My SimCity City Thrived Offline For 19 Minutes

I ran a test yesterday. I loaded the always-online SimCity — the game that EA says just can't made to run offline — and then pulled the proverbial cord. I switched off my internet to see how long I could keep on playing. It didn't last long, but what I discovered intrigued me.

Prior to the official release of SimCity, I'd already seen that the game could run offline if a signal dropped. I play the game on a laptop (a powerful one!) and my Wi-Fi signal at home isn't always so hot. So, when I was playing on a press server a few days before release, I'd get a pop-up indicator telling me the network connection was lost. I could keep merrily building my city, and, when the connection came back, there were no hitches.

The folks behind SimCity have long maintained, however, that their game is made to be played online. That requirement isn't just DRM, they say. It's for gameplay — for simulating parts of the inter-city gameplay, for doling out challenges.

They say this all the time, up to and including last Friday, when SimCity studio boss Lucy Bradshaw told the website Polygon: "With the way that the game works, we offload a significant amount of the calculations to our servers so that the computations are off the local PCs and are moved into the cloud." This, she explained, is why an offline is currently a no-go for her team at Maxis. "It wouldn't be possible to make the game offline without a significant amount of engineering work by our team."

Yesterday, I tested this assertion. I started playing my city, the mining mecca known as Newer Landland City. I turned off WiFi and then tried to zoom out, check the region and zoom into one of the other cities in my region.

Connection lost. Booted to the game's title screen.

I turned my Wi-Fi back on and returned to Newer Landland City (heretofore referred to as NLC). I laid down some roads. I probably zoned more residential, because my cities always need more residential.

While I was doing this, I was running Microsoft Network Monitor 3.4, a program that scans your computer's network usage and shows which applications are talking to the network. You can run this too, and probably should, because I'm not able to tell you a whole lot about the activity I saw. Most of it is Greek to me. What I can tell you is that SimCity.exe connected to Amazon IP addresses in Ireland — presumably Amazon servers used to network the game. For the most part, my game, running on North America East 3, connected to this IP address. Ireland servers? North America East? Who knows how this works! What I do know is that it seemed like my game was talking to the network a lot, several times a minute.

If my city talked to the network that much, then, turning off the Wi-Fi, I expected to see some catastrophes pretty soon.

I did not.

I could continue to lay down roads. I added a recycling plant. I upgraded it. Five minutes into being offline, I got a notification about a neighbouring city.

Fifteen minutes into being offline, I was notified that my garbage trucks had successfully serviced a neighbouring city and made some money off it.

The buildings in NLC seemed to be rising and falling just fine without the network. But what of my exports? NLC is a mining metropolis (well, more like a mining manor), and we export ore and coal. About 18 minutes in, my factories were full. My exports weren't going out. Because of the lack of an online connection? Or due to my mining facilities working overtime? I'm not sure, because, 19 minutes in, I got the alert you can see atop this story. The game had decided enough was enough. I had to quit to the main menu.

I then restored my Internet connection, returned to my city and it successfully synched to the region.

What if I had refrained from exports? Could my city have lasted longer? What if I had been playing at standard speed instead of triple-fast cheetah speed? My colleague, Mike Fahey, who runs an education city in the same region on the same server tried to repeat my test while playing at normal speed. He hit the same wall as I did in about 20 minutes.

Last week, I posted the same question about the possibility of an offline mode to Bradshaw that Polygon and others did. Over the weekend, I got a reply.

Me: "SimCity uses its online connection to connect player cities and support online challenges, but it seems clear now that some sort of offline mode would appease many fans. Is EA going to enable this option for the game?"

Bradshaw: "Online connectivity as a creative game design decision was infused into the game's DNA since its inception and so we're fully committed to delivering against that experience first. A significant portion of the GlassBox Engine's calculations are performed on our servers and off of the player's PCs. It would take a significant amount of engineering work from our team to rewrite the game so that all of those functions are calculated locally without a significant performance hit to the player."

***

I don't make video games. Maxis does. EA does.

