International mega-publisher EA launched the newest version of Maxis’ popular city builder game, SimCity, last week. The results? Pfft, beats me. It’s not like I can start the game due to overloaded servers. Even if I could, there are now widespread reports of deleted save data and game features,such as time compression, having been disabled. So… Why did this happen? Two public beta tests and a mountain of pre-order data later, how did EA get caught flat-footed for the launch of one of the oldest running PC game franchises in history? Short answer: It wasn’t in the company’s best interests.
Catastrophic launches of online software are nothing new. From 2004’s World of Warcraft through today’s latest debacle, every year is dotted with stories of pre-ordering early adopters ranting about being unable to connect to their purchased software for the first week. While companies always claim ‘surprise record turnouts’, surely the publisher was aware of demand in this age of Internet analytics and data mining. Of course they were. Especially a publisher like EA who has been around since the dawn of gaming. The simple truth is that it just isn’t worth the expense of making your early adopters happy. It is not unusual for a online game’s number of users to drop by as much as 25% after the first month. Why spend the money on extra servers (or even renting virtual servers from an online data center such as HP or Amazon AM2) for 30 days of use?
So what about customer satisfaction and bad publicity? Well, those don’t seem to matter as much as you’d think either. In our always-on, information overloaded world, memory is short. This goes double for a fickle, hype driven customer base such as video game consumers. Having your product’s name repeated as often as possible is far more important than anything actually said about it. Any publicity is good publicity. Especially when you have masters of the marketing spin such as SimCity’s Senior Producer Kip Katsarelis who posted on the official EA SimCity forums:
“This has been an exciting and challenging week for the team here at Maxis, the culmination years of planning and development. We have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and enthusiasm from our fans which has made it even more upsetting for us that technical issues have become more prominent in the last 24 hours… While the ongoing issues are troubling, we can also see that players are really enjoying the game. In a single 24 hour period, there were more than 38 million buildings plopped down, nearly 7 and a half million kilometers of roads laid down, 18+ million fires started and (my favorite fact) over 40 million pipes filled up with poop.”
‘Our game is SO good and SO popular, it crashed our servers. Oops! We’re sorry for being SO great!’ As for the really outspoken naysayers (You know, the ones who swore never to buy another Company X or always online product again due to their problems last time, but do it again anyway), companies can always kick ‘em an extended subscription or digital goodie. Digital distribution doesn’t cost anything, so why not? Now your favorite skinflint software provider looks like heroes who care about their customers! Win/win! Meanwhile, every method of social networking known to geek is filled to the brim with posts about the new SimCity game. This level of mindshare is invaluable. Why on Earth would you ever spend money to avoid it? Launch woes certainly didn’t hurt Diablo III’s sales. That game went on to sell more than 10 million copies in 2012 alone.
Problematic online launches are here to stay. Do we have the foresight and knowhow to avoid them? Yes. All of the major publishers have teams of dedicated individuals poring over pre-order sales and social network analytics day and night. Cloud-based computing gives everyone the capability of renting temporary servers in data centers to get over early adopter hurdles. The crux of the matter is that it’s just not worth the expense. On the contrary, no one ever talks about a flawless launch.