Electronic Arts’ Open Contempt for its Customers

SimCityPictured: A visual representation of the SimCity launch (blog.games.com)

It’s been a week since the newest iteration of SimCity launched, and Electronic Arts has demonstrated such disregard for for the customers who keep it in business that there can no longer be any doubt of this publisher being worthy of the Worst Company in America award by Consumerist.

If you don’t follow the video game industry, here’s a bit of background: SimCity is a reboot of the classic decade-spanning franchise. It launched with online-only digital rights management, meaning you have to be online to play even if you want to play by yourself. This was allegedly done because of a “vision” Maxis and Electronic Arts had, which has been sharply contested. Forcing everybody to be online put a strain on the game’s servers immediately, rendering it unplayable for many more than a week after they paid $60.

In the subsequent week, Electronic Arts has handled the resulting public relations disaster so ham-handedly that video game journalists have devoted entire sections of their sites to covering blunder after blunder.

What grates me – and why I haven’t bought SimCity and likely won’t for a long time – isn’t Electronic Arts’ failure to address a problem everybody expected. Instead, it’s the company’s constant attempts to shift the blame to the very people being hurt by this problem: You.

One of the worst examples of this has come from senior producer Kip Katsarelis. In a post on the Electronic Arts forums he noted that “What we saw was that players were having such a good time they didn’t want to leave the game, which kept our servers packed and made it difficult for new players to join.”

In short, it’s your fault for wanting to play the game you just paid $60 for. It’s everybody’s fault but EA’s. This statement isn’t just disingenuous; it’s outright insulting. Electronic Arts anticipated this just like everybody else did. They knowingly released a product that remain broken for an indeterminate period of time, taking customers’ money for it anyway, and somehow EA has still made this your problem. 

This segways into one of the biggest slaps in the face Electronic Arts has given its customers: No refund for you. Amazon is offering refunds, but if you bought the game directly from EA, you’re stuck with a product that’s still unplayable as of this writing. Origin global community manager Marcel Hatam apologized to players and initially directed players to seek a refund, but Hatam’s post was edited and merely asks customers to “please review our refund policy here,” which notes that Origin doesn’t offer refunds except for “special mitigating circumstances”. One would think that the game being broken is a special case, but Origin’s terms seem to be whatever EA interprets them as.

One user went as far as planning to call his credit card company to dispute the charge, prompting a warning that his Origin account would be banned before EA quickly backpedaled on this too, even having the gall to call it a “rumor”. All of this makes any apologies from EA and Maxis hollow and transparent, simply because they’re not sorry. They have your money and now you’re expected to sit back and wait for EA to get its act together.

The closest thing to reconciliation EA has done is to offer a free game to people who activate a copy of SimCity before March 18, which feels like a cynical attempt to just drive up sales in the wake of this disaster rather than any meaningful way to rebuild burned bridges.

Then came the revelation that SimCity could have easily had an offline mode, when a Reddit modder discovered how to access the game’s debug mode. He had to go online for the game to save his progress, but otherwise he was able to play offline seamlessly. This directly contradicted earlier claims by EA and Maxis about how “hard” making the game single player would be, and lead to Maxis general manager Lucy Bradshaw explaining this as a decision based on Maxis’ vision rather than decisions to stem piracy or to exert control of consumers:

“So, could we have built a subset offline mode? Yes, but we rejected that idea because it didn’t fit with our vision. We did not focus on the ‘single city in isolation’ that we have delivered in past SimCities. We recognize that there are fans—people who love the original SimCity—who want that. But we’re also hearing from thousands of people who are playing across regions, trading, communicating and loving the Always-Connected functionality. The SimCity we delivered captures the magic of its heritage but catches up with ever-improving technology.”

Setting aside Bradshaw’s admission that EA and Maxis lied and that “ever-improving technology” doesn’t include competent servers, all this really does is further condemn EA and Maxis.  Even if I accept the argument that forcing customers to maintain persisting Internet connections was a “vision”, EA and Maxis placed their vision ahead of what consumers wanted. The debate of how much demand there was for an online, constantly connected “game as a service” is an open question, but all I’m seeing is a lot of people crying foul and asking for refunds.

The greater problem is that online-only has no benefit to the player. The ability to play online can have tremendous benefits, but forced online play is an inconvenience. It’s a disservice to people who live in areas with weaker broadband, people who want to play SimCity on a train or during a flight, and to people in parts of the world that barely have Internet at all. Just look at all of the people who bought the game and have solid Internet connections but can’t enjoy it through no fault of their own.

The only thing the SimCity launch has done is demonstrate how little Electronic Arts cares about its own customers. EA and Maxis decided that your entertainment was acceptable collateral damage in releasing the game before the servers could handle the traffic, which is not an appropriate business model for the entertainment industry. Over the past week they’ve made blog updates, held conference calls, done interviews, but have done everything except try to remedy this in a manner that would be most beneficial to SimCity fans. I can outline what EA can easily do to mend fences right now:

-Issue a simple, sincere apology and offer refunds to everybody who asks
-Admit that online only-DRM was not done for the player’s benefit
-Patch SimCity to allow offline play while retaining the online component

I don’t see what EA has to lose at this point by at least trying to be honest. The company is already despised, and in the last few years, it seems to be taking its most hated practices to new levels. Just because you can get away with shoddy business practices today doesn’t mean you can tomorrow, and gamers are turning on this company. EA should sit down and start thinking hard about its relationships with the people keeping them in business before it’s too late. Even then, I wonder if it already is now.On the plus side, at least the DRM stopped piracy, right?

Update on 3/10/2013: Just when you thought EA couldn’t get more condescending, one of the games they’re offering for free as compensation for SimCity players is its single player predecessor, SimCity 4. So your reward for buying a bad product is to get a free copy of its better older sibling.

Update on 3/21/2013: The fallout continues as CEO John Riccitiello has resigned. SimCity is just the culmination of a tenure marred by broken promises and repeating the same practices Riccitello once condemned. As optimistic as I was back in 2009 about the state of EA, I won’t be mourning his departure and neither should you.