I can't tell how many things were going wrong in my city during the 19 minutes when I played it offline. I don't know how many calculations weren't occurring. And, for the record, I enjoy playing the game online with friends in my region.

Those 19 minutes nevertheless provide a glimpse at an alternate to what we've been required to experience with the new SimCity. I've played an offline version of this game that looked great and seemed to run pretty well. Imagine if we could get more of that.


Comments

    Played for the first time last night. All Oceanic servers were full so I went with the Asia server. I got a few popups telling me that server connection was lost but it kept letting me play. Five minutes later 4 hours passed and I had a great time.
    Anyone wanna add me my name is phlaiman.

      friend request sent

        add me too, everyone. I have no origin friends so Kotaku ones would be the best kind of friends to have. Juststu82 as above.

    Since mEAxis won't tell us what functions are being performed in the cloud, I can only draw two conclusions.

    1) There are no cloud calculations
    2) The cloud gathers data, not performs calculations, with the aim to gather billions of hours of (successful) city planning and management data to be used to build the first real life city, based on the supercomputer that is millions of human minds working on the same problem. This theory matches well with the city size limits in the new game, as their plot of land for this real city is limited in by land area.

      According to RPS, someone at Maxis told them that the servers only handle the region effects stuff and the social stuff:

      http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2013/03/12/simcity-server-not-necessary/

      I see what you did there. mEAxis. How clever! Merging EA and Maxis into the one word!

      You're brilliant - you should hang out with the same guys that came up with Micro$oft and WinDOZE.

      Regarding point 1)

      I'd argue that there are some cloud calculations but they are all about connecting your city to it's neighbors, I'd go so far as to argue there is no real reason the game can not work offline. Of course you have to accept that you can't export and your city needs to be self contained.

      I think a lot of people would be happy with this compromise.

      I also have to give props to it for working offline for awhile if you drop your connection. I'm still against always online as the only way to play but.

    Maxis have said that the cloud computations are all region based, not city based. I'm assuming that means all of your exporting/importing/tourists/etc all require an internet connection to function properly.

    This article just proves the theory that the "always on-line" requirement is unnecessary.
    If you think this isn't a deliberate design decision from EA, let me remind you of what EA president Frank Gibeau said last year:
    “I have not green lit one game to be developed as a single player experience. Today, all of our games include online applications and digital services that make them live 24/7/365.”

    Funny how plenty of other games have managed to function just fine with the single player component off-line and an on-line connection only required for multi-player. And EA wonder why they get so much hate...

      That's not the point at all. They just didn't want the single player experience. You think they didn't do it because they are incapable? the same company which basically every game has been singleplayer since the dawn of time (at least until recently)?

      It's the experience they, in their extremely long history of development and I assume market research, wanted to do. If you don't like it nobody is forcing you to buy the product, there are plenty of opensource simcity clones that "managed" to function singleplayer for you.

        I've read this comment three times and I have no idea what your talking about. Who said they were incapable of doing it? The suggestion is they weren't allowed.

          EA have nothing to do with it according to Maxis. It was their choice.

            EA - who own Maxis and won't fund games without an online component (see above). EA - who has pushed online crap into every franchise they own. You are much too trusting.

              Got to agree with @thom here, Maxis wanted to add always Online and Microtransactions seems a bit far fetched when EA said all games they release now are always online and will have Microtransactions.

              Did they want to continue having a job and thus implement the demanded features? Yes they did. Did they think this was the best possible solution for the consumer? I sincerely doubt it.

                ... They put it in a statement to shareholders..

                If they were lying, that's corporate fraud and could lose them their company. Perhaps you are too suspicious.

                  I'm not arguing what EA said to it's shareholders, I'm saying I just don't think a Developer who put a couple of years of his life into a beloved franchise thought the game needed microtransactions and an online only method to be a good game.

                  I'm saying what EA want corporate wants and what the Developers at Maxis want are different things. But Maxis have to follow the rules set by EA.

