Tobold's Blog
Thursday, March 07, 2013
A question of competence

Last night I "preordered" SimCity, hours before release. Origin promised me a €20 coupon, which turned out to be a scam: Reading the small print it turned out that it was only valid for 3 weeks, and not usable for any new games, and non-EA games, any DLC, any SWTOR purchases, or anything else remotely useful. But as I wanted to play SimCity even at full price, and the pricing strategy of previous Maxis games suggests that they don't lower their prices anytime soon, I was okay with paying €60 for this game. I then preloaded the game, which went extremely fast (I have 30 MB/s VDSL).

So everything was ready this morning for the game to start. Only that of course it didn't: Servers were busy, as expected, the same problem as with the US release. On Metacritic SimCity has a critics score of 91, and a user score of 2.7, with hundreds of people giving the game a 0 score for simply not running. While that of course doesn't tell us anything about the quality of the game itself, it is true that for anybody who is prevented by server problems to play SimCity, the value of the game goes towards zero, and the high critics score is a joke. The only positive point up to now with SimCity is that the error message clearly states that it is the server that isn't available, which is a step up from getting an unclear "Error 37" message.

Now Napoleon said "Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.". And on reading all the rants about EA and SimCity, I very much felt that people were complaining about the wrong thing. The problem is not that SimCity has always-online DRM disguised as a multiplayer feature. The problem is that EA, like many other online game companies, is unable to provide stable servers on release day. The always-online DRM is a widely publicized feature, and anybody who doesn't have a stable internet connection will be aware of this and simply not buy the game, just like he won't buy World of Warcraft or League of Legends. The incompetence of EA on the other hand is hitting the people who spent money with the reasonable expectation of being allowed to play the game they bought.

Some people will say that it isn't reasonable to expect an online game to run on release day. I don't agree with that. Just because incompetence is widespread, that doesn't mean that customers have to put up with it. The game companies have no problem of charging me either in advance or the moment I buy the game, so unless they are willing to postpone taking my money, I don't see why I should have to postpone my expectation to be able to play the game.

I am not a network engineer or anything, but I am pretty sure that with all the cloud computing going on it is possible to rent extra server capacity and bandwidth for some time. So why *design* the network architecture of a game for the inevitable first-day / first-week rush, using some rented added capacity? Just like a retailer might hire additional temp staff for the Black Friday shopping rush, I think it is reasonable for me as a customer to expect that a game company is taking such measures to deal with foreseeable rushes.

I do think that once game companies become more competent with having servers up and running in a stable manner, the discussion on always-online DRM will change. There are a *lot* of people these days for which it simply makes no difference whether a game requires an internet connection or not, provided that the game servers are up. And while the detractors will make unverifiable claims that "DRM doesn't work", it is rather obvious that as long as a significant part of a game is server-side (which appears to be the case for SimCity), piracy will be much reduced by always-online DRM. Which is good for honest customers in the long run. But it requires more technical competence for the companies that went from selling games as a product to selling games as a service. They need to be able to provide that service to succeed.

The answer to the "why?" is most likely that it's more profitable to let the game be unplayable for a large part of the customers the first few days then it is to spend money on extra capacity.

While plenty of people get upset that they can´t play the game they payed for the times when it leads to something that actually has a negative affect on the publisher economically is few and far between. After all, if you want to play Sim City you give your money to EA or you don´t play.
Here is a good read about the whole gameplay vs service thing:

In these days of scalable cloud based solutions we should not run into these issues, but it doesn't surprise me that we do.
The problem for the always online providers (is that the right term?) is that users will associate always online DRM with an initial bad experience. The more this happens, and the longer it takes to get it right, the worse the perception will be and it may take many years to overcome. What will that do to future sales, specifically the future sales of IPs that are being bolluxed up now?

I think Daniel has a good point here too. For a game like SimCity or Diablo 3 that doesn't depend on ongoing subscriptions, all the publisher cares about it the initial sales rush.

The developers I expect hate the negative press about the game they've poured out their blood, sweat, and tears. But the bean counters? I suspect they care far less about customers not being able to log in. Hey the players have already spent their money after all.

