Entries in Dev Life (22)

Thursday
Mar192015

Age Rating Showdown: Console vs Mobile

When I read the news this week that Google will begin to require age ratings certificates for games in the Google Play Store, my first reaction was … FACEPALM.

Not because I dislike age ratings. I actually believe they’re important to the health and maturity of our industry. No, I groaned because for the last few months, I’ve been struggling my way through the byzantine process of acquiring rating certificates for our games on Xbox One and Playstation 4, and I’m scarred. Deeply, deeply scarred.

Fortunately, Google’s rating process could not be more different. It’s fast and easy, and totally free.

It got me thinking about just how great the divide still is between the agile mobile game publishing model and the comparatively challenging and restrictive console game publishing model. I thought I’d take the opportunity to shine a little light into that divide -- and to pass along some of the hard-won age-rating knowledge we’ve recently accumulated to any other game developers considering taking their games to console.

 

Getting your game rated on Google Play

Google’s announcement made news because it’s the first major app store to throw its support behind official age ratings certificates. (As of this writing, Apple and Amazon use their own systems and do not require territory-specific age rating certificates. The Windows / Win Phone app stores do use age ratings certificates, but they don’t require them in every territory.)

To facilitate the age certification process, Google has partnered with a group called the International Age Rating Coalition, or IARC. The mission of the IARC is to provide “a globally streamlined age classification process for digital games and mobile apps.” What that means in practical terms is you fill out one single questionnaire, and the agency generates multiple international ratings certificates.

Here’s how the process works:

  1. Log into your Google Play Developer Dashboard
  2. Click on “Content Rating”
  3. Fill out a short questionnaire
  4. Submit

The system immediately generates seven official ratings certificates for the Android / Google Play sku of your game:

  • ESRB (US, Canada, etc.)
  • PEGI (Europe except Germany)
  • USK (Germany)
  • COB/ACB (Australia, New Zealand)
  • ClassInd (Brazil) IARC (Generic, rest of world)
  • A Google Play specific age rating

And that’s it! A few minutes of your time and you’re all done and ready to start selling worldwide.

  • Time invested: About 5-10 minutes per game
  • Turnaround time for rating:  Instant
  • Cost: USD$0

 

Getting your game rated on console

Age ratings certificates are required for publishing your game in every territory on every major game console (Xbox One, PS4, WiiU, etc.), even if you’re self publishing through indie-friendly portals like ID@Xbox or Playstation Network (PSN).

Different territories use different ratings systems. You can’t sell your game in Germany for instance if you don’t have a German-specific USK rating. Each ratings system is governed by individual ratings boards, and to obtain a certificate you’ll need to set up an account, establish your credentials as a publisher, run through their submission process, and usually pay a fee -- often hundreds, sometimes even thousands of dollars worth of fees.

It’s important to note also that age ratings certificates are always issued for a particular game/platform combination. You can’t use the PEGI certificate you got for your mobile title when you take that game to console -- you need to get certified specifically for that console platform, and for each additional console platform you port to.

While in theory the aforementioned IARC could provide (free) certificates for console games, the platform holders (Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo) do not at this time allow this. More on this later.

Let’s start the fun, shall we?

 

Step 1: ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board)

The ESRB has two applications processes: a “Long Form” for packaged games like you see at GameStop, and a “Short Form” for download-only, digitally distributed games. Luckily for most of us, we can use the Short Form, because the Long Form takes forever and costs $12,500. The Short Form is fast and free.

The hardest part is the first step: you need to request a Publisher account, which for some reason you need to apply for via mail. Yes, the kind with paper and a stamp. Turnaround takes a week or so.

Once you have your account, the rest is easy. The Short Form itself costs nothing, can be filled out online, and a rating certificate is generated automatically. If you want to appeal the rating, you’ll need to submit additional materials, but the turnaround is quick.

  • Territories covered: United States and many other North/Central/South American countries. Some countries like Brazil allow you to use ESRB in place of their own system.
  • Time invested: A couple of hours (mostly on the Publisher account application)
  • Turnaround time for rating: Instant
  • Cost: USD$0
  • Worth it? Definitely. It’s free and it covers a lot of major territories.

