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SimCity 5: When DRM Goes Bad

The highly anticipated SimCity sequel has had a disastrous launch as a result of it's always-on DRM scheme.


On March 5 2013, one of the most anticipated games of the year was released. Immediately, players began to report server outages, rollbacks, the instability of core game functions, and general "game-breaking" issues. Was this another in a long line of rushed online role-playing games? No. The game was the newest version of Maxis' SimCity.

SimCity is an open-world city-building simulation available for console game systems and the PC market. Players play the game by designing and building cities and then simulating the cities growth through natural disasters, the political process, and general population controls. Each player built their own city and played the game in a solo experience without the interference of other players in an online environment. This was the design of the game through four incarnations and was incredibly popular.

The 5th incarnation of SimCity is different. In this version, players are required to build and run the city simulations through online servers hosted by the game publisher Electronic Arts (EA). The stated reason for this changed was to provide a more varied and interesting style of gameplay by adding the variables provided by an online environment such as trading with neighboring cities, shared mayoral responsibilities and leaderboards. The more believable reason for this change, in my opinion, was to include a stronger version of Digital Rights Management or DRM.

Digital Rights Management

DRM is any program or system that is put in place to secure digital content against unauthorized use or redistribution. While this is a noble goal, many legal uses for digital content are also blocked or made unusable by end-users. In extreme cases, like SimCity, the inclusion of DRM changes the game itself.

In requiring all legal owners of SimCity to be always connected to online servers in order to play the game, the publisher has removed the ability for players to back-up and restore their creations. In a perfect world, game servers would operate flawlessly and there would be no restrictions or delays in playing SimCity. Unfortunately, as shown by the severe server issues surrounding the game's launch, this has not the case.

Legitimate customers suffer

In the first couple days following the launch of SimCity, players were unable to connect to servers due to insufficient server availability, the players who were able to connect to game servers dealt with unplayable conditions and the inability to save progress, and every player was unable to choose to play the game offline. In many cases, those who were able to connect and play found that the servers were not saving their cities and were forced to start over.

The choice to remove the offline play option, due to the inclusion of DRM, restricts the rights of game owners significantly. Instead of a player choosing to play alone and taking the responsibility for the protection of data associated with game saves, game companies are forcing their players to trust that the companies will do it for them.

It's the cloud or nothing...

There are no options for backing up game files, restoring older versions or even moving your city to a new region. There are no options for data recovery in the case of corrupted files or hardware. There is no guarantee that the game will be available any longer than it stays profitable for the publisher or a newer version is released.

DRM and the protection of digital information from piracy is an important goal. However, when the protection of digital information becomes more important than the rights of the owners who legally and rightfully purchased access to that information, the system has failed. SimCity 2013 is currently on pace to be the lowest rated game in Amazon.com's history and maintains a 1.7/10 user-score on Metacritic.

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