SimCity isn’t the first big game with a rather rough, to say the least, launch. Other recent big titles like Diablo 3 and Star Wars the Old Republic, were also much hyped and suffered a painful first week or so on the market. With gaming shifting to an always online design model, game launches like SimCity will be much more the norm unless developers and publisher invest in resources early in a game’s life.
There are a lot of factors that hampered the SimCity launch and really tarnished the experience of this innovative new chapter of the franchise. While initially Origin had issues processing orders a simple pre-loading system like that of Steam would have helped relieve these issues. Allowing gamers to start the download process of digital titles allows the distribution system the ability to limit how many people are downloading the game at once. This allows them to stay lean on bandwidth and server resources while still giving gamers the chance to play at the stroke of midnight.
The next issue with SimCity and others was that of server based gameplay and no alternative offline mode. This is a much more complex issue than downloading the actual files. By having your game 100% dependent on a server, if that server is down or overloaded then gamers lose access to their purchased title. Now I say this is complex because there is no solid way for a publisher to know exactly how many resources they might need at launch. Granted these days they have pre-order numbers to use as a gauge, but with the ease of digital downloads it’s much simpler for gamers on launch night to purchase that new title since they no longer need to trek to the local store. That being said after the Star Wars the Old Republic and D3 launches it surprises me that EA didn’t allocate many more server resources then they could ever need, even for a temporary time. Knowing your game is solely dependent on a running server it would be in their best interest to spend more early then scale down. By giving gamers a smooth experience your only going to move more future product via word of mouth. But by running lean and only allocating the bare minimum you are guaranteeing a possible storm if your system can’t hold up. And we are seeing that now with the HUGE outcry from gamers who have been stuck sitting idle after spending $60 for a game that they can’t even get to the menu in.
What can developers and publisher do moving forward. Well besides making a large initial infrastructure investments they can also simply offer an alternative offline mode. Even if offline play is limited and not the full experience, at least it is a temporary experience to hold gamers over until the system can handle the full game.
One thing I didn’t mention in this post is DRM. That is because DRM is not to blame in the SimCity launch. DRM does not make the game’s we play run. Digital Rights Management is simply a system allowing you access to the game, it’s like the big iron gate in front of the playground. The simple way to explain DRM is when you launch a game, or even service like Netflix streaming, you “the client” sends a signal to the DRM server, which is ALWAYS separate from the service server. If the DRM system accepts your key you are sent a signal back allowing you access to the game or service server. When working this should be a near instant process. Yes online DRM can fail, but if that was the case in SimCity we wouldn’t even get to the point of seeing the main menu and then not having access to our saved games. So while online DRM can cause issues in general it’s not the culprit to online games being unplayable.
Again we are going to see this always online always running design model down the road, and it’s going to be found in not only PC games but more and more console games. Lets hope that more game developers will see the mis-steps of recent game launches and they adjust their investment and design plans to always offer game content no matter what state internet connections or servers are in.