• RYG Evaluates SimCity, EA Origin and GlassBox

    Update: We had finally gotten a chance to play SimCity unimpeded for more than 3 hours. Unfortunately, any chance of replaying the game was met with the usual server-related issues and connections. This is our final perspective on SimCity.


    What would I give to be a part of that presentation when the brightest men and women of Maxis delivered their talk on their latest creation, GlassBox. I mean, I wonder what it would have been like to see the many people nodding their heads in agreement (or excitement, even) as Maxis explained *why* Glassbox will catapult their dormant SimCity franchise into 2013. Didn’t anyone take a second or two and asked themselves if the reasons for creating a game-engine-slash-DRM-system for a persistent online gaming world was based on flawed research?

    Don’t get me wrong – the *idea* sounds ambitious and even daring. But the reasons for making GlassBox shouldn’t have been phrases like “we’re betting for the future” or “adapt for the world dominated by the Internet”. In fact, not one mention was made on why it would benefit PC gamers – the very market that SimCity was designed for. When that was clearly overlooked in their presentation it was clear that the entire design, development and direction of SimCity was skewed in one other-worldly direction that predates common sense. And, honestly, it shows, even right to where we could finally play the game and see what all the fuss was about.


    So Here’s The Thing

    EA has made repeated attempts to warn all of us that our gaming experiences *may* change online. But it goes further to warn us that a persistent online connection is required. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll soon realize that EA is warning you that in order to play SimCity you’ll acknowledge and accept their terms of services, privacy policy and, of course, their EULA. When you mix these three documents with a game that was designed to extract every bit of gameplay data as described by GlassBox then you’re more than likely to realize that there should be nothing sacred or personal in playing SimCity, online. It is, after all, one big data mining experiment and it shows based on the many servers and organisations SimCity connects to between content distributors to gameplay servers and even marketing / analytics groups.

    And this is just the beginning.

    What follows is a slew of updates between EA Origin and SimCity and then subsequent updates to get gamers talking to the most recent iteration of GlassBox. In between all of this there are constant fits of online verification between EA’s servers and the gamer’s computers. The best outcome a gamer could get from this is the acknowledgment that they are not connected to EA’s servers. Secondary reasons such as server loads, unavailability of servers or even notes on lengthy queues aren’t always regular, but when they do appear it’s as if you’re being herded to a different paddock like the sheep that you are for passing one of many EA’s “are you a pirate” test.


    Once You’re In…

    One would think that after finding a way through the infinite mess of EA’s server issues that gamers could simply jump into creating a city (or join a city cluster) and be done with it. Unfortunately, that’s not entirely true.

    Depending on which servers you jump onto you’re given notifications that 1) you’re still not connected or 2) you are connected BUT you must play through a tutorial session just to get the feel for it. If it was under a completely different and more positive context, we would’ve been enjoying the tutorial. But given the level of expectations we had with the sandbox nature of SimCity the idea of being herded to a tutorial session after trying in vain to connect in the first place seemed a bit counterintuitive.

    Still if you can get past all of these downright annoying features of SimCity in its present state then a sandbox world awaits you where in-game settings are limited (and sometimes can reset on you) and graphical settings that plays tricks with your depth of field and motion blur. I haven’t even gone into the savegame feature, all of which is on EA’s “cloud” and restricted to the server you choose to log into at the time of trying every other server just to get in. It’s almost reminiscent of the time we spent playing (and cussing) at Diablo 3’s many features.

    So many hours were spent tweaking, researching and finding ways to get online with SimCity and much of that was spent patiently waiting, wondering with great uncertainity if/how/when we’ll be connected just to see how SimCity actually works, let alone play.


    From A Technical Standpoint

    SimCity is implemented with two DRMs – EA Origin for its account-based activation and GlassBox for its data-driven and persistent-online experience. In the past we’ve looked at dual-DRMed games with disdain and rightly so. You don’t need to look that far to see the little success a dual-DRM game has on the open market. For instance, can anyone point to us a Games For Windows Live / SecuROM game that actually delivered a reliable, stable and safe gaming experience? Or what about games that were tied to a publisher-driven DRM and a third party DRM?

    From our experience it’s been quite a tiring experience whenever we looked at either of the following combinations of DRM-obsessed games:
    • Rockstar Social Club / GameShield (LA Noire, Max Payne 3)
    • Games For Windows Live / SecuROM (Batman: Arkham City)
    • SecuROM / SolidShield (Dead Space 2)
    • UPlay / SolidShield (Anno 2070)
    We’ve never seen a working example that gamers all endorsed. Even Steam has its critics and that’s just one DRM / Distribution system. So why should SimCity have fared better or positively given its singular mindset back before a single code of SimCity was written? I’m sure their intentions were well and true, but to not account for what DRMs can do, even in principle, seems all too…arrogant, perhaps? I wonder if Lucy Bradshaw would change her tune now that she’s seen the real-world applications GlassBox / EA Origin can do to a game like SimCity…


    Ultimately What’s Missing Is The Heart

    It sounds great that EA are on damage control mode and are working with gamers to get this resolved as soon as possible. But the truth is we paid for a game to play it, not to be told or advised of where the technical issues are at because there’s no way they could not account for all of this in the 10 years since their last SimCity iteration.

    This leaves us wondering about the good people at Maxis that have committed to this one, single ideal in SimCity and all the time and effort they poured into making this work for all of us. I mean, this was their life and, for most, their career. I’m not sure how they could respond if someone had asked them “what does it feel like to work on something in which gamers can’t even use or play?”.

    See, this is where it hurts for us after you have the courage to move past the usual anger and frustration that I’m sure a lot of SimCity gamers are going through right now. I mean, I would feel absolutely guttered if I had worked in collaboration with others on a project we knew was right and true only to then realize it was doomed right from the start. I’m sure that they are still working hard on making this right, but, honestly, all of this heartache could’ve been averted if they had bothered to ask the right questions or defined the right sets of problems.

    Unfortunately, this is the result of all their hard work. What were they expecting?


    Conclusion

    We don’t think it’s a difficult decision, especially when they have received the lowest score since we redesigned our evaluation process. SimCity is a bargain-bin game and its only hope of changing that is if Maxis decides to revise their whole methodology surrounding their GlassBox (DRM) Engine. It was made with serious observational flaws and it’s hard to feel convinced by their vision when you’re stuck with your machine trying in vain to connect to what is essentially a single-player game.

    You can read more into our detailed report if you’re interested. We’ve explained what we’ve analysed within SimCity in greater detail. We also have a discussion thread on SimCity for those who are interested. Enjoy!
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