Fall of the Giant

Fall of the Giant September 6, 2014

Ever since I was a child, I’ve enjoyed video games. I was in the first generation of kids to experience them, and oh, what heady days those were! When the first console game we ever saw, Pong, came out, my parents leaped at that purchase–and it was just a TV hookup console with the one game and we were still totally blown away. Later, I certainly played my way through enough Atari and Nintendo games, though eventually I settled on PC games as my electronic vice of choice.

The Sims 3 (console video game)
The Sims 3 (console video game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of these computer games, the Sims-type games were the ones that I liked best. I really loved that “sandbox” style of gaming, and I found a great deal of satisfaction in creating a smooth-running simulation of whatever the game was making. In 1989, when I was in my early college years, the first of the Sims games rolled out: the original SimCity. I was completely hooked from the first moment I tried the game. I worked through just about all of the Sim-whatever titles, even the offbeat ones like SimAnt and SimFarm (which is apparently abandonware now–OMG! Go go go go go go!). I still have most of the disks and manuals from these games. When I saw the first advertisements for The Sims in 2000, I quite happily budgeted for the purchase as soon as it debuted.

The point I’m making here is that I’m a SimNerd and quite happy about being one. I missed The Sims 2 largely because most of that series came out while I was moving around a lot, but once I realized that there’d been a third outing in the franchise, I grabbed that one and picked up where I left off (and now that Aspyr is making a big collection of all the TS2 titles, I’ll likely be getting that sometime soon–I’ve heard so many great things about it). It never even occurred to me not to trust Maxis and then later Electronic Arts about Sim-whatever titles. I was probably pretty representative of their fanbase in general in that regard.

But somehow over the last couple of years, in bits and pieces over time, I’ve completely lost that trust. When the SimCity reboot was announced, I was as excited as a child to hear about it–at first. I still play SimCity Societies and SimCity 4 from time to time–and still find quite a bit of charm in SimCity 2000 and its gorgeous arcologies. There hadn’t been a new iteration of SimCity in many years; it was way overdue for some big updates. When I saw the first trailer for the game, I said aloud, “I need this.”

That certainty sure changed fast! Rumblings emerged from the ether almost immediately. I found out that the game would have some really confusing and unpleasant-sounding new facets: It’d be a cooperative multiplayer game, for a start, unlike every other Sim-whatever title, and there’d be no real standalone single-player aspect of it. Electronic Arts, its publisher, had gotten the idea that “kids today” all loved multiplayer games and that multiplayer games mean big profits, so they were quite literally planning to never greenlight another single-player game ever again. If some players didn’t have a steady internet connection (which happens even today), then that was just too bad. Not only was this new game multiplayer, it used always-on DRM, which means that gamers would need to be constantly connected to the internet just to access the game; it stored games on cloud services, not on local machines, so if a gamer’s connection was shaky or their internet went down for a few days or they were traveling, then SimCity wouldn’t be one of that person’s gaming options. It was an astonishingly far cry from the old days, when SimCity was what someone did when they didn’t want to see or talk to anybody else for a few days.

When objections were raised to the game’s developers, they got downright petulant. Always-on DRM was part of the game’s design from the get-go, and they kept insisting over and over again that fans would just love it once they tried it. They talked up that sense of “connection” to one’s neighbors over and over again, and you could tell if you read enough interviews and comment threads that they were getting increasingly frustrated that gamers weren’t in the least interested in a “connected” SimCity gaming experience and that fans were reacting with the level of horror and distaste that they were.

I know I certainly wasn’t happy. I don’t enjoy multiplayer games, and I certainly don’t like the idea of having to depend on other people for my cities’ prosperity. The game’s devs could tell me all day long that I’d love the game and enjoy a multiplayer, always-connected SimCity all they wanted, but I knew what I liked and didn’t like–and I was not inclined to think that suddenly, after 20+ years of gaming, I’d just completely change my preferences or at least put up with stuff I didn’t like to get my hands on a game.

Having to be connected to a multiplayer SimCity experience was a bit like eating canned cheeseburgers–if I had any choice in the matter, I wasn’t going to touch something that sounded that unappetizing. And guess what? I wasn’t legally required to pay money to EA. I could just avoid the game, and I wouldn’t have to deal with unwanted multiplayer and always-on stuff.

