I played the new SimCity during all three betas (two open and one closed). I really enjoyed it, even if there are a few missing pieces (subways, freight rail depots). But it was clear skies and smooth sailing because of the lack of server load problems. I haven’t touched the game since it was released to the public.
Clearly, the current server issues this week are EA’s fault. They held a closed beta to do server load testing, but for some crazy reason they did it on a Wednesday night. Had they held it for 5-6 hours on a Saturday, they would have had a more realistic load on the servers.
But why the need for servers? Everyone complains its a DRM (copy protection) issue. I think DRM is just a side effect of the whole cloud gaming issue. As an MBA student, I think I have a bit better clarity now (compared to a few years ago) as to where EA is going with this…
The first step is to do a small amount of offloading to the server to handle regional issues – trading between cities. To manage collective resources like minerals, power, water, clear air, etc. This is what the new SimCity has implemented, albeit very poorly (courtesy @DrPizza). The issue is that if you’re going to have in-game trading, you’re going to need to make sure that people aren’t using client-side cheats. Something as simple as storing the games on the server can help dramatically with that. (if you’re wondering why EA would care if people cheat in multiplayer, just hold on a second…)
The next step is to do more and more processing and simulation of the game in the cloud. They may release this under the guise of allowing people with older computers to simulate larger cities, but ostensibly the goal is to turn your computer into a thin client for gaming in the cloud. You city is always running, but at a much slower speed when you’re not actively managing it. Given the sever issues, this aspect might be delayed for a while, until they can tune-up their code and host more people per server.
Once SimCity is a thin client, your computer doesn’t need a lot of CPU power to run. The final step is to put SimCity in your pocket. To put it on your iPhone or Android device. Why?
SimCity becomes less like SimCity and more like Cityville. Need more power? If you cant get any more from your neighbors, you can buy 100MW of power for the next seven days for 99 cents. This is why things need to be run server side – if you could cheat, it would be impossible to monetize.
Running all those servers isn’t free, and the $60 you pay up front isn’t likely enough to keep them running for 5-10 years. At some point they’ll need to come up with a way to monetize the user base. Personally, if I am still playing it in a few years (which is likely) then I’d just pay by the month or year as a subscription instead of being nickeled and dimed to death. But I expect that I’m one of the few – many more will likely be inclined to go the micro-transaction route just because it seems cheaper.
I’m not endorsing this plan of action I’ve outlined above. I’m just saying that this is what seems likely to me going forward.