I’ve long been a power-crazed dictator. It’s why I run my own business – and why I enjoyed spending my free time growing up playing SimCity. I was the Mayor of countless cities. Some were awesome examples of wind and solar power and recycling. Some were thriving educational towns. Some were destroyed by UFOs. Hours upon hours of my life were dedicated to building these virtual towns – most of them named Armstrongville.

The brand Maxis was synonymous with “fun” in my mind – in fact, I don’t remember a time in my youth that I wasn’t a fan of at least one Sim game. SimCopter was my all-time favorite and to this day I still long to fly a real helicopter. My wife’s current favorite game is The Sims. She even has virtual Sim representations of me and her, complete with about 20 virtual children, which is only vaguely horrifying.

Sim games are always a great way to learn about cause-and-effect. Which is funny, because cause-and-effect is exactly what we learned about with this week’s launch of the new SimCity, too. As business owners, we have to remember that it’s super easy to lose sight of what the customer wants and needs when faced with difficult business decisions. It may seem silly to analyze the success or failure of a video game franchise, but when it comes to marketing – what we’re seeing is a case study of epic fail in action. Epic fail isn’t rare, but epic fail which effectively destroys a brand valued in multiple millions of dollars?

Hold on to your hats, folks, this is something special.

Electronic Arts made a series of profit-driven business decisions regarding Digital Rights Management designed to prevent their new hot game from being pirated. This was perfectly logical, considering one of the previous big launches from Maxis – Spore – was the most pirated game ever. Thus, we have our cause, which produced the following effects:

How badly the new SimCity launch wenteager players waiting for hours to log on thanks to the DRM locking them outnearly 1,500 1-star Amazon reviews, Lucy Bradshaw, the brand manager for Maxis, referring to her launch strategy as “dumb”, Amazon halting sales and issuing refund after refund while EA’s support reps refused refunds and threatened to ban customer accountsa leaked email from an EA employee chastising EA execs for their near complete disregard for their own core company values, EA pausing marketing efforts and their affiliate program, and product endorsements from EA’s other social media channels trying to add some positive spin even while Rome burns around them (see below).

Huh, That's Odd!

EA’s perfectly logical, profit-driven business decisions have piece by piece, and bit by bit, caused the wholesale destruction of the multi-million dollar SimCity brand.

It’s one thing to botch a launch for a game like Spore – a totally new game, a totally new brand, a quirky concept, and not risky from a branding standpoint. Screwing up Spore’s launch was yet-another-bad-decision regarding DRM – costing EA $25 million dollars in 2008. Consider also the “less than stellar” performance of Darkspore (the game Maxis launched between Sims 3 and the new SimCity) – also riddled with DRM issues and requiring an “always on” internet connection to play, much like the reviled new SimCity.

EA’s DRM-enabled software business model is the perfect case study in ignoring your customers’ needs. Each game launched with crippling DRM. Each game experienced severe customer backlash. On the opposite end of the spectrum: The Sims, which when released in 2009 without DRM, garnered rave reviews and became the third best selling PC game of all time with millions of dollars worth of add-ons available. It’s a virtual cash cow.

So having had two excruciatingly bad experiences with crippling DRM to compare to the third most sold game of all time, you would think the choice to leave crippling DRM out would be a simple one. Or failing that, the decision to release any sort of consolidated, apologetic front – universal refunds, an immediate promise to patch the game for offline play, and begging for forgiveness for ruining one of the best software franchises of all time – these things should have been swift and communicated at every level, with no ambiguity.

Fully aware of the hype, the number of pre-orders, and the excitement of existing fans ready and eager to throw their wallets at the screen for the latest installment of SimCity – Bradshaw blamed inadequate server capacity, the users for using the software in unexpected ways, and bandwidth woes for what really was caused by poor business decision making.

What we’re witnessing is not just a botched launch. What we’re witnessing is a head-to-toe business blunder which hints at deep-seated problems inside of EA’s business decision making process. This is like “New Coke“, but in the alternate universe EA seems to be living in, Coca Cola would blame the distributors for not keeping the New Coke cold enough and the customers for drinking the product outside of a laboratory before offering early adopters free six-packs of Sprite.