 

Step 2: PEGI (Pan European Game Information)

To rate your game with PEGI, you first have to complete an online training program, where you learn to distinguish between such things as “realistic violence against a fantasy character” and “cartoon violence against a realistic character”. After you complete the program, you’ll earn the title of “coder”, at which point you’re allowed to submit ratings for your games.

For each game, you need to fill out an online questionnaire, and then FTP several supporting materials to their reviewers, including an edited 10-20 minute video depicting representative gameplay, and a playable build of your game.

If your game is online/digital only and (for some arbitrary reason) less than 450MB, you qualify for the cheaper “Casual game” fee of 260 Euros. Otherwise, you’ll have to cough up 2100 Euros, after which additional skus of the same game cost 1050 Euros.

  • Territories covered: All of the EU countries, minus Germany. Some countries like Russia allow you to use PEGI in place of their own system.
  • Time invested: An hour or two to become a coder and set up your account. A day or two to create your gameplay video and submission materials.
  • Turnaround time for rating: 1-2 weeks
  • Cost: USD$275 for Casual Games, $2235 otherwise (+$1120 for additional skus)
  • Worth it? Definitely, if you qualify as a Casual Game. Otherwise, it’s painful but probably still worth it.

 

Step 3: USK (Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle)

Germany doesn’t participate in PEGI -- instead they use their own stricter system, called USK. The good news is, the USK application process is in some ways easier than PEGI -- although at first glance it might not appear so.

To apply for a USK rating, you don’t need to set up an account. You just print out an online form and ship it to Germany with a playable build of your game. “Waittaminnit,” you say. “I have to burn a disc and ship it to Germany?" What is this, the dark ages?” Here’s a pro tip: If your game is small enough you can request digital delivery, and they’ll let you DropBox it. Nice and easy.

Unfortunately the USK does not have a “casual” or small game fee structure. It’s just 1200 Euros for the first game and then 300 Euros for content-identical additional platforms. Definitely not cheap. (They do have a special 300 Euro rate for edutainment titles.)

  • Territories covered: Germany
  • Time invested: A couple of hours to fill out forms and (possibly) go to FedEx
  • Turnaround time for rating: 1-2 weeks
  • Cost: USD$1280 (+$320 for additional skus)
  • Worth it? It’s a tough call for a budget title. We did it because our games tend to do well in Germany, but your mileage may vary.

 

Step 4: COB (Classification Operations Board, aka ACB)

The Australian submission process is perhaps the most arcane of the “Big 4”. Although as a slightly mitigating bonus, if your game is not rated Mature you can use your COB certificate to also obtain an OFLC rating in New Zealand.

First, you need to apply for a publisher account. You can fill out the forms digitally and email them in. Easy enough.

Next, you need fill out a set of forms and ship them physically to Australia along with a playable build of your game and 20-30 minutes of video showing “representative gameplay”. There are no exceptions to this -- all submissions must be on physical media, either USB or disc. (Even more annoying, each part of the submission must be on a separate media -- we were asked to submit 4 USB drives for our 2 game builds and 2 videos.)

There are two cost structures. “Level 2” is cheaper (AUD$890), but requires you to submit a little more information (the video). The good news is multiple content identical platforms can be applied for with a single application/fee.

  • Territories covered: Australia. New Zealand can use COB too if your game is not rated Mature.
  • Time invested: An hour to set up your account. A day or two to create your gameplay video and submission materials.
  • Turnaround time for rating: 4 weeks
  • Cost: USD$682
  • Worth it? Probably. Sigh.

 

Bonus Round: What about Asia?

Securing ratings in Asia requires a whole new level of commitment.

Japan and Korea each have their own systems, CERO (Computer Entertainment Rating Organization) and GRB (Game Rating Board) respectively. Unfortunately, each requires that your company has an office or branch located within the country before you can apply for a local rating. Apparently there are 3rd party companies you can contract to represent you in these territories if you decide to pursue ratings there. Taiwan also has its own ratings system, called CSRR (Computer Software Rating Regulation).

We have not yet navigated any of these systems, so I can’t speak from experience here.

However, I can add that if you're publishing on PSN, Sony Computer Entertainment Japan does offer a program where they take over ratings and marketplace localization in Japan for you, in exchange for Sony taking a higher revenue share than usual. I’m not sure if the details of this deal are universal, so consult with your account rep to find out more.

