An Apple A Day Keeps Classification Away

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.


Comments

    I really hope that the end result in the classification system review, is simply it's removal. The system simply does not work properly. There are parents out there thinking that it's ok to buy Gears of War for their 11 year old kids, adults who can't buy games because they're banned, developers who don't release games in their own country because the payments to get them classified will end up costing more then the game will make, entire platforms not even launched in Australia because of our classification laws. It's a mess and it needs to be scrapped.

      Unclassified anarchy wouldn't help anybody - parents would be confused, kids would get access to inappropriate material and there'd be less clarity, not more.

      I think it's important to separate the *idea* of a classification system from the overstretched and unwieldy bureaucracy that has to enforce it. Classification gives everybody important information, not least allowing parents to precisely avoid buying the violent games you mention (Gears etc).

      It definitely needs reform, an adult rating, and probably far less onerous requirements for small/indie games to be classified. But scrapping the system entirely would do more harm than good.

        Given that most games released here at a retail level already gets classification from at least 2 ratings bodies, maybe more, I don't see how it will be less clear. Games will still be rated, it just won't be required. Given our media's history with causing uproars whenever someone so much as suggests anything inappropriate is available to our children, I doubt we'll run into issues where EB Games is selling Adult games to 11 year old kids.

        A voluntary system will work, but only if people want it.

          I get what you mean now - yeah. Thought you meant scrapping the classification system entirely and not replacing it with anything.

          A voluntary industry-run system could work well, provided there's a strong ethical system and perhaps a much-reduced oversight function from government.

      Im a huge supporter of self imposed Rating's.

      You have the classification board lay down guidelines of what should apply to each section.

      Any Game can be released with the companies self imposed rating on it. The only time it gets reviewed is upon X amount of complaint's. Complaint's which should be detailed enough for the board simply to review the section that the complaint is about(ie something like no russian) and see if in there opinion it fits into the rating that the publisher has assigned it.

      And dole out a fine associated with it if for some reason they have an R rated game with a PG rating or what not depending on how out of line the classification board things the self imposed rating is(Ie maybe the section had high level violence instead of medium which means it should be MA instead of M as opposed to full frontal nudity which they should know better than to swing)

      There would be the initial stresses of the companies trying to push something's under the MA limit most likely but once a couple of punishments had been doled out and the system had been running for a few years these should fade away.

      But The Major issue is still the fact that purchase ages are rarely enforced anywhere these days. even when it comes to the cinema. I remember some used to go into MA-R movies and pull kids out of the cinema because they were clearly underage, nowadays the ushers plain don't care and that's if they come in at all

    Australia should just adopt PEGI ratings. They map almost exactly to our own categories. Rubber stamp the games with the equivalent of whatever PEGI said and only actually evaluate them if someone raises a complaint.

    Of course this would assume we also get our 18+ rating, because a good amount of our MA15+ get PEGI 18s.

    I really like this feature; it answers a lot of the questions (and uncertainty) I had about classification.

    And, I actually feel like this is more important in a classification overhaul than an 18+ rating bracket - purely because of the sheer scope of games that are affected by our present, outdated system (compared to the small amount that are RC or provoke outrage for slipping into MA15+).

    Good work!

    So why the hell does Apple get away with it, when Microsoft can't with Indie Games?

    No one could have possibly complained about Indie Games, because we never had them.

      Thing is I believe ms never even tried they went with thebelief it had to be classified so no reason to give it to us I could be wrong though

      Because Microsoft have no balls. They don't want to take the risk. Apple doesn't bow to anyone, they'll do what they feel like. Just wait for the shitstorm that results if (and that's a big IF) this legislation passes for mobile apps.

    "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"
    Agreed! I believe that the AG office's role in classifying video games should be abolished, and a new independent classification board run by the video game industry (in a similar vein to the ESRB) should be established.

    So Apple breaks the law and Australia just rolls over.

      Apple didn't break the law. Games that are download only don't require an Austrlaia rating. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are the ones forcing developers to pay the Classification Board for a rating.

        *Australian

    I've got a really simple solution, ban anyone under 18 from purchasing a game from a retail store and ban digital distribution done and done. Took me 3 seconds, tell me what you think.

      That would actually crush the entire games industry in this country. No distributor (EA, Activision, THQ ect...) would ever spend another cent to sell their games here. Those little kiddie games that no one cares about, actually help make the games we adults want to buy with giving the distributors an income that isn't a commercial challenge to make.

      - "ban digital distribution"

      Are you against any kind of progress?

      I hear the West Gate Bridge is after a tenant.

      "ban all digital distribution" What a moron you are. congratulations, you've just ruined the only thing keeping indie games development in Australia alive.

      "ban anyone under 18 from purchasing a game from a retail store" so now games stores are more like adult bookstores? Even though most game stores stock games designed for for children?

      Kaya, you are retarded.

    An apple a day keeps the equal treatment away

    There was one of the early Star Trek:TNG episodes on TV tonight. It was called "Justice" and had this absolutely idyllic, utopian society where everyone was nice and lived in peace and tranquility. Except there was this roving "justice zone" where one could receive the death penalty for the most minor infraction of the law like walking on the grass or jaywalking. No one knew where this "justice zone" would be at any given time, so it was best to always obey the law to the letter at all times, like a Faustian bargain. This reminds me a lot of the apple classification model.

    To be honest this doesnt seem all that bad, if they stick to their word and only classify apps that have had people complain about it then it shouldnt be to intrusive.

    Them kiwi's are gettin Mortal Kombat R18 approved. Now I'm mad.

    You know, instead of complaining and QQing about Microsoft and Sony and Nintendo having 'no balls' we could be cheering that this sets a really important precedent.

      On the one hand I ask myself - why do Apple get it so easy. The question really is - why can't everyone get it this easy?

      If anything I think the emergence of the App Store has been the final nail for the concept that Australia can classify everything coming into this country. I think we'll see some major changes in how Australia classifies content in the next couple of years.

    Suprised that a EA released MK iPhone passes with a Apple rating, but the WBIE game doesn't (and may still not with the results of the appeal soon).

    Once received a reply from the AG about moving to a independant, ESRB type model-apparently they do not like the ESRB type of model.

    And I wonder about all the free games-will they be a special case when it comes to ACB costs or be forced to pay $1000+ FEE?

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