Interviews

SimCity interview: Lucy Bradshaw reflects on a disaster launch

Maxis general manager discusses refund policy, always-online tech and fixing the city

The woes surrounding the SimCity servers, which have underperformed in the face of intense demand from paying customers, has sentenced Maxis with what can only be described as the internet equivalent of a stoning.

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Rocks thrown at the studio include revised review scores, allegations of EA refusing refunds, and even claims that the controversial always-online tech at the centre of the game could be switched off relatively easily.

I remember interviewing Bradshaw during GDC last year. She explained to me how her first industry job was answering phones at LucasArts, eventually getting her break to work on The Secret of Monkey Island 2, and further on to spearhead The Sims 2.

[SimCity further reading: SimCity review | SimCity: 6 things Maxis must fix]

Today she stands as the head of the Sims label, but her journey to the top was not handed down. She has earned her responsibilities in a male dominated industry through hard work and determination; she's the opposite of that "numb-hearted corporate exec" stereotype that seems to follow EA like a ghost.

Most importantly, she's a fighter. If the tables were turned, if she was a disgruntled SimCity customer, then I'm sure there would be even more disparaging Reddit posts, more outraged NeoGAF threads and a whole new line of anti-EA gifs.

But instead it's her call to answer those allegations. EA provided CVG the chance to interview Bradshaw (over email only) to discuss anything we wanted. When we sent over the questions, during a time when the whole SimCity server issue had reached new depths, we expected EA would pull out or send back just a couple of answers.

The full Q&A is below.


One suspects that, by the time you read this, the majority connection problems will have been remedied. Specifically with regards to the connection issues, what is the ETA on a complete fix?

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BRADSHAW: I'm happy to say that we've addressed the accessibility issues we had at launch. We deployed new, higher performing servers and upgraded our original set so that everyone playing the game benefits from these enhancements; 40x server response times, 92% fewer crashes, better server navigation etc.

We've also addressed some issues that affected gameplay performance and we're happy to say that players are connecting and playing by the hundreds of thousands daily. We'll continue to make improvements both in the performance of our service and in game features as this game is very much a living and evolving experience that we will support.

Do you agree that players should not be refunded a game specifically if it doesn't connect online straight away? Do you think a legal precedent needs to be established for such a nascent issue?

We have the best fans in the world, some of whom have stuck by us for more than 20 years. They are a very vocal bunch and we heard their voices loud and clear: they expect better of us. We've got the server accessibility issue behind us and we're ensuring that the game experience is great for all players.

Still, we know that this is our fault so we're giving SimCity players who were affected a free EA PC game download via Origin. We'll have more details for that on March 18. With regards to legal precedents, I will leave that to the experts. I'm focused on ensuring our players have a great experience.

To what extent did initial demand outweigh server capacity, do you think? For a problem of this scale it would not be surprising if demand more than doubled expectations.
I can't reveal numbers but I can say that we experienced a significant increase in demand in the days leading up to the launch and it caught us off guard. It was our fault that we underestimated our fans and to that end, we should have known better.

We had conducted several betas and load testing leading up to the launch of the game. Those were helpful in helping us assess and address a number of issues related to our server architecture. However, our servers did not perform in the live environment as they had in testing. We quickly moved to address this situation by adapting our servers, deploying higher performing new servers and upgrading the original servers. So it really was a combination of these two issues that led to our issues. We've got that under control now.

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As someone with first-hand experience of the studio challenges that come with 'always-online' games, would you say you are still an advocate of them?
I'm an advocate for creative freedom in the design process. In the 10 years since we completed SimCity 4 we've been kicking around ideas on what a brand new SimCity had to be.

We created the genre in 1989 and we've been iterating on it ever since. We wanted to take it in a new direction and our team has been thinking about examining the city-to-city relationships that exist in real life. Cities trade resources, workers, shoppers, infrastructure and more. How do we you translate that into a game?

So we changed the core of the game, and the simulation was no longer city based, it became regionally based. What became very clear is that we needed to create an online, connected experience for our players. And, finally, the technology was in place to allow us to do that.

Does the always-online feature attached to SimCity mean that the game will eventually become inoperative in the years down the line when EA switches off the servers? (Publishers have a history of "sun-setting" old games when demand flat-lines)
SimCity is an important part of our company's legacy and we want players to be able to continue their experiences well down the line from now. As far as I am concerned, the servers will stay on as long as there are people playing.

What's your personal view on a publication changing the review score of a game based on its connectivity issues?
We understand that there are some people who reviewing SimCity on its merits as a game, and some are reviewing it on its merits as a service. To that degree, I don't disagree with the way in which reviews have been handled.

Some may call it unfair that we are being punished for our server issues, but it is fair. SimCity is an online game and everyone - fans and critics - have every right to expect the experience to be smooth from start to finish. My hope is that some of those reviewers will revisit the game now that we have smoothed out that experience.

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It is fair to expect that some people at Maxis who have sacrificed so much to make SimCity an acclaimed game could be disgruntled or disillusioned by the whole episode. What is your message to them?
I've been at the Maxis studio almost 24/7 since we launched on March 5 and I have an open rapport with each and every one of them. I've been a part of Maxis since 1997 when I was brought in to oversee development on SimCity 3000 and I've worked with a number of people on the team for years.

I feel like I let them down, this was my responsibility, but I tell them what we all know: SimCity is a wonderful game and that we should all be proud of the effort that went into making it. I'm taking every step possible to bring the game to stability so that the rest of the world can enjoy all of their hard work.

Reflecting on the whole episode, are you satisfied by the manner of Maxis and EA's response?
Maxis performs at its best when it is challenged, and this is the most challenging situation that any of us have ever faced.

Since we launched it's been all hands on deck and everyone has been pitching in. We're getting phone calls from people across EA asking how they can contribute and we were more than happy to take some of them up on their offer. I'm happy that we've been getting so much encouragement and support from across the company. It's been great for team morale and it's motivating us to resolve these problems as quickly as possible.

What lessons can the industry learn from this issue?
Never underestimate the power of your fans. All of the sales data, charts and graphs can't tell you the entire story. Test your game in the real world as much as possible because your players will challenge your game in ways that you never thought possible.

Is there anything else you would like to say to the games community regarding SimCity?
I want to thank all of our fans. We have a team of more than 100 of the most talented developers in the world working over the course of the past few years to make this game. We made this game for you because you asked us for another SimCity. It's our fault that we got a little too ambitious and I'm disappointed that the Live Service didn't live up to its end of the bargain. But we are responding quickly and I am so proud of the team at Maxis for the way that they've come together to resolve these issues .

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