I apparently was not the only gamer who came to the same conclusion. As launch day approached, I began hearing from a lot of other folks who had decided to sit out this new game. And this was a really new thing for a lot of people, I think. There was a time when a lot of folks wouldn’t even have thought twice about happily buying a new Sim title.

When the game actually launched, it quickly got called a fiasco and compared to the industry’s very worst disasters. Server issues, glitches, and weird bugs abounded–for those able to connect at all, because again, you couldn’t even play if you couldn’t get into the server.

Eventually, after a series of patches to mitigate somewhat people’s biggest complaints about the game–its always-on facet and some other stuff–EA somehow dragged 2 million sales out of the title. Compare that with 20 million for Skyrim and 4.5 million for The Sims 3 after a year. And all told, The Sims 3 titles have sold like 125 million units total. I don’t think anybody could call SimCity a raging success. And it really should have been a raging success. There’d been a long drought between SimCity 4 and this reboot. Fans were aching for a new one. The demand was definitely there.

EA had banked everything on this always-on, always-connected idea of multiplay, and it had failed. They’d even lied about it to try to get more people to put up with it. One of their top dogs ended up losing his job over it.

Now, I’ve got to imagine a lot of meetings got held in a lot of after-hours conference rooms at that point. I’ve got to imagine that even a company as big as EA got the point pretty fast when those sales figures came in and the complaints rocketed all over the internet. I don’t think they missed the lesson those figures and complaints were meant to provide; even a huge company can’t afford to ignore words written in flames twenty feet tall. And I don’t think they could stop themselves from wondering how that lesson might apply to other games they were making.

Right then, you see, right at that moment, they were working on the successor to what might arguably be called one of the most profitable franchises in gaming history. It takes years for a AAA title to reach store shelves, and this game was no different. It was going to be The Sims 4, and suddenly its entire architecture had to be rewritten to take advantage of whatever the new trends are that “kids today” apparently love.

Lurching from always-on-and-multiplayer to don’t-care-and-solo is a lot bigger of a shift than one might imagine. The results of that lurching shift became immediately obvious as the first screenshots came back. But even I didn’t fully realize what those pictures implied until Mr. Captain looked over my shoulder at one and said, “Is that a tablet game?” And everything made sense. Those new trends EA are apparently freemium phone and tablet games and micro-transactions, and this game is meant to be a hybrid between traditional PC/console games and those freemium phone games that nickel-and-dime users to death.

The more I saw of The Sims 4 and heard about its gameplay, the more I thought it sounded and looked like EA’s freemium phone game, The Sims FreePlay. I’d played it for a while and liked it, but it became increasingly obvious that it was a money grab by EA than a serious attempt to make a Sims game on a mobile platform–quests could not be completed, buildings couldn’t be made, and the nicest clothes and objects couldn’t be accessed without spending real money. Players could earn points ingame for those things, but never enough to do everything. The game certainly had its charming aspects, but as time went on, it seemed like its governing philosophy was “how can we get more people to spend money on this thing?” Surely EA’s most outrageous and perplexing decision was introducing mandatory aging for Sims; in every other title, aging can be turned off, but in FreePlay, it could only be delayed–and you guessed how, I bet: by spending money. As much as I knew I’d miss my half-dozen pet reindeer and humongous backyard fireworks displays, I uninstalled the title at that point. But those new The Sims 4 screenshots looked a lot like what I’d seen in that phone game, from how the Sims walked when they were sad to how simplistic the houses and town looked.

Some lessons take longer to learn than others. Nobody ever called EA fast learners, either.

The developers of this new game kept harping on “emotions” like that was going to solve everything. Developer Graham Nardone, when reminded that The Sims 3 had also had emotion-loving Sims in it, said that his team had “sold a fiction” about emotions to customers but that this time, no really, Sims would have real emotions. But fans were unconvinced that emotions were worth the incredibly long list of features expected in a Sims title that were simply missing from TS4–including the much-spoken-about omission of toddlers and swimming pools, but going a lot deeper than that into territory like not being able to make custom patterns and colors for stuff ingame and even the idea of an open neighborhood where Sims could wander anywhere they wanted without stopping for loading screens, which was one of the biggest selling points for TS3. Fans revolted and one by one their biggest cheerleaders began to drift away; EA’s reaction was marked more by what developers were not showing than by what they were, with no gameplay videos of note until a month or so before release and very little solid information about the game.

