Lower Classification Fees To Help Indie Devs, Aussie Gamers

Here in Australia we miss out on plenty of new releases on console download services. However, proposed new classification fees could mean we will no longer miss out.

Every game released in Australia is required to be classified. To get a game classified costs money. That classification fee is the same regardless of whether the game is a major console retail release from a wealthy publisher or a tiny downloadable game made by a couple of students.

Nic Watt is the creative director at Nnooo, an independent developer based in Sydney. In order to get games such as Pop (pictured) released on WiiWare and apps such as myNotebook and myPostcards released on DSiWare, Watt has to submit his titles for classification.

A submission contains a copy of the game, a document detailing the game and a video of it being played. The fee is $AU1150. The fee can be higher - $AU2040 - if the submission does not contain a video demonstration. And it can be lower if the person making the submission is a qualified assessor, but there is also an annual fee to be trained as an assessor.

Such fees are a major stumbling block for an indie developer whose titles are only selling on the Nintendo Store, the PlayStation Store or Xbox Live Marketplace for a few dollars each.

"A $AU5 game needs to sell close to 400 units just to pay back the cost of getting the game rated before we start to see any money to pay for development costs," says Watt. "400 units is quite a high number of sales for a downloadable game in such a small market.

"For example, Pop+ Solo sold 211 units in its first week on sale on DSiWare in Australia. With sales declining each week after the launch week, you can see that at least the first two weeks - by far the highest point in terms of sales - is entirely eaten up paying back the cost of rating the game."

Adding to the problem is the fact that classification fees are simply higher in Australia than elsewhere in the world. Watt says it costs $US800 (roughly $AU915) and €250 (AUS$355) to get his games through the US ESRB and European PEGI classification systems. Australia is clearly and disproportionately more expensive.

"If you do rough maths on the addressable markets, Australian ratings are by far the most expensive not only in real terms but also per head of the population," says Watt. "$US800 across 300 million people is much smaller than $AU1150 across 25 million!"

As a Scot living in Australia, Watt tells me he's all too familiar with seeing games released in North America and Japan first and then making it elsewhere months later, if at all. As a result, he is determined to ensure all Nnooo titles are releases in Australia in a timely fashion, even if it means making a loss in this territory.

Watt's concerns extend beyond his own company, however.

"It means that Australians are missing out on many of the downloadable titles which can be purchased elsewhere," he says.

"As you can appreciate, most games developers are based outside Australia [especially]in the US and Japan. Many of these independent developers are not as familiar with how Australians and Europeans are treated by games companies as a whole and so don't appreciate what it must feel like to be constantly behind when it comes to release dates.

"If you then factor in the high cost and low potential sales from the Australian market you can understand why many independent developers forgo releasing here."

That's why we miss out on plenty of downloadable games. Whether it's a new title from an indie developer or even an old classic set for re-release, our comparatively high classification fees and small potential market mean it's often not financially viable for such games to even be released.

It's also likely that this is a major reason why the Xbox Live Indie Games channel has never launched in Australia. Each of those games would have to be classified before being made available in Australia - an unlikely prospect, one would think. When questioned on this topic, a Microsoft Australia spokesperson admitted there was a classification issue but declined to elaborate.

The Federal Government has proposed a new set of fees associated with classification. In terms of computer and video games, this will see a significantly reduction in most of the fees involved.

* There are four proposed categories of computer games (streamlined from six). Three of the four are proposed to decrease in cost between 9% and 41% ($40 to $830). Ninety-nine percent of applications fall into one of these categories.

* The fourth category (demonstrated computer games) is proposed to increase from $1070 to $2460 per application however this category represents only 1% of total computer games applications.

The proposal went through a public consultation period that concluded at the end of May with the revised fees likely to be implemented by the end of the year.

While lower fees will help guys like Nnooo and their fellow independent developers, Watt would like to see the revision go even further.

"As a small, independent, Australian games company we feel that there needs to be a new cheaper option for those of us making small budget, cheaper downloadable games," he says.

In the US and Europe, games with a development budget of approximately less than $US200,000/€200,000 are able to be classified with a significantly lower fee, a system Watt would like to see also introduced in Australia.

"It is imperative that Australia adopt a similar practice if Australia wants to continue to allow consumers access to these online downloadable stores," wrote Watt in his submission to the government's review process.

"At present, on both WiiWare and DSiWare, games are often not released or released later due to the expense of gaining a rating versus the likelihood of generating enough profit just to cover the rating cost. As you can appreciate it puts Australian consumers in a situation where they feel like global second class citizens."

We'll keep you posted on the outcome of the proposed new fees and the review period. And keep our fingers crossed for all the independent developers out there and the Australian gamers who want to enjoy their work.


Comments

    This could be a start of a beautiful relationship. Let's hope that the government stick to it.

    Maybe Nintendo/MS should take a stand an allow unclassified games on WiiWare/XBL. This is what Apple's essentially done, no iPhone/iPad games are classified, you don't see their doors getting rammed down because of it.

