"With the way that the game works, we offload a significant amount of the calculations to our servers so that the computations are off the local PCs and are moved into the cloud. It wouldn't be possible to make the game offline without a significant amount of engineering work by our team." Maxis general manager Lucy Bradshaw told Polygon.
The second part of that sentence has some wiggle room in it -- it depends on how you read "significant amount of work" -- but the first part, according to Maxis insiders and player tests alike, is flatly incorrect. First, there's the fact that SimCity tolerates disconnects of up to 20 minutes depending on what you're doing. Provided that you don't try to access a different city in a region, play tests indicate that the game runs just fine.
RockPaperShotgun spoke to an insider at Maxis that they can't publicly identify, but privately vetted. This source states: "The servers are not handling any of the computation done to simulate the city you are playing. They are still acting as servers, doing some amount of computation to route messages of various types between both players and cities. As well, they’re doing cloud storage of save games, interfacing with Origin, and all of that. But for the game itself? No, they’re not doing anything. I have no idea why they’re claiming otherwise."
This is actually a rather interesting question. Leaping straight to the DRM argument doesn't make much sense; while Maxis obviously wanted to prevent piracy via an online-only play mode, a 20 minute window before the game requires re-authentication isn't particularly outrageous. The problem here is that Maxis is trying to cover what's obviously a managerial decision with allegations of technical impossibility.
Reviews have made it clear that SimCity benefits from some of the multiplayer features and capabilities. The designers didn't just build an excuse for a nasty DRM engine, they designed a game that took advantage of the option. They've also made it clear that the ability to save one's progress (if for no other reason than to wreck a city for the hell of it) and play offline, even in a reduced function mode, would've been very much appreciated last week.
And frankly, I think this latest misstep deserves to blow up in Maxis' face as much as the server problems. Claiming that it's impossible to make an offline version of the game without significant work, and implying that the entire engine would have to be overhauled with negative performance implications is a dirty trick.
Maxis has the right to support (or not support) any type of offline mode that it wants, but it's increasingly clear that no, the game's servers don't magically offload the routine calculations of the simulation to the cloud. Nothing of the sort. Rather than hide behind offers of a free catalog game, Maxis ought to commit itself to building the game that people are actually asking for -- and giving players the option to play it offline in some form.