5 Lessons and Predictions from the SimCity Debacle

SimCity LogoEven if you don’t play video games or closely follow video game news, you’ve likely heard at least something about the recent launch of SimCity by EA. The recent launch has been such a disaster that, even during my recent week away in Philadelphia, almost completely unplugged from my usual sources of copyright news, I was bombarded by questions and those interested in the case.

Basically, on March 5th Electronic Arts (EA) released SimCity, sometimes called SimCity 2013, which is the latest game in the SimCity franchise. However, unlike the 1989 original, the latest featured more than new options and graphics, it required that players have an always-on Internet connection and always be connected to EA’s servers in order to play, even if they were just playing a single-player game.

While such systems are becoming fairly common in PC gaming, they’ve always been met with resistance, especially when technical problems limit legitimate customers from being able to play the game.sim

Such was the case with the Diablo 3 release in May 2012, which saw many users be unable to play the game, even as a single player, due to their inability to connect with that game’s servers.

However, nothing prior has reached quite the level of the SimCity debacle. Where Diablo 3’s DRM problems were intermittent, SimCity’s seem to be near-universal, preventing nearly all of the game’s players from logging in and enjoying what they purchased.

What’s followed has been nothing short of a public relations nightmare for EA. Amazon was so flooded with 1-star reviews that it halted sales of the product, horror stories of poor EA customer service have gone viral on the Web and the mainstream media has jumped on the story, calling EA’s big launch a disaster.

EA, for its part, has tried to placate customers. It’s already promised a free game to customers affected by the trouble and has said that it’s working on improving server capacity constantly. However, the company stopped short of saying that it would “offline” the game, meaning that it will not it playable without an Internet connection. Instead, EA only said it would “look into that as part of our earning back your trust efforts.”

But as frustrating as the situation is for those who purchased SimCity and want to play it, the case provides some interesting lessons, many of which can be of use to content creators of all stripes.

So, with that being said, here are five copyright-related lessons that can be gleaned from this disaster.

1. Always-On DRM Isn’t Ready

Simcity ErrorThis one should be pretty obvious, but it bears repeating. Always-on DRM is simply not ready for widespread use. Though it’s tempting to think of the Internet as being ubiquitous, especially with mobile broadband technology, nothing could be farther from the truth.

There may well be a time when such DRM schemes are fine and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect someone to always be able to reach your servers to use a product, but the Internet isn’t ready for that yet. Bandwidth and servers are still too expensive to have the needed amount and connections are still too unreliable.

This may change, but for the foreseeable future, always-on DRM is dead in the water as a practical solution.

2. DRM as a Selling Point

For a long time now, smaller content creators have used DRM-free and limited-DRM offerings as a means to add value to their offerings. The Humble Bundle, Avalanche Studios (the makers of Just Cause 2) and others have long capitalized on their limited or lack of use of DRM to promote their products.

This is likely to grow in the wake of the SimCity debacle. Users will be very wary about purchasing and playing a game that requires an always-on Internet connection so this could present an interesting opportunity for independent developers to differentiate themselves.

The major developers, especially those already widely using such always-on DRM aren’t likely to stop any time soon. Not only are they risk-averse and unwilling to invest money in a game without some protection, these developers have already begun several projects that are built around these technologies, including integrating online elements into all elements of gameplay.

As serious as this debacle has been for EA, even if there is a complete change of heart, it will likely be some time before these larger companies are able to move away from aggressive DRM completely.

3. However, DRM Isn’t Everything

Even though SimCity is a game with abysmal reviews and it’s a game many, if not most, of its buyers have been largely unable to play to their satisfaction, the game has still sold incredibly well. Though weekly sales data is not available yet for the week of the game’s launch, SimCity has remained at number one on Amazon as of this writing outselling all other games on any platform despite its sales being temporarily halted.

Though much of this can be attributed to presales, which were strong for SimCity, the game continues to do well despite its issues.

Clearly, while DRM is an issue and plays a great role in determining whether or not players enjoy a game (or are even able to play it), it’s not a strong enough factor to dissuade customers from buying a highly-anticipated game, such as SimCity.

In short, SimCity will still likely be a financial success, despite its DRM troubles.

4. DRM is a Support Nightmare

One of the interesting side-issues with the EA/SimCity debacle has been how the problems have stretched their tech support staff and tested the policies.

Tales of horrific support from EA are legion and EA’s policy of no refunds for digital works has come under fire. If a company as large as EA has proved unable to handle the tech support challenges by such aggressive DRM, what hope is there for a smaller company, let alone a sole creator, to do the same?

In short, when you introduce DRM, in particular strong DRM, into a product, whether a video game, movie, ebook or website, you create tech support issues that you need to deal with and be prepared to handle.

5. You Can’t Easily Backtrack a Bad Decision

Finally, EA’s responses make it clear that, despite a great deal of pressure, it will not be “offlining” SimCity. However, even if it did want to, it probably couldn’t.

The reason is that the entire game was built with the always-online component in mind and, much as with Diablo 3, even the single player campaign has elements of a multiplayer online game. Taking the game offline would likely involve a great deal of work to patch the game for such a mode.

But even if it were trivial, while it might appease some customers, it also means backing away from that strategy completely. This means, even if technology does reach a point such systems are net positives for users, adding more features and creating fewer problems, EA would find it almost impossible to implement.

Furthermore, such a move would do nothing to address the problems that have already been been experienced and can’t go back in time and restore the gameplay that’s already been missed.

In short, offlining SimCity doesn’t actually fix the bad experiences people have had to date, doesn’t erase the bad reviews or eradicate the bad press.

They can’t fix the mistakes they’ve made. Their offer of a free game does as much to repair anything as offlining the game, meaning almost nothing.

Bottom Line

The simple truth is this: Good DRM is invisible to the legitimate user. Great DRM actually improves the user experience.

I’ve already touted Steam as a great DRM solution that actually adds benefits to users, but it’s not the only way such a solution can be executed.

SimCity, like Diablo 3, attempted to do something similar with always-on DRM, adding multiplayer elements to single player games as a means of both applying a level of protection and giving the player an improved experience. However, the execution of those elements, namely because of technical issues, has created a drawback that far exceeds any benefit.

Whether or not SimCity’s DRM approach was a good idea or not is irrelevant, its execution was terrible and that is what others will remember.

As such, it’s important for content creators, large and small, to be aware of the challenges that come with implementing a DRM system and making it work. it’s not enough to have good intentions when trying to find a balance, if you can’t execute properly, all of your planning and design go to waste.

And, in the end, that’s the real problem with DRM, that the intentions of the copyright holder are often lost in the execution and its the legitimate customer, not the pirate, that winds up suffering the most.

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