March 13, 2013
Part of me is glad I missed the launch nightmare of the latest SimCity game. I own a Mac, and we have to wait until "spring 2013" for the Mac version to arrive. Considering how many hours I spent playing SimCity 4 on a Windows machine back in the day, I can tell you that I would have spent all weekend ignoring the outside world and playing that game.
Alas, I got the yard mowed. I also didn't exactly have $60 at the time for the game, but that ruins my story.
A little background for the non-initiated: SimCity is a the latest version of a very popular game franchise started by Maxis and now owned by Electronic Arts. The previous version, SimCity 4, came out 10 years ago, which is an eternity in digital products. I think the word "Pentium" still meant something, nobody would know what an iPhone was for three years. The iTunes Store was launched in April 2003.
SimCity 4 was great, potentially endless fun before World of Warcraft convinced us to shell out $15/month. I believe it was the first version to allow you to move your zoned land four squares away from roads instead of the previous three. This also meant new buildings that would show up taking a 4x4 space. The Rush Hour expansion let you hop into a car, train, helicopter or other vehicle and complete missions inside your city, sometimes for rewards such as a military base.
Each version of the game I have played has been a huge improvement over the last. I think part of my love and understanding for political news comes from this game series. It gives you the best simulation of managing a city outside of actually doing it, and it comes with the bonus of starting over from scratch if you let aliens invade your city and wipe out civilization.
Now for the part of me that's glad I didn't buy the game.
The 2013 SimCity, released last week, has been plagued by, well, a traffic jam. Too much data traffic hit EA's central servers, and a connection to them is a requirement for this new game even if you're just playing a localized game without the need for any Internet-based features.
This is apparently a new thing many games are doing, although even I had little idea because it's usually transparent. If your connection is quick enough, you'll just see a box on numerous games saying it's connecting to a server. What many of them now do is verify that your game is legit and not a fraud copy. It's the dreaded phrase for anybody who loves advances in digital media: Digital Rights Management.
DRM was the bane of music buyers' existence on music for a number of years. In the post-Napster world of legal music purchases through iTunes, Apple had DRM on its music until 2009. This limited what devices it could be used on if you chose to go with another digital music player, and you were limited to the number of devices upon which you could play the music.
So it went away on music. But it's still just about everywhere else. You will never see Blu-ray drives on Macs because of the complicated DRM mess the technology uses to supposedly keep people from copying movies. But I'm guessing the majority of people who would abuse copying movies and TV shows have found a way around it because, well, it's just software. If China can hack into our government's computers, someone somewhere has figured out how to bypass DRM on Blu-ray Disc.
So now EA requires you to connect to its server even if you want to play a game all by yourself. I'm sure that won't make people curse the game one day if you lose your Internet connection for a weekend and are looking for something to do. That happened to me a couple of months ago, and it was first-world painful.
I wish these big media companies would figure out that your customers will probably be about as criminal as you treat them. There are plenty of software developers who create apps and games for free and will just ask you for donations through PayPal to support their work. If they make something good enough, a human usually feels the need to help that person out. That obviously wouldn't be a good model for a huge game like SimCity, but it makes me wonder how much all these extra servers and the free games given out as an apology are costing versus the insanely small loss done by people bootlegging the game.
I'm certainly not naive enough to believe DRM will go away on games any time soon. But perhaps the people making these decisions to reinvent the wheel will understand the long game of customer satisfaction and not the short game of "nobody stole our stuff!" If nobody is trying to steal your stuff, maybe it's not that good. After all, I haven't heard about any cases of stolen Microsoft Surface tablets.
Michael Buckelew is a copy editor for the Gwinnett Daily Post. Email him at email@example.com.