SimCity: The conflict between Designers and Gamers

Disaster Alert!

The latest launch in the SimCity franchise has met with some rather public failures. Server issues preventing customers from playing the game, saved cities becoming corrupted, immersion breaking AI quirks. Probably the most contentious issue in this whole mess, has been the requirement that players always be online in order to play, even if they only want to play the game single player. This has caused repeated clashes between the long time fans of the series, and the game's developers

A lot of people seem to believe that the only reason for the 'always online' policy is to enforce DRM, preventing piracy at the cost of a worse experience for legitimate customers. SimCity developers countered that the reason for this requirement was that, with the way the game simulation works they needed to do a significant number of the calculations on their own servers; and that it would take a tremendous amount of effort to allow the game to run offline on people's home computers.

This statement turned out to be not at all accurate, as it was found the game can run perfectly fine on home computers without an internet connection.

[Edit - Revisiting this a year later in 2014, the Sim City blog recently released an article about their efforts to code a single player version of the game. It seems that the online calculations they refereed to were specifically about the cross region communication between cities; not the currently active game play of the cities themselves (Other than the effects other cities might have on you). So while you could play offline, you wouldn't be able to save or interact with other city regions.

It is an interesting read, and shows there is more complexities going on in the coding and design choices then are always made aware to the public. On one hand, it still shows that the original design choices they made was to push a series that had been predominantly single player content to a multi-player online only format. But they have gone to lengths to add that single player content back into the game well after the games release.]

Since then the company has responded by saying while they could have developed an offline mode, they rejected that idea because it did not match their vision of creating a game that moves from single isolated cities to interconnected dependent cities.

While this does not address why they made the original claims about the work their hosted servers were doing, it does raise an interesting question about the artistic vision developers have for a game. Say we discard the anti-piracy theory, and take their new claim about why there is no offline mode at face value...

Developers point of view

There have already been at least four SimCity games before now, so what incentive does a player have to purchase the new game instead of just continuing to enjoy the same experience from previous titles? Simply updating SimCity with better graphics is not enough, and making the same game over and over again is boring from a developers standpoint as well. So it is natural for developers to think about how to refine the formula and add new innovation to a long standing series. In the case of SimCity, the next natural step was to move towards inter-connected cities owed by multiple players.

Back in SimCity 2000, they already had NPC cities surrounding your own city. These NPC cities started off growing at the same time you did, so you could use their populations to measure your own progress. In SimCity 3000 this concept of neighboring cities was expanded so that the player could make deals with these NPC cities to buy or sell utilities such as power, water, or waste management.

SimCity 4 introduced the region mode. Now players controlled all the surrounding cities on a map. The connected resources and demands of neighboring cities had a much larger impact on one another. It was an interesting idea but it was easily exploitable. Since players were the ones creating all the cities they could easily create satellite cities with no other purpose then feeding a main city. These drone cities could dispose of all your trash, provide pollution free energy, and manipulate the demand for certain zones. And since time only moves in the city you are currently active in, there were no consequences in the long term.

Ten years later, greater internet speed and accessibility means the idea of connecting player cities to each other is easily obtainable. Its the natural evolution of the series as a whole. Now you can have neighboring cities that the player doesn't control, but still dynamically effects the game play. Trading resources with other cities, allowing global benefits from having individual cities specialize in certain civics or services, sharing commerce and crime... If you create the game from the ground up with this in mind, it could be an incredibly interesting and unique mechanic that builds on the series premiss and is more true to real life cities.

The hole in that argument

Which begs the question... if this online co-dependent game play experience is so much better, then why do they have to force people to play that way? If this vision requires a certain number of active people online to be viable, shouldn't falling short of that mark cause you to re-examine why your design isn't attracting more players? And if there are enough people who want to participate in online play without being forced, then why not make it optional?

It is a direct conflict between the designers and the players. The designers want to force a very specific artistic vision of how the game 'should' be played, but this contradicts directly with the game that players want to play. This is bad design. Or at the very least poor public relations.

That is not to say that I approve of design by committee or by mob rule. However in this specific case, the game play has been artificially limited; Not within the immersion of the game play or the rules of the game, but in the practical conveniences of being able to play the game at all. When Server issues, internet outages, and queue times are preventing a player from even starting the game; that is an issue that the customers have stock in. Furthermore they blatantly mislead players about why this online requirement was there in the first place.

Even with the online requirement players can still opt to play on a private region, effectively turning it back into a single player game. The only difference this makes is to turn it into an opt out online-group play instead of opt in. While this means that more people will play online who otherwise wouldn't have, it also means people who have no interest in any of the online functionality are still restricted by the online limitations.

Seemed like a good idea at the time

So while I can understand and agree with the direction they are trying to take the game, I do not believe this vision of theirs justifies forcing online play to a genre that still very heavily focuses on single player game play.

All of this ignores the theory that their main objective was to avoid admitting that an always online requirement was heavily or entirely motivated for anti piracy reasons. In which case it seems that the negative press since the game has been released completely out shadows any negative press they would have received from owning up to it in the first place. Of course by the time the press had come out, per-orders and launch day purchases had already been secured, so its hard to say how the net negative reputation will effect the series in the long run.



World of SimCraft (An aside)

As a thought experiment, I wondered if there was any other way to ensure an active online component without forcing online play. This lead me to wondering what would happen if they made SimCity free to play. This idea isn't as radical as it sounds as several games have created a successful business model with this technique. Especially the ones that attempt to be massively multiplayer online, which seems to align with the developers vision.

The business model would work like this: Anyone could play SimCity for free, but only online and in public regions. From here there would be two price point options. People could purchase a full retail version of the game which would allow them to play offline, create private regions, have larger city sizes, and a few other potential perks. In addition to that there would also be DLC content, available to both free and retail players; primarily in the form of skin packs for certain city archetype styles or new unique buildings (side-grades or flavor content, never overpowered balance items).

This would allow people who want to play the single player version of the game an avenue to do so. It would attract a lot of people to populate the online elements, making it a better experience for the paying customers as well. And through additional pay A la carte DLC, may entice people to spend more on the game then they otherwise would have.

So the question becomes, would enough people pay to make this option supportable (or more profitable then the current business model)? Would people who would have bought the game, get their fill out of the free version instead? Or would attracting more people with the free play, cause them to stick around and pay when they otherwise would not?

Many successful free to play models see 10% of the player base supporting most of the monetization... but I imagine a lot of people would still find the full retail single player version valuable. At the very least, this would result in a much more positive reaction from the player base then their current always online model... provided they didn't screw up the DLC. Unfortunately without access to behind the scene metrics or focus groups, this must remain purely a thought experiment.


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