my ME1 and 2 saves were and I wanted to continue my character and all my choices. I don’t have Xbox Live, and thus was unable to access the multiplayer stuff, and therefore it affected my single player story experience. My story ending was jeopardised by the fact that I prefer and love single player games and enjoy good stories. What an unbelievably stupid concept.
My worry is that this is indicative of a widespread trend in gaming. I worry that it will come to a point where every game has some tacked on multiplayer online feature because that is what sells. I worry that games will sacrifice great single player modes in favour of rehashed multiplayer modes (including the thousands of horde mode/zombies rip off modes in games these days). As someone who primarily games as a form of escapism, the recent new gen announcements of being able to upload footage and share with people instantly is not all that appealing. Frankly I would like to be able to play a game without getting flamed or called a noob. Or having to talk to my Xbox to get it to do anything (cough cough Kinect). Or anyone at all really. I just want to enjoy my games in peace and quiet. Is that so much to ask?
Still, I’m not quite that pessimistic to believe that all games will end up multiplayer online affairs. Game stories have been getting better and better. Just look at the way Tomb Raider has evolved, or the recent storytelling masterpiece of Bioshock Infinite. I hope these games sold well so that we can tell publishers and the people with money that this is what gamers like me want. That we don’t all just want a yearly COD and Fifa release, that there are still those of us who play games to be immersed in worlds which we can only explore through video games. And I hope those who do make single player experiences aren’t so scared of piracy cutting into their profits that they enforce barbaric always online DRM. Because the problem is, it causes more problems than it solves. It alienates fan bases and it makes the people who actually buy your game resent you. Surely that will cut future profits more than the potential of piracy? Who knows. I hope gamers can vote with their wallets. I wish I could ask for a refund on SimCity but it’s too late for me. All I can do is warn people away.
Always online. Always unacceptable.