                  You keep missing the point. Maxis statement could still be true if they know their game won't be funded if it's not predominantly on line. It's as good a reason as any to 'want to do it' and EA don't have to tell them to do it expressly either.

      Well it certainly wouldn't be as simple as flicking a switch or removing the network code from the game.. they have designed it to work online so while the assets and all that is readily available ofline, the core gameplay still relies on the internet connection....

      ...what doesn't make sense is why you can't play the sandbox part of the game offline. That part of the game having the always-online requirement certainly is DRM.

    As a dev I can see so many problems with what you assume is happening.. Garbage trucks for example wouldn't be communicating for every truck - it would be a timer. Cancelling the agreement or whatever would cancel that timer. If you're offline it would continue, but you couldn't just do so indefinitely as they could have already cancelled it, making it unfair.

    It's not meant to be exact, it's meant so that if your connection drops like that, you aren't inconvienienced, and you've managed to take that feature and minor forethought (good intentions atleast) and make it seem like a bad thing as though they are lying to you..

    Also in terms of cloud 'computations' rather than just communications - one has to wonder if it wouldn't do more of this if you weren't playing on a powerful computer. They also don't assert the nature of the claimed calculations at any point i've seen - if you think the networking of many regions occurs without any and are seem to be implicating them as liars because of it (as with some of the comments above).. Well.. yeah..

    People are so cynical these days, jeez.

      I think the point that is trying to be made though is that if they wanted to they could make an offline single city mode. It would be a pretty crap way to play the game... but it would be offline.

        This. My housemate recently grabbed the game after watching me play on my day off. Ended up spending way too much time playing cause the multiplayer implementation is indeed cool and I do indeed want to play it. However if my connection is being crap (or any of the many, many, many other reasons I might not be able to connect to their servers) and I want a SimCity fix it'd be nice to be able to play SOMETHING.

          SimCity 4? haha. I bought it for like $5 a few weeks ago on sale on Steam.

      Interesting info here: https://pay.reddit.com/r/Games/comments/1a9t0e/simcity_modder_removes_always_online_forced/

    ITs as i said in another article they are talking 100% bullshit.

    They claim normal computers arne't powerful enough for thier "calculations", which if that was the case the game would be losing money since they would have to have super computers running it in the cloud which would cost them 100's of millions to maintain for the millions of customers, the game would be running at an insane loss.

    The game could run perfectly fine without online and would require minimal changes to do so, but no they lie agian "oh we would have to remake the whole thing".

    Put simply everything they have said is bullshit, 1 lie after the other with the sole reason of forcing this bullshit DRM disguised as and expanded multiplayer experience.

      Every time I hear that they supposedly need to offload the calculations because of the users computer speed all I can think is to pull out Dwarf Fortress and go... "Hey EA, you think your crappy little city sim is calculation heavy...."

      I mean seriously, if my 3+ year old non gaming computer can handle all the calculations in DF, it can simulate a model of a few tens of thousands of basic people. It's not like every individual sim, animal, plant and car in Sim(ple)City has their own beliefs, likes, dislikes, distinct personal history and fully... mailable...limbs and organs.

      + a million points of respect to the first publisher to actually be honest about putting DRM into their games. Hell, I would even buy a good game with an always on connection from the first publisher to openly admit that always online was a DRM choice first. Just because it has been that way since the proposal and thus you HAD to include it into the game design doesn't mean it's not still just DRM. It just means that you designed your game play around DRM.

      Just to restate: "Online connectivity as a creative game design decision was infused into the game’s DNA since its inception and so we’re fully committed to delivering against that experience first"

      Translates to: "EA told us all games we make from now on need to be always online, and as such it was a design requirement from day 1. Everything else (mechanics, playablity and customer satisfaction) came second to that."

    I can see the pirate "scene" making cracks and ways to play it offline and/or play on a private server. The always online part was the major factor for me not buying the game. Yes I have played it (when servers were up and running) and the game is good but I rather play it offline so I can build a mega city and with one-click see it all destroyed..

