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Maxis buries SimCity’s cheats in ‘gentler’ Sandbox Mode

SimCity 2013

Remember the first time you played a SimCity game? For the first hour or two you may have been utterly captivated by the title’s accessible yet surprisingly robust city management systems, but the odds are that it took very little time before you decided to take a wrecking ball to your nascent metropolis. Not out of spite,  but simply because blowing stuff up is endlessly entertaining, particularly when the opportunity for destruction presents itself as a swarm of angry UFOs, or a familiar (yet legally distinct) Godzilla doppelganger.

When EA announced the upcoming SimCity, it came prepared to counter doubts about the new title. You might recall a minor controversy stemming from SimCity’s need for constant access to the Internet. Fans are still a bit miffed about that one, but EA has gone on record to explain why this is both necessary and beneficial to players. That kind of transparency is appreciated, but it does nothing to answer the question of where the franchise’s awesome cheat codes have gone. It makes sense that EA would want to disable these sorts of boosts in a game that, due to its always-online nature, is nearly akin to a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game as far as EA’s attempts to police the SimCity community are concerned. The firm simply can’t allow players to have access to such a huge advantage, but EA wouldn’t dare strip out all of SimCity’s cheats, would it?

For those as worried as we are, Maxis’ lead gameplay scripter Guillaume Pierre offers a panacea. In a newly-published blog post, Pierre details the game’s “Sandbox Mode,” which he describes as “a gentler version of SimCity.” According to Pierre, when starting a new city in Sandbox Mode, players are granted “a truck-load of Simoleons” (the series’ in-game currency), the ability to pull in more cash at the touch of a button, and the power to individually turn off what Pierre calls “pushback” systems. To put it simply, this allows players to negate a large number of the game’s standard features. While a Sandbox Mode city will initially function like any other SimCity creation, if you decide you’d rather not worry about fires breaking out you can simply turn them off. Likewise, you can do the same for any of those natural disasters we mentioned above.

Unfortunately, Pierre offers no word on whether or not players will be able to spawn disasters on a whim. There’s no denial that this feature might be included in SimCity’s Sandbox Mode, but nor is there a confirmation. Pierre just skips over the topic despite how cleanly it would fit into what he’s talking about. We contacted both EA and Maxis to see if we could get official word on whether or not players will be able to summon meteor showers in SimCity and were met with what we’d officially describe as a boilerplate “no comment.” Unofficially, representatives made it seem that those particular cheats would be featured in the game, but neither they nor we can officially confirm that just yet. They’re probably in there, but don’t hold your breath.

If the above has piqued your interest in SimCity, you should know that a beta test for the game will commence on January 25. You’ll find full details on the test and how to enroll in this piece we published recently, along with an explanation of why you might want to skip this test in favor of waiting for the full game’s retail debut on March 5. And for a closer look at the game, check out our recent hand-on preview.

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Earnest Cavalli
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Earnest Cavalli has been writing about games, tech and digital culture since 2005 for outlets including Wired, Joystiq…
SimCity’s launch debacle highlights EA’s bigger problem: Its own business practices

The release of SimCity has been tumultuous, to say the least. Fans of the series have been bracing for over a year for the release of the fifth proper game in Maxis’ long-running simulation series, and Electronic Arts has been preparing them for how the game would be delivered. It was March 2012 when EA first confirmed that SimCity would need a persistent internet connection to play, and December 2012 when it said that players would need to be online to even save their game. It went so far as to offer multiple beta tests to not just stress test the game, but prepare users for what it would be like to play an always-connected version of the game. As tends to happen with persistently connected online games—just look at the fiasco of Diablo III’s May 2012 release—SimCity’s problems have been legion. EA and Maxis are fixing the game as quickly as possible, but they have not addressed the root problem embodied by SimCity: The need to modernize how games are sold and released.
The first problem: EA refused to give refunds to customers that literally could not play the game they had paid for - despite initial offerings to the contrary. An EA community manager said that dissatisfied customers could request one, at least at first “If you regrettably feel that we let you down, you can of course request a refund for your order … though we are currently still in the process of resolving this issue.”
EA Origin customers, however, were across the board then denied refunds for SimCity, claiming the company and service’s policy is to not give refunds of any kind for digitally distributed games. An EA representative even told an Origin customer that if they disputed the charge made to their credit card for SimCity, their Origin account would be locked and they would lose access to all their paid for games.
As digitally distributed games come to replace physical copies of games, the relationship between digital retailers and customers has to take on some characteristics of older consumer practices. After all, there will inevitably be times when a game just doesn’t work or doesn’t match customer expectation, and players need some recourse beyond contacting the Better Business Bureau to file a complaint, or taking to the internet with proverbial pitchforks and torches. Retailers also can’t hold customer accounts hostage. Blizzard, despite the nightmare of Diablo III’s release, learned this lesson well. If you expect to keep customers, they have to be treated with some modicum of respect.
The shift to a fully digital distribution model with always-online games to prevent piracy and promote new play styles also requires companies like EA to rethink how games are released at all. It’s been proven time and again that games with enormous audiences like SimCity buckle under the strain of big singular launches. Boxed games that are playable offline can be launched around the world simultaneously with no negative effect, but messes like the one surrounding SimCity can only be avoided by staggering access to the game, even within specific regions. Slowly roll these games out to customers, making “soft launches” the norm, and the problem can be avoided.
EA and Maxis have made their apologies and continue to work to fix the problem, but they have not demonstrated that they recognize the deeper issue of an antiquated business model.

