When a publisher launches a big game, it wants to gain the maximum exposure at every possible opportunity. The first reveal, the preview events, the reviews — each of these is a chance to point the spotlight on a product. Sometimes, however, the spotlight can focus on a game’s baggage.
The new SimCity is experiencing something like this right now. The first reviews for the city-building game hit the web earlier today, but a lot of the conversation is instead focused on how the new SimCity’s always-online functionality affects the review process.
SimCity requires a constant connection to the Internet in order to function. When the game goes live Tuesday, publisher Electronic Arts will turn on its retail servers, cross its fingers, and hope that the influx of make-believe civil engineers doesn’t collapse its network.
EA’s servers could go down, or they might run flawlessly.
The point is that none of the critics experienced the exact conditions that $60-paying customers will. Meanwhile, reviewers are shoveling praise on the simulator. Our own review awarded the game a 90 and said it is “as enchanting as it was when it first debuted so many years ago.”
I feel that our review accurately reflects the ideal conditions for SimCity, but that’s not really the point.
The issue is that EA made a decision to make SimCity an online-only game as part of a business model that emphasizes microtransactions and anti-piracy. That’s fine. That is EA’s choice to make, but that decision had a direct negative impact on the review process.
Gamers don’t know if they can trust the reviews they are reading, because they don’t know if they’ll have the same experience. The system could lag or cause frequent disconnections on the final retail servers.
To be clear, I trust our review. Connection issues are possible, but they are likely temporary. Our review is a great way to know if SimCity is a good game when it’s working how it should (and will most of the time).
The point is that we’re talking about something other than the quality of the game (which is praiseworthy indeed) because EA is selling us something that isn’t quite a game. It’s access to a game as a service.