Yesterday the Minister for Home Affairs Brendan O'Connor courted controversy by suggesting that Apps on the App store would only be properly classified if consumers directly lodged a complaint against particular titles. While we welcomed the move as a pragmatic compromise, plenty were critical - openly questioning why the Australian government would attempt to subvert Apple's own global classification strategy. In the ruckus surrounding this controversial issue one question remained unanswered - why should Apple get it so easy?
For the past couple of years games on the App Store have avoided the classification gamut, mainly because of the sheer volume of content released on the platform. Games on other digitally distributed formats such as WiiWare, Xbox LIVE Arcade and the PlayStation Network haven't had the same luxury - each and every single game on these services must go through the same stringent ratings process as games sold at retail.
For Nic Watt, Creative Director and founder of Nnooo, this has been a particularly painful process. As an independent developer creating titles exclusively for WiiWare and DSiWare, the simple cost of getting a game rated in Australia drains up a significant percentage of their profits.
It's a topic Nic is particularly passionate about.
"As you can appreciate Australia is a much smaller market than Europe and America however your cost based on population is much much higher," claimed Nic, in a blog published on his website. "This means that although we are an Australian based developer it is very hard to justify releasing our games in this country. By comparison USA (ESRB) and EU (PEGI) cost less with populations of 300 million and 400 million respectively. In this light Australia’s $1150 against a population of 21 million makes it 13 to 21 times more expensive on a per head of population basis while the $2040 charge is 26 to 42 times more expensive."
So, as you might expect, when people start complaining about games on the App Store sometimes having to go through the process that Nic has to endure everytime Nnooo releases a video game, there is a slight sense of injustice - but it's wisely tapered with pragmatism. In some ways Apple's approach, to create their own manageable set of ratings, is an intelligent one - if you have the guts to test the Australian government.
"This time last year," begins Nic, "the ratings board were looking at their pricing and sort of rattling their sabre about iPhone games - claiming they should be rated. But Apple has decided, quite wisely, that there are too many different rating systems all over the world and it would make more sense within their model - cheap content anyone can make - to have a standardised, unified rating system. Personally I think the whole world should have that kind of system for games anyway."
Apple's system is simple and works on a trust system of self regulation - break those rules and you're given the boot, no longer able to sell your content through the store - a far more effective deterrent than any fine.
"As an iPhone developer you just log on and there’s a questionnaire you fill in about your game," claims Nic, "and if you lie you’ll be found out and Apple will remove you from the store, or you’ll be taken to court."
For a global company, with multiple revenue streams, it's a solution that makes sense. If video games are your sole source of dollars, however, it becomes a much riskier proposition.
"For us, with Nintendo," continues Nic, "they’ve taken the stance that they want to toe the line with the various industry bodies in Australia and aren’t really willing to take the risk Apple takes. Because for Apple the App Store isn’t – well wasn’t – very central to their business model, so they could afford to take the risk. For Nintendo, obviously, games are their bread and butter."
But Apple's risk is a calculated one - the amount of content produced is so gargantuan that any attempts to classify it in a traditional manner would utterly cripple the Classification Board. The main problem, for Nic at least, is the sheer cost involved in classifying games traditionally.
"Australia is a bit behind the times when it comes to classification and their fee is the highest per capita in the world. For a small independent developer it's ridiculous," says Nic.
"When we get back our worldwide sales figures America is by far our biggest market, and they only charge $500 dollars to get a game rated - which is cheaper - but Australia is such a small slice of the pie for the WiiWare market. A 200 point game on WiiWare translates to about $3 - Australia charges $1000 for ratings and the amount of units you have to sell to make that up is astronomical. For a lot of WiiWare developers – they won’t even see that number of sales in Australia, so they don’t even bother getting it rated."
If you've ever wondered why so few games make it to the WiiWare and DSiWare stores in Australia - the cost of getting games classified is the major reason. Nic actually informed us that Nintendo actually helps subsidise the cost of classification for some developers, just so they can help increase the flow of content to their stores.
So when we look at the exceptions being made for games on the App Store, we can only help but ask the question - why can't the same rules apply to everyone?
"I think the closer we get to some global ratings system the better," claims Nic, "because consumers are importing games, people are buying digitally, so to have an Australian specific rating – that worked before the internet but it totally breaks down now.
"That’s one thing, but if Australia really wants its consumers to have access to the same content as the rest of the world, it really has to create some sort of tiered system where games under a certain price bracket or digitally distributed titles can be rated for free and those below a certain cost are in different price brackets. I mean it’s absolutely impossible to rate every iPhone game, and that’s only going to get bigger in scale."
Some sort of industry regulated system for games classification is surely the way forward - and perhaps we can use Apple's own system as inspiration. Apple, whether deliberately or as a result of their lack of experience as a games 'publisher', has really stumbled on an efficient and workable solution for what is becoming an increasingly global issue.
We can only hope that Brendan O'Connor's sensible solution for the App Store can be applied to all online content regardless of platform when the Australian Law Review Commission comes back with its recommendations in December. Australia is a remote island nation and while we expect that fact to cause problems at retail, there's absolutely no reason why we should be forced to suffer when it comes to distribution of digital content.
We have enough impediments when it comes to game development in this country - it is government's role to help remove those impediments, not exacerbate them.