Try Again Later

Try Again Later

The May 2012 launch of the long awaited Diablo sequel introduced video game fans to the insidious Error 37, which looks to become a staple of the industry. For those unfamiliar with Error 37, I’ll back up. When Blizzard introduced the sequel to their popular Diablo franchise some dozen years after the release of the second game, they announced the game would be played off centralized servers, thus requiring players to be online at all times. This might not seem a huge development since Diablo II included online play. But the key here is Diablo II gave you a choice; in Diablo III you can play single player, but you must do so online. And I’ve heard rumors friends can still drop into your game uninvited, thus making it more difficult (since difficulty scales based on number of players present in the game, whether or not you’re anywhere near each other). This, of course, led to the now infamous creation of queues for a single player game.

I’ve never understood why Bizzard chose to force people online for Diablo III, since their online authentication system for StarCraft II works better (once you authenticate you can play the game without being online. And even if you are online, the game runs on your PC instead of off a server). But the controversy over it’s aggressive DRM didn’t stop Diablo III from becoming one of the highest selling games of 2012.

Less than a year later, EA treated gamers to the second major round of queues for single player games with its release of the new Simcity game, which also requires you to play online at all times.

I’ve talked about my issues with DRM (Digital Rights Management) before. Publishers employ DRM as an anti-piracy measure, but it causes more piracy than it prevents. DRM is a form of control. If publishers can market their games as services rather than as games, they can charge more money and they can force consumers to interact with their products a certain way. IE: you must play Simcity on EA’s servers so that they control when the game is available and when it isn’t. This also opens the door for peddling tons of downloadable content (DLC) in the future instead of releasing regular expansions or, as in the old days, providing the content on game launch.

I can’t think of a better example to prove my point about the pitfalls of always on DRM than the press disaster in the wake of Simcity’s recent launch. In the scramble to balance the server load, developer Maxis ‘disabled all non-essential services’ (IE: features you paid for) such as cheetah speed and leader boards (one of the primary functions around which multiplayer was designed) with the promise to turn them back on sometime in the indeterminate future. When angry customers, unable to access a product they paid for, demanded refunds, EA denied refunds to all customers who purchased the game through their online digital distribution platform (Origin) on the grounds that ‘server issues’ didn’t qualify users for a refund. Meanwhile Amazon pulled the game from their digital shelves (and offered refunds, another reason to never purchase anything on Origin, but that’s a whole other blog post). I’d say you’re in serious trouble if the soulless corporate entity Amazon is unwilling to pedal your product.

Meanwhile, as reviewers lowered their game ratings due to the inability to replicate the game experience of the press beta, plenty of articles have expressed my rage more articulately than I can ever hope to. But I feel the need to say these things anyway.

Always on DRM is a dirty, disgusting attempt by publishers to control (and I would go as far as to say extort) the consumer. It interferes with and inconveniences the consumer and provides little, if any, protection to the company against piracy. I have always, and will always, refuse to buy a single player game which requires me to be on a publisher’s server in order to play.

The only people who suffered during the launch of Simcity (aside from perhaps the publisher Maxis) were the fans who purchased the game. Not only were large portions of the customer base unable to access the servers to play a game on which they spent $60, several pre-ordered games didn’t unlock, forcing people to purchase a second copy of the game if they were anxious to play (which several of them did). I’m not sure if any of them were denied refunds by EA, but it’s pretty rotten the first people to give the publisher money were also the first to be kicked in the stomach. While Simcity’s version of Error 37 popped up a counter with a 30 minute countdown, a misleading promise they’d be able to play the game in that amount of time, several users reported having to wait through multiple queues, sometimes up to three hours before they were able to access the servers (which then moved at a crawl).

In the pre-order age it seems impossible that EA didn’t know how many people would try to access their game on release night. Every person who pre-ordered obviously wanted to play, not to mention the initial surge of purchases from fans who don’t pre-order but would obviously want to play the game at release. The Sim franchise is a huge and there hasn’t been a new Simcity game in ages either. Nor could they claim no one ever anticipated an occurrence like this, with Diablo III’s release less than a year behind us. So someone made the conscious decision to move ahead anyway, knowing they’d be screwing x number of devoted fans who offered the company money to support their product. EA was not sticking it to pirates when they made this decision, they were sticking it to paying customers.

EA’s actions in the wake of the release prove they have no regard for the happiness or even satisfaction of their customers. They won’t give you a refund, but they will give you one free download of one of their games through Origin if you were affected by the fiasco (Ironically this seems to include another version of Simcity linked to the account you bought the first one from, which makes absolutely no sense). But in my opinion, it’s too little and too late. It comes in the wake of a buggy launch, a blatant disregard for customer satisfaction and product quality, and it also comes hot on the heels of game modders revealing both EA and Maxis have been lying to their customers all along.

Though both the developer and publisher claim their servers bear the brunt of the simulation workload, modders have proved the game can be played offline (it simply can’t be saved), which indicates all the calculations are actually run locally. Not only that, there’s evidence in the base code that the number listed on your population is actually much higher than the number of hypothetical sims inhabiting your city (the coder even named this function ‘getfudgedpopulation’). EA’s response to the posts on Reddit and other forums about this development have been to label the mod a hack, delete it from their official forums, and issue a statement insisting that ‘seriously guys, it’s impossible to play offline.’ (Despite continued evidence to the contrary.)

If EA’s actions don’t qualify as blatant contempt, I don’t know what does.

In the wake of all the hoopla, EA’s CEO stepped down, perhaps proving EA is aware on some level of their utter failure. Meanwhile, fans persist with a broken game provided by a publisher that couldn’t care less about their happiness now they’ve got all their precious money. You see, all the reasons for choosing an always on DRM system involve more money for the publisher, and not because it prevents pirates from snatching the game. Pirates have already snatched the game, and they’re hard at work turning the offline mod into a usable crack. Always on DRM also prevents retailers from selling used copies of the game; publishers don’t get a cut of that either. It also prevents players who buy legitimate copies of the game from loaning it out or giving it to a friend when they realize they don’t really want it.

And I haven’t even touched on how the game was built around beating users over the head with the always on DRM, right down to limiting city sizes and forcing players to claim other plots in a region if they wish to ‘expand’ their city, even though owning more than one city freezes all the unloaded cities in time (meaning none of the city interaction in multiplayer happens in real time). I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

It’s my sincere hope the Simcity fiasco has been a big enough PR disaster to discourage other publishers from choosing the always on DRM model in the future. Unfortunately, these kinds of games continue to exist because we, the consumers, continue to pay for them, despite the abusive treatment of the game publishers. Will Simcity be the straw that breaks the camel’s back? I can only hope.

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