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Is Always On a Turn Off?

Examine my profile on Origin and it will try and assure you that I’ve played Sim City for a grand total of 11 hours. Bless. It’s being rather optimistic; in reality it’s been nearer 20 minutes.

On Friday I veritably skipped home from work. The optimistic thought in my head being that all the server issues were on the other side of the pond and that I’d be able to spend that evening constructing my metropolis. Cue many hours of me staring at a screen assuring me that I was in a queue but my call was important and that they’d be ever so grateful if I held. The server burden eased for just long enough for me to play through the tutorial but not long after I was kicked off and I’ve been staring at retry timers ever since.

I’m not angry. Channelling parents everywhere, I’m just disappointed.

Sadly it’s not a unique occurrence. It’s the second time in recent times that an “always online” game launch has caused such an outcry in twelve months. Last June Diablo III released with similar issues as the initial servers failed to cope with the demand and caused eager players to join digital queues. Legal cases in Germany and France were brought over the farce and whilst Blizzard responded quickly the damage to their reputation was notable.

Ubisoft may have taken note, for a few months later in September it withdrew its “always online” policy for its PC games. Until that point, even its single player experiences required a constant connection to the internet. Although it may seem like a sensible piracy protection measure, the fact most pirates could get around such restrictions meant that for the most part only honest customers were inconvenienced. The French publisher even went on the record saying that the company’s products had over a 90% piracy rate. In its place came a “one time online activation.”

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So if three huge companies can’t get it right, where does it leave this method of DRM? A question that’s worthy of note given the continual rumours surrounding the next generation of consoles. Many news stories have spoken of their drive to control not only piracy but the second-hand game market and online registration and unique always-on connections are continually touted. But how would that work?

Diablo III sold nearly 4 million copies in its opening few days and, although impressive, this is dwarfed by the number of concurrent users that could be possible on console platforms. Sony and Microsoft both command roughly 75 million users each, and if even a small portion of those decide to jump online at a single point in time they have the potential to provide the ultimate network stress test.

Now imagine that outcry should the strain not hold the weekend Call of Duty came out. You can possibly write off a mass movement of PC players as only occasional, citing only huge releases, but in the run up to Christmas you’re regularly likely to have multiple 5 million plus sellers that are going to touch the common man and not the hardcore. How will you get across to Joe Bloggs that he can’t play the latest Modern Warfare because the expensive box he’s bought is somehow reliant on another expensive box somewhere half way across the continent and that box isn’t working? Though the industry might be rightfully trying to protect itself from the nefarious, such strong arm tactics only serve to alienate.

Further to that, however, whilst my internet connection is extremely fast and reliable it does occasionally drop out for small periods of time. Not a big problem usually but the risk of being booted from my single player experience seems grossly disproportionate. In an environment where I am interacting with no-one but myself then does it seem just to tether me in such a manner? I’d argue no, which is probably why Sim City’s problems are more disappointing than Diablo’s.

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At least with Diablo I could (kind of) understand the want to keep the auction house secure. No one offline would be running mods and then signing on and flooding the market with cheap knock-off Yves Saint Lauren assassin blades. With Sim City the longer the troubles continue, the more I wish for a simple offline mode. Sim City is generally a very solo affair, and whilst I look forward to what Maxis have put in place with resource sharing and joint goals, the simple addition of an offline mode for people who don’t give a monkeys what the rest of the community is doing would have be invaluable. Currently my mostly finished tutorial sits on a server somewhere awaiting completion. Quite why this is taking up space on EA’s disks is anyone’s guess, unless the devs want to laugh at how I positioned my sewage plant.

What is the answer? If always on not only doesn’t work as intended in regards to stopping pirates and it pisses off a whole group of dedicated fans, where to go? Well if the system must be changed then I look to Steam. There’s no hoo-hah from anyone about the licensing and restriction available there as it strikes a happy medium. A managed marketplace that controls the licenses for its wares, yet also allows the freedom to play games offline. It may require some forethought in order to do so but it allows for that relatively easily. Is this the middle ground that IP owners, platform holders and the purchasing public all be happy with?

Almost ironically in this discussion, we mustn’t forget however Steam too was a joke at its inception. Poor initial experiences with the now go-to name in PC gaming dogged its early days and it takes a long memory to brush past the good feeling that now surrounds the Value flagship. Everything takes time to develop and mature. Some may grow quickly, others painfully, but the important thing is now that companies must start learning from others mistakes.

Whilst from my professional capacity as a developer I have the utmost sympathy for Maxis – how you can test multiple millions of users logging on and truly stressing your system is no easy feat – public sympathy will only last so long. We’ve now two huge launches hampered by the same issue. How many more before players turn their back completely on this model?

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