Well it was a fun 12 years, but it's time to turn off the lights and put the key under the door. #RIPMaxisEmeryville
— Guillaume Pierre (@MaxisGuillaume) March 4, 2015
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