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We are shifting gears and moving away from the shelf marked "I <3 '99" with this week's Touchy Subject. Cashing in on the misfortune of both Maxis and EA, today the topic in contention is MMO launches and just whether or not it is possible to come back from a false start.  To kick things off, we'll start with a diary reading.

The Simulating Cities Diary 3/8/2012

I bought my copy of SimCity on Friday. While I've never been particularly interested in zonal planning nor the ins-and-outs of sewage disposal, something told me that I should probably poke around Origin and see what else EA has managed to milk from the, by now, sore and tired cow of the (The) Sim(s) (Insert noun) franchise.

As I installed the game I flicked through Twitter, occasionally coming across a Maxis-themed thought that proved that both anger and grammar don't usually ride in tandem. Before I slapped down my own cash and demanded satisfaction, I too had heard the horror stories emanating from EA's digital service platform. But like Apocalypse Now's Benjamin L. Willard, I pressed farther on into the virtual jungle of Maxis' creation.

Still waiting for the lengthy install, I continued to check Twitter "ELECTRNIC ART$ SHOLD BURN IN HELL!!1" proposed one thoughtful user, the dollar replacing an "S" a damning indictment; while another decided "U herd of Diablo 3? MAXIS welcome to the world of DRM #IDIOTS" would suffice.

By now SimCity was updating and making positive noises that it was about to finish setting up and open its doors for business. Satisfied with my progress, I decided then and there that I would be one of the lucky ones hurtling straight into a city; perhaps polishing off a metropolis empire by noon. I had already begun to have imaginary conversations in my mind, declaring to all "Oh all that bother with the servers? Not for me Jack, no siree Bob" whilst determinedly catching the eye of the less fortunate and taking a congratulatory sip of my espresso.

But when you start to act like an ass in your imagination, things generally come back to bite the physical one you sit on. No sooner had the game invited me to play than the servers stopped me dead in my tracks "we're busy" it said, "come back later". I felt like a poorly dressed punter at a nightclub: nowhere to go, lint only in my pocket, and desperately craning my neck to see what wonders lie just ahead.

This went on for a few hours, my mood fluctuating between anger and pseudo-liberalism. I would threaten my client with a clenched fist, yelling things at the monitor like "OH YEAH BUDDY? WON'T WORK HUH? I'LL SHOW YOU!" I'd then proceed to screw up a ball of paper and throw it across the room. This happened a number of times. When the objects started to get more weighty and less non-committal than pulp, I had a moment of horrifying existential crisis. There I was, a grown man in Animal slippers, wearing a dressing gown without pants, puffing like a mental patient convinced "the damned Chinese " are stealing his thoughts.

I did temper these moments of fury with the aforementioned pseudo-liberalism, but it was a short lived fad. I'd recline in my chair, tut at the "retry server" announcement, and go back to reading my book. I'd occasionally look back at the monitor, convincing nobody that I didn't care, and thinking to myself "Well, I don't rightly mind if it doesn't work all weekend - because I am the incarnation of the meaning of liberal". It would be nano-seconds before I was back throwing things across the room, reciting every curse word I knew and making up a few hybrids as I went along.

And yet, this wasn't the height of my suffering. Unhappy with just me exclusively pouring anger and frustration out at the EA servers, my own Internet connection decided to get in on the action - perhaps to scold me for years of browser misuse and streaming pre-emptive Walking Dead episodes not yet aired in the UK.

Alternatively, the connection to EA would stall, the retry menu would finally disappear, and then my own spotty router would blink an angry red eye at me. If it was a person it might flip me the bird or whisper "b*tch-boy" when I was about to turn away. As it stood, it was just a little black box of scorn, blinking a solitary red icon at me threatening my patience.

Intermittently, I would force a solid connection just long enough to launch the SimCity client, only to be rejected by the servers once more; again I would wait 20 minutes to have another shot at the piñata only to find my Wi-Fi had disappeared into the ether, presumably cackling as it did so.

Friday the 8th of March is the day technology conspired against me. Friday the 8th of March is the day I lost hope in the wonders of a possible "Tingle Town". Friday the 8th of March is the day I broke my TV remote against a wall.

No Cure for Rollbacks

Many of you have probably experienced the same sort of impotent rage at an MMO launch. There is nothing more infuriating than throwing down your hard-earned green and having the product turn around and decide it wasn't going to honour its commercial agreement.

So while this SimCity debacle may be new to a large majority of gamers, we MMORPG players are currently sitting pretty smug, arms folded, and whispering behind our hands "They think this is bad? They were just the twinkle in some kid's eye when Anarchy Online limped out the door.”

We've experienced the highs and lows of launches, and we know just how bad it can get. My own personal experience with games such as Xsyon and Earthrise is enough to make me go all John Rambo and warble "JOEY! I CAN'T FIND YOUR LEGS!" (Incidentally, this was a bug that afflicted Earthrise.)

As a rule, MMO launches are preceded by a deep intake of breath as everyone prays to Thor, The Mother, The Creator, Buddha, The Force, and Crom to make this one a "good one". Whether or not it all works when the servers go live is usually decided on a coin toss. Some are stable, some are touch-and-go, and some of them are the online equivalent of Judgement Day with more emphasis on angry topic posts and Windows bug reports.

But can an MMO-hybrid such as SimCity survive after such a catastrophic launch? While the game is undoubtedly good, most people are having trouble experiencing it - I myself haven't been able to play with anyone other than my brother locally, and even then we have lost three cities at the most recent count. Big, time-consuming cities to boot.

Admittedly, there is an element of mean-spirited glee at the crumble of EA, Origin, and Maxis, just because everyone wants to see the goliath fall. A similar event occurred when Diablo 3 failed to connect half of its populace to servers, but that seemed to affect far fewer critic scores, and deliver far less scorn from the mainstream media.

Truth is, this has been a perfect storm of massive publisher, enormous franchise, and poor implementation of DRM. It seems odd to think that EA didn’t anticipate the return of one of the most influential strategy sims and muster the infrastructure for a large amount of customers, especially now as The Sims is one of the most successful series of all time. EA have been naive to gamble it all on online-only connections, and at this point it’s unclear where SimCity and the future of DRM is headed.

So can SimCity come back from this? Has any MMORPG risen up from the ashes of a smouldering launch and managed to turn it all around, or is it all catch-up from then on in? I'd like to think that as MMORPG players we're the experts in this unfortunate field so leave your comments in the box below and let me know what you think. 

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Adam Tingle