A brief primer: The SimCity games place the player
in the role of mayor in charge of building and maintaining a
city. The first was published in 1989. Subsequent versions
added new features, more buildings and transportation
Electronic Arts (EA) boasted that the new game will add
multiplayer support and simulate the behaviour of each citizen,
rather than use statistical modelling. Because of the computing
power required for these features, EA explained, players must
be signed onto its servers during play to take advantage of
cloud computing resources. This is true even for players who
wanted to play alone. Of course, the login requirement made it
much more difficult to pirate the game.
Player decried the system as a form of brute force digital
rights management, taking away features (offline single-player)
cynically dressed up as progress. Others asked what happens if
EA had technical problems or stopped paying for servers;
doesn’t this mean that the game will stop
In a word: yes. When the game launched last Tuesday, many
unable to log in. Players were understandably upset that
their $60 purchase did not work due to this requirement.
Amazon temporarily suspended sales due to complaints.
EA’s response worsened the backlash. Lucy
Bradshaw of Maxis, the EA-owned studio that developed the game,
explained that the problems stemmed from the
game’s popularity and the challenges of crunching
"the vast amount of simulation data". She claimed that due to
this, adding offline play would entail "a significant amount of
engineering work". Not surprisingly, these claims were quickly
hackers and even an
Where do we go from here?
This episode demonstrates the challenges of weathering
technological change and finding that new business model. EA
appeared to have been chasing the cloud computing craze by
adopting aspects of the software-as-service model, but was
unable to deliver adequately at launch or convince customers
that they were benefiting.
Even attempts without similar technological problems have
faced some resistance. The freemium model, in which users get
the software for free but pay for additional features or
in-game items, has been
criticised as "nickel and diming" users rather than
providing a truly useful product.
The music industry has also struggled to move beyond the
album model. The industry initially resisted but has adopted
and has found some success with selling digital singles, and
seems to have some momentum with streaming services like
Spotify and Pandora. Though
tussles over royalty rates indicate that there are still
questions about long term viability, the growing popularity of
these services indicate an encouraging level of consumer
The lesson seems to be that
when devising new business models, rights holders need to fit
customer expectations, which often analogise to existing
products. Consumers accept music streaming likely because it
can be thought of as a smarter, personalised version of radio.
Freemium models can work because users understand what upgrades
they are paying for. Its acceptance is particularly strong in
the mobile realm, with the top eight grossing apps on iTunes
Even consumer software can work as a service. World of
Warcraft, with its $14.99 monthly fee, has been a runaway
hit, and users seem to accept that the multi-player game does
in fact need a server. SimCity may yet prove to be a
financial success, but for now, it stands as a warning to
content owners the PR headaches that await if consumers
don’t believe in your business model.