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‘SimCity’ review: This reboot isn’t for loners

SimCity. There's something powerful in Maxis' decision to re-purpose the name of the inaugural game in its classic series for the freshly released reboot. It carries an implied declaration: this is the one, true SimCity. Whether or not you agree with that sentiment, it's impossible to argue the basic fact that this is very much not SimCity as you remember it.
Laying down roads, zoning neighborhoods, and providing basic services are still tied to the fundamental A-to-B progression of play, but a newly online-connected focus is the beating heart of this revised city sim. Your creations no longer float in the ether of discrete saved games; they now exist in a region, one populated by other cities that are, in an ideal scenario, overseen by other players. You're building on your own plot of land, but that construct exists in the context of a much larger, interconnected world. That's the goal anyway. Does it come together as Maxis envisioned it? Read on.
The 800-pound Gorilla
To say that SimCity had a rocky launch is a gross understatement. The game unlocked for play on Origin at 12:01am ET on Tuesday, March 5, 2013. Things seemed fine to those who jumped in during those first hours, but the Internet connection-required servers that SimCity's regions live on, were a flaming wreck by Tuesday morning. It wasn't until late Thursday that getting into the game smoothed out to the point that playing for an extended period was even possible, with stability only improving as the launch weekend descended.
In short, mistakes were made at Electronic Arts and Maxis, and launch day buyers paid the price. The standard "there were more players than we anticipated" line holds less and less water these days, especially when it's coming from a publisher like EA that has had problems like this in the past. Whether or not you think that the make-good offer of one free Origin game to those who activate their SimCity copies by March 18 is worthwhile is besides the point. This review is about the game itself, not technical issues that led to a stumbling release. Still, it's impossible to discuss SimCity in the context of a review and not mention what happened during launch week.

There is, however, a silver lining to the SimCity server fails. I managed to put in a good 10 hours on a couple of different cities during launch week, and then 10 or more from Friday onward as more people started to get back online. Looking at the early play and comparing it with what I experienced this weekend, I can see why the online component is so necessary. I'm not here to argue the relative merits of including an offline mode, but I will say that I got a lot less from this new SimCity playing all by my lonesome in a multi-city region. The game moves more slowly and it's just plain not as fun. We'll get to all of this soon enough.
The point here is simple: SimCity's launch sucked, but technical woes involving an overloaded network infrastructure fall outside the scope of a review. The way the servers are arranged is a consideration from the perspective of how some questionable choices impact your play - and you'll read about that below - but this work of critical analysis focuses on the game in its current form and not the temporary situation that existed last week.
Now that that's out of the way, let's consider Maxis' dramatic re-envisioning of its classic game.
To best understand this SimCity revision, it's important to grasp the fundamental change implemented by Maxis' new GlassBox simulation engine. In previous games, numbers crunched behind the scenes determined the course that your creation was headed in. It's more transparent here, with everything unfolding in plain sight. Your city is populated by any number of sims, each of whom has his or her own home, job, daily routine, hopes, dreams, and so on. The aggregated public sentiment of these individuals taken together is what drives success and failure in this new SimCity, and you can see it all happening right in front of you on the very streets that you lay down.

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So about our SimCity review… [UPDATED]

