SimCity As Case Study: Four Reasons Gaming Companies Need To Ditch Always-On DRM

SimCity launched yesterday, if “launch” is really the term you want to use. Considering the entirely predictable problems the game faced, a term implying thrust and momentum seems a bit inapt. While not everybody was unable to play the game, enough customers were locked out that angry posts proliferated across the gaming blogosphere and gave Maxis and EA a black eye, while stirring up gamer rage over DRM yet again.

It’s just another illustration of the fact that always-on DRM isn’t worth it. Here are four points the gaming industry should consider, before flicking that particular switch.

It’s Unfair To PC Gamers

Look, we’ll mock PC gamers night and day, because there’s always that guy who has to proclaim his natural superiority over those console proles. But the reality is, always-on DRM only exists on one platform, and it’s not like game piracy is impossible on PS3 or Xbox 360. More difficult, technically, but it’s not impossible. Why do PC gamers get singled out for special abuse?

It’s Probably Unnecessary

This is a serious question: How much do game companies actually lose to piracy? We’ve yet to get a straight answer. There hasn’t really been much independent research on the topic. Sure, there’s always that guy in the comments section talking crap about torrentin’ it, but is he the exception or the rule, if he even torrents it at all?

What independent research has been done into piracy, focused on film and music, has tended to show that most people think piracy is wrong and that when presented with legal and convenient alternatives, people prefer to use those.

Granted that gamers are generally somewhat different than your average consumer in some respects, but most of us pay for our games. So instead of using this software out of hand, how about actually looking into the problem, first?

It Locks Some Gamers Out

I have a good friend who has played every SimCity game in the franchise. By any stretch of the imagination, he is a hardcore fan. And his wife bought him the game as a gift.

Which was great, but they live in the middle of nowhere in New England. Their Internet service is terrible. And after a few hours of trying, and failing, to get the game to connect, he just gave up.

This is a minority of gamers; obviously EA and other companies have run the numbers and decided the extra sales aren’t worth the perceived losses in piracy. Still, they get screwed, and they shouldn’t be.

There Will Never, Ever, Ever Not Be Launch Day Issues

It’s pretty much a given: A game is announced to have always-on DRM, and the publisher promises that they’ve got rack after rack of servers and connectivity ninjas, and there is no way the game will crash.

And inevitably, the game is an unusable mess for a week. The truth is, a retail game with always-on DRM is a vast, complicated thing and the more complexity in a system, the more likely something is to go wrong. Not even console games with high multiplayer demand can really avoid bumps and hiccups.

And this will never change. There’s just too much in the way of moving parts, too many different systems on too many different connections, for something to not go wrong. Game companies aren’t fighting the limits of IT technology, they’re fighting complexity theory, and generally, complexity theory wins.