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SimCity's launch debacle and the specter of DRM

No, this is not a rant about SimCity and always-online DRM. No, seriously, it's not!

(Kris Graft is EIC of Gamasutra, and currently waiting in a SimCity server queue.)

Instead of actually playing SimCity (I've only been able to get in a few times), I opt to live vicariously through the people of Twitter, who at this very moment are probably complaining about server queues. This way, I've been able get all of the drama without the personal strife.

It's interesting seeing all of the reaction. There are a lot of different components to this ongoing launch debacle that speak to larger game industry issues, but the one that unsurprisingly has come up over and over is the specter of always-online DRM, a strict form of software protection that, if it were a human, would kick puppies. Probably.

As games-as-a-service models continue to proliferate, SimCity reinforces the argument that it's not DRM itself that is the bane of video games, but poorly-implemented DRM.

But it's not as simple as, "SimCity requires an internet connection, so therefore EA and Maxis are bad and evil." I think it's a shame that SimCity is coming apart at the seams, because the team at Maxis actually seems to have really thought about how constant connectivity can serve the gameplay. If you're going to require DRM, it needs to add value to the user experience, and if you look past the terrible launch, you can see that's what Maxis was striving for. Look at Steam, Minecraft or for that matter, video game consoles. As you all know, these are walled gardens, and the benefits of playing within these walled gardens generally outweigh the benefits of navigating the jungle that exists outside of those walls.

With any well-designed online-only game or free-to-play mobile game, for example, you want to connect to official servers. When DRM is transparent and adds value to the experience, even the hardest-core anti-DRM zealot wants eat up that DRM--that deliciously sweet, invisible DRM. That's because the best forms of DRM add enjoyment to the experience. In the best DRM scenarios, a game's design and the intended experience drives the implementation of DRM, and not the other way around.

Even though Origin, online connectivity and games-as-a-service are top-down initiatives handed down from the upper echelons of EA management, the designers at Maxis have done a great job with the online components of SimCity. Unfortunately, players can only experience that loveliness when they actually can get online.

SimCity is an example of great ideas and pristine design, executed within the confines of an overarching online business strategy. Unfortunately, the infrastructure clearly failed that business strategy, and therefore it fails the people who actually created the game, and ultimately the players.

Even though players are brimming with righteous wrath, clearly there's also a misalignment between the final product and player expectations, which has fueled anger. SimCity has traditionally been known as an offline, singleplayer affair. Now there's this newfangled online requirement thingy (DRM! ARGH!) that's ruining everyone's fun.

But many of the DRM-related complaints about SimCity, at their root, aren't really about DRM at all. They're simply manifestations of frustration with the simple fact that you can't play the game you bought. If the always-on connection served the experience in the way Maxis intended, only the biggest anti-DRM zealots would be complaining. When I boot up a PlayStation 3 or when Steam loads up and connects to the internet (Steam does have an offline mode, of course), people generally don't have the strong desire to take to Twitter and bash DRM. Why is that? It's because that DRM--and all "good" DRM--is invisible.

As much as a fiasco the SimCity launch has been, when you think about it, there are much better examples of truly Draconian DRM, even in recent times (by the way, the internet loves to call any kind of DRM "Draconian"). Remember when GameMaker's DRM went berserk and defaced devs' sprites? Or at one time, pretty much any Ubisoft PC game? Those were severe forms of DRM that were actually designed to punish people. Those forms of DRM were meant to be hulking bodyguards, totally in your face and ready to put you in a half-nelson if you even peeked at their digital rights. I don't really think Maxis and SimCity have taken that tack.

But in the end, whether or not Maxis had good intentions when implementing its always-online requirement is irrelevant when customers cannot play the game that they bought. After all, the road to hell (and bad DRM) is paved with good intentions and all that.

Once all of this stuff is ironed out, and this botched launch disappears from the rearview, I think SimCity will be thought of fondly, because in many respects, the implementation of an online requirement is meant to serve the core gameplay experience, unlike some other recent examples. For now, I guess I'll wait in a server queue while I read people snark about it on Twitter.

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