And from my perspective here in Australia, game developers do their patching on Tuesday nights from 7:30pm. If I'm playing a single player game? I expect to be able to play whenever I want.

Patches and downtime are fine for MMORPGs or other multiplayer games. If it's single player that's not acceptable. I want to be able to choose when I update it.

@Wivelrod -- I doubt that game publishers have moved into the cloud or scalable web services in any great numbers yet. Game devs can be notoriously slow to adopt new technologies. I remember game devs arguing that C++ was too slow and the only way to code was in C. And the same when talking about game dev in Java and C#. These same devs are now in charge of teams, so I expect that attitude to remain.
It is a massive pain when non-SimCity services are also disrupted. When I couldn't play Diablo I tried to log into WoW, and that is when I figured out that error 37 actually meant "Whoops, Blizzard have accidentally DoS'ed themselves."

Cloud services are not a perfect solution. Theoritically they give you infinate capacity but at the cost of losing complete control of your servers, increased hardware and system bugs and additional security issues. Try telling the money people that you want to transfer bits of your source code to an outside company just to cope with a busy couple of days.

I am in favour of a paid (or pre-order) head-start. It spreads out the spike and makes the load more managable.
It does seem big publishers are not using cloud servers. I recently saw a show on Gamebreakers (Monty's Minute) with a guy who works in the industry and people can ask him questions. He basically said the only devs that use the cloud are indie or mobile devs. All the big devs and publishers still use their own servers in a third-party server farm/warehouse. They are slower to catch on. I guess the only good thing is eventually the publishers will catch on.
The big publishers have enough resources to create their own cloud services, or at least partner with another company to provide the hardware. Once you have that, you don't have to worry about finding outside services to rent. You just scale up using available to capacity.

If all your games are on your own cloud, scaling is easy as some games will scale down and other scale up.
@Thander: Halo 4 actually uses Azure, which makes sense when your parent company owns it.

However, having capacity available is one thing. It's a whole another ballgame to make your architecture robust enough that you can scale any part of it. Frequently developers don't realize what the bottlenecks could be until their code runs with real-world loads. That's why public betas and headstart programs are extremely valuable, even if no gameplay changes can or will be implemented before release.
@Daniel: We've been hearing about how most EA titles have been "under-performing" in EA earnings calls. We've also seen recent news articles about EA stock taking a nosedive. This is also not the first time that forum posters everywhere have stated they will never purchase another EA product.

Most of the posts are pure hype, but I know that if I'm on the fence about a title the EA logo is enough to say "We're done here." I know EA is working on Mass Effect 4 and Dragon Age 3, and I have no plans to buy either of them.

It just amazes me that the bad press and the lousy sales seem to be completely unrelated events to EA executives. "Competence" is not a word I associate with EA.
Tobold I am sorry but I really can't agree with you. And please don't compare WoW or LoL with Sim City. These are online-only games, meaning they are supposed to be played with people and built around the concept of "community".

Sim City -as well as Diablo- was and still should be a single player, with an OPTIONAL multiplayer component.

Every company is jumping on the "social" train because of convenience. But there are a LOT of pissed players who don't give a damned shi*t about "who is online".

Sim City would be a perfect game to play alone, on your own, at your own peace. Also when you travel, are on holidays or simply when you want, even without connection.

Paying 60$ and being forced to stay online "because social is cool" is stupid and is a clear way to annoy customers. This is not a "social" game, not at its core.
Not to mention that forcing your connection is yet-another way to track your habits on a daily basis.

I can't really understand how people can gracefully accept this forced procedure. Going online is cool and all but it's not like every single gamer is a community-whore who loves sharing, clicking "LIKE" buttons an so on.
Paying 60$ and being forced to stay online "because social is cool" is stupid

That is not why you are forced to stay online. You are forced to stay online because a game is more profitable if of 100 people playing in, 99 pay, and 1 plays for free on a crappy emulated server, than if 1 customer pays and 99 play without paying. And if a game is more profitable, the game company survives, and makes a sequel, and other games, benefiting their legal customers as well as their shareholders. Anything else is just marketing talk.

While plenty of people get upset that they can´t play the game they payed for the times when it leads to something that actually has a negative affect on the publisher economically is few and far between.

