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Big Trouble in SimCity

It's not a political story per se, but it might have economic and digital-freedom implications: videogame fans have been watching in horror as the latest release of the popular SimCity franchise turns into a mushroom cloud of suck, because what should have been perfectly playable as a single-player computer game (like all of its predecessors) was written to require Internet access to the company's servers.  Which aren't working very well.

SimCity is a game in which the player becomes mayor and architect of a virtual city, planning new construction and coping with various random crises.  The new game offers the attraction of combining player cities online into a virtual world, so you might find your city doing business with a city constructed by your friends.  It's a cute feature, but not integral to gameplay; a stand-alone mode comparable to earlier installments in the franchise could, and should, have been included.

Furious players discovered that the online component of the game was buggy, and the company's servers collapsed under the strain of new players logging in.  The company actually lied about the reason for all this, saying it was essential to give individual PCs real-time constant access to the corporate supercomputers to run their incredibly complicated program.  But programmers who worked on the game have said this is not true - the reason for the mandatory Internet connection is copy protection.  The company is forcing every PC running the game to talk to its servers so that no one can steal the program.

Software piracy is a huge problem, and unfortunately nothing but online monitoring has done much to prevent it.  Sometimes these online authentication schemes get hacked, too, but it's an order of magnitude more difficult than the traditional "hack a game and plop it on a download site for freeloaders to steal" sort of piracy.  When they work, online authentication systems are usually relatively painless, but very few major efforts along these lines have worked well upon launch.  Another recent high-profile game launch, Diablo 3 from Blizzard Software, was also plagued by maddening access and stability issues.  And even if the online authentication systems work properly, software buyers are understandably unhappy about not being able to use their programs when they don't have Internet access, which does still happen in the modern world - for example, when riding on an airplane.

Offline copy protection, on the other hand, is notorious for slowing down or even damaging computers, or placing cumbersome burdens upon game players.  Their rebellion against such methods is one reason online systems began appearing.  It's a tough argument to settle, because companies are correct to safeguard the huge development costs they plow into software, both entertainment and productivity.  If such intellectual and virtual property cannot be effectively owned and sold without large-scale theft, companies won't produce it any more.  But end users are equally correct to grow enraged when programs they paid good money for are deliberately crippled by anti-theft efforts.


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