At GDC this week, people are talking about a lot of things, but the execs at Electronic Arts only have one subject on their mind: SimCity. What should have been one of their most successful game launches ever turned into their worst nightmare, and all because of three little letters: DRM. Now the Labels President of EA is stepping out from under the DRM banner and admitting that it's only hurting games like SimCity -- a game that now plays like an MMO but isn't one.
Always online is never a good plan for a standalone product, and in the case of SimCity, it ends up making the game's core mechanics feel like a completely different game. I myself have noticed that people are using it as a social gaming experience because of the always online feature. One friend logged in the first day and immediately started building the suburbs of his own town, demanding that his friends come in and complete the city districts adjacent to him before someone else claimed the idea. Now honestly this isn't a bad game idea, it's just not SimCity. SimCity isn't a collaborative experience, it's about pitting your wits against the AI, building a city that is more successful than anyone else's.
But with the latest iteration of the game, Maxis set out to build an MMO-infrastructure into the title, and personally I think that's where they went wrong. Here's how the EA Labels President Frank Gibeau explains it:
"It started with the team at Maxis that had a creative vision for a multiplayer, connected, collaborative SimCity experience where your city and my city and others' were [working together]; for better or for worse, and for right or for wrong, the lead designers and the producers and the programmers felt like they wanted to tell us a multiplayer, cooperative city story around SimCity. We had built a bunch of these and you could've gone deeper and deeper into your plumbing and managing toilets and electrical posts, but we felt there was a bigger story to tell and a bigger opportunity to chase with an always-on connected experience built around that concept. That's what we set out to design and that's what Maxis created and brought forward into the marketplace."
See that word there? Collaborative? While yes, I think that DRM did in the end put the last nail in the coffin, I think that the ultimate poison to the game's success comes from this core idea. Co-op city building? How many towns do you know with more than one mayor? It breaks the realism of the world, puts someone else potentially in your city mucking up your plans, and that's just in how I envision multiplayer to go. This isn't SimCity anymore, it's SimCity Online.
If that is the case, does my mayor level up as he creates towns? Are there bonuses to his expertise that he gains when he successfully builds a city? And wouldn't there be scenarios where he has to jump in and save a town in serious need of help -- like for instance, Los Angeles. There are a lot of MMO elements that could have made SimCity better while still maintaining the core feel of the game. DRM and cooperative experiences are not among them.