An all-new Sim City is dropping in a couple of weeks, so I figure I better get my affairs in order and say goodbye to friends and loved ones before it claims my life. I’ve played games in the Sim franchise since the day I got my first computer, from the original, all the way up through The Sims 2. I guess there’s just something about having nearly-limitless power to shape and control the lives of other (virtual) human beings that really lights my fire. I figure it’s only a matter of time before Dr. Killinger floats through the door with his Magical Murder Bag and tells me I was really meant to be a supervillain.
The newest Sim City looks to have plenty of bells and whistles. A fully-3D engine means you can move and pan and juke and zoom that camera to your heart’s content. And not only do the fully-simulated cars and citizens of your cities have planned routes…you can actually look at each one to find out exactly what that is. Imagine flying out of an airport, looking down at the city, being able to click on one of those ant-sized cars and see: “Bill Johnson – Running to CVS for booze and condoms.” Again, straight-out sowing the seeds for full-fucking-blown megalomania. It also streamlines the process of building a city; now power/water is linked directly to roads, so you won’t have to build pipes and power lines separately. This is, I admit, dumbing down the game a bit. But if it makes it more of a game rather than a “Holy shit, have I really been playing this for 12 hours straight?!” mind-job, then it might be a welcome change.
Another big addition is online play. Sim City has always, always been a single-player game wherein you are the nearly-dictatorial Mayor for Life. But the new version offers up the tantalizing opportunity to build cities that neighbor other players’ cities in a region, be a part of a larger economy, and either work together to solve each other’s natural disasters and criminal activity…or let the other guy twist in the wind. It’s a fascinating idea, and certainly fits within the realm of a city simulator…but it comes with a big, big caveat.
The new Sim City requires a constant internet connection to play.
Now, I’ll just say that this won’t keep me from the game. I’m used to the concept from World of Warcraft and City of Heroes, among others. My PS3 is generally “always-online,” and I have come to terms with that. This is the age in which we live, with Clouds and Wi-Fi and phones that can track our every move. But I will say that it concerns me, and not for the same reason it concerns other people. It doesn’t even really bother me that they have turned what has always been a single-player game into a networked experience.
My problem really has nothing to do with Sim City at all…but more the whole idea of always-online in general. Because if the game servers aren’t online…you can’t play. I’m not talking about temporary outages…I’m talking about when the interest wanes and the money goes elsewhere and those servers shut down for good, like what happened to City of Heroes just a few months ago. Games like this effectively cease to exist. You might have the software, you might have the connection, but there will be nothing to connect to. This is in sharp contrast to classic games of the past like Mario Bros., Galaga, or Final Fantasy VII that you can continue to play on old systems, or buy re-releases for newer systems. We’ll be able to visit the Mushroom Kingdom until the day we die, but Paragon City’s walls shall be forever sealed.
And while this absolutely sucks for the fans, for the true believers who love these games, I think it may actually hurt the games industry more than they think.
Again, up until the very recent past, games have been exactly like books and movies. You buy them, and as long as you have a light/DVD player/console/computer, you can read/watch/play to your heart’s content. When you plunked $60 down for a game, you were making an investment to some extent. You were saying “I want to keep this.” And even if it wasn’t the greatest game ever, and no one else really liked it, you could keep right on playing it. But now games are becoming a transitory experience. Your ability to play an always-online game is based solely on its popularity and how many subscriptions/microtransactions it can generate. The time you can enjoy your investment shrinks from “Eternity” to “A Few Years” or perhaps even “A Couple Months.” So the question we pose to the games industry is: Why should we make that investment?
Ironically, the practice of “always-online” gaming would logically drive most people to rent or buy used (or piracy, for the more “morally flexible”), two things that the gaming industry has been aggressively combating of late. It never really made sense to me before now. I mean, rental and used games stores have probably done more to prop up and shape the industry than anything else. They actually have a stake in how well these things do, as opposed to the Wal-Marts, Best Buys, and Amazons of the world. But when we start hearing talk that the next XBOX might somehow disable used games altogether, we have to wonder if the industry is gearing up for a future where they are the only dealer, and thus the sole arbiter of when you’ll play, how long you’ll play, and the price you’ll pay to play.
If that is indeed where we’re headed, I can’t help but question the business plan. City of Heroes will never make another dime for its company, NCSoft. Pac-Man, meanwhile, continues to pile money in Namco’s coffers. (An estimate in the late 1990s put the money earned from arcade machines alone at $2.5 billion.) Considering the huge amount of money and time and effort that goes into making an AAA title these days, it seems almost counter-productive to create games with expiration dates, to grow cash-cows that you can’t milk for decades.
So maybe the Powers That Be should have played more Sim City themselves. Then they might have learned to keep their consumers happy and build something that lasts…or that blowing everything up and starting over isn’t in anyone’s best interest, no matter how tempting it is…