You are thinking too short term here. I am pretty sure that Blizzard for example has hurt the Diablo brand to a degree that a Diablo 4 would sell significantly less. If EA doesn't get SimCity up and running fast, their next always online Sims game will also sell less.
You are forced to stay online because a game is more profitable if of 100 people playing in, 99 pay, and 1 plays for free on a crappy emulated server, than if 1 customer pays and 99 play without paying.

Well, guess what? Looking back it seems that good games always managed to pull in profit, even if they were not forcing you to be constantly online.

BTW reading the descritpion, I'll repeat what I posted on Azuriel's blog: it makes simcity the equivalent to any of those flash-based games which run in your browser and which are bound to vanish at the producer's whim. I.e. another game I can definitely do without. I'll stick to Settlers Online, which requires me to be online, but costs 0E.

I don't agree. Being online does not mean "make profit". There are tons of titles (even from indie developers) who made tons of cash by simply offering a great game/experience to their customers.

The real problem here... is that you're forced to give money to EA (which already has a horrible reputation) and then you're tied to them forever. Because you do not own the game. They do. And let you play (when they want).

And here we have yet another example of horrible assistance, please read it to the end:

We must fight against this attitude. And avoiding EA games is a good way to show your power.
Look at this. Good stuff means you make money. A lot of money.

Over 7 years GMod has made about 22 million dollars. Twenty-two. And it's just a mod for an old game based on Source engine.

Players should stop feeding big companies "because yes". When a game is clearly stupid (bad code, bad drm, bad community, bad customer support, ... whatever) WE should simply avoid them and never forget how they consider us.
The thing about 'games as a service' is that it isn't exactly the customer who's being served by the process. It's the publisher.

It's an obvious shift, the publishers telling customers, "The focus of your gaming experience isn't about you. It's about us." D3's loot table was adjusted to force folks into the AH, undoubtedly a decision forced onto Design by Corporate.

'Always On' requirements in a game that does not benefit from it in any way at all (please note: I'm not saying it doesn't benefit from a multiplayer option - I'm saying it doesn't benefit from multiplayer being non-optional), is a corporate decision, forced onto design to implement.

It's transparent, it's ugly, it's disrespectful, and it's being called out for that, not because we're not always online anyway.
AAAAAND we're back to my original post: IF the SimCity servers were up, nobody would claim SimCity was a bad game, in spite of the DRM which only hurts the pirates. Thus you agree that in that case we should give our money to EA, because they made a good game.
Actually of those that are playing, the reviews are a mixed bag. Smaller cities (towns), deceptive UIs, odd management options and a dependence on other cities is taking people off-guard, compared to previous versions.

I think this will end up pushing more people to play something like CitiesXL, just like Torchlight2 got a push from the Diablo3 fiasco.
I would. That is I would still claim SimCity was a bad game, not give my money to EA.

If an otherwise good game contains even one feature which - in your opinion - makes it game-breaking, then that makes that game a bad game. Ergo, for me, being an online-only game makes SimCity a bad game.
IF the SimCity servers were up, nobody would claim SimCity was a bad game, in spite of the DRM which only hurts the pirates.

Apart from the logical fallacy, I mean, if my grandma had wings she'd be a Boeing 747.....

.....I would not have bought it after reading that it needs an internet connection and that my savegames are staying on their server. I still have the old simcity games and they still run fine (ok, ok your mileage may vary on this point :). I don't mind a multiplayer game requiring me to be online, but single-player?

This is the reason I skipped Spore as well: I got the demo, fired it up and nothing happened except 1 million lines appearing in my firewall's log. Uh? Nowhere in the installer or on the webpage it was saying it needed an internet connection, so I deleted it and good bye. It's not ME making money from selling games, and I'll certainly find other ways to spend my euros (and other games to waste my time). Their loss.
I reserve the right to say it's a bad game, even if the servers were still up. I'm still testing and looking into things, but there are a lot of issues with the game.

My more successful cities have massive job under-utilization, with barely half the number of workers to job openings. Almost twice as much freight needing to be consumed as produced to keep producers from going out of business. The ratio of different wealth residences just feels off, the same land area can hold some amount of low wealth or only a quarter of that amount of medium wealth people.

