SimCity launch debacle drags on, as EA disables features

Updated 7pm Pacific with additional information from EA and Amazon.

Even if you have little interest in SimCity, it’s worth paying attention to the messy launch of the series’ long-awaited reboot. Like it or not, this is the future of large-scale video games.

For three days now, players have complained of issues connecting with SimCity’s servers. One report by YouTube personality TotalBiscuit claimed a 30-minute wait time to start playing the simulation game. Some players who managed to get online have lost progress in the game due to connectivity issues, according to Polygon. Players have also been kicked out of their games, and have been forced to wait 20 minutes after each failed connection.

Keep in mind that these issues are not limited to people who want to play online with friends. In the new SimCity, all players are required to stay connected to Electronic Arts’s servers, even if they want to play alone, in single-player mode.

This afternoon, Kip Katsarelis, SimCity's senior producer, posted a statement on EA's forums, shedding some light on exactly why the game's servers were so overtaxed. "We launched in North America on Tuesday and our servers filled up within a matter of hours," wrote Katsarelis. "What we saw was that players were having such a good time they didn't want to leave the game, which kept our servers packed and made it difficult for new players to join.

"We added more servers to accommodate the launch in Australia and Japan, and then more yesterday to accommodate the launch in Europe. As of right now, we are adding even more servers which will be going live over the next three days."

A few month's ago, EA’s Maxis studio told PC Gamer why the game is so reliant on centralized servers. Because each city is part of a larger connected region that has overarching factors such as pollution, crime and shared resources, the game needs to live online to keep the entire region in sync. It also takes a massive amount of computing power to process all that data. Hence the assist from the cloud.

Of course, this explanation has done little to pacify longtime fans, who liked SimCity just fine without a huge, network-connected infrastructure—especially when the game they’ve been waiting years to play just doesn’t work. A good sampling of the outrage can be found on EA’s SimCity Facebook page, where every update from the company is met with a flood of angry comments. The inevitable Change.org petition to provide an offline mode now is nearing 2,500 signatures as of this writing. (Players have complained of other issues as well, such as limitations on the single-player portion of the game that seem designed to push people toward multiplayer.)

It's ironic that a virtual city known for frequent natural and man-made disasters is having a disaster in the cloud.

Amazon reportedly suspended PC download sales of SimCity Thursday afternoon, but now appear to be offering them again. Nonetheless, the retailer has published a notice warning shoppers of the server issues: "Many customers are having issues connecting to the 'SimCity' servers. EA is actively working to resolve these issues, but at this time we do not know when the issue will be fixed. Please visit https://help.ea.com/en/simcity/simcity for more information."

To its credit, EA has provided plenty of updates on the situation, along with the aforementioned promises that it’s adding server capacity to meet demand. On Thursday, the company said it’s disabling “non-critical gameplay features” such as leaderboards, achievements and region filters to lighten the server load.

Despite the launch issues for SimCity and other high-demand games like Diablo III, it’s unlikely that large publishers will turn away from server-based gaming. The online requirement not only allows for unique features, it also provides a potent form of digital rights management, in which all players can be verified at all times. It’s no surprise, then, that Microsoft’s next Xbox is rumored to require an Internet connection to play. (In fairness, the same was rumored for Sony’s PlayStation 4, but the company now says offline play will be supported.)

As for SimCity, the server overload is certainly an inconvenience, but a larger concern might be not what occurs at launch, but what happens at the game's end of life. If EA provides the servers for single player, it can also take them away. Indeed, we’re looking at a future where the games you bought can be effectively destroyed, and in the case of SimCity, the potential for meticulously designed works of modern art to be wiped out to make way for yet another sequel.

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