Looking back on this week's SimCity launch debacle, it isn't just remarkable that the game's servers failed, it's remarkable how many different ways they failed.
The spectre of Diablo III has loomed over this entire affair, as Blizzard's action-RPG is certainly the easiest point of reference for an always-online PC game that fell on its face upon launch. There is one major difference, however. Diablo III failed in one easily identifiable way: Error 37.
Error 37 was useful, because it became emblematic of the entire disaster. Sure, there were other errors that cropped up later, but Error 37 is the one emblazoned on t-shirts, immortalized in gaming forums, and ingrained in the public consciousness. It was Diablo III's failure, writ large.
SimCity has no Error 37. This game's failings are as varied and unique as the colors of the rainbow. (A shitty rainbow.) Their variety makes the game's overarching problem more difficult to encapsulate, diagnose, and prepare oneself for. SimCity could fail at the outset, or it could fail mid-session. You may have been unable to download it, or you may just be unable to escape the tutorial.
Last May, the day after Diablo III launched, I wrote an op-ed titled "Last Night's Diablo III Debacle Demonstrates The Problem With 'Always-Online' Games." Here are the final two paragraphs:
The important thing to note is that last night, a game was rendered unplayable for a large amount of time entirely because of server failure on Blizzard's part. Maybe it'll never happen again. But maybe it will.
We always knew that by demanding a constant internet connection, Blizzard was taking away a portion of the consumer's ownership of their game. Last night, as the starting gun fired, we got a reminder of what that really means. It means that we play at their pleasure, and that we no longer have the power to decide when our game starts and when it doesn't.
Replace "Blizzard" with "EA" and I could've written that this morning.
In an effort to get my head around the week that was, I've put together a partial list of the many ways that we've been unable to play SimCity since its launch late Monday night. This list certainly isn't complete, but here are some of the ways SimCity has failed for me and my colleagues at Kotaku.
No Unlock For You: Right off the bat, there was a string of problems with games unlocking on time. Lots of people weren't even able to begin downloading the game until hours after the official launch time. It was never quite clear what the hell was going on, only that some people had access to the game while others didn't.
No Pre-Loading: One of the only reasons to ever pre-order a digital game is that, at least through Steam, you can "pre-load" the game and play it immediately as it unlocks. You'd think that EA's Origin would have used a similar approach. You'd be wrong. For reasons passing understanding, Origin didn't allow anyone to pre-load SimCity, meaning that everyone had to download the entire game at the same time.
That led to the unlocking problem above, and also to the interminable installation of the game itself, best exemplified by the "Processing Large File" crawl that we all had to sit through. When I initially downloaded the game in Origin, about an hour after it unlocked, I thought I was in great shape. The entire thing seemed to download in under 30 minutes. Wow, really? Well, no. Actually, most of the game downloaded through the pre-launch menu, and it hung for so long at 23% that I figured it had surely frozen. In fact, I quit and re-started the download multiple times. But then, I finally just let it be, and 20 minutes later it kicked up to 24%. Jeez.
Server-Selection Pinwheel: This one often happens to me when I'm trying to select a different server. It's usually right after I've gotten so fed up with waiting that I decide to take drastic action. I load up the sever selection tool and see a couple that are marked green. I click one, and my Windows spinning-wheel of thoughtfulness starts spinning… and spinning… and spinning, for more or less ever. Or until I give up and try again.
Login Closed: This one's doubtless known to anyone who has tried to play the game, at least on North American servers. You'd try to log in and will simply get a pop-up that the servers are unavailable. EA has, at some points, taken servers down for maintenance, but their announcements and timetables have been so nonsensical (see the below error message, via NeoGAF) that it's difficult to say whether a given server unavailability is planned or accidental.
That might be the least clear server maintenance message I've ever seen. Then again, even when there was a listed downtime, it had no bearing on reality.
The Endless Tutorial Of Death: Yet another problem with the always-online setup seems to be that each server saves a profile for you, but if you go to another server you have to start fresh. That makes sense to a point, but it's odd that the game can't seem to remember that I've done the tutorial like, 5 times. So, every time I switch servers in a desperate bid to find one, any one, that will let me play, I have to go straight into the tutorial again, with no up-front option to skip it. It's annoying—sure, I can just bypass the tutorial after the first dialog bubble turns up, but I wish the game could remember I've played it before. Furthermore, the tutorial never actually tells you you can skip it, so I'm sure lots of players have simply suffered through it again and again.
The TRULY Endless Tutorial Of Death: Then comes the bug that's one of the cruelest: Finally, you get past the server woes and into the game, you begin the tutorial for the seventh time, planning to bypass it asap and start a real game, when for some reason, the tutorial won't actually start. It just sits there, showing you the tutorial town, playing that dreamy music, but it won't ever give you that first pop-up speech bubble. You quit to the main menu. It tells you, hello, would you like to do the tutorial. No, you would not. You load the tutorial again. Same thing happens. Back to the menu. Hello, would you like to do the tutorial. No. You despair.
No City For You: If you manage to get past the loading and the tutorial-loop, there are still plenty of other ways SimCity can fail. How about at the very next screen, where you select regions? Yep, that's a big failure point as well. Several times I'll get all the way to picking out a plot of land for my first city before being told that no, actually, I can't play the game after all. So sorry.
Crash And Burn: Even if you get a city built, it's entirely possible that you'll lose your connection to the server, and therefore whatever work you'd done. Sure, in theory, you can get right back into your server and pick up more or less where you left off, but that's not working all that well right now. It's understandable to just go hop to another server, but of course it's impossible to take whatever you were making with you. Some players have reported crashing out of the game and coming back to find their cities marked as "abandoned," open to be taken over by other players.
Wrong DLC, Buddy: It somehow didn't even cross my mind that there could be non-server-related ways for this game to fail, but it sounds like it's also possible to be unable to play with friends because you don't own the proper DLC. Which is particularly galling, as it's difficult to parse all the different DLC, and I feel like the few times I've gotten into the menu, I've seen ads for several different DLC packs with no real idea of how many there are, or which one is which. It's one thing to require everyone to have the same map-pack to play a Call of Duty map together, but with granular DLC like SimCity's, requiring everyone to have the same DLC to share a region is madness.
Server Unavailable: While sometimes the game would block logins, other times the servers would simply become "unavailable," prompting an error screen like the one above.
Missing City: Others have reported that even after getting into the game for prolonged periods of time, the cities they've spent hours building have either disappeared or become inaccessible. Others have lost access to the servers upon which their cities were saved, and as a result lost access to their cities.
While the variety of SimCity's failings may set it apart from Diablo III, the games have one thing in common: They're both unintentional—but unequivocal—arguments against an always-online requirement.
This week, it seemed that the grim future Diablo III foretold came to pass. SimCity has failed its users so thoroughly and in such a variety of ways that I can't help but stare at the wreckage of this by-all-accounts lovely game and shake my head. Surely there's a better way.