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.