Government to Ban Mobile Phone Games?

By Branko Miletic

  • Some mobile phone games could be banned if they don’t meet criteria
  • Mobile phones currently bypass classification check
  • Govt set to make $345 million in fees

If the ALP retains power after the federal election result is known, one of the new laws on their agenda will be the shutting down of a major legal loophole in the classification of games that exists for games downloaded on smartphones.

This current loophole means that games can be uploaded onto phones without any classification check, which not only by-passes the censorship regime, but also the revenue-collecting agencies attached to the Finance ministry.

The Julia Gillard-led Labor government, if it retains power, has said it will close this loophole by year’s end, meaning a reaping of compliance fees that could reach many tens of millions of dollars. It also means that some of the games could get into that murky world of classification, similar to console games, where they don’t get any classification at all and could be banned.

Apple, the biggest distributor of phone apps, and whose App Store has made a lot of money from selling smartphone games, would be forced to cough up millions of dollars in classification fees, something it has so far avoided. But Apple is not the only one that would be affected, with Nokia, LG, Samsung and Sony Ericsson all in the Fed’s firing line.

Although Apple would not comment on the issue, it is understood to date, the company which has its own ratings system, is selling games that would certainly require a classification review under existing federal laws. These laws, otherwise known as the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 cover all distributable or playable games and attract fees of up to $2,040 for participating in the classification regime. The fines for breaches of the Act can reach $25,000.

For its part, the government has gone on record as saying that a mobile game review is on the books. Minister of Home Affairs Brendan O'Connor, who was quoted in a number of daily newspapers, said he was “concerned about the classification of games playable on mobile telephones” and although yet to decide, O’Connor also said that that he was still "examining the issues".

In an exclusive interview with CBN Media, Minister O’Connor said, “Under the current definition of computer game under the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 does not exclude games distributable or playable on mobile phones. This poses practical challenges for industry required to submit thousands of applications for classification and the Classification Board responsible for classifying these games.”

However, he also noted that, “Any change to classification guidelines requires the consent of the responsible Minister in each State and Territory”.

So where does this leave the online games industry? There have been many smaller developers that have complained about this ‘closing of the loophole’, including Melbourne-based Marc Edwards of Apple app developer Bjango. Edwards said the potential online game classification regime would make the small number of games his company sells locally “unsustainable”.

Edwards also says the classification of mobile apps on iTunes alone could bring in over $345 million a year for the Classification Board, not small bickies by any stretch.

Matt Comi, from Big Bucket Software, released a game called The Incident about two weeks ago, and says Comi, if he was faced with the choice to either pay around $1,000 to have The Incident classified, or not release the game in Australia, he would have chosen the latter.

“A game would have to make about $10,000 in total revenue to justify the cost of classification in Australia (around $1,000). The App Store is a very low-cost, high-volume, hit-driven market. A strong first day is very important; most sales are made in the first few months (or weeks). A lot of co-ordination goes into making sure the first day is a big one. If the developer opts to wait and see if they have a hit on their hands before having their game classified in Australia, then when it ultimately does get released, it misses out on the release day buzz,” added Comi.

Another game developer Lloyd Kranzky, in his blog The Online Pantry, noted that “Apart from causing some titles to be banned, this mandatory classification system, which requires game developers and publishers to pay to have their games classified, has resulted in some content just not being available at all in this country (presumably because publishers/developers choose to forego the expense of getting a game classified if it is not forecast to generate a large return in this market)”.

And it’s not all chalk and cheese as founder of Let's Make Games, Nick Lowe ponders the implications. “I initially felt it was fairly clear that smartphone games need to be submitted for classification, and that Apple (and other smartphone app providers) was in breach of legislation by selling games that have not been classified”, he said. “However, I now feel that Apple probably has a defensible case given [the] lack of clarity between computer games versus mobile phone games; years of government inaction in asserting classification requirements; the fact that free games may be exempt because they are not for sale in Australia; and that Classification may be a developer, rather than publisher, requirement”.

So is this just about the money or another chapter in the ongoing obsession by governments of all hues to try and control every aspect of our daily lives? What is crystal clear is that if and when the classification regime kicks in, the end result will be that Australians will have less access to online games than people overseas, while local developers will ignore the Australian market altogether, meaning a potential loss of sales and of developer jobs.

The government could get a possible $350 million windfall whilst consumers get less choice of mobile phone games and local, and/or niche games developers get a smaller marketplace.

How do you feel about the possible banning or classification of mobile phone games? Leave a comment and let us know.


Also, will the iPhone kill switch go ahead?

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