Maxis explains the use of SimCity always-online DRM
The most controversial topic in Maxis’ Reddit AMA last week was SimCity’s use of always-online DRM. Many fans objected to the principle of needing to be online when playing the game alone. "If a game requires me to be online all the time to play it, sorry, I can't get behind buying it," one comment read. Another: "Didn't work for Diablo 3 not going to work for you. Sorry, just lost a buyer." (Diablo 3’s record sales would beg to differ, unfortunately.)
Today, Maxis frontwoman and senior VP Lucy Bradshaw has stepped in in an attempt to clear the air. In a statement on simcity.com, she touches on EA’s design motivations and technical reasons for implementing an always-online requirement in all SimCity modes, emphasizing that the game “was designed to be connected from the ground up.”
“GlassBox is the engine that drives the entire game—the buildings, the economics, trading, and also the overall simulation that can track data for up to 100,000 individual Sims inside each city. There is a massive amount of computing that goes into all of this, and GlassBox works by attributing portions of the computing to EA servers (the cloud) and some on the player's local computer,” Bradshaw writes.
If I’m understanding that correctly, Bradshaw’s saying that offloading certain aspects of the simulation to SimCity servers is not only the way the game is designed, but a technical requirement. Bradshaw reflects this again in a later paragraph: “Trades between cities, simulation effects that cause change across the region like pollution or crime, as well as depletion of resources, are all processed on the servers and then data is sent back to your city on your PC. Every city in the region is updated every three minutes, which keeps the overall region in sync and makes your decisions in your city relevant to any changes that have taken place in the region.”
Though indirectly, this represents Maxis' closest answer to why players won’t be able to elect to make a city or region as single-player-only upon creation. Bradshaw later brings up that having all players online grants Maxis the data it needs to “create weekly global and local challenges for our players that keep the gameplay fresh and surprising.”
It's admittedly tough to be direct about these issues without being antagonistic, but I think Bradshaw should have been more frank—her comments are separated by generalizations about Maxis’ vision for the game that we’re already firmly acquainted with, and only water down her explanation. Maybe GlassBox—even in a single-player context—genuinely requires help from servers in order to do all it does. I don’t believe that could be the case, but I’m also not a technical director. If there is a legitimate technical need for all players to be online while playing SimCity, I might recommend to EA that they offer fans a visual or more detailed explanation of that system.
The question I have for Maxis is the same one I had for Blizzard prior to the launch of Diablo 3: if hacking, mods, unregulated user content, or similar concerns are part of the reason you're integrating an always-online requirement, why not allow players to opt into a single-player-only mode that permanently isolates their game save? Why can't we simply log in upon booting the game, and not require us to be online every moment?