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SimCity and Meta-Criticism

After a long period of reflection, I had originally decided to not join in on all the schadenfreude surrounding the SimCity debacle beyond my post two weeks ago. Not out of any moral sensibilities – heavens no! – but simply out of a lack of fucks given. That, and I certainly couldn’t keep up with the torrent of other blogger updates on the developing story, when it seemed some new embarrassment was revealed daily. Kotaku even had a SimCity Disaster Watch graphic created to handle all the articles.

At one point though, I was almost tempted to purchase SimCity myself out of a longing for gonzo journalism combined with the thought of a free EA game. Then I simply browsed EA’s catalog, realizing that unless they gave away Dead Space 3 (they did, dammit), I either had all the games or the value’s promotion was $20 max.

I do, however, want to commit to internet posterity my intense loathing regarding articles like this one from Time.com. These middle-road Apologist articles and their asinine, straw man arguments infuriate me to heights even EA cannot hope to surmount. Consider the following:

EA was never, ever obliged to make SimCity a single-player game, nor do these accusations (accurate or no) from modders that the existing code is just a few steps away from being a single-player game hold much water when it comes to EA’s obligations. So what if the game could have been a single-player game.

First, who said a single goddamned thing about obligation?

Look, I can follow the twisted derailment of thought that conjures forth the implied “obligation.” Someone stating that SimCity should have had a single-player mode is assuming a sort of game design high ground, harkening towards a moral edifice that does not strictly exist. Because the game should have been a certain way, Maxis/EA has an obligation to Comment out Line #22 in the code design a single-player mode. That’s where the implied obligation comes from, right?

If so, we live in a terribly nonsensical world, one immune to criticism or judgment of any kind. Did McDonald’s give you cold french fries? Too bad, because they aren’t obligated to give you hot ones. No complaining! Did you tell the waiter you wanted a medium-rare steak and they gave you well-done? The chef isn’t obligated to bend to your whims, knave! He or she is an artiste! Movie previews aren’t obligated to represent the actual feature film, and if you don’t like it, go back in time and don’t buy a ticket!

Of course, the author clearly is being pedantic here. The point most people are bringing up is that SimCity, both conceptually and literally, doesn’t need to be always-online. There is no requirement for it to be so, despite the rather flagrant falsehoods claimed by the development team and embarrassingly contradicted by the modding community and a Maxis insider. Maxis/EA has no obligation to accede to reason, of course, but they certainly invite the valid criticism that accompany such quests for profit at consumer expense.

Which segues nicely into this nonsense:

You can ask, you can even petition, but I’d like to think we’re not at the point where we’re now telling painters, musicians, writers and artists of whatever stripe — game designers included — what they have to do.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t shake your fist indignantly and shout “but games are art!” then hold game designers to a different standard.

This is truly an despicable appeal to diversion. “Stop complaining about game design direction, or else games won’t be art anymore!” First of all, there is nothing sacrosanct about art. Authors have editors. Directors have focus groups. Fundamentally, all art is an exchange, and every artist considers his or her audience when making a piece for presentation (even if they imagine it is an audience of just themselves). And this is besides the fact that these game companies are businesses selling a product for profit. Games can be artistic products, but these companies are selling them to consumers, not putting (selling?) them in museums.

The pernicious worm at the core of this abhorrent article is the same one I have seen in similar, depressingly frequent articles: an implicit admonition of criticism itself. “Stop complaining,” these authors say, “you are lucky the artists deign to create anything for you filthy plebs.” No, I deny your thinly-veiled nihilism. Gamers have a right to reject anti-consumerist design. Gamers have the right to call out poor gameplay. The gamers who made the SimCity franchise successful in the first place have a right to protest design they feel is taking said franchise in the wrong direction. Is EA/Maxis or any game maker obligated to do anything? Of course not. Does that make levied criticism illegitimate? Hell no.

You are always entitled to your own opinion, and people can judge for themselves whether it an opinion worthy of consideration. And it is my opinion that Time’s article of meta-criticism – and all articles in the same vein – are specious nonsense, and nihilistic besides. Nothing is beyond reproach, else it demonstrates a perfection impossible to manifest in a universe of subjective minds.

I can only hope that the next EA CEO coming in can spare the 5 minutes of his or her time to understand why the company continues topping the worst company in the world charts. A quick memo to Maxis authorizing an offline mode would pull the teeth out of this endless negative PR; a gaming policy of not monetizing every single pixel with endless online passes could even get gamers to forgive Origin (or maybe just running some goddamn sales).

Bam, done. You’re welcome, EA.

