Maxis Insider Source Says SimCity Servers Were Not Actually Necessary?
SimCity has been a complete mess of a story. We’ve covered a fair bit of it, and it’s basically like another version of the whole Diablo III fiasco. I mean we’re talking major drama. I covered all of it in an article where I slated the game’s DRM as unacceptable, and then we heard the story about someone who tried to get a refund for the game and ended up getting threatened by EA that his account would get locked. Then there was more drama with Maxis apologising and attempting to explain the issue for all the little good that did. More recently, Maxis said an offline mode is “not possible”.
Now that you’re up to speed, the story here today is that allegedly a SimCity developer got in touch with Rock Paper Shotgun and told them that the SimCity servers are not actually necessary. Or let’s be more specific. Maxis’ studio head, Lucy Bradshaw, recently told Polygon and Kotaku that they “offload a significant amount of the calculations to our servers”, and that it would take “a significant amount of engineering work from our team to rewrite the game” for single player. However, this insider source is saying that the first of those statements is just not true, as the server is not actually handling calculations for non-social aspects of running the game, and that it would require minimal effort to create a single-player mode. Ah, the plot thickens now doesn’t it?
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Rock Paper Shotgun verified its source to have worked directly on the project, although respected that the person wishes to remain anonymous. But, that said, the person does have first-hand knowledge of how the game works, and made it clear to the website that the claims being made by Maxis are at odds with the real story. The source explains:
“The servers are not handling any of the computation done to simulate the city you are playing. They are still acting as servers, doing some amount of computation to route messages of various types between both players and cities. As well, they’re doing cloud storage of save games, interfacing with Origin, and all of that. But for the game itself? No, they’re not doing anything. I have no idea why they’re claiming otherwise. It’s possible that Bradshaw misunderstood or was misinformed, but otherwise I’m clueless.”
Now, many people, including myself, failed to see how it is impossible for the game to have offline or a single-player only mode. Fortunately, our disbelief was taken into action by Kotaku, who ran a series of tests today to see how the game could run without an internet connection, discovering that it played fine for about twenty minutes before the game realised it wasn’t syncing with the servers. Well, if the game was so heavily reliant on its servers to function to the point that these servers were co-running the game itself, then surely it wouldn’t play without them? Furthermore, Markus “Notch” Persson tweeted to his million or so followers that he also succeeded in playing the game offline, despite EA’s stern claims of the contrary. Naughty EA, it seems you haven’t been entirely truthful.
As for what the servers actually do, aside from allowing players to share the same maps for their cities, and managing imports and exports between them, the servers are there to check that players aren’t cheating or hacking. Here’s where it gets interesting though. These checks don’t happen in real-time, but rather can take a few minutes, and as such couldn’t be directly involved in the game.
“Because of the way Glassbox was designed, simulation data had to go through a different pathway. The game would regularly pass updates to the server, and then the server would stick those messages in a huge queue along with the messages from everyone else playing. The server pulls messages off the queue, farms them out to other servers to be processed and then those servers send you a package of updates back. The amount of time it could take for you to get a server update responding to something you’ve just done in the game could be as long as a few minutes. This is why they disabled Cheetah mode, by the way, to reduce by half the number of updates coming into the queue.”
It would stand to reason that an offline game that came with a single-player simulation of the region system derived from multiplayer would be a bigger challenge to develop, but Rock Paper Shotgun’s source gave reassurance that it was far from impossible.
As for how much of an effort it would be for EA to make a single-player game that just did away with the multiplayer aspects, well, according to the anonymous source it wouldn’t be all that heavy.
“It wouldn’t take very much engineering to give you a limited single-player game without all the nifty region stuff.”
The reason that this is so troublesome, over and above all the actual drama, is that EA has been adamant in their claims of online being necessary, yet people seem to have been debunking that by just switching their internet off and playing the game. It’s a serious issue, and consumers should demand a proper, full explanation for it. While we can’t confirm this source to be true, even though it seems very likely, the statements being made here are not exactly out of this world, and seem very reasonable and believable. As far as I’m concerned, I believe them a lot more than I don’t.
Even without the evidence, I don’t trust a big corporate machine like EA to have my best interests at heart to begin with. The DRM actually being there proves as much, and the fact that it took a week just to get the game working. We need to show them that this is unacceptable, and unfortunately whether SimCity is a great game or not, it and Maxis have absolutely got to bear the brunt of this just as much as EA because they as the publishers damn well deserve it. So I’m more than happy to add fuel to the fire and watch it burn. I’m more than happy to see people standing up against it.