By now all of you should be aware of the still-unfolding disaster that is EA’s SimCity. And if not, what rock have you been hiding under? Its yet another example of EA screwing their customers, attempting to completely control every aspect of what you do, primarily so they can make as much money from you as possible. It could be this time EA have finally gone too far, but we’ll have to wait and see how this saga will unfold over the next few days. In any case, I feel like this is an excellent opportunity to compare how games should be developed and how you actually should engage with your customer base if you want ensured success and longevity for your product. For this I shall be looking at Bohemia Interactive (BI) and their upcoming title Arma 3.
First though, let’s look at EA. To recap, SimCity launched with great fanfare on March 5th. Players around the world had been eagerly awaiting the latest instalment of a much loved franchise which has seen nothing new in over 10 years. When EA announced it would be an online-only affair there was much discontent but, despite this, SimCity lovers were willing to give it a chance. So imagine the disappointment and outrage that occurred when on launch, many players couldn’t even play the game. EA/Maxis said they were ‘unprepared’ for the amount of traffic and its only now that the servers are finally stable enough that most players can actually play the game they paid for. But it doesn’t stop there, now with reports that the games AI is horribly broken and that the always-online DRM requirement is not even actually required to play the game. Yes it seems as well as predictably ruining the launch of SimCity, EA have been outright lying to its customers about why it had to be always-online for a game that has been traditionally the epitome of single-player gaming as well as blatantly lying about how complex the game is with its sim calculations.
I should say at this point that I have not played the new SimCity myself. I could see months beforehand that this would be a debacle and EA have already earned my heartfelt scorn and hatred, that I was not willing to part with my money this time to buy it, as much as I love the SimCity series myself. I’m happy to see that my cynicism was justified. Their mentality is just the same as the RIAA or MPAA, they want full control over you and what you do with their products, which is why they are trying to destroy the 2nd hand games market and why they always want you online so they can force updates upon you which you have to pay for and when they finally decide it’s not making enough money, kill the game servers. They will tell you this is all to combat piracy and to create a great multiplayer experience for you and other excuses. Oh yes and you can’t get any refunds either because EA (and all other digital gaming distributors, including Valve) use a legal loophole that means they don’t have to give you a refund (something to do with you not owning the game, but paying for a subscription license to use it). So they charge you a fuck load of money, release a broken game then laugh all the way to the bank when you want justice and can’t get it. That’s how EA treats you as a customer.
It’s utter bullshit.
In case I’ve not made it clear by now, I don’t like the way EA do things and I would be quite happy if they went out of business entirely, but that won’t happen until people finally realise that EA are treating you, the customer, like dumb, brainless idiots who lap up anything shiny thrown at them.
So before I suffer a stroke out of my anger at EA I’m going to move on now to BI and Arma 3. When it comes to making games, BI seem to be at the complete opposite end of the spectrum to EA and are doing everything right. You see BI cares about its community and actively goes out of its way to engage with them, listen to their concerns and then attempt to implement that feedback. Arma 3 is a prized example of this.
Whereas SimCity had a pathetic ‘Beta’ which lasted a few days and was on specific time schedules, Arma 3 has already been released on Steam in Alpha status for a mere £20. This £20 will give you access to the Alpha, the Beta and the full game upon release. Considering the game is not going to be fully released until Q3/Q4 of 2013, this is quite impressive. But wait, there’s even more to be impressed about. BI have allowed full modding support within the Alpha and are actively encouraging the community to make their own material and play around with the engine as much as they like, including importing assets from Arma 1 and 2 which is quite a straightforward process. All this for £20? Fuck yeah!
Now the Arma series may not have the mass appeal that many EA games may have, but its their design and consumer philosophies I’m looking at here between EA and BI. Already after about 10 days of Alpha, BI have started acting on the feedback from their customers and are implementing features or changes based on this feedback. Yes the company really does listen to you so it can provide you with a gaming experience that you want. As a result of this kind of customer interaction, BI have earned themselves a very loyal customer base, myself included. And its also an argument for why modding should be allowed and even encouraged by its developers. Mods like DayZ and Wasteland for Arma 2 have ensured that BI are making a steady stream of cash from its older games, allowing it to put even more resources back into making Arma 3 even more awesome, whilst still allowing for all these great mods. BI have ensured that Arma 3 will sell well, and continue to sell for a long time to come because its customers like and trust the developer to do right by them.
EA on the other hand don’t like it when you try to mod their games. A few months ago, a mod was released for Battlefield 3 which changed the colour saturations within the game. This was promptly shut down by DICE and issued ban warnings for anyone trying to use it. In looking at this deeper, I found this quite shocking quote from an EA spokesman regarding the lack of mod support in Battlefield 3:
“Because if you look at the Frostbite engine, and how complex it is, it’s going to be very difficult for people to mod the game, because of the nature of the set up of levels, of destruction and all those things… it’s quite tricky. So we think it’s going to be too big of a challenge for people to make a mod”
Basically we’re too dumb to know how to mod their game. Having seen and played many mods over the years and even done my own modding, if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that gamers are not stupid and those with the desire and willingness to put endless hours of their personal time into making a non-profit modification are very creative and are good at figuring out how things work before changing them.
In speaking to a friend of mine, a former games developer and games industry exec, he had this to say about the matter:
“Despite talking all the talk about social interaction they [EA] are actually oblivious to the actual nature of social engagement. Compared to a company like BI who have fully embraced the commercial and competitive advantages that a loyal and educated fanbase can give you, EA appear hamfisted and willfully misleading. Given that the greatest viral sensation in gaming in the last couple of years – DayZ – emerged from BI’s approach, EA should be taking notes instead of issuing blanket statements and trying to cover their own arses.”
So will EA learn from this debacle? Will they finally realise that trying to control every aspect of your gaming experience leads to gamers rebelling and actively trying to pirate your software despite your best efforts to prevent it? Will they understand that mods help make a game more popular and encourage creativity and help further sales of your game? As long as EA is run by bottom-line management and shareholders, I think not. Perhaps my feelings of EA’s stupidity can be summed up with this final picture.
Edited for accuracy. BIS is actually just BI (Bohemia Interactive).