Category Archives: SimCity

I’ve Had an Extraordinarily Bad Day

…but this isn’t the place to talk about it.

(If you’re THAT curious, email me. Who knows? You might even be able to help. Yes, you. You, in the sweater.)

(That’ll put Gmail’s spam filter through its paces.)

Instead, I’m going to relay a really brilliant comment I read about SimCity on RPS.

Excellent question. Sure, you might have just been trolling, but it is important to ask, “why are people so concerned about this game?”

Pull up the chair, and let ol’ Granpa tell you a story. When I was a but a child, I went to a Community College and had a job. My job was playing computer games in a small office, back when “software testing” was something you not only could do while going to Community College, you could get paid for.

Remember when companies paid people for things?

Moving on…

We were an independent contracting house. Most of the games were the shovelware crap of the day — I have my share of war stories.

One day, we were asked to do final external testing on this Mac game from some small company out in Orinda. Yes, it was SimCity, and yes, it was an amazing game.

But it was more than an amazing game, it was amazing code. I remember we only encountered one showstopper bug. You could move around the city, but the city itself was frozen in time.

On the phone to Maxis, the reply (probably from Jeff Braun) was straightforward, “Yeah, that just means the simulation crashed; the interface will keep running.”

I know this sounds like basic game coding 101, but between the games I worked on and the ones we had in office for “research”, I was seeing between a half-dozen and a dozen games a week, on all platforms, and I’d never seen a game that was so well behaved as to have the simulation hang without bringing down the whole thing. And the stability was right up there with the titles from the PCEngine that we were certifying for the US market: frankly, there weren’t very many bugs, and those that we found were so minor as to be inconsequential. This was clean code.

The original was a rare thing: one of the few perfect games. Flawless code, easily readable, immediately accessible, SimCity gave birth to a genre while it marked a fond spot in the memories of a generation.

So it hurts to see it become the predictable result of groupthink mediocrity, a vision darkened by the urge to monetize and blinded by the buzzword-laden venom spat out by suit-wearing asps whose MBAs give them the right to override common sense and computer science.

For those managers who think the blasphemy of SimCity can all be attributed to teething problems, let me state clearly in your terms the problem: As long as you treat games as having a retail channel, you will be following a marketing model that flogs week 1 sales. DRM necessarily affects the core functionality of a game and necessarily changes continuously (out-of-date DRM might as well not be used). If you attach DRM to such a game, you will then increase significantly the chances that a significant percentage of your customers will not be able to play the game; that is, you will increase the number of dud products you sell. If you require internet-connected DRM, then you increase those odds by several orders of magnitude.

Always-on, Server-client games require a “Games as Service” business model. That business model is simply incompatible with a Week-1 spike in sales. A blockbuster movie has people waiting in line to see it. A video game with a long queue only generates hostility.

Your job is only safe until someone comes up with a metric to show how many millions you’ve wasted. Until then, enjoy laying off the people who actually contributed positively to the project.

So in short, what was a revolutionary title built on solid code, is now a “me-too” adaptation to the Social Network of 2008 with code that evokes comparisons to WWIIOL at launch.

I can’t add much to that…except that the story that it was linked to is one where a Maxis insider confirmed that SimCity doesn’t actually need the servers at all. Ayup. Doing a single-player version of SimCity isn’t just possible, this insider confirmed that it would be trivial. The only parts that wouldn’t work would be the “region” stuff, and while I’m sure that that sort of thing is neat, it clearly isn’t justifying this debacle.

I find it hard to care. People in the sorts of situation I’m in have trouble caring about stuff as abstract as digital rights management, which is one of the reasons why they can get away with that sort of thing in these dire-as-hell days.Yet it’s good to know regardless. It could have been different. It could have been better. And it WAS BETTER.

Just remember that.

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