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EA's Sims PR Disaster: The Final Straw in the DRM Debate?

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Long before Farmville and its innumerable clones, there was SimCity. Many formative years -- mine included -- were devoted to micromanaging a sprawling metropolis in order to placate a population of fickle digitized denizens. It was, without exaggeration, the pinnacle of single-player gaming for an entire generation.

A cruelly long 10 years passed since the last official release in the franchise -- SimCity 4 -- hit the shelves. Not surprisingly, the announcement in March of last year of a new entry in the series was greeted with unanimous enthusiasm. The best news of all: Maxis, the same company that brought the original games to life, would be at the helm. What could possibly go wrong?

Apparently, nearly everything.

Rumblings began to surface following the revelation that gaming giant Electronic Arts (Maxis' owner since 1997) would be implementing a Digital Rights Management policy that requires the game to connect to official servers in order to operate. Questions were immediately raised about the long-term effects of DRM: would EA force players into purchasing upgrades or add-ons to maintain functionality? If EA were to shut down the servers in the future, would the game become effectively unplayable? Despite the concerns, pent-up excitement still seemed to crest above the discontent.

And then, SimCity launched. Or, more appropriately, it went on sale. Many buyers quickly discovered that the game was basically unplayable due to server overload. Others, who have been lucky enough to connect, have reported intermittent crashes that wipe saved cities, ostensibly another deleterious side effect of the cloud-based DRM system. All of these issues, furthermore, surfaced on a product that had been allegedly tested in an open beta.

One would think that the makers of a game focused squarely on effective management of resources and public sentiment could do a bit better. The irony, nonetheless, is striking.

There certainly is no shortage of venues for voicing criticism. SimCity's rating on Amazon is hovering at an abysmal 1 star, forcing Amazon to temporarily suspend further downloads until the issues are resolved by EA. Meanwhile, the aggregated user review metric on Metacritic has plummeted into territory identified as "overwhelming dislike". Gaming forums everywhere are swamped with complaints, frustrations and general disgust for EA's handling of the situation. Even some professional reviewers have revised their initial judgments of the release, at least pending further action by EA to rectify the situation.

Statisticians would be quick to point out that "review bombing" -- a form of selection bias -- potentially creates an inaccurate distortion of consumer sentiment and belies the actual severity of the situation. Some observers have even drawn parallels to the haphazard launch of Blizzard Entertainment's Diablio III, which suffered from strikingly similar connectivity issues and vociferous initial complaints about game design. The early trouble, however, didn't stop it from becoming the fastest selling game of all-time.

Whether or not the SimCity debacle follows the path of Diablo III, the outcome should not dilute the importance of the underlying dispute over DRM. As consumers, we are responsible for fighting with our voices and our wallets. The evolving notion of ownership and use in a cloud-based age is a debate we cannot afford to sit out.

After all, the EA motto is "Challenge Everything." In this instance, I wholeheartedly agree.

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