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DRM: What We Can Learn From Simcity’s Mistake

SimCity 5

DRM. Three letters that send fear into the heart of gamers everywhere. For anyone who didn’t know (or couldn’t be bother to find out) DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, or translated into layman’s terms: “we are going to make sure you have to be online in order to play this game, because that way you can’t just copy it 1000 times and we can make sure we get lots more money”.

As you can see, there are two sides to the issue. On the one hand, forcing people to utilise an online connection to play your game is fraught with issues; You are excluding players who have no internet, or an unreliable connection, you are forcing players to have online latency issues, and to play the game through external servers which can have problems of their own, and you are possibly excluding players from regions of the world where there are no servers – as their connection is likely to be suboptimal.

On the other hand, having an online only experience can guarantee a certain quality of life; bugs are certain to be fixed quickly and accurately, playing with other people is almost a necessity and is generally easier to do, there are no hacks or cheats and most people you run into will be general fans of the game because they forked up the money to buy it.

Choosing between the two is difficult, and really comes down to what kind of game you are putting out into the world. MMORPGs have always been online only as its necessary for the kind of gameplay they are promoting. As it’s designed as a multiplayer game from the get go, having to go online to experience multiple players makes sense. This is a good thing.

Whereas if you are making a game around a large single player experience , which has optional multiplayer elements – lets pick a random example, like say, Diablo 3 – making it online only could very quickly piss off your entire community. As we saw in the launch fiasco Diablo 3 suffered just under a year ago.

Simcity lies around the middle of a scale from Diablo 3 to Guild Wars 2. It’s a game which has been built with multiplayer from the ground up, your city is designed to need other players cities in order to survive, but it's a franchise which has traditionally been about its singleplayer – and this is where existing fans start to get pissed off.

On top of this initial resentment, they broke the cardinal rule of launching a DRM controlled game (as Diablo 3 found out last year) have a steady launch. Instead, as with D3, their servers buckled under the stain of all the new players and thousands of people were left out in the cold. This made them angry (as they should be) and highlighted the transition from offline play to online DRM – something you really don’t want to do.

If only Simcity’s problems stopped there. Once the game was up and running, it seemed like maybe the DRM idea could be swept under the rug as people enjoyed the high quality of the gameplay and experience what had been promised to be a “high tech experience” since EA’s servers were taking the brunt of the effort – so the engine could do more with the individual players sims and make them seem more intelligent.

This theory was quickly debunked, in two different ways. Firstly, a player/hacker modded his copy so that the offline play limit (enforced at 19 minutes for other players in case a disconnection occurs) was removed. He then sat down to play the game for as long as possible before the game crashed under the pressure. Except it didn’t. He quickly found out that he could play the game offline for as long as he wanted – he just couldn’t save his progress because you can’t save while playing offline.

So, computer strain theory is out the window.

As for the supposed “intelligence” of the player sims, this was also disproved – in a way so shocking that it successfully killed any enthusiasm I personally had for this game. Instead of the sims in the city living out their peaceful little sim lives, travelling from their sim houses to their sim schools or sim jobs and then back again, yet another player noticed a disturbing fact. These sims weren’t moving from “their” houses to “their jobs” and back again – they would simply move until they found the first unoccupied job slot and then at the end of the day they would move to the nearest unoccupied house.

This results in sims which sleep in different houses every night, go to different jobs in the morning, and live with a different family virtually all the time. It even works the same way when it comes to emergency services, so all your fire trucks head to the same fire to put it out, then to the next, then to the next instead of sending three trucks to three different fires.

Some intelligent system that is.

So what do we learn from this Simcity fiasco? Well there’s two main things I think we can take away from the whole deal.

Firstly, if you are going to use DRM please have a steady launch. Otherwise people quickly lose all confidence in your ability to run your own game.

Secondly, if you are going to use DRM – don’t lie about why you are doing it. Don’t tell people it’s for a fancy new engine that they “couldn’t handle” on their computers, when this can be easily proven to be completely untrue.

Lastly, if you are going to use DRM to support a multiplayer system – make sure a multiplayer system is what the players want. While the idea that cities need to support each other with different industry developments and resources is a good one, the fact that a lot of players actually just want to build a functional city for themselves is basically the premise of your game – and the multiplayer goes completely against that.

Basically, DRM is the salt shaker when it comes to the video game industry. A little bit, applied in the right place, is good. A lot of it on the wrong dish – you’ve just ruined your meal.

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