In what is proving to be a highly contentious topic, EA, together with Maxis, are continually digging themselves deeper into a hole - this time, they've been tagged as lying to consumers about the Always Online requirement for SimCity 2013.
Maxis's Studio Head, Lucy Bradshaw, has stated outright that there are "significant" calculations occurring serverside; but an inside source claims "[servers] are not doing anything"...
This has been the justification for the Always Online decision for the entire marketing duration of SimCity; that the game was offloading calculations onto the Maxis/EA servers, allowing a much deeper game that was available for many low end computers still in homes.
Following on from that, since the entire game had apparently been built based on these server side calculations being necessary, it would take “a significant amount of engineering work from our team to rewrite the game” for offline single player. Or so we had been told.
Many sites and individuals have been reporting the game working for up to 20 minutes without an Internet connection; already a suspiciously long time given the amount of work the servers are supposed to be doing. And today, an anonymous source (who was verified by the mighty guys over at RockPaperShotgun) has released a statement, making it quite clear that the game servers are not doing calculations. The source details:
“The servers are not handling any of the computation done to simulate the city you are playing. They are still acting as servers, doing some amount of computation to route messages of various types between both players and cities. As well, they’re doing cloud storage of save games, interfacing with Origin, and all of that. But for the game itself? No, they’re not doing anything. I have no idea why they’re claiming otherwise. It’s possible that Bradshaw misunderstood or was misinformed, but otherwise I’m clueless.”
Understandably, the servers are managing the multiplayer and backing up the save files; we expected no less. The lack of any meaningful data work being done on the server however means there is only one reason for the Online requirement: DRM.
Here at Game-Debate, we're always willing to let new ideas appear, such as offloading calculations. We were not willing to condemn the game just for it's "always online" policy; although it was somewhat distasteful, it was there for a reason. With this new light shone on the situation however, well it certainly starts to sound like marketing spin.
From the source:
“Because of the way Glassbox was designed, simulation data had to go through a different pathway. The game would regularly pass updates to the server, and then the server would stick those messages in a huge queue along with the messages from everyone else playing. The server pulls messages off the queue, farms them out to other servers to be processed and then those servers send you a package of updates back. The amount of time it could take for you to get a server update responding to something you’ve just done in the game could be as long as a few minutes. This is why they disabled Cheetah mode, by the way, to reduce by half the number of updates coming into the queue.”
So what we're seeing is your city data being sent off to other servers. Since the time (as experienced by users) between checks can be as long as 20 minutes, it doesn't seem like this is the calculation stage; it appears to be a check to make sure that you aren't cheating. Now, this is a perfectly understandable step to have once you're playing Multiplayer, with the leaderboards and rankings. These checks however directly restrict your game from using single player Mods, or for that matter casual offline play. So to put this another way that may be a little more familiar to us, these checks are "Always Online DRM".
To top it all off, the source concludes with another counter to what we've been told:
“It wouldn’t take very much engineering to give you a limited single-player game without all the nifty region stuff.”
This directly contradicts the official line that it would take "a significant amount of engineering work" to convert the game to singleplayer.
It does then appear that Maxis, intentionally or not, has been spreading false information about their game. It does appear that the game has the (appropriately) much-maligned Always Online DRM.
Now that this information is spreading across the internet you can expect an official reply will be published pretty soon.