So. SimCity. Which side are you on?
The debate about always-on DRM has flared up and waned multiple times now. It found life as a hot topic when Assassin’s Creed II was released for the PC. We saw it enjoy a brief resurgence just last year, riding high on Diablo III’s launch. Most recently, we saw it this past week as gamers, critics, and the internet at large busily proclaimed SimCity as the blunder of 2013.
Always-on DRM is a curious topic to discuss in that no one is really for it: people will always choose smooth, uninterrupted gameplay over the ever-present fear of being booted from the server at any moment. People will always want to get into the game sooner instead of having to log into a series of services before even seeing a title’s main menu. People will always go for something permanent over a product that only half-exists on their end: the other side is of course housed in the developer’s servers, and lord knows when the powers-that-be suddenly up and decide that it’s time to shut the servers down, consigning all the data on their end to an oblivion bound by bureaucracy and red tape.
We certainly tolerate always-on DRM though. And for what?
I think the only good explanation is that we’ve resigned ourselves to the reality of the times. This is what our rampant piracy has gotten us into, we are told. This is how the developers ensure that we are always playing the game that they meant us to play, and in the way we were meant to play it. This is how we can “enhance our gameplay experience” -- by letting us post game-related stuff on Facebook, or, if we are especially blessed, on second-rate community sites designed to look like Facebook.
We’re told that it shouldn’t bother us if a game requires us to always be online; we’re almost always online most of the time, anyway. I’m online as I type this. You’re online as you read this. Never mind that everyone’s in-game stability has more to do with the servers we’re connecting to than our own internet connections.
The biggest loss with SimCity, however, is simply our ownership of the game itself. It used to be that buying a new game for the PC came with a special thrill -- an electrifying feeling that I was carrying home a box that contained an entire world in it. First they came in floppy disks, and then on CDs. They came on multiple CDs, then DVDs. Now, they don’t even come in anything at all -- I just download entire games through the internet via Steam or GOG. They’re the same full games, though, and while Steam is technically DRM, Steam never follows me around wherever I go like an annoying sales clerk, waiting for my internet connection to hiccup for two seconds so it can hustle me out of the store without explanation.
The developers have stated that an offline-only SimCity is simply impossible, basically telling us that what we have on our hard drives is half a game: data files and game systems and preconstructed content. Everything we create goes to the server, where it stays for the rest of eternity. Without the internet or without their servers, all we have is half of the game, and it’s not even our half, so to speak. Let me remind everyone that SimCity is inherently a single player game by concept and design.
Now this single player game is like a nuclear launch procedure, and we only have one of the keys. It’s all just a bit disappointing.
And now, to close this brief statement: something cheesy and different! To set the mood, here’s one of my favorite scenes from my all-time favorite sci-fi show, Babylon 5:
"No. We have to stay here and there's a simple reason why. Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics and you'll get ten different answers, but there's one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on. Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won't just take us. It'll take Marilyn Monroe and Lao-Tzu, Einstein, Morobuto, Buddy Holly, Aristophanes... and all of this... all of this was for nothing unless we go to the stars."
One day, when humanity has taken to the stars, we will have all those people and ideas preserved in whatever devices our descendants will be using to store data then. Marilyn Monroe. Lao-Tzu. Kaz Hirai’s Ridge Racer video clip. Everything that humanity has accomplished.
Everything... along with one half of an ancient, obscure game from 2013 called SimCity.