UPDATE 2: Maxis GM and EA SVP Lucy Bradshaw issued a lengthy statement on Friday afternoon aimed at addressing the ongoing server issues with SimCity. As you probably already expected, many more people are playing than anyone expected. How that sort of thing continues to happen in this day and age is a bit of a mystery, and one that Bradshaw doesn't spend any time addressing. It would be easier to swallow the justification if it didn't feel like a stock response in situations like this, but it's all we've got. Bradshaw also noted that EA will offer a free Origin download to those who have activated the game by March 18.
On the review side, I'm pleased to report that I was able to log into the North America East 1 server late last night and early this morning with zero problems. The mid-day heavy traffic hours will be the real test, but things are looking positive at this point. Stay tuned for the full review right here on Monday. Thanks for your patience on this, readers; the past few days have been a little trying in the realm of all things SimCity, but things finally seem to be stabilizing. Stay tuned.
UPDATE: The weekend is nearly here and, unfortunately, SimCity is still suffering from crippling network issues that effectively render the game unplayable for significant portions of the day. Due to the way that the game is designed, progress you've made in one city on one server doesn't carry over when you switch servers. Some servers have proven to be more reliable than others as this week has unfolded, but expecting players who have already started building to start fresh with a new city on a new server is, frankly, unacceptable. The addition of new servers shows progress, but it is not the necessary fix that this game requires. The hope is that the progress we've seen this week will carry over into full or close to full functionality over the post-launch weekend.
We reached out to Electronic Arts and Maxis for comment on these ongoing issues and for some clarification on questions that players have raised over the servers, and how content is saved. You can read the most important bits from the official statement below:
We know the situation hasn’t been ideal for anyone involved (players, reviewers, etc.), but know that the team here has been working around the clock to add new servers and hotfix the issues that people are experiencing. We are taking players’ issues and concerns very seriously [and] are implementing changes to get them into the game [along with] long term plans to fix the issues so people can enjoy the game for years to come.
Our servers are not geographically locked so you can play on any server you’d like from anywhere in the world. Every server provides the same content, however, it should be noted that your saves are unique to that server and they will not migrate to other servers. If you want to play with your friends, you will need to be on the same server as them. You are not limited to the amount of servers you can play on, so feel free to jump around and see the different types of players on each of these servers. If a server is listed as FULL, you will not be allowed to join that server unless you have an earlier city saved on it. If you already have a city saved on that server, the server will be accessible. You will not lose the hours of gameplay you have already built it up.
EA also offered up an official statement from Maxis GM and EA SVP Lucy Bradshaw that speaks directly to the ongoing issues:
Thousands of players across the world are playing and having a good experience – in fact, more than 700,000 cities have been built by our players in just 24 hours.  But many are experiencing server instability and consequently, the rollout in North America has been challenging.  It’s also now evident that players across Europe and Asia are experiencing the same frustration.  Our priority now is to quickly and dramatically increase the number and stability of our servers and, with that, the number of players who can simultaneously access the game. We added servers today, and there will be several more added over the weekend.  We’re working as hard as possible to make sure everyone gets to experience the amazing game we built in SimCity.
As a final note, EA PR pointed us to an ongoing forum thread that lead producer Kip Katsarelis has been active in. You might not get the answers you want if you post there, but there's no harm in trying. EA is aware of the issue and working to address it. Our review plans stand as previously stated: the Digital Trends review of SimCity will run on Monday, with the critique focusing primarily on the state that the game is in by launch weekend.
Launch week performance will of course still be a consideration, but a review should be focused on the entire experience rather than the technical shortcomings of a botched launch. That being said, we take care in our analyses to look at the experience on the ground rather than the one that was intended. Rest assured that if SimCity continues to struggle as it has, it will be judged accordingly.
ORIGINAL POST: We're writing to fill you in on the status of our SimCity review. In short, the Friday deadline that we have been planning on has been extended in light of continuing network connectivity issues. We can't offer a better timetable right now for when the review will be complete, though it's fair to say that SimCity is impossible to critique in its current form. It is bad enough that we would strongly recommend against buying this game at this point until the ongoing issues can be addressed.
The revised plan is as follows: the review will be going live on Monday, March 11. Launch day failures are an occupational hazard, and Tuesday releases allow some time for things to be fixed before the weekend crowd descends. The state that SimCity is in by the coming weekend is the one it will be critiqued on. 
A little background: Electronic Arts, the publisher, didn't activate SimCity's servers until launch day, at 12:01am ET on March 5, 2013. This means that the bulk of the gaming press wasn't able to play the game until then. A small handful did, but in a controlled network environment meant to mimic the ideal performance scenario for the finished product. SimCity relies heavily on an online connection; playing without one isn't just a requirement, it's also fundamental to the re-tooled experience that Maxis crafted.
I've spent a sizable number of hours playing SimCity since it launched two nights ago, and the game's performance has been extremely uneven. Sometimes it works perfectly, and it seems like a great game when it does. Crashes to desktop are frequent enough to be a nuisance and the game loses connection to the server at least once every hour or two. It doesn't last long enough to knock me from my game entirely (or hasn't yet), but all progress stops when I see that pop-up, since the game could kick out to the main menu at any moment.
The servers have been inconsistent in general. For the second straight day, they were taken offline during the midday hours for maintenance. They crashed all together on launch day for an extended period of time. The game is effectively crippled in its current form. You can play it sometimes, but the inconsistent performance is extremely disruptive.
For these reasons, after discussion we've decided to postpone writing the review until SimCity can be played as intended. For what it's worth: I have been enjoying myself when the game actually works. It's just not in a state right now that is suitable for public consumption. EA and Maxis had to move forward with the release for business reasons, but you don't have to go pick up the game. And you shouldn't right now. Not until you can get what you pay for.
It's worth noting that technical specs have't been an issue. Below are the minimum specs:

Windows XP or higher
An active Internet connection with speeds at or exceeding 256 kbps down and 64 kbps up
The minimum Intel CPU requirement is a 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo; the AMD minimum is an Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core 4000+
At least 2GB of RAM
At minimum, you'll need an NVIDIA GeForce 7800 or newer, an ATI Radeon HD 2x00 or newer, or an Intel Series 4 integrated GPU or newer. 512MB of onboard RAM is required, along with Shader 3.0 support
10GB of free storage space for the initial install, though having more is recommended for smoother play

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