A question of competence
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 March 2013, 2:51 am
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.
Tobold's Blog

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