SimCity, the always-on albatross

For Mac users, yesterday was the end of a long, long wait for Maxis’ Sim City. After the Windows version of the highly anticipated town simulator became available in March, OS X users have been waiting on the sidelines — forced to endure a later release date that was pushed back two months to August 29th. But some users will have to wait a little longer, as the Mac version has experienced a bumpy and difficult launch that is all too familiar for the Sim City team.
Despite the decreased number of Sim City Mac users, Electronic Arts forums were flooded with complaints related to the game. The game could not run on Mac OS X Lion 10.7.4 (despite assurances that it could), had issues scaling to full resolution for Retina displays, and had trouble installing if the OS didn’t have English as its native language. But the most damning charges came from issues with EA’s online verification system, Origin, which has been a thorny issue in this struggle all along. Users have complained that Origin is preventing the launch of the game, citing registration issues, verification troubles, and quitting during the game. The issue is so bad that EA has been forced to release an Install FAQ to walk users through the usually simple act of opening the game.
The outrage is another bungle for the Sim City team, which saw a much larger reaction when the Windows version of the game caused massive server issues and suffered from broken features at launch. And it’s well on its way to becoming the poster child for poor implementations of “always-on” games.


Sim City can only run when verified through an Origin server, so the server and the game must work in concert to maintain a steady, verified connection. Of course, this always-on process can make the game choppy to the point of unplayability, prevent some in-game features (like hyper-speed mode) from becoming usable and even kick a gamer out of his town wholesale, destroying all the work that wasn’t saved.
To put it plainly, EA dropped the ball when it implemented Origin into Sim City, and has done nothing but disappoint eager users on launch day. While the Windows issues caused gaming websites to dock their reviews and advise gamers to refrain from buying the product, the Mac issues are insult to injury. Sim City is now best known for the unneeded troubles that always-on gaming can produce — and it will be critics’ strongest argument against always-on in the future. It’s already been a factor in the great “Xbox 180” of DRM policies, which were met with such vitriol online that Microsoft has been explaining all of its policies for the new console in painstaking detail ever since.
What a shame for Sim City, which had stunned critics and beta gamers before its verification system made it the butt of every always-on joke. It’s a hard lesson to learn for gaming companies that choose always-on for DRM — but it’s a necessary one if the industry continues the search to make games piracy-free.