How not to do a software launch or DRM implementation

So a rare “not so busy weekend” (okay, I’m procrastinating) I decided to use the computer for entertainment and bought/downloaded SimCity. This game is an old favorite of mine starting with the original version from 1989 (wow… 24 years ago!) and 1st major upgrade of the franchise in 10 years (last one was SimCity4 from 2003).

Anyway, I was honestly looking forward to it and purchased/downloaded the stub/installer earlier in the week on Come Thursday, I was able to download the full version on Thursday and activate it. I read some excellent reviews about the beta version of the product and was excited to test how the various algorithms have both evolved and become more granular. I also learned that EA (the publisher) uses a new form of DRM (Digital Rights Management) where the software has to “always” be connected to the internet (and their servers) to run.

I also heard rumors that EA offloads a lot of the complex calculations on their servers to allow for the game to not be performance limited based on the PC the customer is using. I realized that all the “save games” were being stored on EA’s server so that you don’t need to worry about local files (or they have to worry about local files being modified – i.e., adding more money to your cities coffers). Anyway, these all seemed legitimate, I respect copyright and the problem with piracy and so I did not give this much thought initially.

So the 1st time you start the game (which was on the 1st evening for me), it gives you a very long and thorough tutorial. And frankly, things look very promising. Of course, when I finished the tutorial, it was already a long night and I quite the game. When I did, I noticed a quick message that there were server connection problems. At the time, not much of a concern since I was closing the game. The following evening, I started the game again. However, SimCity wanted to give me the tutorial all over again. Apparently, by not connecting to the server, it could not update my status that I finished the tutorial. Again, no big deal I thought since it just means skipping the tutorial (which actually is not so obvious).

So after starting my 1st game, I was able to select an area, type of city, name, etc. This went relatively smoothly even though there were sporadic pop-up messages telling me that the server connections were unavailable (or some equivalent). This session came and went, and I quit SimCity – again, the system told me that it could not save the latest session (no big deal I thought because the last few steps I can always recreate. The following session, I started SimCity and it did indeed found the last saved file. Unfortunately, and I realize now, the server connections have gotten steadily worse (contrary to EA’s announcements about adding additional servers) and, while I see my saved game, I am unable to open it. Worse, since server connections to all servers do not work (even though they say they are available), I can neither select the last game and/or even start a new game.

Anyway, I am writing this as an expert in IT security and feel very bad at the state of EA’s product several days after release. It is the 1st product in recent memory which actually is unusable. Not that it has a lot of bugs (I didn’t notice any when it did run – but honestly did not use it for that long), but that it can’t even start! Like all things (ie., the 787), with time, it will clear things up. However, it is very unfortunate that given all the positive pre-launch reviews, that EA had to choose this controversial path and effectively release an unusable product. To not have a fallback, backup plan or temporary triage is inexcusable for a company the size of EA. Thus, for the moment, I would recommend people to wait on purchasing SimCity – at least until I can get back on the server. <g>

Posted by whsaito

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William H. Saito