Today, nearly a full year after the game's release, Maxis announced an offline mode for SimCity. That's… actually sort of depressing. Taking what is basically a massively multiplayer, social experience and ripping out its online portion is an extremely regressive move. Sure, naysayers might be shouting told-ya-so's from the rooftops, but it didn't need to be that way. The future of gaming, at least for some genres, should be online-enabled, and you should be required to be online in order to take advantage of the new technology. It's the future, and Maxis making SimCity an offline game should be a thing of the past.
But, sadly, it needed to happen, because no one--not the gamers, not the developers, and definitely not the servers--was ready for the future.
First the catch-up: When Maxis' SimCity launched, it made an always-online connection mandatory, enforced because of the game's focus on sharing between players. It wasn't a veiled attempt at DRM so much as it was a go at turning the franchise into an MMO of sorts. But ambition outpaced feasibility, and the SimCity servers immediately shit the bed, leading to weeks of downtime, lost progress, and other disabled features. Maxis' reaction was to double down on its initial stance; in March, the SimCity Twitter went as far as to say that “The game was designed for MP, we sim the entire region on the server so this is just not possible.” The excuses essentially boiled down to "If we don't make you play online, you can't take advantage of the online features."
And yet, here we are, with offline play not only being a possibility, but a reality. The reason isn't actually given in the blog post (though it hints that it's more related to the newly discussed modding elements than the game's prior problems). But the new message is clear: In the game's next update, SimCity's online tethers will be removed completely. All the connectivity stuff will still be functional, but you'll also be able to take your city with you whether you're within Wi-Fi range or not, just like you could in SimCity 2000. Sadly, exactly like you could in SimCity 2000. It's like 1994 all over again--but only now with curvy roads.
What happened to social, connected gaming? What happened to cloud computing? What happened to the future? Well, it was sort of squandered. See, in an ideal world, SimCity's launch would've gone swimmingly--the correct number of servers would've been prepared, people would've found themselves immediately playing online, and the district-based gameplay would've simply worked. We'd likely still be playing it a year later, because online and social play can extend the shelf life of games tremendously, and few people would be worrying about an offline mode.
But you've only got one shot at a first impression, and to say that SimCity botched its forward-thinking method would be a tremendous understatement. By failing to handle the launch (and, more importantly, the unapologetic PR following the disastrous release), Maxis failed to sell gamers on its concept of an always-online future. Instead, SimCity only reaffirmed reluctant gamers' suspicions--there are going to be times when I want to play this game I bought, and I'm not going to be able to. Having it happen at launch, when excitement for a release is at an all-time high, was devastating, and put us in the position we're in today. A position where an always-online game like SimCity isn't to be trusted.
There will, undoubtedly, be a time when always-online gaming is the norm--honestly, it could've happened already, if Microsoft didn't make the same mistakes with the Xbox One that Maxis made with SimCity. Hell, it could still happen this generation if Destiny and Titanfall pull off their launches. But always-online needs to be handled with respect and finesse. Otherwise, history will repeat itself--both in terms of gamers' adverse reactions, and what games will look like in the future.