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How the FPB is holding local gaming back 
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Geoffrey Tim
September 5, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Furiously procrastinating busybodies

As you’re all likely aware, Xbox Live has been available in South Africa for some time now, but it’s still not quite up to scratch with the service offered in other regions. Nearly two years later, and we’re still finding content missing from the local marketplace. Most recently, two particularly anticipated titles have been conspicuously absent; Counter Strike: Go and Rockband Blitz.

The blame for our starkly empty (by comparison) Xbox Live Marketplace has always been placed on our local government-run ratings board, the Film and Publications Board of South Africa, which scours film, music, books and videogames for unsuitable content and then slaps an age restriction on the overall product, aiming it at the suitable age viewership. I’ve been looking in to the issue for quite a while now, chatting to local distributors to find out what the deal is.

I’ve also been in regular contact with Xbox South Africa’s new, dedicated PR Manager, Graeme Selvan – a passionate gamer himself – to get to the bottom of it all. As a result, I’ve been privy to some illuminating e-mail exchanges between local Xbox representatives, international higher-ups and a few developers and publishers themselves – and it all paints a pretty grim picture; one that places the blame right at the FPB’s doorstep.

You have to think of the local marketplace as something akin to a mall, or flea market. Microsoft manages the mall with regards to its tenants (the publishers) – but its up to those tenants to get content locally rated, much in the same way that a shop selling lighting fixtures would be responsible for obtaining the necessary SABS certifications to sell those products; and this is where the problem arises. Some publishers just couldn’t give a damn; the ratings process (as you’d expect from any government agency) is a laborious one, but it’s also a costly one. Getting content rated costs money – I’ve been quoted a figure in the region of $1000 US before you can even apply to get your content rated, with an additional figure of about R1600 per title (on some sort of backward, draconian “credits” system) – and with South Africa being but a blip on the radar of video game sales , for many its just not worth the effort or outlay.

This isn’t the case with Counter-Strike and Rock Band Blitz though; I know that both companies are trying their utmost to get their content rated and ready for local digital stores. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, probably because the publishers aren’t locally based and have to communicate with the FPB utilising such ground-breaking modern media such as e-mail, their attempts to get content rated falls on deaf digital ears, going largely ignored.

“The short answer is that yes, due to communication difficulties, we were unable to secure a rating,” A Harmonix representative said via an e-mail exchange about the title’s local unavailability. “…we were disappointed that we could not bring Blitz to the SA market at launch as well.”

It’s the same for Counter-Strike. Valve is trying in earnest – but keeps hitting a wall. It’s difficult to get content rated when the barrier lies with the agency tasked to do that rating. It’s generally easier for content to get rated if there are local representatives – and neither Harmonix nor Valve have those, adding an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. A representative from Megarom, one of our largest local distributors, has relayed jarring information to me about the trials and tribulations of getting content rated, and the perpetual “war” they have with the ratings board to ensure you have access to the games you want to play. Thankfully, as they’re locally based, they have avenues to smooth out the process – but the FPB, they say “keeps changing the rules,” making the situation improbably worse.

“Ahh, but Geoff!” I hear you say, “Why does the PSN have the content then?.” It’s a damned good question – and one I’ve not been able to get to the bottom of entirely. I’ve been told that  – but this is likely conjecture – that Sony’s skirted the issue by ensuring that the PSN isn’t truly a local service; that it’s little more than a selective mirror of European stores, much like Steam. It’s a tactic that largely works – because honestly, I don’t think that the FPB has any real power to police the internet anyway. Microsoft should just give the FPB the middle finger and put the content up anyway – but they likely want to stay on the right side of the law, even if the law is stupid.

Like the UK, whose recently moved away from its film board for games classification, we should adopt the European standard, PEGI for games ratings – and all of this nonsense would go away.  Funnily enough, South Africa is listed as a region that partially recognises PEGI. “The ratings system is partially recognised in other countries such as the United Arab Emirates, South Africa and South Asia since they are considered official PAL regions,” says the PEGI Wikipedia entry. Rating stuff seems to profitable though – so it’s easy to see why the FPB would be hesitant to relinquish their control. Our draconian nanny ratings board is holding gaming as a whole back – and is the reason our local marketplace (and iTunes) services are half-baked. If we want video games as a medium to grow, we need a better ratings solution.

So when will we see Counter-Strike: Go and Rock band blitz on the local marketplace? Lord alone knows – but the aforementioned Xbox guy Graeme told me over the phone that he’ll be doing everything he can to make it happen and will be meeting with the FPB soon.

Hopefully to slap some sense into them.

I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.