Sim City’s offline mode: Too little, too late

1 Posted by - January 16, 2014 - Opinion

It’s always interesting to revisit a complete disaster.

Sim City, a highly anticipated reboot of the classic franchise as developed by Maxis and published by Electronic Arts, went from triple-A release to Hindenburg in record time. Call it a victim of its own success. Sim City’s always-online requirement ran up against a demand that EA’s servers simply couldn’t cope with, making the game unplayable for weeks after release, and severely handicapped for even longer.

Now, nine months later, Maxis is finally patching in an offline option. But in many ways, it seems just as ill-advised a move as the original release’s never-offline requirements.

The motives behind this late-stage mea culpa are pretty easy to guess at. EA and Maxis almost certainly have a lot of DLC planned for Sim City that they hope to sell — few games at Sim City’s budget level can afford not to include add-on content in the business plan. But selling it means getting gamers who abandoned Sim City nearly a year ago to re-engage, and that’s a very tall order.

Addressing the number-one pain point — the always-online requirement — certainly seems like the right move, though it’s not without complications. Start with Maxis General Manager Lucy Bradshaw repeatedly insisting a single-player mode was impossible.

“The game was designed for MP,” Bradshaw tweeted during the original uproar, “We sim the entire region on the server so this is just not possible.”

Except now it is. That it took so long strongly suggests that, at the time, Bradshaw was entirely truthful. Maxis simply didn’t have a switch they could flip. A fix took time. And it’s to EA and Maxis’ credit that they took that time and spent that money. They listened. They re-evaluated. They changed.

And in the meantime, the world moved on.

New consoles have released. New games are out. Starbound has momentum over on Steam. Even Battlefield 4’s been patched several times already. Microsoft, possibly taking a lesson from Sim City’s cautionary tale, responded to public outcry over the Xbox One’s also “mandatory,” always-on requirements and reversed course in just two months.

More to the point, those were all promises kept. Maxis’ too-late offering doesn’t really make up for what felt, fair or not, like a complete disregard for their customers. People weren’t simply disappointed by Sim City’s rock-bottom performance. They felt betrayed.

And that’s not something you just walk away from.

Customer loyalty is tough to build, easy to lose. It’s a relationship. Like all relationships, trust is the biggest factor. The trust for Sim City is gone. Its botched launch will hurt the brand for years to come. Nobody will speak about the next Sim City game without referencing the troubles this one had, and nine months later is too late for an apology, even if this felt like one.

Which is not to say EA can’t or won’t get that loyalty back. It’ll just take time and a lot — a whole lot — of effort. If that DLC they planned to sell instead rolls out free of charge, just like this new offline mode, that would go a long way.

Call it an early investment in the next Sim City, something that draws people back to the brand. After the false hubris of its launch, selflessness and humility is the only way out of the pit it dug for itself.