 

Summary: It doesn’t need to be this painful!

Let’s recap our two age rating certificate experiences, shall we? I’ve summed it up in this handy chart. (Times and costs for a single game.)


Google / IARC

Console (XB1/PS4/WU/etc.)

Ratings Secured

ESRB, PEGI, USK, COB, ClassInd, IARC, Google

ESRB, PEGI, USK, COB

Time Invested

5-10 minutes

3-5 days

Turnaround Time
(in parallel)

0

4-5 weeks

Cost

$0

$2237-$4197*

* Cost for one game SKU. Additional SKUs of identical game may cost less.

If you’re an indie developer -- particularly an indie mobile developer considering console -- it’s hard to look at these numbers and not think to yourself, “WTF! Why do I have to spend all that time and money on a rating certificate for console, when I can get the exact same certificate for the exact same mobile game for free?”

That’s a really good question.

One reason might be that the platform holders don’t necessarily want to completely remove all barriers to entry to console development. Microsoft doesn’t want ID@Xbox to look like the Google Play Store, and frankly neither do most Xbox One owners. There need to be some gates to keep the quality of content high, and some restrictions on the release rate of new titles.

That said, there are plenty of quality control gates without making the ratings systems one of them. Both ID@Xbox and PSN are curated systems. Developers need to be approved to receive dev kits. Every individual game title needs to be approved for publication. And every title goes through an extensive QA and title certification process. Streamlining the age rating system would not hurt the quality of downloadable console games.

And there is a solution -- the IARC. Currently, the IARC is authorized by agencies like PEGI and USK to issue console ratings certificates on their behalf. In theory, you could fill out a single online form and receive all the major age ratings certificates for all the major app stores and consoles, for free, instantly.

I actually talked to someone at the ESRB about this, and they told me that the holdup is actually on the platform holders side -- Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have not yet approved the IARC certificates for use, although the IARC hoped to get that approval “in few months”. That conversation happened a year ago, and we’re still waiting.

There is really no reason at all for the delay. I would urge any developers currently involved in or considering indie console game development to contact their account reps and talk to them about implementing IARC age ratings certificates. Hopefully, if enough of us annoy them over time, they’ll come around. The result would be more independently published games on console, and a greater variety of available titles for gamers in hard to reach territories like Australia and New Zealand.

Tuesday
Sep242013

Advice on Getting Started in the Games Industry

One of the most common questions we get is what advice we have for people who are thinking about getting into the games industry.

Here's what I usually tell people:

1. That thing about parachutes and colors

First, realize that there are lots of different types of career paths into and through the games business.  There's game design, programming, art, animation, audio, marketing, advertising, testing (QA), project management, etc.   Even on small teams like ours games are usually made by multiple people, each contributing something unique.

Identify your area of interest:  What skills do you already have?  What are you passionate about?  What do you think you could be good at?  If you feel like you have options, you might also want to consider how hireable/desirable different professions are.  Programmers have an easier time getting hired and typically get paid more than, say, game designers.  But of course it takes more time to train up your skills in programming.

2. Edumacation

It's not a bad idea to get a college degree.  I know you hear stories all the time about people getting into the tech business without a degree, but trust me, it's easier if you have one.  Recruiters and interviewers will just take you more seriously, and in a competitive industry like ours every little bit helps.  It doesn't have to be from Harvard or anything -- there are a lot of vocational schools these days that have great game design departments.

Your degree doesn't have to be game-specific. I have found my B.A. in English to be extremely useful to me throughout my career; it helped me move from production artist to lead artist and creative director.  I would not be where I am right now without it.

3. Show your skills

Equally as important as a college degree (maybe more important) is your portfolio of work.  Of course that makes sense if you're an artist, but it applies if you're in other disciplines as well.  Looking to get into programming?  Roll your own rendering engine or physics demo.  Designer?  Create level layouts and spreadsheets with ability/stat balancing for an RPG.  Marketing?  Write up analysis of a popular game franchise and create marketing plans for how you would launch the next iteration in the series.

One piece of advice I have about portfolios:  It's better to have just a few really high quality examples, than a bunch of mediocre examples.  Be a ruthless editor and don't include anything that doesn't measure up.