      I believe Apple works around it because of some convoluted system where the games are being sold out of the US and not out of Australia. It's a requirement that any games sold at *Australian* retailers are classified. Downloaded stuff is in some kind of legal grey-area because the classification system was written before the concept of digital distribution, let alone small-scale indie game development.

      I'd argue that even reducing the classification cost by $800 or so for the low-end is still fairly expensive. What if you're making a free game? Or something that costs $1? You're expected to fork out $200+ to give your game away for free to Australians?

        It's essentially the same thing then, you can't walk into a store and buy a WiiWare game, you can only download them, so why is it one rule for Apple and another for Nintendo? I'm fairly confident that Apple is breaking the law buy selling un-classified computer games in Australia, but no-one will prosecute them because they don't have a single defined state or territory in which to charge them.

          Cameron makes a great point & in terms of the legal loop hole mentioned, I don't see how it exists. If you purchase any application from the App Store the Australian ABN is quoted during the sale as the sale is processed by Apple Pty Ltd. (i.e an Australian company.)

          I sent the letter below to the Director of the Classification Board on February the 21st of this year & have not received a response.

          Cheers,
          Sebastian

          -------Letter Sent-------

          Please forward to the Director of The Classification Board.

          To the Director of The Classification Board for the Office of Film Literature Classification,

          I am writing to inform you of what I believe to be a breach of the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995.

          I've recently been researching what is required to get a computer game classified for sale in Australia. From this statement on your website

          "Generally, computer games (including amusement arcade games) must be classified by the Classification Board or Classification Review Board before they can be sold, hired or demonstrated in Australia. "Demonstrate" includes to exhibit, display, screen or make available for playing."

          and reading the related links it appears that generally all computer games sold in Australia require a classification rating unless they are exempt, which is based on a strict list of computer program types.

          As such I was wondering if any review of Apple's App Store practices has taken place? Apple Pty Ltd. ABN 46 002 510 054 - is making available for sale thousands of computer games via their App Store for playing on their iPhone and iPad devices. None of these games currently display a OFLC classification.

          Apple even advertises these games on commercial TV in Australia, none of which carry the appropriate classification.

          The relevant section of the Act would be that these games are being sold unclassified and are also being made available and published within the Australian Capital Territory.

          Division 4—Calling in computer games, 24 Calling in computer games for classification, (1A) states:

          "(a) the Director has reasonable grounds to believe that an
          unclassified computer game is not an exempt computer
          game; and
          (b) the game is being published in the Australian Capital
          Territory, or the Director has reasonable grounds to believe
          that it will be published in the Australian Capital Territory;"

          Does Apple Pty Ltd currently have in place a special arrangement such that this content does not need to be classified or has this been overlooked to date?

          Please advise.

          Regards,
          Sebastian

            Mailing the classification board will have no consequence, the classification board only determines classifications, it does not enforce them. It is the responsibility of the state/territory law enforcement agencies to actualy do anything about it.

    I hereby cross my fingrs in support of australian and international independant developers.

    Yeah, i hate that we miss out on so many great indie titles... let's hope it all pans out well to help the little guys out a little more...

    I love that you found a Scott to complain about fees ;*)

    Nic if you are reading this, thanks for explaining this process I was wondering why we always get the short end of the stick. As a big fan of dsi, I feel the pain of not getting to try out some of the awesome games I read about online.

    Also pop on the dsi was excellent. One of the best games I've played on the system.

    I think the idea suggested by Nick is probably the best option. The government should put some production budget brackets in place that other games can fall under. It’s only logical. Honestly, how long does it take the classification board to review a tiny downloadable game? I’d be amazed if it took them more than 2 hours. Do they really expect those games to pay the same amount as a full budgeted game with a lengthy completion time and a lot of content to see?

    Pop+ will probably see a number of units sold just because of this article - my point being that there should be more encouraging words written about indie games (esp. Aussie ones) on sites like this.

    Does anyone know if these classification costs also apply to games on the AppStore and Andriod store?

    "The proposal went through a public consultation period that concluded at the end of May"

    They must use a different definition of the word "public" to the one I'm familiar with, because I never even heard of this proposal until now...

    http://gameassessment.com.au/

    I forget where I heard this, but this website will act as an assessor for you in the classification process, effectively bringing the cost down to $470.

    omfg lol! are you serious!?!? oh well! at least the ridiculously high fees lead to a really high quality and not at all backwards classification system! hahahahahaha..... :'(

    Australia clearly just does not want a games industry, or a tech industry at all. they just want everyone down the mines.

    Here in Australia the classification of video games has been so arbitrary, prejudiced and basically botched-up that I would prefer the Australian Classification Board was shut down and the Attorney-Generals had their noses cut as punishment for their effrontery in believing they are the arbiters of public taste and morality.
    FFS let the users decide.

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