What SimCity DLC Can Teach You About Creating

Published On August 27, 2013 » 1639 Views» By Wade Smit »

launch_1So much can be said of the latest SimCity game, most notoriously and inarguably; it had a really shitty launch. One of the worst in the history of online games — except for, perhaps, Fury, an MMORPG that shut down after mere months due to lack of players. SimCity, at the least, had the opposite problem. Servers worldwide (meaning US territory, really) buckled as too many players tried to enjoy their freshly-printed SimCity copies. The result was not pretty for Maxis. For about a solid month the studio was ridiculed, teased and boycotted by the internet gaming community.

And then everyone forgot about it.

The saddening thing is that SimCity is not actually a bad game at all. Contrarily, it’s one of the most addictive I’ve ever played, and I still regularly go back to it. Was the backlash deserved? Probably not as extremely as we saw it, especially considering how the game holds up now after its recent updates and free DLC. One item of said free content is a new “ploppable” park named the “SimCity Launch Park”. What you’ll find upon a closer inspection of the park is a somewhat amphitheatric garden, and close by, what appears to be a miniature residential apartment block. Look a little closer still and you’ll find a golden plaque on which reads “Server 1″. It’s then that you look back at the apartment block and notice the blue sparks of self-deprecation sprouting from it.
Humble bastards.

But don’t be mistaken, while it’s a symbol of the studio’s humour and humility, it’s still the smallest part of the latest updates. Among what’s new are; places of worship, better control of imports and exports, improved cash gifting, and quite a number of other things. Many of which, I agree, could/should have been implemented from the start, but what’s more important to me is that in a point in the industry where patching of games is commonplace, some developers continue to use this in support of already released games long after they’ve released, and not simply to fix bugs.

Maxis’ quirky, self-aware charm is an aspect of their ethos that deserves to be a more ubiquitous presence in modern and future games.
To a creator of any kind, the honesty and dedication shown by Maxis is a valuable philosophy. By following such a sturdy mindset, we can find ways to improve our art and talents. To be prescient of both positive and negative feedback — as I’m sure anyone who has experienced an audience will have noticed — will save you and your works a lot of butt-hurt.simcity.0_cinema_640.0

For example, in response to some recent satirical articles of mine — which may or may not be as terrible as the critics say — there was a degree of vitriol. Caught up in my own enjoyment of the writing process I found myself entirely unprepared for what comments I was about to receive. It was surprising just how hurtful negative comments could be (amplified when they number in the hundreds).

Bluntly, SimCity could have remained an embarrassment to the studio that made it, and that’s a difficult reality that anyone would rather not face. Instead, though, the team behind SimCity refused to leave it at that. Unsatisfied or enamoured with their work, the result was the same; they steadily patched it up in accordance with fan requests, and will no doubt continue to do so for some time. That’s the mark of a prideful creator.

The same could easily have gone for me and my articles, which, like a lot of other art, is released and immediately responded to. But hope is not lost if the public looks on, indignant or unimpressed. Improve, create more, poke fun at your own failings, get better, and overshadow those with successes — however you may define them.

And yes, I did learn all this from playing SimCity.

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5 comments
Axe99
Axe99

I haven't forgotten, and won't.  Maxis or EA decided to add an extra barrier of entry to their game that was totally unnecessary from a gameplay perspective, and paid for it as they should.  Almost every time someone's tried to make something always-online when they don't need to, it's gone pear-shaped, and yet people continue to do so.  Sure, pirates are partly to blame (and I'm even more scathing of them, don't deserve to be called gamers), but why punish your fans?

And you talk about their humility and ethos, but do you remember how long it took them to admit defeat, and even then the weasel words they used to do it?  I have no doubt that Maxis are a group of hard-working people that have a bunch of good ideas along with the bad ones, but either their pride, or EA's, meant they did not behave in a particularly humble or consumer-friendly manner until they had been forced by the circumstances.  That said, they are hard working and dedicated, and working to improve the experience.  True humility, however, would mean releasing a version that wasn't bounded by an unnecessary connection to online servers.

wadenewb
wadenewb moderator

@Axe99 Firstly I want to thank you for taking the time to share your opinion with us :)
Secondly, I'd like to disagree xD
As much as always-online being a "barrier of entry" as you described, it wasn't just a piracy deterrent, it was an inherent game design. SimCity 5 is an mmo, and that's just the kind of game it is, so releasing an offline version of it is akin to wanting an offline Guild Wars.

On the topic of the way the consumers were spoken to, I agree that it was pretty terrible, but for the most part that was from EA spokespeople. The public outreaches we received from Maxis devs? Much friendlier, more sincere. I'll point to this blog post in which the launch problems were readily explained as admitted as being "dumb". 
http://www.simcity.com/en_US/blog/article/a-simcity-update-and-something-for-your-trouble
Most of the public mishandling was EA-branded.

