It was a disaster for EA, its distributor. Within hours the game blogs were humming, and the comments sections were humming even more. People had paid for the game; many people had pre-ordered it. Everything should have worked. People were angry. The problem quickly became obvious: SimCity’s Always-On DRM was gumming up the works. To clarify: the game requires a constant internet connection to play, with the game syncing to the servers every twenty minutes or so. The servers were overloaded. When people were able to connect, the game was frequently unplayable. Some games simply didn’t unlock on time.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t anywhere near the first time this very thing has happened. Games with primarily online components have often run into server problems at launch, with the issues resolving within a few days, after everyone has calmed down a bit. No big deal, people have said. This is just the new face of gaming. It’s growing pains. Things will sort themselves out.
Then other things started to come out. EA released statements to the effect that the game would be nigh-impossible to reengineer to run offline, because “with the way that the game works, we offload a significant amount of the calculations to our servers so that the computations are off the local PCs and are moved into the cloud.” Gamers responded that this was probably ridiculous bullshit, but we didn’t have proof of this until the last twenty-four hours, wherein a modder was able to run the non-regional version of the game offline without any significant issues. A Maxis insider has confirmed this. Clearly a “significant amount of engineering” isn’t actually required in order to make the game playable without an internet connection. The DRM that was presented by the game’s distributor as a fundamental part of the game’s function is not fundamental, practically speaking.
So either EA was misinformed by Maxis, or they’re lying.
Why should we care about this? Most simply, because it’s a continuation of an ongoing trend: The recategorization of technology owners as technology users, of the possession of private property transformed into the leasing of property owned by others, with all the restrictions on use that come along with it. And what’s most worrying about this are all the ways in which we as owner-users are being encouraged to view this as a normal part of our relationship with our stuff. When the very concept of “our stuff” is up for grabs.
This raises a host of important questions: Who controls our use and how and why? What kinds of things will be subject to restriction? What are the consequences when people – as they inevitably do – bypass these restrictions? But even more: what happens when we no longer even see these restrictions? What happens when the restrictions themselves are hidden, unless we’re brought up against them? As Cory Doctorow puts it:
We don’t know how to make a computer that can run all the programs we can compile except for whichever one pisses off a regulator, or disrupts a business model, or abets a criminal. The closest approximation we have for such a device is a computer with spyware on it— a computer that, if you do the wrong thing, can intercede and say, “I can’t let you do that, Dave.”
Such a computer runs programs designed to be hidden from the owner of the device, and which the owner can’t override or kill.
What happened with SimCity is that the curtain was torn down. The consequences of the scenario of a world of normalized DRM were made brutally plain – and what was also made plain is that the entities that are responsible for this kind of DRM most likely have a vested interest in and a conscious intent to maintain the integrity of that curtain, to obscure the nature of what we’re “buying”. This is what the future of user-serfs looks like. And this, too, has happened before. As Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton wrote on the occasion of the massive server failure that accompanied the release of the hotly-anticipated Diablo III:
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.
As many of the issues with SimCity continue, some game-bloggers are striking back at the notion that this is minor kerfuffling, or that it should be regarded as an acceptable state of affairs, even if the many problems with SimCity are “fixed”. Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker writes:
Claiming SimCity fixed, by removing the server queues, random crashes, lost cities, server drops, and the artificial restrictions placed on the game just to make it run, is like claiming a broken leg fixed because you’ve mended the crutches. The game, by its very design, is hideously broken, and like Diablo III before it, it has only served to scream a complete disregard for sense and a massive disregard for customers. So what we mustn’t do now is say, “Well, teething problems.”
These aren’t teething problems. These are continuous deep-running flaws designed to cripple the game for you as a player, simply to serve some nebulous notion of protecting the game against piracy.
Essentially, when we accept the notion that we are users of technology rather than owners, we accept the notion that we should expect broken products. Less valuable products. Less real products. And this has implications that go far beyond games. Games are the canary in the coal mine, things that are both fully in the center of the “piracy” debate and easily controlled by the entities that make and distribute them. And people want them, to the degree that they’re often willing to overlook the ways in which these things no longer really belong to them. Our relationship with our technology is arguably in a state of flux, from concepts of private property and accompanying freedom of use to something else. This isn’t just a matter of items and gadgets; this is about data, about identity; if we’re our technology, this has profound implications for our relationship with ourselves. Games occupy our imaginative spaces. What happens when those spaces aren’t ours anymore?
So yes, SimCity matters. What’s even more worrying – at least to me – is the idea that things like the SimCity disaster will happen less frequently as DRM technologies become more subtle, and the curtain will be torn down less and less often. And what we no longer see, we no longer feel much of an obligation to care about.