Always online DRM and reviews don’t mix: SimCity edition

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SimCity has become an interesting game recently. It’s a game that was reviewed positively by a number of outlets with scores ranging in the 9s and 10s. Its current Metacritic scores are 82% by critics and 1.8 by users. Seeing the two scores could make a person think the two groups are playing two different games. They wouldn’t be completely wrong either thanks to the choice by Electronics Arts and Maxis to use the controversial “Always Online DRM” for the popular simulation game.

The disruption of the review process for publications is just the most recent problem the digital rights management (DRM) has caused. When Blizzard first announced Diablo 3 would have always-online DRM, fans were outraged that they always had to be connected to the Internet to play the game. What happens if the servers go down (which they did, especially at launch)? What about the people without proper or capped Internet connections? So much trouble to play a $60 dollar game that it begs the question: is it even worth it?

That question has become harder to answer now.

Critics at publications generally get review copies of games ahead of public release, which means they generally do not have to deal with bogged down servers and instead play the game a lot of consumers now wish they could play. As mentioned above, critics gave the game glowing reviews, which got the public excited to play the latest version of the popular city simulation. Early consumers loaded up the game all giddy, plotting out their newest dictatorship or flower power society in their heads only to find the servers having load problems. It turns out EA wasn’t ready for the popularity of SimCity on their servers at launch. $60 dollars to not be able to play a game stings the wallet.

Those reviews were glowing right? Not anymore as many of the outlets went back and changed their scores to reflect the server problems. On Polygon, the score of a 9.5, was changed to an 8 and is now a 4. The game is still great and worth the money if you can manage to log in.

So how do outlets adapt to the always-online DRM decision?

Forbes contributor, Erik Kain suggests waiting two days after launch to review games. In theory this could work but what happens when developers make changes to the game after launch? EA recently did this by disabling features that were “non-critical” to the gameplay to help relieve the servers. Amazon has also suspended digital sales of the game until the problem gets fixed.

Something that has been talked about for awhile amongst outlets is what to do with review scores and maybe it’s time to revisit those talks. A few outlets are testing a flexible review score system that allows the outlet to score a game based on whether or not it gets updated and improved upon. The problem with this system is a lot of readers do not regularly check review scores to see if a game is good or not. It’s a quick peek and then purchase or pass. Metacritic also doesn’t support flexible scores, instead favoring the first score only (Polygon is still listed as giving the game a 9.5). Why not just forget about the score and instead just tell the experience of playing the game? If the game changes dramatically, then write about the changes. This will probably never get picked up but it’s worth a suggestion.

The other option is to just review the game on public servers two weeks to a month after release. This would make previews of the game beneficial (and relevant again) as the only look at the game around launch. The alternative to this is to have publishers make the always-online games free-to-play. While that idea can work with something like Diablo 3, how do you restrict SimCity?

Then there’s the obvious answer of just not using always-online DRM in the first place.

Blizzard claimed the choice to go always-online for Diablo 3 was due to the rampant piracy and hacking that Diablo 2 suffered from. Fair enough, but now that Diablo 3 is coming to the PlayStation platform, they seemed to have changed their tune a bit as they lifted the always-online requirement from the console versions. One could argue that piracy and hacking on consoles is not as large of a problem as it is on PC and they would have a point. Will the fact that players can play the game offline affect the review score?

For Maxis though, the choice to go always-online wasn’t a about piracy, but because that’s just the way they built the game. In a statement on the SimCity website Senior VP Lucy Bradshaw had this to say on the topic:

“Trades between cities, simulation effects that cause change across the region like pollution or crime, as well as depletion of resources, are all processed on the servers and then data is sent back to your city on your PC. Every city in the region is updated every three minutes, which keeps the overall region in sync and makes your decisions in your city relevant to any changes that have taken place in the region.”

In other words, being online all the time was required to help them make their dream simulation a reality. Should ambition affect a review score?

There is one more question that begs asking in all of this: do we even count always-online DRM products as traditional games anymore?

Neither Diablo 3 nor SimCity is an MMO but they aren’t exactly traditional games anymore either. $60 seems to buy a consumer into a lifetime (that’s lifetime of the game) subscription to play one game on a server. Ten years down the road, we probably will not be able to fire up a rousing game of SimCity the same way we can SimCity 4 today. GamesBeat writer, Jeffery Grubb said it best with this gem:

“EA is selling us something that isn’t quite a game. It’s access to a game as a service.”

With that, we are left with the question of whether or not this “games as a service” thing is something that can be reviewed properly. Let us know what you think in the comment section below.

For those that would rather tell Electronics Arts upfront that always-online DRM should no longer be used, you can head over and sign this petition. At the time of writing this there are 18,468 supporters.


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  • Massacred

    Will not buy any game at all that requires online. Period.