Axe99
Axe99

@wadenewb @Axe99 I agree Maxis' outreach was generally good at the high level, but if you go onto the Simcity forums, when they were asked about specific issues (like how it could and had been tweaked to function perfectly well - indeed, even better - offline) they were far less forthcoming.  The game design itself is only very, very mildly MMO - the MMO-nature is nothing that couldn't be handled by an incredlibly simple AI to handle the transfers between regions (indeed, these were shut down entirely in the initial phase after release when the servers were in meltdown).

In other words, they had a game that could be played offline, and perfectly well could be played offline.  I've got nothing against online games - I'm currently playing a game of Europa Universalis IV in 'Ironman' mode, which relies on cloud saves to avoid players cheating - but Paradox also lets you play offline just as much as you like.  Unlike Maxis/EA, they haven't created an artificial barrier to entry.  The fact that within days people had functioning, offline versions of the game clearly shows how much hogwash the always-online talk was.  It's either the case that in the many months of development no-one in Maxis thought "Oh, hang on, if we replace these transfers with a simple algorithm you can play offline", which  given the talent of the group I find to be highly, _highly_ unlikely. Which unfortunately casts the always-on approach in a far less flattering light than the "it was a creative approach" argument.

Yes, there was good reason to have an online mode, but there was no good reason to _only_ have an online mode.  It was exactly the same kind of narrow-mindedness shown with Microsoft's initial approach to the Xbox One (indeed, I think part of the reaction Microsoft received, which I thought was a bit disproportionate, is likely due to the amount of disillusionment surrounding the ham-fisted attempts to force gamers into always-on, always-attached-to-the-publisher-to-increase-possibilities-for-monetisation approaches, and on the available evidence, and assuming that Maxis know what they're doing, SimCity's online focus was either trying to prevent piracy or maximise monetisation, at the expense of player enjoyment.

Just having a friendly discussion here - sorry if I sound a bit short, a bit crook.  Don't get me wrong, Maxis is well within their rights to try and fight piracy, or to try and fleece as much money from gamers as they can (in both cases, there have been devs and publishers that have done far worse, with far less quality games).  It's just they shouldn't go calling it 'creative decision-making' when they do.

Axe99
Axe99

@wadenewb @Axe99 Aye, totally, it's been good chatting about it with you, and I deffo agree that Maxis were strong-armed into doing things the way they did.  EA had a bit of a bright patch when things like Dead Space and Mirror's Edge were greenlit, but it's sliding back into the 'bad old' EA at the moment.  Hopefully these kinds of backlash give it a reality check.  That said, and like yourself, I don't want the backlash to personally hurt the people at Maxis or even EA.  They're people trying to get by just like the rest of us - it's just that sometimes they'll make poor decisions (just like the rest of us :)).  When I raise these kind of issues (and I did on the SimCity forums as well, and was far from alone) it's not to attack anyone personally, it's more just a friendly "it's within you're right to do what you're doing, but you may find if you go down that path you turn a lot of people off".

Good chatting with you, may all your games be good ones :).

wadenewb
wadenewb moderator

@Axe99 You make a strong point -- it wasn't absolutely necessary to make it exclusively an online game, and the provision of an offline mode would have been a good thing from any angle, so I concede that. 
And as for the forum issues, I wasn't aware of the reaction there. That makes me reconsider somewhat their appearance of friendliness on a public level if their attitude in the forums was purportedly not as kind. Though, then again, that's only purport, and I can't change my opinion on just that yet, I'm sure you'll agree.

I do think though, despite that the always-on design is defended as being a creative decision and criticised for being tacked-on DRM, I'd argue that it's actually a fairly decent combination of the two. I enjoy the online features of SC5, but they were somewhat forcefully added. It's piracy-protection morphed into a game mechanic and I think that's fine so long as it doesn't intrude or obstruct gameplay experience.
Which we know it did.

The key of my argument is that this is all true. What you say is true. It's just that we may not realise these orders for DRM design probably comes from higher up in the EA cabinets, as a mandate, and not from Maxis themselves, exclusively as a feature. The way Maxis and EA have dealt with the repercussions of this game has not been altogether great, but that is what marks SC5 as a point of progression. In this (http://thekoalition.com/2013/08/peter-moore-ea-will-continue-to-make-offline-games/) news piece, just 2 days ago, Peter Moore explained EA's aim to continue producing offline-capable games. It's not ideal, but it seems like a change of direction at least, almost definitely as a result of the SC5 backlash.
Maxis, too, are learning and changing. Slowly, and through updates, but no doubt they are heading feedback and changing what they know of the consumers' desires.

I by no means claim this latest Maxis game to be an outright success -- it's fun and I play it every so often, but it does a lot of things wrong too. Maps aren't nearly big enough, no terraforming tools, maps are really very very small, and the occasional simulation hiccup, and others all contribute to an imperfect game. It's the attitude offered from this point onward that will show what kind of creators Maxis are -- with luck, they'll be the kind excited to get better and keep working. So far, that's what they've been doing and it's quite simply pleasant to see.

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And don't apologise, you haven't come across as short. I'm just grateful I have had the opportunity to have this discussion with someone, so thanks once again :)