Game good, DRM bad

The furore over SimCity’s always-online DRM has been inescapable over the last few days. EA has joined Activision (via Blizzard) in spectacularly failing at launching a major new game with mandatory online functionality, hopefully casting doubt over the future of the approach when titans with such deep pockets can’t make it work.

People are understandably upset, and it’s led to a predictable outcry aimed at media outlets who haven’t factored such technical issues and consumer-unfriendly DRM into their scores. Reviewers are out of touch, the argument goes, because they get to play these games without paying for them, in conditions where the authentication servers are nowhere near capacity, with a PR team on the other end of the phone who’ll bend over backwards to fix any issues, lest the critic have anything other than a stellar experience.

I’m siding with the reviewers here, though. And I think Polygon was wrong to change the score on its review.

That said, I’m not defending this form of DRM. It’s shit, and it’s a practice that shouldn’t continue. If the rumours about the next Xbox requiring a constant Internet connection and so effectively doing this across the board – and as good as Xbox Live is, it can’t be said that it’s been immune from capacity issues – are true, it’ll put my investment in the console in doubt.

But the quality of the game and the DRM are separate issues. The fact that its DRM is overzealous doesn’t make SimCity a bad game any more than the fact that I can’t rip my Blu-ray to watch the movie on my iPad makes Wreck-It Ralph a bad movie. That argument would be ridiculous in film criticism, but when writing about games it seems to be a common opinion. Maybe, if games are art, we need to separate the reviews of the game from the program, as a DVD review would award separate scores for the movie and the AV quality.

It all comes back to an argument I’ve made before that people want consumer advice, not reviews. A list of features and a number at the end, being careful not to rate it anything that might affect the Metacritic score too negatively.

When all this is ironed out and SimCity becomes reliable and playable, it will be a 8, 9, 10, or whatever score you think it’s worth. And since it’ll be the same game as everyone’s trying to play now, so it should always be.

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