Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Maxis Closing; Was SimCity a Product of Misplaced Enthusiasm, or an Evil Overlord?

So part of Maxis has been shuttered--note that Maxis still actually has studios in Redwood Shores, Salt Lake City, and Helsinki, so it's not like it's the end-end for the studio, but the Emeryville studio was responsible for the most recent SimCity game, and with it likely goes future SimCity games unless EA decides to revive the series in a decade or two.

But what was the deal with SimCity, anyhow? A lot of folks on Twitter, Facebook, and comment threads on articles are blaming EA for the end of the studio. In the strictest, technical way they're correct. EA owns Maxis, EA shuts down Maxis. But was EA the Evil Corporate Overlord™ truly behind the failures of SimCity? Don't get me wrong, EA does plenty of things that irk me greatly, but I think we owe the legacy that is the SimCity series to really look at what's happened over the years.

Firstly, according to Wikipedia, Maxis was not in good shape and had shopped around to be acquired in 1996-97, so Maxis as a company may have likely not existed without EA today. And once acquired, unlike Origin Systems and Westwood Studios, the absorption of Maxis took longer. EA allowed Maxis to complete SimCity 3000 on its own time, and then they created The Sims, which was a pretty big gamble for the time; it was quite unique. These don't seem to be the actions of an Evil Corporate Overlord™. At least not to start.

Fast forward to SimCity 2013. Cloud computing for city simulation and cooperative play. Huge features that were being touted by Maxis and EA, but the backlash on release was immense. Those features were online-only, and with no offline version, server scaling issues made the game unplayable for weeks. Maxis had to turn off Cheetah speed, modify their server architecture, and eventually, over a year later, finally implemented offline play. They also had to make city sizes quite small or they'd hit performance problems. What went wrong?

Clearly, the unplayable nature of the game when servers were under extreme load pissed people off. It's not like there wasn't precedent, either. Nearly every online-only game suffers services issues at launch due to demand (and bugs!). Diablo III's issues were still fresh in the gaming populace's collective mind, too. Then there's the nature of military personnel, or folks in rural areas with poor Internet access, or sometimes your Internet just goes down.

But why? Why make the game online only?

Perhaps some marketing department or the CEO said, hey, people like online stuff, so make it online. Except servers cost money and Maxis sold the game as a one-time payment product, so having to maintain servers for 3 years doesn't seem cost effective.

Rather, perhaps someone in development decided that wouldn't it be cool if we could leverage cloud computing for more complex simulations? Maxis has always been about simulation, and making more complex simulations would be great! Better yet, it wouldn't matter how slow someone's computer was if it's not doing the heavy lifting!

And someone else may have suggested how cool would it be if we could have our cities interact with other players' cities (not unlike SimCity 4 I might add), or even have cooperative works that everyone can pitch in for?

As a recent Kotaku article pointed out, developers tend to be a pretty enthusiastic bunch:
I always found it irritating when press releases or developers overused the word "exciting." We're really excited for this upcoming partnership! We're excited to show you this new feature! Surely, I thought, this is all manufactured passion; these guys make games all day, every day. How "exciting" can it be to show journalists a new section of the game, or talk to them about the story, or share a new trailer? 
As it turns out, creating stuff actually is exciting. Being able to share the fruits of your labor with people honestly gets your blood pumping.
So if we use that as the basis of why SimCity missed the mark so big at launch, rather than assuming the malice of evil overlords hoping for them to fail (which makes no sense, at all), or the incompetence of doofus overlords who just don't get it, the narrative changes significantly, but is still more than plausible.

Cloud computing requires always online connectivity. If you're offline, you can't leverage the cloud. And similarly for having players being able to have their cities interact. They have to be stored somewhere, and have a central server they can all connect to, so there's that cloud computing thing again. But maybe it'll be fine, most gamers have decent Internet connections, right? Or they will in 3 or 4 years, because it's 2009 today when they're planning this game (or whenever they started planning it. I would bet large sums of money SimCity 2013 took more than a couple years to develop).

I used to work at Microsoft as a software developer in the Office division. Sometimes, we made pretty boneheaded decisions in retrospect. This can often be chalked up to what we sometimes called the Redmond Bubble, or the Redmond Reality Distortion Field. Stephen Toulouse, the former head of Xbox Live Enforcement, expands on this idea in his blog post that I linked (it's a really good read, seriously, read it), but the gist of it is as follows:
The field that influences Microsoft employees and product designers to make wildly incorrect assumptions on the use of technology, computers and devices by the world. The field is caused by the fact that Microsoft employees tend to be far more affluent and have free access to technology than the general population. Generated by Microsoft employees, the field is centered in Redmond but can manifest itself weakly in any area where a significant number of employees gather, such as remote campuses or subsidiaries.
It's reasonable to assume that large companies like EA suffer a similar problem. So while Maxis was busy planning super awesome features that they liked and required tech they readily had at hand, the general populace was basically, "Uh, da fuq, mate?" Add to that technical issues around city size (I bet computational requirements go up exponentially as you add city space), because they assumed they'd have full cloud computing resources behind the simulation, and you end up with a mediocre product limited by a bunch of features that a lot of people didn't want because they just wanted to make their mega-city, just like in the SimCity games of old.

