Maxis' 2013 reboot of the SimCity franchise will always be remembered for its disastrous launch more than anything else. But now, more than three years removed from that debacle, SimCity creative director Ocean Quigley told Game Informer that he's still proud of the game itself — even if publisher Electronic Arts' decision to require an internet connection ruined everything.
Like the SimCity titles before it, SimCity was a single-player game, but it was designed as an always-online experience. At the launch of the game in early March 2013, hundreds of thousands of people flooded the servers, and severe connectivity issues created a mountain of problems. Players had to wait in hourslong queues to access SimCity, and Maxis tried everything to rectify the issues, even disabling certain "non-critical" elements of the game in an effort to relieve the load on the servers.
SimCity originated with Maxis' desire to make a SimCity game in full 3D, and the studio's belief that the technology had finally gotten to a point that would support that, Quigley recalled on this week's edition of The Game Informer Show. EA greenlit the project, with a caveat: It had to be an always-online title, because that's the future that EA believed the gaming industry was heading toward. (Microtransactions were a part of EA's reasoning, said Quigley, but not the main impetus behind the decision.)
"EA wanted to make it more of a platform, an ongoing platform, that they'd sort of build and develop on," Quigley explained. "And so that [...] mandated, kind of, the server and online stuff. Which, in retrospect — I mean, obviously — was the fatal flaw in it."
Maxis had to figure out how to turn that onerous requirement into a feature that would deliver something useful to SimCity players. Networking allowed for elements like leaderboards, and opened up "interesting design-space possibilities" such as players being able to connect their cities with their friends' cities in a region. But Quigley wished those features had been optional, considering how SimCity's launch turned out.
"The tech got ahead of itself," said Quigley, describing a server "meltdown" when a million players attempted to play at once. "We didn't have the back-end infrastructure to actually pull that off, obviously."
Quigley told Game Informer that as SimCity's creative director, he and the design team were "pretty happy" with the game itself. The developers' pride in the product made the server issues that much more frustrating.
"The back end of it all, sort of, collapsing in flaming server rooms was, well — it feels a little bit like being somebody on a sinking ship, and you've done a really nice job on your part of it, but it doesn't matter," said Quigley. "It doesn't matter if you've made all these beautiful things, because the rest of the ship is exploding."
The failed launch became the storyline surrounding SimCity, and even worse, Maxis had to spend so much time fixing the server issues that the design team never got the chance to improve or expand upon the game. One of the major criticisms of SimCity was its limitation on city size, which was much smaller than in previous SimCity titles. Quigley told Game Informer that before launch, Maxis had big ideas for those land plots.
"The eventual vision was that the whole region — the whole vast, 32-kilometer by 32-kilometer region — would be one potential city, and you could build anywhere in it," said Quigley. He added that while SimCity's simulation engine "would have let us scale, eventually, to larger and larger cities," the back-end server infrastructure was the bottleneck in the system that prevented that grand plan from coming to fruition.
"I'd say that was pretty much the hardest part of my career, yeah," Quigley said of the SimCity launch. In March 2014, just over a year after SimCity's release, EA added an offline mode to the game.
Quigley left EA in July 2013 after 18 years at Maxis. He later returned to the company to do consulting work, and departed in October 2015 for an indie studio called No, You Shut Up Games. Quigley is the creative director at the Berkeley, California-based company, which is making a space combat game called Atomic Space Command. He is also an accomplished oil painter, with works that have been showcased in galleries and museums.