March 15, 2013 at 4:16 PM ET
The launch of the latest "SimCity" game from EA and Maxis was disastrous in several ways, but its always-online requirement was worst of all — especially since EA's servers couldn't handle the load. Now a hacker has shown that the game works fine offline and the game's creators are scrambling to explain.
The reboot of "SimCity," which is the fifth in the popular city-management franchise, was controversial from the start. Its requirement of being always online seemed odd, since it is fundamentally a single-player game — unlike, say, "World of Warcraft" or "Planetside 2," for which always-online makes sense.
But EA and Maxis explained that the servers were performing immense numbers of city-simulation calculations, such was the complexity of the game's new simulation engine. And features like neighboring cities' pollution and traffic problems spilling over into yours tied the online component to gameplay.
The crashes and inadequate server capacity that made for the rockiest launch since "Diablo III" have been addressed, but gamers began to be suspicious after a person claiming to work for Maxis told the gaming blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun that the always-online requirement was absolutely not critical to gameplay. Indeed, some gamers and critics had already noticed that the game would chug along just fine for a minute or two without an Internet connection.
One modder, going by the name UKAzzer, took it further: He managed to get the game into a mode meant for developers in which it wouldn't quit when no Internet connection was available. He played it offline for a good while with no problems at all, which flatly contradicts EA's characterization of the online component, and the company's assertion that it would take "a significant amount of engineering work" to make the game function offline.
The game still has to save and retrieve its data from EA's servers, but this could be done at the beginning and end of your play session rather than constantly. Even neighboring cities, ostensibly an online-only feature, worked well without a connection. UKAzzer posted his findings on the SimCity forums, but the post was deleted (for violating the terms of service, says EA); foreseeing this, he put a copy here.
So what are those servers for? Achievements, saves, friend lists, anti-cheating measures, and a few other things. But apparently nothing related to actually building and managing a city, which is what most gamers likely had in mind when purchasing "SimCity."
EA has addressed some of the gameplay issues raised by players (the latest update was described in a blog post Thursday), but has not responded specifically to the question of offline play except to dismiss it as a possibility.
UPDATE: Maxis General Manager Lucy Bradshaw addresses some of the online/offline questions in a blog post that went up shortly after this article went live.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.