In an unsurprising but wholly satisfying twist, it turns out that EA and Maxis were lying about SimCity’s always-online server requirements. According to a developer who worked on SimCity and has very detailed knowledge of the game’s architecture, it would be quite easy to create a single player version of the game that doesn’t require EA’s draconian always-on DRM.
If you haven’t been following the news, a new version of SimCity was released last week – 10 years after the previous instalment – to much fanfare and generally positive reviews. While there have been some misgivings about the actual gameplay, SimCity’s biggest problem is that many people simply couldn’t play it.
SimCity, even in single player mode, requires a persistent internet connection to EA’s servers – and at launch, many users simply couldn’t connect. Despite dropping their hard earned cash on the game right off the bat, thousands – perhaps millions – of eager gamers could do nothing but twiddle their thumbs.
These problems persisted for days in the US, and with the UK launch later in the week as well, resulting in a flood of negative reviews that eventually led to Amazon.com delisting the game over in the States.
Now, having server issues at launch is nothing new. Almost every online service experiences the same problem. Catering for that first crush of connections – a spike that might be 10 times higher than everyday use after the launch settles down – is logistically and programmatically very difficult. But SimCity isn’t an online service.
According to Maxis, the official reason for the server issues is intrinsic to the game itself. “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.”
When questioned about whether these calculations could be moved to the local PC, Maxis says: “It wouldn’t be possible to make the game offline without a significant amount of engineering work by our team.” If we take EA and Maxis at their word, these responses seem fair enough.
The problem though, according to a developer who “worked directly on the project,” is that SimCity doesn’t offload calculations to EA’s servers. “The servers are not handling any of the computation done to simulate the city you are playing. They are still acting as servers, doing some amount of computation to route messages of various types between both players and cities,” the anonymous developer tells Rock Paper Shotgun.
The developer goes on to say that the servers are also used to store saved games in the cloud, and for detecting cheaters in non-real-time – but that’s it. “It wouldn’t take very much engineering to give you a limited single player game without all the nifty region stuff,” he finishes.
In an attempt to confirm the developer’s claims, our own testing showed that SimCity continues to work even if the Internet connection drops. There are numerous reports around the web of users saying the same thing: If the router crashes, or Wi-Fi signal drops out for a while, SimCity continues to work.
For a game that apparently offloads a “significant amount” of work to the servers, you’d think that SimCity would immediately crash after having the plug pulled. Really, if you take a step back and look at the situation logically, it’s quite insane to even consider the thought of Maxis building a cluster to simulate millions of cities, when every gamer already has a stupidly powerful desktop PC in front of them.
Why did EA/Maxis lie through their teeth and say that the game requires an always-on Internet connection? Either due to miscommunication, or – more likely – the publisher is simply trying to cover its use of always-on DRM. By making it look like SimCity’s always-on requirement is a service to the gamer – ooh, EA’s servers are making the simulation more accurate! – it’s easier to forgive or forget the DRM.
The irony, of course, is that these server issues will prove to be the perfect inspiration for crackers to circumvent the DRM. After all, let’s not forget that one of the original purposes of cracking is to create no-CD cracks, so that software is easier to install and run. For crackers, cracking SimCity will be a matter of principle.