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Modder hacks SimCity for unlimited offline play

DRM the only reason for game launch disaster?

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A server glitch that rendered the latest version of SimCity virtually unplayable mere hours after its launch could have easily been avoided, players say – because contrary to its publisher's claims, the game doesn't actually require network access at all.

SimCity fans have been fuming over the outage, leading Amazon to pull the game from its virtual shelves after purchasers filed thousands of one-star reviews.

Throughout the debacle, Maxis, the Electronic Arts subsidiary that publishes SimCity, has insisted that online connectivity is necessary even for single-player sessions, because portions of the game's content need to be rendered on Maxis' servers.

Retooling the game so that it doesn't rely on servers would require "a significant amount of engineering," company reps said.

But players have been skeptical, with many voicing suspicions that SimCity phones home solely as a copy-protection mechanism – one that, in this case, shut the game down altogether, even for legitimate purchasers.

One player at online gaming site Kotaku tried yanking his network cable during a SimCity session and found that the game carried on happily for nearly 20 minutes before noticing it was disconnected from the server, something that surely couldn't have happened if it was really relying on online content.

On Tuesday, the game gurus at Rock, Paper Shotgun reported that an anonymous Maxis source had confirmed that – for solo games, at least – SimCity doesn't really need a network connection at all.

"The servers are not handling any of the computation done to simulate the city you are playing," the source said. "They are still acting as servers, doing some amount of computation to route messages of various types between both players and cities ... But for the game itself? No, they're not doing anything."

Now that appears to be all but confirmed. On Thursday, a Reddit user going by the handle "AzzerUK" posted that he had successfully modded the game to enable a special "debug mode," one that appears to eliminate the connectivity problem completely.

A simple SimCity mod demonstrates that many of the game's limitations are purely artificial

With debug mode switched on, AzzerUK found that he could edit the main highways in the game, and he was even able to edit content outside of the normal boundaries of game play.

More importantly, though, debug mode appears to disable the server disconnect checks altogether, allowing a solo gamer to play offline indefinitely (although saving the game isn't possible, as it still wants to save to the server).

Long story short, it seems as though it would have been trivial for Maxis to have avoided the entire SimCity launch fiasco, but that it designed the game to connect regularly to its servers for some reason other than game play.

Here at El Reg, we think DRM is stil the most likely explanation, but Maxis has not responded to our request for comment. ®

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