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You know, as much as I hate the practice of naming a new game after the original in the series with no change to the title, I suppose it makes sense in SimCity‘s case. Since, you know, they’ve reduced the actual gameplay features all the way back to the very first title. Oh wait, there’s no Godzilla anymore. Perhaps that was what the space between “Sim” and “City” represented.

For all the points I hammered on about in the SimCity review I always think it’s a little illogical to criticize EA like actual human beings are behind its decisions. It’s the corporation thing, responsibility for its decisions is so divided that its actions and motivations just sort of float down from on high with no apparent source or justification. It’s just a whole load of people all hoping their next paycheck will arrive and thinking every single other person in the company is the problem. Consequently, the only thing you can trust the nebulous corporation to do is take the option that means they get more money.

I do wonder, though, if EA’s movements of late are still just reflections of the “Let’s make tons of money” driving motivation, or if things are shifting to the “Let’s see how much we can get away with” attitude shown by an entity that can smell its own death in the air. See also: micropayments for Dead Space 3, a game that costs 60 bucks before you even get to that stage.

Certainly I’m of the opinion that the triple-A industry is not sustainable in its current form, where technologically elitist consoles fight for exclusivity rights to boring overdesigned triple-A games while all the actually engaging titles quietly come out on Steam. So perhaps it’s from the wild thrashing of a dying beast that we see such illogical decisions as trying to make SimCity multiplayer focused. There is no doubt in my mind that the game was the result of starting with the desire for an online focus and then coming up with the design around that. I seem to remember a while back EA even made a sort of veiled threat that they would never again make a game without an online component.

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that EA wanted SimCity, first and foremost, to have DRM, even before they’d considered the actual design… although it wouldn’t surprise me. EA is the kind of company that will refuse to accept the notion that the best way to prevent piracy is to make your product reasonably priced and convenient to get. The music industry put all that effort into squashing Napster, and every other music sharing program that took its place, but nothing could do the job quite as efficiently as 1-dollar songs available for convenient, officially sanctioned digital download.

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Everything EA and Maxis have said to justify SimCity‘s always-on multiplayer functionality reads like a man who got his girlfriend pregnant trying to rationalize his decision to not wear a condom. Of course, you must have subconsciously wanted to have a child, really. No, it makes perfect sense. Well done.

I feel sorry for whatever poor bastards at EA had to be locked in the planning room until they could come up with ways to make SimCity multiplayer focused. I bet they plowed through enough energy drink and cigarettes to generate power for the entire Eastern seaboard by the time they emerged, pale and emaciated, to deliver their conclusions. I mean, it’s SimCity, of all games. Even in single player it barely qualifies as a game at all. Goals and objectives are a secondary element at best; it’s more a mixture of creativity toy and Dad-game. You treat it as you would a model railroad, or a little Bonsai tree that can occasionally throw up a text window complaining that you haven’t clipped enough off the topmost branch. What co-operative or competitive elements could you possibly add to that? Seeing who can zone land the fastest? More importantly, how do you also argue that these elements are central and important enough to necessitate a constant internet connection?

No. In theory it might seem obvious – human society is basically a network of independent towns and cities, let’s make our city building game along those lines – but in practice SimCity is not a game for multiplayer. It’s like owning a model railroad, and then being told you have to connect it to the nationwide model railroad system, or else some burly men will come over and set fire to it. You want it to be your model railroad, your little island of control away from the obligations of society. If you ever get really frustrated maybe you want the option to set up two locomotives to drive smack into each other. It’s your thing, and no-one else understands your connection to it, so there’s no reason to share it.

But EA doesn’t need to take all this from me, they should have realized all this from their own experience, and a little train wreck called The Sims Online. If SimCity is a model railroad then The Sims is a dollhouse, operating by the same principle of allowing people to create a thing significant only to them. I used to make houses filled with the characters of whatever book or game I was working on at the time, and watch how their personalities clashed. It’s not that a multiplayer component necessarily ruins it – although it did in this case, because it turned the whole thing into a competitive stat grind – but it adds absolutely nothing to the game, and the ways in which it is most effective, and when you have to force the audience to accept inconvenience for the sake of such features, then failure is inevitable.

Incidentally, while looking it up, I discovered that The Sims Online was relaunched in 2007 at around about the point nobody cared as “EA-Land”. And the moment I started picturing the kind of place that would go by that title, I realized I’d envisioned a perfect setting for the next Bioshock game. Hit me up, Levine.

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.

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