P.S. While writing this article, a friend of mine pops up on Steam chat saying that the Mass Effect 3 servers were down, meaning he couldn’t play the single-player DLC he legitimately purchased through Origin weeks ago. This is the world we live in, folks.

SimSlum

I have less than zero interest in the latest SimCity.

Granted, I have not played a Sim City since SimCity 2000, or Streets of SimCity if that counts. Indeed, Streets of SimCity was perhaps one of my favorite PC games from the 90s (has it really been two decades?) precisely because you could import your SimCity 2000 save files and then drive around at street-level. One of the augmentations to your vehicle, aside from rocket launchers and machine guns, was a sort of gliding mechanism that allowed you to fly around if you hit a sufficiently high hill. So, of course, I would use the infinite money “cheat” (about as silly as saying Minecraft building-mode is cheating) to construct the largest possible hills and then sail my way across thriving metropolises. SimCopter, I believe, also allowed you to fly around your own cities, but I never had that game.

Regardless, the latest SimCity has a number of fairly baffling changes to the core formula, the foremost of which is a sort of forced multiplayer integration, from which all other terrible design flows. Yes, you can play it single-player… by creating your own private region and not inviting other people in. But the concept of “regions” at all exists because the default is building cities connected to other peoples’ cities. Which, in a vacuum (preferably the vacuum of space), is fine if it were not for the results:

  • No offline mode.
  • No individual Save/Loads. As in, you cannot build your city up, unleash a disaster, then reload once you’ve had your fill.
  • Rollbacks due to server strain/lag/failure means you can lose hours of progress.
  • Individual cities are microscopic compared to the series.
  • No ability to landscape the terrain.

If I have mischaracterized any of the above qualities, please let me know.

Again, this is somewhat moot considering I skipped over SimCity 3 and 4, making it unlikely I was going to purchase SimCity 5 to begin with. But… well, this sort of direction for a venerable franchise makes me less likely to ever buy back in. I never really “got” the people who decried radical franchise reboots like Syndicate until this version of SimCity came out. Interacting with individual Sims is cool and all, but the rest of the social nonsense was never what these games were about, at least to me. And yet, now, to an entirely new generation of gamers, it will be.

Sigh. Get off my lawn.

Raph Koster Says Immersion is Dead

More or less (emphasis not added):

Things that we once considered essential to games drift in and out of fashion. And I think immersion is one of those.

Immersion does not make a lot of sense in a mobile, interruptible world. It comes from spending hours at something. An the fact is that as games go mainstream, they are played in small bites far more often than they are played in long solo sessions. The market adapts — this reaches more people, so the budgets divert, the publishers’ attention diverts, the developers’ creative attention diverts.

As I watch my son and daughter play games or participate in role play sessions, I find myself reluctantly admitting to myself that it is a personality type that ends up immersed in this way, and were it not in games it would be in something else. Immersion isn’t a mass market activity in that sense, because most people are comfortable being who they are and where they are. It’s us crazy dreamers who are unmoored, and who always seek out secondary worlds.

It’s just that games aren’t just for crazy dreamers anymore.

The part that struck me in particular was later on when he said:

But stuff changes. Immersion is not a core game virtue. It was a style, one that has had an amazing run, and may continue to pop up from time to time the way that we still hear swing music in the occasional pop hit. It’ll be available for us, the dreamers, as a niche product, perhaps higher priced, or in specialty shops. We’ll understand how those crotchety old war gamers felt, finally.

There are immediate, topical parallels to be drawn, of course. Difficult MMOs, for instance. And then, if immersion can go out of style, what does that say about sandboxes in general?

…actually, considering the widespread success of Skyrim, Minecraft, and the stubborn persistence of EVE, I am not entirely sure what he is talking about. Did he honestly believe the opposite, that immersion was something more than a niche genre? That there is a true Form of gaming that always included it? I enjoyed my years of table-top D&D, especially the world-building aspects of a six-year stint of being a Dungeon Master, but I was perfectly fine coming back home and doing some Battlefield 2, building M:tG decks, or playing some Super Smash Bros.

I am not too concerned about it though, because the name Raph Koster means nothing to me, regardless of how often he is quoted as being an “authority” on game design. Similar to Will Wright, the moment you stop making successful videogames or your ideas stop creating them, is the moment you cease to be an authority on the subject. Simcity 2000 ranks up as one of the best games I ever played (and it’s highly, highly underrated Streets of Simcity “expansion”) but come on, Willy. Get back on the horse, we need you.

And it might be juvenile schadenfreude, but I couldn’t help but giggle when Raph Koster talked about how his own children apparently disproved his life’s work. This Demotivational poster came to mind: