Culture

Bit Slap: More like DRMCity, amirite?

sim city

Every week in Bit Slap, Joe Anderson brings you the latest in video games and bon mots.

I’ve never been particularly good at SimCity. I revisited SimCity 2000 earlier this year, and my budding polis of Penis Town met financial ruin when I was unable to make good on the municipal bonds my citizens had bought en masse. Turns out you have to pay that shit back. Sometimes I think people would rather have better schools instead of nuclear plants contaminating their drinking water with superpower-granting chemical waste. No use trying to please everybody, I guess.

When it comes to the new SimCity, I’m more interested in reading about the games troubled launch than I am about the game itself. For those that aren’t familiar, here’s the quick and dirty: In order to play the game, players need to be connected to EA’s servers. Although the game has multiplayer features, if you wanted to play offline—a reasonable thing to want since SimCity games have always been solitary experiences—you can’t. This is an example of Digital Rights Management (DRM). DRM, at the risk of oversimplifying things, makes sure content is used only in certain ways content owners are cool with.

On top of DRM woes, EA’s servers weren’t ready to handle the load on launch day, and players weren’t able to play the game they just bought. The game remained unstable for about two weeks, much to the chagrin of would-be city builders. A recent Penny Arcade does a nice job of illustrating the sense of frustration felt by many.

Look: I’m not interested in arguing why the new SimCity should or shouldn’t require an internet connection to play. On one hand, the game has multiplayer features and having neighboring players influence your city seems pretty cool. Naturally, online features are going to require you to be online. At the same time, I know that a constant internet connection, even for a single player game, is a dubious way to deter piracy. Pirates are an adaptable bunch. A cracked version of Assassin’s Creed 2—a single player game that required a constant connection to Ubisoft’s serverswas developed within 24 hours of the game’s release. Supposedly there’s already a crack for SimCity.

Instead, SimCity’s release is a reminder that we are in a transition from games as products to games as services. Many gamers oppose DRM because it means customers are buying access to a game instead of actually owning it. This is a legitimate concern; if we’re going to pay for something, we expect ownership to be transferred to us. But we don’t buy content online anymore. More and more, we are leasing it in the form of subscriptions. And we do this willingly because services like Netflix offer us a massive library of content in such a convenient way. Netflix’s streaming service has made going out and buying DVDs seem silly for the average consumer.

The same concept is at work with Spotify; you can listen to essentially anything. If you are someone who takes pride in the vastness of your personal music library—especially if you collect records—Spotify isn’t going to seem that great. But if you are a person who wants to listen to everything Beyoncé has ever made at work without paying or pirating, this is an attractive prospect. (Personally, I’m afraid to pirate anything by Beyonce. I feel like if she found out, she would come get me. You ever see Obsessed? That wasn’t a work of fiction. That bitch is serious business. Please don’t tell her I called her a bitch. She’ll find me.

Gaming is sort of the last bastion for this push to own digital content we pay for. There’s a reason “DRM-free games” is the first feature listed on GoG.com’s website. Every Humble Indie Bundle—although they typically offer Steam keys in addition to DRM-free downloads—makes the same promise.

Gamers hate intrusive DRM—the SimCity outrage makes this quite clear—but the presence of any DRM hasn’t stymied Steam’s explosive growth. In 2011, Forbes estimated that Steam controls 50-70% of the $4 billion market for downloadable PC games. I know when I buy a game through Steam I am purchasing a license of access from Valve. But again, the convenience of having all “my” games in one place outweighs the negative.

My point here is that we have entered a Brave New World where we consume games like any other kind of digital content. For me, this was demonstrated when Sony announced the PS4 would be integrated with Gaikai, a streaming game service similar to OnLive. I think the idea of streaming games to a console is silly—what about input lag?—but I also used to maintain my own music library until Spotify made that comparatively inconvenient. I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming in the name of convenience before. I’m curious to see if it happens again.