So it's possible that some bone-headed exec said, "Make it online only!", but I think it's just as likely--if not more likely--that a few devs had some ideas that would work in a world of ubiquitous Internet, but we're just not there as a society. My vote is honestly misplaced enthusiasm. It's hard to hold back when you have all these cool things you can do, and it's easy to forget not everyone has the same access to tech, or uses technology in a different way than your company does.

It doesn't absolve either EA or Maxis of their goof-ups around SimCity 2013; closing the studio is clear evidence of that. But I don't think this is the normal case of "Big Company Acquires Smaller Company; Big Company guts Smaller Company."

There were some very talented folks at Maxis, and I hope they find work elsewhere, either within EA or outside of it. #Maxis, #GameDesign, #SimCity


  1. I think that's a principle that can be expanded even into our own blogosphere. There are many times where I've seen the reaction of a colleague to a particular change and then the reaction of casual, less invested (in the specific game, genre, or medium) that fails to see the "bigger picture". It's incredible how different these perspectives can be, even assuming similar interests or playstyles.

    1. Out of sight, out of mind. Most people don't try to think about the bigger picture (and of course, some folks forget about the trees in the forest), us bloggers included. I'm certainly not immune to the effect.

      But ostensibly that's what market research is for in games. Or if you're just gonna build what you want, that's cool, just don't expect a runaway hit if you don't do the research.

  2. As a big fan of the Sim City franchise, I've always been able to look past most of these things, they are just trying something new. They did the right thing in adding an offline version, though it certainly took them long enough. I don't fault them for any of that, but it does seem like the actual simulation engine

    What angered me most was that it was a bad simulation. I never understood why they advertised the fact that you could follow a sim around through his day, or even made it a feature, when the sims did not occupy the same home every day, or even go to the same job everyday.

    All the previous Sim City games were simulations of a simulation, this was the first game that was an actual simulation, and it feels broken. It doesn't feel like it's accurately simulating anything real.

    1. Yeah, makes me wonder if they had a more accurate simulation to begin with and had to cut back based on processing power, or if marketing went rogue and used buzzwords.

      Mild quibble, SimCity wasn't really a simulation inside a simulation. It was a simulation of low fidelity prior, and we were promised higher fidelity. Take a simulation of a computer for example. You can simulate the logic, or you can simulate the hardware components, or you can simulate all the way down to the electrons. Anything you aren't simulating directly you're using heuristics to emulate higher level behaviour, but that in itself isn't a simulation--quite the opposite, actually.

  3. Interesting post!

    And yeah, there seems to be a lot of issues that arise with either the developer not being in sync with reality on something or lacking the resources -- nothing to do with malice.

    Or even sometimes the developer just trying an experiment -- look at DA2 as an example of that. One of the main reasons a lot of people hated it was "It's not DA:O." It was less traditional and had a different type of story. It had flaws, sure, but even if all those flaws were addressed a ton of people would still have hated it simply for being different.

    1. Experiments are risky, it's no wonder AAA companies are loathe to spend money on them. Which is funny, because when you look at Apple, or Microsoft, or Google, they're spend millions on the Research aspect of R&D, and it pays off in spades for them. Yet game companies do the exact opposite, and try to spend as little money on the R portion of R&D. I wonder if we'd see better games that made more money if more AAA studios spent more money on research.

  4. You know, I'm sure youre right about everything you said here. As an average consumer though, this doesn't make me feel bad for their failures -- they fail on their own terms, as do I and I'm ok with that. This also makes it seem like negligence is really high in the industry, probably especially among the affluent.

    Information about who's playing your game isn't mysticism. This is well documented stuff. It's really not difficult for a company like Maxis to do surveys that can inform their most crucial design decisions. The online-only wager was one of those things. This is what I mean about negligence -- they didn't care, they wanted to do the online thing and they went for it. And good for them, I don't think them evil. They have a right to design their games how they want, to succeed for fail how they want. Just don't expect me to have sympathy for these kinds of decisions. I think most players don't care who's at fault when they get a crap product. For us, everyone involved is to blame.

    I still feel sad that this office has closed. I don't ever think its a good thing for people to lose jobs. I wonder how much of this decision was sort of a foregone conclusion due to the middling-success of SimCity (was a big hit vital to keeping the company afloat for the next few years?). I'd love to know how everyone makes out in the wake of this and I hope they come out on top.

    1. For the record, I don't disagree with anything you've said here whatsoever. I'm not absolving them of their failures. They done goofed, still at the end of the day.

      Just tired of the prevailing narrative being "EA is so bad! They shut down Maxis!" I mean, EA has owned Maxis for nearly 2 decades! At what point are they even still their own identity as a studio? It's not like they bought the company and a month later laid off a bunch of people *cough*Daybreak*cough*.