Well, The Sims 4 came out a couple days ago. The Mare’s Nest, probably one of the best snark sites around, did a comprehensive writeup of the complete fiasco that is very much worth the time to read. Folks’ initial impressions of the game weren’t too good; on the official forum, users openly lamented their decision to buy the game. Metacritic is running 70% from critics and a shocking 3.7 out of 10 from users. On Amazon, it’s earned 2 stars from people who bought it. And the only reason it’s gotten scores even that high on those two sites is because of the presence of what appear to be fake shill accounts giving obviously-fake positive reviews. The real reviews are still coming in because EA did not choose to give reviewers advance copies (which means exactly the same thing in gaming as when new movies don’t offer advance screenings for critics), but the tenor of them seems pretty clear now: this is “a glorified freemium app” with a little charm that EA is shamelessly asking people to pay AAA-title money to play–and then expecting them to cough up even more money later for inevitable expansions and DLC.

EA clearly cannot buy enough good reviews at this point to outweigh the complaints. And considering they made a game that was part of the most undeniably profitable and popular game franchise in history, considering how ripe fans were for a genuinely new and innovative Sims product, considering the sheer muscle a company like EA could bring to the table, that idea is genuinely mind-boggling.

Compare and contrast with Star Citizen, which is the successor to the Wing Commander franchise (and made by the guy who did WC). Though it’s technically an indie title, they’re up to USD$53million in crowdsourced funding and still getting more every day. It’s two years to release still, but half a million people have already pre-ordered it.

I find the developers’ approach to it simply stunning. It’s multifaceted, realistic, innovative, and clever. It breaks new ground constantly. This game is without question going to set customers’ expectations for years about just what a video game ought to look like and act like–and more importantly, how a game design studio ought to look like and act like. And every single time this studio hits a new goal or comes out with some new staggeringly new idea in response to customers’ requests, they make EA’s meagerness, shortsightedness, and greed all the more obvious.

EA actually owns the Wing Commander franchise. Star Citizen could have been EA’s game. And it really should have been.

But we can all be thankful that it was not, considering what they’ve done to SimCity and The Sims. EA would look at something like Star Citizen and stammer “But.. but.. but.. where are the micro-transactions?”

I’ve been watching EA’s stumbles with both of those titles, and I’ve noticed a few things. Sometimes folks in charge of big projects think that if they just say something often and forcefully enough, that people will go along with it. We’ve talked about that reality-free bubble that I think Christianity inhabits, and I’ve learned that religion isn’t the only place where someone can see that bubble in operation.

When presented with evidence that fans didn’t want what SimCity was offering, EA’s reaction was to try to strong-arm customers into wanting that stuff anyway. Their response really was to just tell customers what they would and wouldn’t like and insist that they’d love the game. When that didn’t work, they finally buckled down to half-ass something that wasn’t too totally objectionable; at this point, I hear that the reworked SimCity isn’t too bad. And I’m sure that once modders and official patches get done with TS4, it might be fun to try out once the price drops.

But you know what it won’t ever be?

What it could have been and should have been.

In the same way, Christianity’s facing some big issues right now with sexism, racism, classism, science denialism, anti-LGBTQ bigotry, history revisionism, and much more. I genuinely think that as the religion continues to flounder and lose more and more people that they’re in the same phase EA’s in right now with TS4 and where they were around SimCity’s pre-release: insisting up and down that the big problem is that people aren’t using the same definitions of words that they are, insisting that if people would just shut up and let Daddy drive that they’d be totally happy with the results, and then whining when people refuse to do either of those things. Like I saw EA doing, I’ve seen Christian leaders acting like they can say anything and people will put up with it, like people don’t have a choice or something.

That’s where they’re wrong.

People aren’t legally obligated to be Christians or to let Christian leaders get away with these lies and misdeeds, and they are voting more and more often with their feet and wallets. And I am certain that right now as I write these words that there are some very nervous leadership meetings being conducted at megachurches all over the country where people are trying to figure out how to handle the crisis that they finally dimly perceive is looming.

I really think that eventually Christianity will finagle its way into a form that’s a lot more manageable. It won’t look a lot like it does today, really; it won’t have the same power and influence, nor the dominance and privilege that it has now. But it won’t be what it could have been, had it been run by people who genuinely wanted to do what their religion’s founder is said to have told them to do instead of by people who just wanted the power and dominance they could grab out of claiming divine authority. The difference is quite clear to see, and it’s going to be interesting to see if that former group can somehow get more of a say in how the religion moves.


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