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Darkspore’s woes foretell a grim future for SimCity and ‘cloud’ gaming

2 Jul 2013  by   Peter Parrish
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Something strange is happening with EA and Maxis’ ill-fated action-RPG, Darkspore. Reports began circulating today that the game has been removed from Steam (at the time of writing, this is still the case.) Right now, it is still available to purchase through EA’s own Origin service.

For months, people who’ve purchased the game have run into technical problems that have prevented them accessing and playing the title. A server issue known as “Error 73003” has dogged the game for extensive periods, while another error (“Error Code 3”) has arisen in the past few weeks. Both are, of course, related to the title’s insistence on a DRM scheme that requires a persistent, “always on” internet connection. There is no method of playing offline, so these errors have meant that Darkspore is effectively unplayable for many people. The precise number is impossible to determine, but it’s enough to sustain regular complaints.

darkspore-2

Best of luck getting beyond this screen.

Until recently, there was no official word from either EA or Maxis about possible fixes. The main spokesperson/community manager on Darkspore’s official forums goes by the title “Inquisitor Laine” and has been using the following statement to summarise the state of the game:

Darkspore is no longer developed. It is for almost all intents & purposes an abandoned title. If you cannot play the game & have flicked through technical issues for any fixes, then contact EA Customer Support; especially if it regards CD-Keys or refunds.

Error 73003 has gone unfixed & remains an issue.

Error Code 3 has arisen for the majority/all & remains an issue.

I will however keep the forums here as clean & tidy as possible in my spare time. Why? Well why not. If it helps anyone with minor problems, or find their way somewhere, then that’s great.

I wish you all luck, no matter what path you choose with Darkspore.”

Laine doesn’t actually work for EA or Maxis. As he himself says “I don’t actually work for anyone, nor do I get paid. This is a voluntary position and in all reality there’s not much reason for me to still do it, but I do.” That both companies were happy to leave an unpaid volunteer in charge of all community relations tells you everything you need to know about their attitude towards actually mending or maintaining the game in any significant fashion.

darkspore

Congrats, you made it in! Hope you had no plans to retain any characters.

Thanks to the game’s removal from Steam, this whole affair has been revisited by the gaming press. With variations of “Darkspore is dead” headlines popping up everywhere, someone at either Maxis or EA has started to pay slightly more attention to what’s going on. Laine’s suggestion that the game is “no longer developer” has been removed, and a new statement at the top of the forums, dated 1 July 2013, reads:

“Welcome to the Darkspore forums. Thanks for supporting the game. We recently resolved an issue that was causing some players to not be able to connect to the game. If you any encounter any other issues, please contact help.ea.com for customer support. We will continue to support Darkspore, so feel free to continue to discuss the game here. Thanks – Maxis.”

At this stage it’s difficult to be sure which “issue” this refers to. Error 3 appears to have been the most recent connection problem, so it may be that one. This, however, would still leave Error 73003 unresolved.

It’s also far, far too late. DRM problems have been rife with Darkspore since it launched in April 2011. The current response is purely the result of the game making fresh news headlines and causing further DRM-related embarrassment for EA. Making a token effort to address issues that are months (even years) old with a retroactive forum statement is abysmal customer service.

darkspore3

Few have looked upon the Darkspore in its true form and lived.

So that’s the situation with Darkspore. Unplayable for considerable numbers of people since its launch over two years ago. Pulled from Steam. Unlikely to be properly fixed, unless the lone new message of support from Maxis is to be believed.

EA doesn’t have a terrific track record with servers and DRM. The free-to-play ‘battle arena’ game Warhammer: Wrath of Heroes never even made it out of beta before being shut down. It’s not a title that I’ll personally miss, but the manner of its passing was another hatchet job. On 27 February 2013, it was announced that the title would no longer operate after the end of March. That revelation came out of nowhere, and appeared one day after a stream of general “everything is fine” promotional posts.

Of course being in beta hadn’t prevented Wrath of Heroes flogging its users a bunch of real money ‘gem’ currency. Currency which EA decided there would be absolutely no refunds for. Had you just splashed out on a load of gems on 26 February (and why not, everything appeared fine,) you would have had no choice but to spend them all before the end of March and get an entire one month’s enjoyment from your purchases.

Warhammer: Wrath of Heroes

Even Gork and Mork couldn’t save this one.

More pertinent to the online DRM situation is EA’s latest in-house crisis management exercise to masquerade as a videogame, SimCity.

The game’s launch was so catastrophic, that it’s likely to remain a touchstone of “why always online single player games are terrible” arguments for many years to come. Even after these connection issues were (slowly) fixed, a host of other exciting problems persisted. Granted, that compilation article is from a couple of months back, but Maxis’ latest answer to the way Glassbox (mis)handles traffic appears to be “sell some Airship DLC.”

While the problems with SimCity are no longer as clear-cut as the ones afflicting Darkspore, there is an eerie glimpse of the future in the latter game’s sad slide into broken irrelevance. If Maxis is unable to patch up and mend the remaining bugs, oddities and flawed systems in SimCity, the title may up abandoned by degrees in just the same fashion. With so many issues apparently linked to the underlying Glassbox Engine itself, the prognosis doesn’t appear too hopeful.

This whole article probably reads like an EA hit piece; but although that company in particular seems married to a set of anti-consumer policies, there’s actually a wider warning from all these failures. As soon as anybody (developer or publisher alike) puts data vital to the function of a game on an external server and makes it required for single player, then people are at the mercy of those servers being maintained and updated indefinitely.

SimCity

EA kindly requests that you pay some money for this airship, then float off to somewhere you can no longer bother them.