What we’re seeing is a chaotically orchestrated retreat; SimRome is burning. And there’s seemingly no one at the helm of Maxis’s customer service, marketing, social media, or sales strategy departments who can offer a cohesive, swift, and sound apology. Heads are undoubtedly going to roll as a result of this, and I have no doubt many will be the wrong heads. If it were me, I’d immediately retrain (and demand a 3-month SimCity marathon gaming session from) these key players:

  1. EA’s head of marketing
  2. EA’s head of customer service
  3. EA’s head of whoever decided DRM is a good thing to put in place
  4. EA’s head of whoever decided the game can’t be played offline, even in single-player mode
  5. EA’s head of social media

EA may very well have mortally wounded the SimCity brand through top-to-bottom flaws in their business fundamentals, so what can we learn from this as small business owners without multi-million dollar budgets?

  1. Always Put The Customer’s Needs First. The Customer pays you to do that. A system/process/cautionary measure (DRM) doesn’t have a wallet to pay you with. EA held an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit at which they were grilled and chastised at length for their decision to include DRM and restrict the game to “online only” play. This should have been enough for Maxis to immediately reverse course and either remove the DRM and “online only” component entirely, or issue a patch (or even a hint that a patch would be available as soon as possible).
  2. Don’t Ignore Obvious Signs Your Customers Are Unhappy. See above.
  3. Don’t Ignore Your Sales Data When Forecasting Bandwidth/Capacity. EA would have had to increase capacity by 120% to decrease connection issues by 80% – something they waited 3 days after their launch to do. Overbooking yourself is a huge red flag that you are bad at management – management of your own time, resources, and planning ability. It’s a sign of greed, desperation, and short-sidedness. Avoid overbooking yourself at all costs.
  4. Don’t Make Your Customers Wait Longer Than They Have To For You To Apologize. 3 days went by after the launch before Bradshaw issued her apology. I’d have done it on day one, once it was clear we’d screwed up. Apologize fast, hint at a fix – even if one’s not ready, and be liberal with your refunds. Being stingy here is only a sign that you did this on purpose (or knew it could happen). Most businesses get stingy with the refunds because they worry that jerk customers will take unfair advantage. Sure – that can happen, but when you screw up, all bets are off and the onus of honesty is on you.
  5. Issue Apologies and Refunds Without Pause. You sold a game, the customer can’t play it. You have the DRM, just shut off their key and give them their money back. Or, don’t give them back their money back – but turn off the DRM/online-only component so they can play the game on their local machine without having to go to a server somewhere to save/load/whatever. To do anything less is the height of jackassery.
  6. Don’t Let Your Message Become Scattered. Every department in EA seems to be coming out with a different message. The EA Games UK Facebook page is piling on the praise to a negative Facebook post, the customer service agents refusing refunds even though the company’s own press release tells customers they can get a refund, the long delay between Bradshaw’s response and the detection of initial problems, the halting of all marketing because the company is unwilling or unable to do the one thing that will stop all these problems (turn off the DRM/online-only requirement), and the sheer gall to blame the users for “using the software in ways we never saw in beta”. Are you kidding me? Who’s flying this thing!?
  7. Don’t Get Caught Without a Plan. There seemingly is no emergency management plan within EA to handle this kind of disaster. Otherwise I’d never have been able to write a 1,600 word blog post about it.

So, here’s an open invitation to Electronic Arts Games, Lucy Bradshaw, or anybody else at EA whose ear I have: I will help you solve this problem within two weeks, with minimal loss of revenue. I will help you prevent this from happening again. My phone number and email address is in the sidebar above. All you have to do is ask.

As for the rest of you, learn from this. Make it a priority to not repeat what happened this week. Got specific questions as to how? Post ’em in the comments!

Update (3/14/13): A Modder Proved SimCity doesn’t have to always be connected… fancy that.

(Header photo: Facepalm)