It’s been ten years since the last Simcity, and much has changed in the gaming world. Unfortunately, Maxis, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts (EA) has decided to follow one of the most maligned of recent trends by making the latest entry in the series playable online only. We’ve all heard the many arguments against forcing players to connect to the Internet: bad home service, server updates shutting down the game, inability to play while traveling, etc. However, to me, the real question lies in whether the new Simcity (let’s call it Simcity 2013) needs to be online.
I have no problem with a game being online if the experience requires multiplayer. I’ve played World of Warcraft for years and still remember the rush of joining forces with 40 other players to defeat a seemingly insurmountable raid boss. Complex multiplayer encounters simply cannot be duplicated in single player games. You just end up with infuriatingly dumb computer-controlled partners who cast area-of-effect spells right next to you or heal a slightly wounded teammate while you’re on the verge of dying (think Baldur’s Gate). To compensate, developers have to limit the difficulty level in every climactic battle.
By the same token, I don’t mind playing a game online if it’s free. The developers of League of Legends,Path of Exile and the upcoming Firefall have all opted to release their title for free and make their money back off of micro transactions. If I don’t have to pay, I’ll play the game however you want. If I’m having fun, I may even buy an item or two from your shop. If it is not my cup of tea, I will simply stop playing. That’s the sort of devil-may-care attitude one gets from having literally nothing invested.
Where I draw the line is at games being set online with no benefit to the players. With its hefty price tag of 60$, Simcity constitutes a perfect example of this despite EA’s claims to the contrary. While it’s true that no city grows in a vacuum and that what happens to your neighbours will likely affect your own town, the developers fail to mention that, in previous installments, your hamlet already had four computer-controlled municipalities adjacent to it. These games worked perfectly fine without a multiplayer component.
Of course, as I stated earlier, live players are often better than computers, but will it be the case here? I don’t believe so. You see, Simcity 2013 offers no protection against idiots. Imagine finding the perfect spot for your city only for it to be surrounded by “Bonerland”, “I-Am-Awesome-Ville”, and “Insert-Mispelled-Racial-Slur-Tropolis” moments later. Impropriety of this nature hinders one’s immersion into the game. Would you enjoy playing Simcity if you received constant trade requests from “Penis-Super-Cool-Guay-Is-Sin-Burgh”?
Even if you’re lucky enough to build your town near people who didn’t spend three days thinking of a pun with the word “Holocaust”, you still have no assurance as to their gameplay. Maybe their slums’ crime rate and pollution will encroach on your municipality or their multiple nuclear plants will go Chernobyl on you. Alternatively, maybe their perfect megalopolises will completely inhibit your settlement’s growth. The advantage of having computer-controlled neighbors is that you can customise your experience by adjusting their difficulty levels.
The biggest problem with forced online play, though, is that consumers end up at the mercy of EA in regard to how long the service will last. Some of you might remember my similar outrage at Diablo III’s own Internet imposition. However, I must admit that Blizzard has a good track record when it comes to keeping their titles available. Even after 15 years and two sequels, the original Diablo is still available on Battle.net despite it having been removed from stores. EA, on the other hand, is notorious for cutting online support from games it deems no longer popular. What is a naturally nostalgic gamer like myself to do?
Hey, I could be wrong. Maybe Simcity 2013 will have good monitoring and disruptive gameplay will be snuffed out. Maybe you’ll be able to move your city around when the conditions become unbearable. Maybe the servers will stay up forever. The question remains, though, why make the game online only? We could all have our cake and eat it too if EA integrated two modes: one online, which would be set in a virtual country filled with player-generated cities, and one offline, which would surround your creation with computer-controlled cities. One mode would probably offer a better experience than the other, but at least you’d get to choose.
Of course, the real reason Simcity 2013 will be playable online only can be summed up in three letters: DRM, otherwise known as digital rights management. Forget the developers’ dubious promise of a better experience. This is about copy protection and EA once again confusing its legitimate client base with the criminals pirating their property. The latter, in fairness, do exist, but part of me wonders if the company will ever learn from its mistakes. In 2008, Spore was released with one of the most restrictive DRM of its time. Players were incensed, and the title became the most pirated game that year. It’ll be interesting to see the effects this policy will have on the revival of the Simcity franchise.