Serotonin: EA, SimCity and the question of ownership

April 13, 2013


I tend to stay away from topical discussions. I prefer writing pieces about games that are at least a few years old. It gives me adequate time to think about them, and reflect on how the game left an impact on the industry (if at all). Any high emotions experienced can subside, and let me look at the game with more sober eyes.

Recently on the podcast, we’ve been discussing future consoles and digital downloads. It’s a fun topic; many of the Snackbar staff have bought at least one (or 50) games from XBLA, PSN, the Wii Shop, Steam, Origin, you name it. It’s all very futuristic; we all knew that physical copies of games would eventually go away, but that reality was always down the block and out of sight. Now that it has come into view of our front door, we’re not sure what to think.

Sure, the convenience of being able to download a game is incredibly appealing. No more wondering if the store has any copies left, or being worried that you lost the cartridge when you packed up your stuff and moved. It’s always there for you to enjoy by not being there at all. Or is it?


In the past, the question of ownership wasn’t there. You (or your parents) bought Mega Man 2 for the NES, and you owned it. You had a physical copy. It came in a box, like almost every product you’ll ever buy, but this box was one you didn’t want to throw out. It had everything you wanted in old school gaming packaging: the title character looked strange  and had some silly visual inaccuracies (Mega Man doesn’t hold a gun), the official Nintendo Seal of Quality sticker on the bottom right hand corner, inane marketing claims and the potential to save $10 on your next Capcom game. That’s it. It’s yours. No downloadable content, no system updates, no server shutdown.

Mega Man 2 was, is and will be your game to enjoy for as long as the hardware works. This wasn’t something we actively pondered. Hey, you know that copy of Mega Man 2? Do you really own it? Even writing that sentence seems strange.

We could only guess about the future and what it meant for games. Better graphics, gameplay, presentation, voice acting, multiplayer. We certainly didn’t think about how game companies would start having a direct influence on when and how we could play our games. We had enough to get in our way; parents, homework, chores and bedtime were the ultimate obstacles to our escape. Video game companies were our friends. The concept of a game not working, even though it is working, would have been soul-crushing to a young video game enthusiast.


So, that brings me to our guest star of the article: the newest SimCity game. I haven’t played SimCity much since I tried logging on a few days after launch. I’m going not going to go into full detail here; most of you reading this know how terribly the launch went. And this time, it wasn’t just gamers whining and complaining about minor details. The game simply wouldn’t work at times. When it did, you were lucky to get into a server, even if it wasn’t full. The CEO of Electronic Arts, the biggest game publisher in the world, resigned due to financial losses largely attributed to Star Wars: The Old Republic and the SimCity debacle (Amazon reported a 40% return rate on the game).

So SimCity is now forever etched into gaming lore, and not in a good way. It sits as an example of how not to do something. It belongs in the same sentence as E.T., Duke Nukem Forever and Daikatana. Not necessarily because of the game itself, but the circumstances surrounding the game’s release, and the effect it will have on the industry. I’m sure it made money. Many online cynics would point to this and say, “See? Unless we don’t buy EA’s products, they’ll keep doing this.” I’m not so sure about that.

Angry. That’s how I felt. I’m sure that’s how thousands (millions?) of others felt. And not just those that bought the game, but those that didn’t because of all this nonsense. At first I thought I was angry because I wanted to play an updated SimCity game. It’s the flagship title for one of my favorite genres, and appeals to a wide variety of ages. I’ve already talked about how my dad and I used to love playing SimCity 2000 together. Was I angry because it robbed me of this?


I think it’s something different. It’s a question of ownership. I don’t really own this game, because I don’t have full control over it. Mega Man 2? No problem. If you’ve still got a copy and a working Nintendo, it’ll work. It’s your property. You can dispose of it, sell it, or play it as much as you want. Like most consumer products. I tried to think of another product that was massively-distributed that removed control of use from the purchaser. Other than firearms, I couldn’t think of too many.

Food: You can buy almost any type of food and eat it at anytime. Maybe we do need some kind of always-online DRM for food, actually…

Clothes: You can buy any type of clothing you want and wear it anytime. Sure, wearing an offensive T-shirt might result in a few problems. Wearing a winter coat in the middle of summer is foolish, but you can still do it. Wearing an opposing team’s jersey at their home stadium isn’t a smart move, but you can still do it without the company that made the thing telling you what’s what.


Cars: As my friend Raymond pointed out, you can buy a $5 million Ferrari and only be allowed to use it on specific tracks. Can you buy a tank? I’m sure there would be some kind of heavy restrictions on that one. But not a lot of people buy tanks. Or a Ferrari. Or a plane. As long as my car has gas, I can take it almost anywhere I want to.

Electronics: Here, let me go turn on my PSP, DS, TV, computer (I guess I’ve already done that), laptop, iPhone and iPod and use them. Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together booted up. So did Radiant Historia. Huh, there’s a soccer game on TV. My laptop works. My iPhone works. My iPod works. I guess you could argue that phones sometimes don’t work because of crappy carrier plans or system updates. And most of what I mentioned were hardware items, not software. But the point remains: I bought these, I can use them at (almost) anytime without outsider interference.

Weights: Those that know me wouldn’t think I work out a lot with weights. And I don’t! But I can still use them without getting permission. Unless my doctor advises me not to use weights, which he probably would. Us gingers are brittle folk.


Look, life is hard. Really, really hard. What we don’t want or need is another influence making us feel like we’re six years old again. Or our boss. Control and ownership: that’s what we want from our games. Online and multiplayer are fine features, but they should be optional.

Maybe I’m complaining too much. It’s not all bad. We can relinquish ownership of our games, as long as we’re not constantly reminded of the fact. If it doesn’t interrupt our session, nobody complains. No harm, no foul. Valve’s online digital service, Steam, is a prime example of how to do digital distribution right. It did it so right that EA copied it with their own client, Origin. Steam requires an online connection, something I just slammed in the previous 15 paragraphs, except that if your Internet happens to go out, Steam has an offline mode. No queueing up for servers either, so if you want to play The Witcher 2, you’ll never be shown the door because too many others shared your desire to play one of the best modern RPGs.

Surely the most recent debacle of SimCity‘s launch will serve as a warning; don’t do this stuff. The benefits of supposedly keeping people from pirating the game are far outweighed by the cons (legions of fans hating an otherwise not-terrible game). Yet rumors won’t drown; the next Microsoft console may require you to always be connected. If I’m playing Gears of War 4 and my save goes down the drain because my connection cut out for a few seconds… well, I’ll just remind myself to read this article again and remember how angry I got when EA took my game from me.