When you're first getting started, you won't have a lot of on the job experience, so you need to create your own experience.  The best thing you can do is team up with other people from other disciplines and try actually making some small games. Mobile, PC mod, whatever.  Don't be too ambitious, just concentrate on small, quick, fun games that you can learn from, set aside and start a new one. Every game development experience, even the bad ones (sometimes especially the bad ones) is a learning experience. And employers in the future will love to see that you're motivated and creative enough to do stuff on your own time.

4. Job? I don't need no stinkin' job!

You'll probably ask yourself at some point:  Do you even need to get a job?  There are a lot of opportunities for small indie game developers these days.  You can make your own stinkin' job, right?!

Technically this is true.  But remember that are 1000's of games released every day on mobile and PC, and 99% of them don't make any money.  Of the remaining 1%, 99% of THEM maybe make enough money to buy themselves a coffee every day.  I know it's tempting to skip getting a job and go straight to founding your own mobile development studio.  And that might work for you.  But if you can manage it, getting a job at a major company like Zynga or Kixeye or EA or 2K is an invaluable experience, and one that will give you a big leg up on the competition if you ever do decide to try the indie thing.

5. Woohoo!

When you do get a job, here's some random bits of advice:  

  • Be humble and realize that there's a lot to learn even from the most basic or mundane-seeming gigs in the industry.  
  • Look up from your desk and absorb as much as you can about the process of making games that's happening all around you.  
  • Meet people outside your discipline or department.  Learn what they do.  
  • Ask questions. 

Above all be patient, it's a competitive industry to get into but it can be an incredibly rewarding one!

Sunday
Jun022013

Riptide GP2 Development Update: Are We There Yet?

Hi everyone!  We get a lot of questions from people asking us when Riptide GP2 is coming out.  I know, we've just been all mysterious, saying "this summer", or "Summer '13" and people are like, what?  June?  August?  September???

Well.... I can't say exactly, but we're shooting for something in the July timeframe.  Ultimately, what it comes down to is we're going to release the game when we feel like it's done.  

What I can say is, the game is shaping up nicely.  We've got all the new jet skis -- sorry, "hydro jets" -- done. And I'm really happy with them -- they're way higher poly than the vehicles from the first RGP, they have cooler details, there's more of them, and there are some funky new ones that look totally different from the first game.

Also a lot of the tracks / environments are done.  Our goal is to have more variety than the first game, and we totally have that.  Now we're just adding a last couple of tracks and polishing the bejeezus out of the ones we have.

The big piece of the puzzle still being worked on is the progression tuning.  Riptide GP2 has a whole career mode, where you earn money to buy new hydro jets or upgrade the ones you already own, experience points to upgrade your character, and stars (or maybe we'll change that to something else?) to unlock new races and events.  It all works, but we need to play with it more and tune it so the progression and challenge feels good.

And of course there's a lot of general gameplay tuning and polishing.  We are playing multiplayer matches every day at the office to make sure the whole game feels tight and delicious.  

So don't fear -- the final game is not far off.  Just a little more content, a little more polish, and about a month or so of hard work and we'll be good to go!  Stay tuned...

Friday
Jun292012

10 Awesomest Things from Google I/O

This last week we traveled allllll the way down to San Francisco to attend Google I/O as part of the Developer Sandbox.  

The main reason for going was to show off our new game, Beach Buggy Blitz ... which we did to every poor sucker who walked by within arm's length of our kiosk and didn't run away screaming when we shoved our preloaded Nexus 7's into their face.  

Actually, OK, it was a bit more relaxed than that.  We had a great time meeting fellow Android nerds, and people seemed to really enjoy the game, which was gratifying because we haven't shown it to many people outside our little circle.

We had the Sandbox kiosk on Thursday, and on Wednesday and Friday we got to wander around, explore, check out some exhbits, and just soak up the Android love.  

Along the way we saw some things we really liked, and here in no particular order, are our top 10:

1. Nexus 7

Um... a 7" Tegra 3 tablet, kept eternally up to date with the latest pure Android experience starting with the as-yet-unreleased Jellybean...for $199?  Yes, please.  Sure you could quibble about not having a back-facing camera or HDMI out or whatever, but...for the love of pete it's $199!  This is the new ultimate portable gaming device.