    As much as I'm not overly bothered by on-line all the time games - as I believe that is just the future of gaming, I can see why people are upset over this game in particular - despite being advertised as on-line only game. I still believe that due to the industries young age, there are a lot of teething issues, especially when introducing things like this. I've seen games that function without internet, but you lose achievements, social things etc. That's not a bad idea, and I don't think too many people can complain. Could Simcity work like this, I believe it can and it probably wouldn't take the engineering feat that is described - but I say that with limited education on the matter of programming.

    The fact of the matter is that we are divided on how much pirating affects our industry, especially on the PC platform. At the end of the day a business needs to make money, and if this is indeed an attempt to fought off pirates then certain things need to be taken into consideration. Ubisoft has dumped its DRM for a reason - a little bit of community backlash, but mainly because it didn't work, as it was implemented poorly. They were somewhat forced to see this, and its the same case here. I don't condone pirating, I've done it myself - it's just life, people are going to want things for free, and they are going make it happen. There's no simple answer to all this, all I know is that the honest consumer usually suffers. Is the game on torrent sites? No. So has it worked in some way? Yes. Is it the right answer? No.

    I say no purely for one reason, the implementation. The proof is in the launch of the title, and it was terrible. Do you want your game to go down as one of the worst launchers in history? No. People have said that they should have learnt from Diablo 3's launch, but that's a different game, different tech - and possibly uses different methods of connectivity.

    At the end of the day I think it's good to have a community that is passionate and for the most part constructive in it's criticism, it keeps developers and publishers honest, for the most part. Keep voting with your wallet, and keep fighting the good fight - but keep it intelligent and constructive, or we all just look like the little children that gamers are perceived to be.

    Last edited 13/03/13 11:28 am

      I think most people posting on Kotaku won't begrudge developers including anti-piracy measures to protect the sales of their game. And everyone understands that the development houses are businesses, and need to be profitable to keep running and making games. But like many other things in life there needs to be a balance, in this case a balance between protecting developer revenue and still making the game accessible and enjoyable for your legitimate customers. Companies like Steam understand this, so most of the games they sell have a one time on-line authentication, and then you, the customer, have the choice of then playing on-line or off-line.

      However, where EA / Maxis went wrong wasn't just in making the DRM onerous and painful, it was in lying to the gaming community about it being DRM in the first place, and claiming it was necessary for the game. Gamers aren't stupid (as a general rule) - if you come out and make claims that seem suspicious or false, you can bet our ass they will be investigated. And once enough people start looking, soon enough the truth will come to light (as evidenced by the Rock Paper Shotgun article). This is why people like Lucy Bradshaw, and companies like EA / Maxis have no credibility - they think the gaming community are so stupid, that they will believe whatever they are told. Whenever they get caught out, they think they can get out of it through putting a positive spin on things. EA has done this again and again, and to me, this just demonstrates a complete lack of respect for their customers.

        I agree that most Kotaku readers are intelligent and post intelligent comments, hence why I like coming to the site (mind you not because I'm intelligent :P). My post was an overall generalisation of gamers around the world etc, not directed solely at kotaku readers - but more importantly an avenue to rant.

        You hit the nail on the head about gamer's overall intelligence, and how far they go to seek the truth if in fact they believe they have been lied to. This is what I love about the gaming community, it's constructive and it benefits the honest consumer. This is the good fight.

    If calculations are done server-side, why can't we just install a local server with the same code?

    I don't buy always-online games.

    Partly because it's always-on DRM.
    Mostly it's just sour grapes because i've never owned a computer powerful enough to handle modern games and just now have a Cable internet connection for the first time in my life.

    SC3K anyone?

    This would be a buy for me if I could play anywhere anytime, not having to connect to the net...
    SimCity was always about me making what I wanted to make, not integrating with other people or giving two shits about someone else interests and economy, if I want to do stuff like that with others il play something else...

    If they smarten up and release an offline stand alone version (even if it is less complex) il be on board, til then, nope.

    god dam Ubisoft all over again dam ea i just want to play the game couldn't give a shit about online or playing it with over o well yet another game i will not be buying.

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