Thoughts on SimCity’s Always-On DRM

The new SimCity is now available for PCs and the reactions from gamers online are both varied and heated. I have not personally played the game. But I have followed its development and release with interest. I am a fan of the entire ‘Sim’ franchise, and I’ve also been curious about how people would react to some of the design decisions in this latest incarnation.

It is impossible to read about SimCity without hearing about its ‘always-on DRM’, so today I felt like writing down my thoughts about that controversial subject.

The Issue of Different Viewpoints

It seems like within any creative medium you will find stark differences between the viewpoints of the consumers and the creators. For example, I am not a musician or student of music, but my friend Jesse is both, and I cannot help but notice that we do not see music in the same way. Similarly most people I know who are gamers do not make games themselves, and so they adopt a different stance of video games than I do as someone who sits on the ‘developer’ side of the fence.

This is not a situation where one viewpoint is superior to the other. The opinions on video games from the perspectives of both consumers and creators are inherently equal. However, people become passionate about video games, as with all forms of entertainment, and rapidly forget to consider the other point-of-view. I have watched it happen in both directions as incensed gamers rage over a title without considering the reasoning from the perspective of developers, and I’ve seen developers latch on to an idea with ruthless pursuit while dismissing all opinions of their entire audience.

I mention all of this because I am going to write about SimCity from my perspective as a developer. As a consumer I have a bitter distaste for always-on DRM. But other people have already expressed that opinion on the Internet, so instead of repeating it I will simply say that I understand the reason for the anger towards SimCity and as a gamer I have no motivation to support such DRM. However, as a developer I am sympathetic towards the design decisions of Maxis and EA. So that is the perspective I adopt for this article since it feels like the voice of the minority.

A Developer’s View on Gamers and DRM

As a computer programmer that works on games I’ve come to the following opinion regarding gamers and DRM: only a tiny minority of gamers truly choose to not support DRM.

I often hear from gamers that always-on DRM is a terrible concept and that they will never purchase games or use services that employ that technique. Yet the incredible success of Steam leads me to believe that gamers say one thing but believe the opposite when it comes to their wallets. Because Steam is always-on DRM. Yes—I am aware that Steam has an ‘Offline Mode’, which you have to be online to enable, so hopefully you can predict when your Internet connection will go out….

Valve Corporation released Steam almost a decade ago, and when they did people hated it. They hated it with the same wrath they now direct towards EA’s Origin, or individual games with always-on DRM such as SimCity or Diablo 3. In those ten years Valve continuously refined Steam and made changes to please consumers while never backing away from the always-on DRM design of the service itself. The results are telling: now Steam is almost universally loved and respected by gamers (and developers).

So I cannot believe most gamers genuinely hate always-on DRM. What they actually hate is always-on DRM for games they don’t like. If a game is great fun then people will accept its DRM.

For the thousands of complaints I see online for each game using always-on DRM I notice a contrast with the millions of people that purchase the game, accept the DRM, and apparently consider it a non-issue. As a developer that gives me a lot of confidence that always-on DRM would not impact the sale of my game so long as its still a fun product that gamers enjoy. Gamers knew about the always-on DRM of Diablo 3 long before Blizzard released the game and it still sold four million copies on its first day. Gamers speak more loudly with their money than with their words, and I cannot be the only developer who feels that way.

So Do I Like the Always-On Aspect of SimCity?

As a gamer, no. But as a developer? I certainly do not hate it. I don’t even dislike it. I sympathize with the decision to use an always-on design.

Gamers are angry because SimCity is a single-player game yet it forces them to be online. Except that SimCity is not a single-player game. It is a multiplayer game where player solitude is the exception and not the rule. The fact that the previous installments were single-player titles does not rob Maxis of the freedom to adopt a different fundamental design. The explosion of popularity within the arena of online mobile games and social-media website games shines an attractive light on the idea of an always-on, Facebook-influenced SimCity game. The market gives developers every indication that the majority of gamers either actively want such a game, or that the idea does not upset them even if it’s not their personal preference.

Each city in SimCity is continuously interacting with neighboring cities created by other players. Even when the player is not online his city is participating in that network. That aspect alone provides technical justification for an always-on game. While it is possible to implement those social features in a primarily single-player game it is easier to support them with the prerequisite that players remain connected to the Internet.

As a developer I look at SimCity and see designs in the gameplay that justify the always-on infrastructure. But let’s not ignore the ‘DRM’ in the phrase ‘always-on DRM’. Maxis and EA make the mistake of not simply admitting that DRM is also part of the reason for the always-on design. Here is the reality: there are enough people pirating games to make publishers and developers concerned about being paid for their work, and thus we have DRM. That is one of the few universal truths in the sea of perspectives and opinions about video game DRM and piracy. So yes, part of the reason SimCity has an always-on design is to act as DRM in an attempt to curb piracy. And again, coming from the viewpoint of a developer, I completely understand why. Personally I would do the exact same thing if I were developing a PC title with the popularity and clout of SimCity. Maxis and EA should be honest with their consumers and just admit that this is part of the motivation for SimCity’s always-on design.

The Future of Always-On DRM

In recent years I have watched always-on games follow this trend:

  1. Developer or Publisher announces AAA title with an always-on requirement, citing multiplayer gameplay design as the motivation.

  2. Gamers on the Internet unleash a furious verbal backlash against the always-on aspect.

  3. The game sells millions of copies.

The inconsistency of opinion in those last two steps makes developers like myself believe that always-on DRM only discourages an insignificant number of gamers from purchasing the product—and when I say ‘insignificant’ I mean strictly in terms of dollars and cents, so don’t take it personally. With that said, I have no reason to believe that always-on DRM will go away. Honestly I expect the opposite and believe more and more PC games will adopt the same design. The developer in me easily sympathizes with moving in that direction.

I obviously cannot predict the future though, so maybe I’ll be wrong.

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