2. Jellybean and Project Butter

Jellybean is Android OS 4.1, and it's slick.  It's especially slick because of "Project Butter", Google's effort to smooth out the UI in Android.  Anyone who's compared an iPad and Android tablet side by side knows what I'm talking about.  And thanks to their efforts Jellybean on a Tegra 3 at least is smooooooth as silk, and there are a lot of other new features we like as well.

3. The giant Nexus Q ball

I never quite figured out what this thing did, but it was big and robotic and it played cool music.

4. Cube 3D printer

At $1299 it's not cheap, but the Cube is the first consumer-level 3D printer that I've ever seen that actually looks like it does what you want.  We were super impressed with the quality of the detail and the durability of the materials.  It really is kind of like magic.  Slow magic, but still...magic.

5. Beach Buggy Blitz!

Yeah OK I know this is self serving, but it's my list dammit.  And yeah we were super happy to finally be able to show the game to people and talk to them about it and it didn't crash or do anything weird, and so I think it's fair to say it was the highlight of the show for us at least :-)

6. That guy with the helicopter

Dammit, I didn't get a video of this guy, but on Thursday afternoon this RC helicopter champion gave a demonstration in front of a massive crowd that was completely insane.  He flew that thing upside down, sideways, and within inches of the ceiling and floor.  Really, he distorted physical reality.  It was loco.

7. Visual Studio development plugins for Android and Chrome Native Client

This is actually Ralf's favorite thing.  NVIDIA is releasing a plugin that allows direct building and debugging of Android apps from within Visual Studio.  And Google is releasing one for Chrome Native Client.  This is going to make developing and debugging Android and Chrome apps a lot smoother!

8. 10 Things Every Android Game Developer Should Know

This talk on Friday morning by Daniel Galpin and Ian Lewis focused on what NOT to do to NOT get featured....or NOT NOT get featured.  Or something.  Anyway it was really informative, and surprisingly entertaining and funny to boot.  I don't know if they'll post it online, but if they do and you ever think about making Android games you should watch it.

9. Skydivers with Glass

By now pretty much everybody's seen this, or at least heard about it.  And even though I'm not totally sold on wearing a plastic toothbrush with a camera on it next to my face, the demo was pretty incredible.  Hats of to Google for coordiating a live demo like that which could have gone wrong in so many ways...and didn't.

10. Free Stuff!

Nexus 7, Nexus Q, Galaxy Nexus phone, Chromebox.  Plus T-shirts, little pins and stickers, free food and booze and music and entertainment.  OK well I guess it's not technically free if you bought your ticket, but it's still pretty awesome considering that most conferences don't give you anything except tired feet. 

Thanks again, Google!  See you next year (I hope!)

Wednesday
Jan182012

Thoughts on SOPA

Today's the big blackout protest day for SOPA, the anti-piracy bill currently wending its way through Congress.

There are a lot of reasons to dislike SOPA.  But as a software developer, I have mixed feelings about the bill, and I have to admit I'm a little annoyed by all the knee-jerk opposition to it. 

Granted, it's a poorly written bill. I don't want to see it passed in its current form. But it does try to address a real problem, and the thing that bugs me is that opposition to the bill never proposes any kind of alternative solution.

As with the whole ratings issue, ultimately the solution should come from the private sector. But the private sector has been achingly silent on the issue.

Here's an example of the kind of thing I'd like to see:

Youtube self-regulates copyright infringement through content search and advertising revenue. It also provides copyright holders a means to flag infringing content for review. Yet if you do a simple Google search for one of my games, you get any number of hits on the first page or two that take you directly to pirate sites where users can (for Android apps) just click a link and download the game for free. I suspect many users who do so don't even know they're pirating the game. And yet Google provides no means for me to flag a link for review. I can, however, flag content as "inappropriate" -- why is that? Boobs bad but pirated software OK?

Maybe it isn't a perfect solution, but it's an example of the kind of thing I'd like to see companies like Google talking about, instead of just putting a stupid black bar over their logo.

So to all o' youse who are applauding the blackout today: Why not take advantage of the browsing downtime and spend a little brain power thinking up real solutions? If you want a vibrant independent game developer community, you need to be concerned not only about free speech, but also about the ability of said independent developers to turn a profit.