Last week, two of our writers played SimCity and deliberately turned off their Internet connections, both finding their games continued normally and then abruptly ended after 20 minutes. Someone now has posted what appears to be code for the game that orders a shutdown after a disconnection exactly that long. That allegation further punctures the talking point that SimCity is necessarily an online game, or would take a great deal of work to make it so.
The code is here. "Simply commenting out Line #22 defeats the force disconnect," says the person who posted it. The removal allows offline play indefinitely.
SimCity's launch week was a scandal because gamers simply couldn't connect what they'd bought to EA servers. It prompted apologies and offers from Electronic Arts and Maxis, the studio that makes the game. This sort of thing had been seen before in launches like Diablo III, and for certain Ubisoft PC games. Gamers resented these lapses as they have always, feeling they had been inconvenienced by a publisher's antipiracy prerogatives.
The difference is SimCity, per comments from Maxis general manager Lucy Bradshaw, had said its always-online connection was integral to the game's functioning. Bradshaw, as far back as December said the game's simulation engine needed cloud servers to assist with the game's singleplayer modes. Yet after the launch week debacle, an unnamed Maxis insider told Rock, Paper, Shotgun that an online connection was known, internally to be unnecessary. Then this week, as a slew of embarrassing AI episodes and glitches made their way to YouTube, gamers started wondering where the cloud computing muscle was in a game said to depend upon it.
Bradshaw on Friday offered what she, or Maxis PR, called "straight answers" about the SimCity situation, but plainly avoided the earlier claims that cloud processing — that is, online servers sharing tasks with gamers' computers — was necessary to make SimCity work.
Yes, SimCity has legitimate multiplayer features, through the regional interactions with other players' cities. These were repeatedly cited by Bradshaw on Friday. These features necessarily require some kind of online interaction, and one way to look at a forced timeout is that developers wanted to keep a city from going so far out of synch with its neighbours that, once it reconnected to the server, re-pairing their economies, populations and other features took so much work it broke the game.
Another way to look at it is that Electronic Arts wanted to require SimCity players to stay connected to EA servers at least every 20 minutes, because such a requirement is a surefire way to defeat piracy. And to date, nothing in the game's performance, or in the messaging coming from Maxis or EA has highlighted any gamer benefit equal to or greater than that publishing prerogative.