Some publishers manage to provide great service, but as the trend for single player games utilising aspects of ‘the cloud’ grows (as it will, if Microsoft’s Xbox One takes off) then so too does the risk of poor support crippling a game. If not poor support, then mere age. Not many publishers will maintain servers for a game three, five or ten years down the line. If those servers are required for even offline play? Then too bad.

At the very least, these types of game need to implement a failsafe option that can strip out the DRM and enable single player offline play. Few other mediums treat the past as so disposable. Films and books are restored and archived with an eye towards history, but videogame titles are intentionally left to die on a semi-regular basis, with little remorse for their passing. It’s dreadful customer service and shows an appalling lack of respect for the medium.

This could be a portent for so many other titles. In Darkspore, SimCity may see grim resonations of its own near future. In SimCity, we all get a long, uncomfortable look at crumbling path online DRM and cloud-mania may be taking us down.

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  1. Avatar of
    Tim McDonald
    +2

    It’s a worrying trend. I really, *really* don’t like the online DRM stuff if only because, as you noted, it’ll make games unplayable as soon as the servers are shut off. For a medium as varied as varied and as rapidly-advancing as games, it’ll be a genuine shame if the games released five years from now are unplayable twenty years in the future. It just kills any sort of interactive history. Much as you can still watch films from the dawn of cinema on DVD, but if this practice takes off, there’ll be a huge chunk of gaming that will be entirely transitory, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. Anyone who misses City of Heroes already knows how that feels.

    I do think Maxis and EA are taking SimCity a little more seriously than Darkspore, though. The latter didn’t exactly sell tremendously, and I’m pretty sure SimCity has already received more patches than Darkspore did in its entire lifecycle. That’s not me defending them in any way, mind; if these problems are as widespread and as old as has been stated then they’ve been selling a defective product, and it’s frankly terrible that they didn’t want to do it because – I’m guessing – there was little incentive to spend money doing so. In this case, though, SimCity’s had enough sales that I’m sure they’re already thinking about expansion packs, so getting the base game into a fit state is likely pretty important.

    July 2, 2013 at 2:40 am
    1. Avatar of
      Peter Parrish
      +2

      The gap between different formats and systems makes it hard to retain a gaming history too. You have emulators, and obviously you can try to dig out a NES (or whatever) if necessary, but it’s only going to get harder to play those earlier games as time goes on – unless steps are taken to preserve them. ‘Always on’ just accelerates this effect still further.

      As far as I can tell, Darkspore had 17 patches between April and mid September (http://forums.darkspore.com/viewforum.php?f=35). Some of those seem like pretty quick ‘hotfixes’ though.

      I really don’t know about SimCity. You’re right that EA has an economic incentive to at least try to keep it going long enough to get all of their pre-planned DLC out of the door, but Glassbox seems to have some systemic problems that only a full sequel may be able to fix – and I doubt people will tolerate that at this stage.

      July 2, 2013 at 4:13 am
      1. Avatar of
        Tim McDonald

        Ah, I might be wrong about patches, then. I guess we’ll see what happens to SimCity once it’s been out a bit longer. I suspect there’s a lot more they can do with Glassbox to make it a better game, but yeah, it doesn’t look like they’ll be able to create the game that people want.

        I just wrote a MASSIVE SCREED about the difficulties gaming is going to face when it comes to looking at its history over the next 10-20 years, but… well, it was long and dull. Perhaps I’ll revisit the topic later.

        July 2, 2013 at 7:32 am
  2. Avatar of
    Kiroptus
    +2

    Its a shame for Darkspore, the concept had a lot of potential but the game was badly designed and badly marketed, I did play some of it and I honestly dont regret it, there was some chance of it being good if the game received some support but hey, it was doomed to fail since its from EA.

    The online-only DRM is a double-edged knife and so far it doesnt seem to have benefited either players or publishers, players get annoyed on that controlled enviroment and the ever-looming fear of when it finally gets shut-down like Darkspore and publishers have to deal with server maintence costs. Its a lose-lose situation, I may be speaking complete nonsense on my ignorance on the subject but I would bet that if you put the costs on creating the Netcode and the server costs and all the hassle and PR and communications managers against losing copies to piracy… I dont know…

    Usually people who are bothered by Online-only will simply avoid the title, there are so many good games out there which doesnt put on this hassle. History doesnt seem to point that those DRM measures have worked, one of the only titles that I remember that had Online-only DRM and has sold a lot is Diablo 3 but given the Name and the hype it would have sold just as much even if it required a severed limb fromm the players but not all titles have this same Luxury as being called Diablo 3 so to me it just seems like an odd risk to take, I know EA likes to crap on its consumers but the gamming market is way too competitive now, eventually people will get tired of it.

    July 2, 2013 at 4:15 am
    1. Avatar of
      Tim McDonald

      One of the problems is equating “pirated copies” with “lost sales”; the two are rarely (if ever) one-to-one. I can understand people being pissed about others getting several years of their work for free when you’re asking a comparatively small sum in return, but stopping piracy doesn’t necessarily mean massively higher sales

      I seem to remember that there *are* advantages to stopping people from pirating your game for the first couple of days, as that’s when most of the impulse-piraters will just give up and buy the game anyway. Damned if I can remember where I found any of this out, though, so grain of salt etc.

      On the other hand, I reckon publishers could probably cut piracy down by a chunk if they released games simultaneously in different regions. I know a couple of people who pre-order games, and then when they realise they’re going to have to wait three more days than the Americans, pirate them. Three days wasn’t such a big problem pre-internet, but in a world with YouTube and Let’s Plays and livestreams and FAQs and message boards and internet celebrities, three days is a loooong time, and it’s very easy to accidentally spoil something for yourself in that time.

      Back on topic, though, online-only is awful and rubbish and should go away.

      July 2, 2013 at 7:12 am

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