New SimCity online woes continue for would-be players

Many of you have probably heard of SimCity. The metropolis-building simulation/strategy game was first released in 1989 as a two-dimensional version. Created by Will Wright, it soon grew into three dimensions and became a franchise: SimEarth, SimTower, SimAnt, SimFarm, SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000, SimCity 4. Finally, there’s the wildly popular Sims game, in which players design SimCity inhabitants–people–and run all aspects of their virtual lives. Be a snob! A lowlife drug addict! A doctor! A sexually promiscuous woman! A college student!

Recently, after many years, Electronic Arts and its subsidiary, Maxis, announced an online version of SimCity. This being the first version in several years, there was understandably much excitement. Teaser videos had been released before, and this new version was discussed briefly here a few months ago.

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In SimCity, the disasters are supposed to be found within the game, not in attempting to play it. Credit: EA

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that it’s not possible to play the game unless you’re online. While admittedly that’s not much of a problem for the user these days, with even the slowest broadband connection being far better than the old dial-up one. The problem lies in the server space. Since every user has to be online–whether or not they’re playing with other users or just in a single-player game–this takes up server space. And, clearly, the company’s servers weren’t up for the task.

The game launched March 5. The user downloads the game and starts play…however, there are reports of many users waiting as much as a half hour just to be able to sign in. Many might still be waiting for that amazing online SimCity play experience that was first promised them…doubtless, many have probably given up.

On Friday Kip Katsarelis, SimCity’s senior producer, posted this comment on EA’s Forums section:

We launched in North America on Tuesday and our servers filled up within a matter of hours. What we saw was that players were having such a good time they didn’t want to leave the game, which kept our servers packed and made it difficult for new players to join.

We added more servers to accommodate the launch in Australia and Japan, and then more yesterday to accommodate the launch in Europe. As of right now, we are adding even more servers which will be going live over the next three days.

Online comments have been overwhelmingly negative, as have been blog posts about the game. PCWorld‘s Jared Newman wrote on Friday:

Even if you have little interest in SimCity, it’s worth paying attention to the messy launch of the series’ long-awaited reboot. Like it or not, this is the future of large-scale video games.

For three days now, players have complained of issues connecting with SimCity’s servers. One report by YouTube personality TotalBiscuit claimed a 30-minute wait time to start playing the simulation game. Some players who managed to get online have lost progress in the game due to connectivity issues, according to Polygon. Players have also been kicked out of their games, and have been forced to wait 20 minutes after each failed connection.

A few month’s ago, EA’s Maxis studio told PC Gamer why the game is so reliant on centralized servers. Because each city is part of a larger connected region that has overarching factors such as pollution, crime and shared resources, the game needs to live online to keep the entire region in sync. It also takes a massive amount of computing power to process all that data. Hence the assist from the cloud.

Of course, this explanation has done little to pacify longtime fans, who liked SimCity just fine without a huge, network-connected infrastructure—especially when the game they’ve been waiting years to play just doesn’t work. A good sampling of the outrage can be found on EA’s SimCity Facebook page, where every update from the company is met with a flood of angry comments. The inevitable Change.org petition to provide an offline mode now is nearing 2,500 signatures as of this writing. (Players have complained of other issues as well, such as limitations on the single-player portion of the game that seem designed to push people toward multiplayer.)

TechHive‘s Nick Ralph had this to say:

At first, I was one of the lucky ones. Like so many others I dutifully signed on to EA’s Origin service at 9 o’clock Tuesday night and started downloading SimCity. An hour or so later, I was in. Mostly—I had to wait a few minutes for a spot to open up on the U.S. west coast servers, as cities (even single-player games) must be created and maintained on EA’s servers. But then I was in: laying down roads, propping up buildings and watching my Sims totter off to work and play until the wee hours of the morning. And it was good—for a little while.

The last three days have been rough. EA’s servers have struggled to keep up with the legions of SimCity fans that have waited nigh on a decade to climb back into the mayor’s saddle. And while problematic opening days are common in the massively multiplayer online gaming space, SimCity’s general failure to launch sets a troubling precedent for PC gaming.

I should’ve been ready for this. I’m an MMO fan; they’re my gaming “genre” of choice, as I’m generally smitten by the idea of cooperative and competitive play with friends and strangers from around the world. I am, in short, the new SimCity’s target audience: equipped with a fast PC and stable internet connection and willing to abandon the classic, sprawling megalopolises for a chance at getting together with like-minded chums and carving a thriving nation-state out of the digital soil. Besides, this is probably the closest I’ll ever get to a massively-multiplayer Dwarf Fortress that the hoi polloi would actually want to play with me.

The SimCity series has undergone some dramatic changes in the spirit of making it a massively multiplayer experience. Cities are smaller, and all but require you to coordinate with a number of cities across a single region to thrive. But for many players, Sim City will always be a single-player experience—even I’ve kept my first region private to work out the revamped mechanics and establish a game plan before branching out into the world. The online-only requirement is onerous enough, but when lifelong fans of a series—many of whom wouldn’t consider themselves gamers in the traditional sense—can’t sit down and quickly revisit the pleasant memories they’ve been harboring since 1989, the franchise suffers.

And so I find myself here, after 10 years of waiting for a follow up to SimCity 4, cobbling together a disgruntled screed while nebulous “unable to connect” messages pop up and prevent me from returning to my fledgling metropolis. I was planning on writing up some tips for helping longtime fans and new players get acclimated to all of the changes—I have notes, on post-its! I’d gone so far as to show off my cities to classic SimCity fans who don’t play games regularly in the hopes they’d buy the game and take up mayorships in my region.

Now I’m telling them to stay away, and wait for server issues to peter out; but who’s to say they’ll even still be interested in a week, or a month, or however long this all takes.

Here’s the worst part: one of the greatest PC gaming franchises has been laid low, and it’s too late to turn back the tide. Once some sort of server equilibrium is reached and EA dismisses the rough launch as the typical “birthing pangs” associated with any new internet-connected title, we’ll still have that sour taste in our mouths. At any moment, through no fault of our own, we could lose progress in a game—or lose access to it altogether—because a server somewhere collapsed, or was shut down. Instead of celebrating a promising rebirth (and fleshing out things I won’t have space to dive into on my forthcoming review), I get to join the horde of disappointed fans.

SimCity isn’t the first PC game to be saddled with always-online requirements (though companies like Ubisoft have since backpedaled on the  practice), and it won’t be the last. Consumers can always vote with their wallets: the new Sim City is currently one of the lowest rated products on Amazon, and the retailer went so far as to temporarily stop selling digital copies of SimCity for a time (though it’s available again, as of right now). But my inner cynic tells me that EA might just translate poor sales as a lack of interest in the franchise, and potentially kill off the series altogether.

Ultimately, no one wins.

I’m very sad to see this happen to my favorite computer game. I echo his sentiments about users getting fed up and not returning, even after the problem has been fixed.

It’s like a car that breaks down often…you can’t trust it anymore, you’re just waiting for it to happen again. So it is with the new online SimCity game: when will you be kicked off next, how long will it take you to reconnect, and how much of your city–if any–will be waiting for you when you finally get there?

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