Marvel’s ComiXology Crash, SimCity, And The Perils Of Supply And Digital Demand
At 2PM Eastern on Sunday, March 10, Marvel announced at the South by Southwest Interactive conference -- among a bunch of interesting new announcements regarding the intersections between digital media and comics -- that they were promoting the digital comics medium, and their own books, by offering over 700 first issues for free through the wildly popular and borderline monopolistic Comixology cloud-based platform.
On Tuesday, March 5, Electronic Arts published the latest iteration in the SimCity franchise. Unlike previous installments -- and like Comixology -- the game also operates off of the cloud, with settings, game state, and basically all persistent data stored on EA's servers rather than on the user's hard drive.
As of the time of this article being written -- about 2PM on March 11 -- neither of these services are effectively operational. The infrastructure simply doesn't exist to support the demand. Where in the pre-digital age supply and demand principles were ruled by material constraints, here the problem is far less simple -- material constraints enter the picture, yes, in the form of added servers and more bandwidth purchased from a telecommunications provider -- but efficiency of design is also as important. And all of this would have been avoided if both industries weren't so intent on stopping piracy that they're shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to actual convenience and customer service.
The difference is, of course, that a ticket sale is a fairly atomic and data-light transaction. Personal information, credit card information, some HTML and images, and maybe a PDF with a barcode on it. Digital comics come with a 10MB to, in some cases, 40 or 50MB (especially with the CMXHD format supported on retina iPads) file that causes considerably more strain on a server; SimCity is a constant flow of information and calculation that can run for hours on end. This leaves people unable to access the comics they already own, and unable to play a game they just blew eighty bucks on.
In both of these cases, consumer trust is broken, and it all comes from the cloud-based service model. In theory, it makes a lot of sense -- why not just store all the information on the Internet, so people can access it from anywhere? It's the core tenet of the SaaS model, which makes a lot of sense in the relatively bandwidth-sedate world of business-to-business software service. Salesforce.com isn't going to get a user flashmob for a new feature the same way EA or Comixology will. It's this user flashmob effect -- everybody trying to use the service at once due to an eagerly-awaited new aspect or a limited-time event -- that's leading to this situation, and as a result, once again, the corporate need for digital rights management has led to a situation where paying customers are forced into an inferior product.
There's no real reason for SimCity to require everybody to be online all times. It's a cute feature if people want to use it, but if the option existed to just save and load to your hard drive, it's insanely likely that the servers might have had a small hiccup and kept going on their merry way. Similarly, if Comixology books were downloadable in any form other than as proprietary data on their proprietary applications (iOS/Android), people could keep their local copies and not be locked out of reading books they've paid for. Whatever lost sales are prevented from this digital rights management can't be worth the loss in customer confidence that accompanies what is, essentially, a contract breach between content provider and consumer.
Additionally, there's one major wrinkle Comixology's issue adds. EA's SimCity servers failing only screws up SimCity or, at worst, other EA games. They're only shooting themselves in the foot. By effectively shutting down the Comixology platform for twenty-four hours, they've halted the revenue streams for every other digital comics publisher through this service, including DC Comics (www.readdcentertainment.com is painfully slow to the point of being almost unusable at the moment, although it's not as bad as Comixology's main site). While much of the Big Two's back catalog is available on a number of platforms (iVerse, Kindle, Kobo, etc.), and DC's new-release books are available on iBooks and Kindle, Marvel's new-release catalog is only available through the Comixology platform. Additionally, it's by far the preferred (and easiest-to-use) comics reading interface available for phones and tablets, and being the industry leader, it's logical to put all one's digital comics purchases under their umbrella. While I'm sure DC can weather the lack of revenue, I have to question how this affects an all-digital publisher like Monkeybrain, where this service outage could potentially put a hatchet to their entire revenue stream for its duration.
Both Marvel and Comixology are currently at work on a solution to this issue. Ryan Penagos, the Executive Editorial Director for Marvel's Digital Media Group, made the following statement via Twitter:
Also, the Twitter feed for Comixology's support group has been busy all day interacting with frustrated users while repeatedly promising a resolution as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, Electronic Arts released a statement of apology last week, while offering fans who have activated SimCity a free PC download game from EA's catalog.
People didn't pay money to have access to SimCity's code on EA's servers; similarly, people didn't pay money to have access to comics on Comixology's site whenever it's up. People paid for a game and they paid for comics, when they want to play or read them, and that's what they expect. There are two possible solutions to the problem: one of them is to spend a very large amount of money to increase server capacity, improve code efficiency and scalability, and prepare for the absolute worst-case content-delivery scenario in a way that allows existing customers to continue to use their product that they have already paid for. The other is to just ditch this entire damn rigamarole and give people control over what they gave money for.
The second seems saner to me.
Editorial Note: Since the publication of this story, Comixology has formally apologized and paused the Marvel #1 program while it seeks a solution to the issue.