As I’m writing this, I’m staring at a SimCity launch module. According to the module, five of the nine global servers are available, and four are busy–EA is “patching” the game a few servers at a time.
The game came out Tuesday, and I played for five hours or so. When I got home from work, it took a while to download but otherwise let me in pretty quickly. However, by midnight (presumably when the entire US was home from work and had eaten dinner), the servers failed and I had trouble getting back in. These problems persisted into the morning, and, after an afternoon of being up and running, are down again this evening.
SimCity, like Diablo 3 last year, requires a constant internet connection to play. This was surprising to a lot of people, because, unlike Diablo, which is an action RPG/MMO, SimCity is primarily a single-player game. Multiplayer capability was added, and, after trying it out, it’s a great addition, but the game is still largely single player. Cities (people) can work interactively, to share resources, but it’s one person designing a city. So it doesn’t seem like it’s necessary.
The reason for the constant connection is not for a seamless multiplayer experience, Blizzard, and now EA, are concerned about piracy. Rightly so–I’m sure Diablo II, Starcraft, SimCity 4 and The Sims 2 and 3 were all very high up on the list of most pirated games. Developers look at these piracies as stolen games, that is, every copy of a game that’s pirated is a copy that wasn’t bought, and X dollars not given to the rightful owner.
Digital rights management, or DRM, makes it more difficult to pirate games (or music/movies; iTunes used to require authorization before accessing media purchased by another iTunes account–this is no longer true) by ensuring that the product is legitimate. Both Blizzard and EA have required users to enter in a CD key for over a decade. However, you could usually install multiple copies of a game using the same CD key. In the case of Diablo 2, both copies couldn’t play multiplayer at the same time, but all users of the CD key could play single-player no problem. The Sims and SimCity 4 didn’t have any multiplayer components, so there was no real safeguard.
Last year, Blizzard, rolled out the most strict DRM yet–requiring a user to be online all the time with their highly-anticipated Diablo 3. This enabled them to make sure all copies of the game were authentic–the fact that it was much easier to connect to a multiplayer game was a nice side-effect. However, requiring all users to be online all the time means you need the servers to handle a ton of traffic, all the time, with no hiccups.
This is unrealistic. You’re going to have server issues sometimes, meaning players can’t play a game they paid for. And instead of talking up the great game to all their friends, people are going to instead complain about server issues.
And guess what? On launch day, no one could get in. People (not me) took the day off from work to play, but instead got an error code, or worse, access to the game, only to get booted after a few minutes. It did not go over well amongst the otherwise loyal fan base. Metacritic.com, which compiles the ratings of games from legitimate sites like IGN, Gamespot, etc, has an overall score of 8.8/10, which is solid. However; the fan score is a mere 3.8/10. Abysmal. Why this discrepancy? The DRM was largely to blame.
Clearly, the DRM is negatively impacting players’ enjoyment of Diablo, even in recent reviews. People who are still playing Diablo 3 (I’m not) get disconnected occasionally, due to server issues or issues with the player’s own internet connection. Regardless of who is at fault, people feel they should be able to play some version (single player) of they game they paid $60-$80 for. And who can blame them?
Fast forward almost year to March 5th. SimCity is released, with the same strict DRM. The fact that SimCity requires users to be connected all the time is baffling. While there are multiplayer elements, it wouldn’t ruin the game if you removed them. The game is, and always has been, an independent, single-player experience.
But if I’m on the fence about buying SimCity, and I read reviews like these (Metacritic user score of 2.0. For context, a game called Hooters Road Trip got a user score of 4.0), why would I buy the game? Why buy a game I’m not sure if I can even play?
And if I already bought the game (which I have), why would I feel encouraged to tell my friends to buy it? Sure, it’d be fun to play and experience with them, but that’s assuming we can all log in to the same server and not get booted after an hour.
Which brings us back to the reason all this is necessary. EA/Maxis want to eliminate piracy. I get that. The developers don’t want to give away a product which they’ve worked on for the better part of a decade, for free.
However, I would argue that, with a strict DRM, combined with bad server performance, EA cut off its nose to spite its face.
Let’s say the number of players who bought the game, instead of pirating (because the DRM prevents them from doing so) is represented by X. And let’s say Y is the number of players who won’t buy the game because of the DRM, but would have otherwise.
Is X larger than Y? Doubtful. However, if X is larger than Y, EA’s business model is working, since the DRM forced more pirates to buy than it turned away would-be buyers. Right?
Maybe not. If the group of people who bought the game, no matter what–is unsatisfied, they won’t encourage others to buy the game. Worse, they might discourage them from buying. And the fact that pirates are no longer playing means there are a lot fewer people playing the game in general. Less exposure, less chatter about the game. In fact, when you try to shut the pirates out, they backlash, hard. I have a feeling a large majority of the negative reviewers of Diablo 3 and SimCity never seriously played either game. They rate it low because of the DRM and because they weren’t able to play for free.
In a DRM-free game, you have a much larger population playing the game. Not just because of piracy, though that’s a factor, but because of word-of-mouth. You have to figure that the positive word-of-mouth reviews of those who pirate the game may influence others to actually buy the game. By shutting out the pirates, you lose a lot of that word-of-mouth endorsement, and replace it with hostility, as reflected in the user reviews.
I don’t mean to justify piracy. Developers deserve to be paid for their hard work. I would like to think pirates buy the games they truly like, and use piracy as a means to test a game. I know that’s probably not true except in rare cases. But a strict DRM punishes the people who are huge fans of the game and paid money for the game. Most pirates were never going to pay for the game, and certainly won’t now because they don’t want to support games with strict DRM.
There needs to be a solution that balances anti-piracy measures with a solid gameplay experience with limited interruption. Maybe multiplayer games get constantly checked for authenticity, to ensure illegitimate copies of the game can’t play multiplayer. And maybe all copies must be checked for authenticity at least once every two weeks, meaning you don’t need an internet connection for single-player most of the time, just once in a while. Determined pirates may find a way around this less-strict DRM, but it’d go a long way towards ensuring those who paid for the game are as satisfied as possible while still keeping a large chunk of the pirates out. It’d be less demanding on the game’s servers, since not every active player would be online all the time. And if the servers do go down every so often, at least players can play the game.
I wouldn’t be surprised if a middle-of-the-road solution like this becomes the commonplace within the next 10 years. Always-online DRM clearly doesn’t work, at least without flawless server capacity, which is probably impossible. EA and Blizzard should find a way to patch their games to allow for some use of the game without connection to their servers.