Upgrading roads seems to cause more not fewer traffic problems, as the increased density seems to add more people to the buildings on the road than it increases the capacity of the road.

I can already tell I'm going to be having more fun exploring screw-ups in the simulation than building cities. Seriously, I love this stuff. Explorer-gamer type here.

Do factories/mines/power-plants/etc really produce the same amount of freight/goods/whatever regardless of how many people are working in it? As long as I have even one worker at it, of any of the wealths it takes, it seems to have full production. Low wealth parks seem to satisfy low wealth shoppers, but, medium wealth parks don't satisfy medium wealth shoppers. They need medium wealth goods from medium wealth commercial with delivered freight. So what's the point of low wealth commercial? The parks charge money for happiness, without needing freight. And why does a house send its workers to a commercial building next door over to work, but send it's shoppers halfway across the city looking for a different commercial to shop at?

Is happiness even important? It looks like it only is progress towards the next density.

All this and also the map is really small. SimNeighborhood is more appropriate.
Have to confess, whenever I see someone whining about online-only, all I hear is 'Unfair! I wanted to pirate it and they won't let me play for free!'

Even if there is a small portion of people that object to it as a matter of principle, or that have unusual situations where they don't have an always on internet connection, I'm sure the majority of the whiners just don't want to have to pay. But not exactly something you can easily collect data on.

Always online is the last refuge of developers to deal with massive amounts of immoral thieves who want to play without paying. When there are server problems, blame the pirates who cause the need for servers, not the company responding to that need.
You’re back to making the assumption that the existence of piracy, on any level, means that stricter, more intrusive DRM is justified.

We’re already seeing plenty of examples where large and small companies alike are trending toward DRM-free content, so thankfully this view is not shared by everyone. Google and Amazon music stores offer high quality, DRM-free music. This would have been unheard of several years ago.

And what about the Humble Bundles? I see that after being up for just a couple of days, the current bundle is nearing $800,000 in revenue. Not only are those games all DRM-free, but you can pay whatever you want for them!
And what about the Humble Bundles? I see that after being up for just a couple of days, the current bundle is nearing $800,000 in revenue. Not only are those games all DRM-free, but you can pay whatever you want for them!

Yes, and in spite of that the Humble Bundle is being pirated. To save one penny. How much higher do you think piracy rates are for games that cost more than one cent?
I don't think the cost savings necessarily equates to piracy rates. Even at the price point of 1 penny, pirates will pirate, as sad as that is. Some people simply won't pay for games that they can get for free, and that applies to indie games and $60 premium titles alike. Those people can't be counted as lost revenue; they never would have spent money in the first place.

The real question is, would the Humble Bundle have taken in more revenue if instead it was using some type of always-online DRM model? Or perhaps charged a more reasonable flat fee for its games instead of a pay-what-you-want model? I'm just not sure.
The online-only DRM makes a game bad in any case. Unless the online factor it's a core part of the game (LoL, WoW, MMO's in general).
@Tobold said: AAAAAND we're back to my original post: IF the SimCity servers were up, nobody would claim SimCity was a bad game, in spite of the DRM which only hurts the pirates. Thus you agree that in that case we should give our money to EA, because they made a good game.

But you're missing one crucial aspect here. A game is not just gameplay, and it's not just reliability, it's a combination of all things that make it up.

SimCity is the sum of its parts, gameplay, graphics, and DRM.

No one would claim that the game with the best gameplay in the world would be a great game if it was riddle with bugs. It would be universally condemned as a game with potential that missed the mark.

SimCity might have marvelous gameplay, but it also has bugs, and this nasty bit of always online DRM that is preventing players from playing. It is also a leap back from its predecessors; the maps are much smaller and well loved features have been removed.

It's clear that this is a game that had potential but missed the mark.
I didn't buy Diablo III, didn't buy SimCity and while I'm sane I'm never buying "you pay us $60 and if our servers are down it's your problem" type of game.
I also hope that SimCity makes a big enough scandal to topple always-online DRM. A bit naive, I know, but nonetheless...
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