Monday, March 11, 2013

DRM: We brought this on ourselves

  The recent release of SimCity points to the final determination of the next era in video game releases. While Diablo 3's "always online" approach frustrated some people with the requirement of handing over control of your game to Blizzard, the Diablo franchise has a long history of online play with Battle.Net. Along with other Blizzard titles, the intention of the game was designed as a multiplayer experience, with a single player option. While Diablo 3 requiring connection to Blizzard to play isn't exactly what we wanted, we can accept that in some ways it does make sense.

  Not so with SimCity. The 2013 release of SimCity is the first in a long franchise of Sim games with any kind of online or even multiplayer experience. Sure, Sim's Online came around, but one MMO does not an online franchise make, (see Final Fantasy as an example).  Even though back in 2003 with SimCity 4 people begged for the ability to make the game multiplayer with competing or cooperating cities working in tandem, SimCity was always a single player experience. For me Sim games were always the strange past time I'd slip into in hotel rooms or on airplanes. When you're stuck somewhere wasting time you can still get a feeling of accomplishment from increasing your population, earning a few thousand simoleans, or taking a look at an old course you built in SimGolf.

  But the new SimCity follows Diablo 3 in making a game with a notable single player experience and taking it all online. Even before the arrival of the connection issues that have plagued the game in the first week since launch the interwebs have been furious with this approach to Digital Rights Management by Electronic Arts. In late 2012 when news of the "always online" setting of SimCity was announced, city builders were crying foul. Not surprisingly all of the pleading with SimCity 4 for a multiplayer experience was quickly forgotten as this new deal with the devil emerged. We wanted multiplayer, but not corporate control.

  In the end, SimCity has released with an "always online" system and has been plagued with connection issues during it's first week of release. While this is an endless frustration for single player gamers it comes as no surprise to MMO gamers who have a long experience of unstable launches, even for solid games due to connection and stability issues. With this the big question is "What does the multiplayer option bring to the game?"

  So far the answer is not much. You can sort of work with people in your region and share some resources and services. You can get fire helicopters that will fly to other cities when there's a fire. You can play in a region with your friends and visit their city (a cool little limo shows up in their city with your name on it). There's also the ability to sell certain resources and power to the global market in an expanded way from SimCity 4. But these are pretty trivial changes especially considering that the cities in the same region don't back up against one another like they did in SimCity 4. All this points to the real reason for an "always online" release, DRM.

Digital Rights Management

  In the gaming world digital rights management (DRM) is generally considered the symbol of evil corporate overlords squeezing every last penny out of consumers. Really it's a bit more simple than that. From a corporate perspective with regard to games DRM manifests as a method in which the company hosts servers on which the game is played. This sort of environment is no surprise for MMOs in which the servers provide for the shared experience and provide a level playing field between gamers. It's kind of like the bowling alley keeping your scores and handicap on record so you can't set up a bunch of plastic pins in your bathroom and bowl a 300 game. This isn't the only kind of DRM that exists, but so far it's the only kind that gamers have previously encounter regularly. For most MMOs you end up paying a monthly fee, or under the free to play model you get limited access unless you pay a monthly fee. Though some games have broken out of the subscription or micro-transaction model, like Guild Wars, the online and multiplayer aspect of these games justifies the need to use the companies servers.

  With SimCity it doesn't seem necessary as everyone is primarily looking for a quality single player experience. The addition of multiplayer "features" that don't add substantially to game play means that from a players perspective the online experience is more likely to be a negative one, than a positive one. This is significantly compounded by the connection issues people have been suffering through in the first week of the game's release.

  So why would EA do this? The answer is simple, piracy. The Sim games are among the most commonly pirated games for the longest period of time. The 2003 release of SimCity 4 is still easily available, as is SimCity 3000 and 2000. Even some of the remakes of SimCity classic can be found online. The replayability of these games encourages people to look them back up five years later to play around some more. The sheer number of Sim games that our generation has played but never bought is staggering. In the end, we've brought the DRM model on ourselves.

Copy Protection

  While DRM is a dirty word in most consumer circles, copy protection has a long history with SimCity. I remember the original Macintosh SimCity which came with a two page dark red document with city names and small icons you had to match up and enter in the code in order to play the game. If you lost the red paper, you couldn't play the game. The paper was specifically designed to be unphotocopyable (we tried, even in color) and long enough to dissuade copying by hand. Other early games had you type in the 8th word on the 43rd page of the rule book when you started the game. No rulebook, no game. More recent releases moved to the "CD in" model in which you had to have the CD in your computer in order to play the game.

  All of these methods of copy protection have been defeated by video game pirates who have cracked the code of the game to allow it to run without a CD or have used virtual drives to tell the computer that they have the CD when really they don't. There are websites with the old table from the original SimCity and the manuals of old have been scanned and made available for all to see. The only set of games that haven't been able to be cracked are the always on MMO style games. In a age of game downloads rather than purchased boxed sets, using account management inherent in the game purchasing software just makes sense. If the company controls the system, they can verify one account logged in per purchased game, and no one can steal it.

  There are tons of other issues that come with server base games. Servers go down, they're unplayable in a internet dead zone, and most importantly, at some point the company will stop providing the service as the game is no longer profitable for them. No longer do you own a game. You've more bought a lifetime subscription card at the local batting cage which will last until the ownership changes, the place closes down, or the machines get upgraded to no longer accept the old cards. These are the issues being raised by gamers worldwide about the new SimCity release. But in the end, we've made it in a companies best interest to have complete control of their game. It can't be stolen, loaned to a friend, installed on multiple home computers, and, eventually, it can be taken out of service forcing you to purchase a newer version of the game.

  As gamers we hate that it has come to this, but really this is a problem that our generation has cultivated and exploited for too many years. While SimCity's rocky launch points to all the problems with this system, I don't think we're going to see it going away any time soon. The answers we're hearing from Maxis and EA are more servers and solving stability problems not moving to offline play. In the future we'll see more server stability at launches, but not more offline games. DRM is the future that we've made for ourselves by twenty years of playing too many free games, working around copy protection, and filesharing. It's time we own up to it and admit that if we want to play big title games in the future, we're going to have to play them on company terms and corporate servers.


  1. Have you see the 'Jimquisition' on Sim City yet, by any chance?

  2. This is a silly bit of writing.

  3. I do not approve of this blog post, I didn't bring this upon us, you and all the rest of the hooligans that decided to download all of the games brought this upon the younger generations that haven't done anything wrong.


  4. So much piracy and still they didn't stop to grow. They became richer and richer. So, why always online DRM? Because this is what capitalism does, they are always searching for ways to make more money. With this system they have complete control. They can release incomplete/chopped games at high prices and feed the fools with a bunch of DLC's to satisfy their consumerism hunger (is like the Zynga philosophy but for AAA games and "hardcore" players).
    The key to fight piracy is to sell games at fair prices, with a well made multiplayer component. Just be honest with your costumers and they will not let you down. Look at the indie games success, look at CD Projekt, look at services like Steam on the discount seasons. Piracy? Don´t blame piracy. Blame the corporations hunger for money and the gamer consumerism. Sooner or later people will buy the game they love or loved to play (GOG).