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SimCity’s launch debacle highlights EA’s bigger problem: Its own business practices

SimCity Concept Art

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 releaseSimCity’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.”

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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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Disgruntled SimCity players may find the game they’re looking for in classrooms

SimCity, the new edition of Will Wright, Maxis, and Electronic Arts’ foundational simulation series, has overcome some of its growing pains over the past couple of weeks. Players can at least connect to the game’s servers so they can actually play it now, so there's that. Yet even as players find ways to bend the game to suit their desires—offline, solo play is a specific lure—EA is staunchly unapologetic about its divisive game. It’s offered a free game to compensate frustrated customers, but it’s never said sorry, and it remains wholly committed to SimCity. In fact, EA is now pushing the game not just to players looking to build a fake city, but educators helping shape the real life city builders of tomorrow.
GlassLab, an education-based games initiative backed by EA, Institute of Play, the ESA, and others including some funded by the Gates Foundation, opened SimCity EDU in beta this month alongside the new game. SimCityEDU is a website, community, and resource for teachers that use SimCity in science, technology, economics, civics, engineering, and math classes. The idea is that lesson plans and other resources can be shared between different educators, hopefully encouraging innovative use of the game as a teaching tool.
EA first announced SimCityEDU in January. Over the weekend, the site began updating with test lesson plans. The Monday test, “Prueba L&D,” for example is laid out with sections for the course description, as well as goals for the class. In this example, the goal is to use SimCity for grammar lessons.
On the one hand, SimCity is an excellent teaching tool, at least in its classic modes like SimCity 2000 and SimCity 4. Those games encourage everything from basic problem solving to complex math skills (in things like maintaining a budget). It can even, depending on restrictions set by the teacher, be used to teach ethical forms of government. The city can thrive if a player exerts dictatorial control over its revenue streams, but the unhappiness of the Sim citizens can be used to demonstrate why that’s wrong.
EA hasn’t revealed yet how SimCityEDU will interact with the newly released SimCity. EA Government Affair’s Craig Hagen said in January that EA would let teachers use modified versions of the new game. Anyone unsatisfied with the commercially released version of SimCity might find the game they’re looking for in education-based editions.

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There is a way to play SimCity offline and to increase city size, sort of

Despite its many, many growing pains, Electronic Arts and Maxis’ new SimCity is by all accounts a very good game. It may not be perfect, and EA's consumer unfriendly business practices may have irreparably damaged players’ relationship with the long-running simulation series, but SimCity is fun and well made according to a large number of players and critics, and some of the common criticisms leveled against the game are a matter of taste rather than poor design. The new SimCity has been knocked things like offering cities that are confined to smaller spaces than those of the decade-old SimCity 4, but the biggest complaint is that the game can’t be played offline as a purely single-player experience. Good news for players bummed by those aspects of the game: One modder has already found a way to work around the game’s restrictions.
Modder UKAzzer published a video of his would-be fixes for of SimCity on Wednesday, showing the game in its debug mode—a testing mode in most games used to experiment with various features—and demonstrated ways to work around the most contentious restrictions. What’s more, even if you break the game’s proper “rules” in the debug mode, EA's servers will store your city as you made it.
“You can edit highways anywhere—even outside your city boundary,” said UKAzzer, “and even if you quit the game and log back in later, it’s all saved safely on the server. This shows that highway editing will be easily possible, and that editing outside of the artificially small city boundaries should be very viable too.”
With the city size issue addressed, UKAzzer moved on to discuss how the game could effectively be played as a wholly single-player experience offline. If a user is offline for more than twenty minutes, SimCity will automatically kick them out of the game. By going into the debug mode, he was able to set the game’s timer to give him an infinite amount of time, so he’d never be booted out. The game still can’t be saved in this would-be offline mode and there’s no access to any of the game’s new region features - leaving your city’s Sims landlocked - but it does work.
EA’s comment on these debug features? “EA does not comment on rumor and speculation.”
Source: Reddit via Eurogamer

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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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