Casual game developers wary of new windows

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With Windows Vista set for release on Jan. 30, you'd assume video game developers are geared up and ready to deal with the changes that each new version of Windows invariably demands. But, from the considerable chatter among developers of casual games, it appears that many are bracing for the worst, including higher production costs, pressure to get their unrated games rated, and having their games mysteriously disappear from consumers' desktops.

Discussion among members of the Casual Game Developers SIG of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) began on Dec. 18 when David Selle reported in a posting that "about 80% of the games we get from third-party developers have some kind of issue with Vista." Selle is vp of content acquisition and developer relations at Wild Tangent, a Redmond,Wash.-based developer and publisher of casual games -- small, downloadable games such as "Bejeweled" that are targeted at a mass-market audience.

"Just under half of that number are severe issues that will significantly impact a user's ability to play the game," Selle wrote. "In our network, these will have to be pulled once our OEM partners start shipping Vista on new consumer machines. Outside our network, these will die a slow but equally inevitable death (if nothing is done to fix them) as consumer adoption of Vista marches forward."

But Microsoft vehemently denies that Vista is "casual game unfriendly."

"I personally have been out talking to game developers about Vista for four years now," says Chris Donahue, group manager, Games for Windows. "I've given a ton of speeches at developer conferences, and my team of nine engineers and evangelists have scoured the world talking to anybody who will listen. This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone."

What is at issue is the new Game Explorer, a one-stop application within Vista designed to make game installation and accessing information about installed games far simpler than previous versions of the operating system. It also makes note of the local rating of those games that have received ratings, and it allows parents to enforce them or not. [In the U.S., the Entertainment Software Rating Board determines the ESRB ratings.] For example, if Game Explorer's "parental controls" are turned on, a 12-year-old could be barred from playing an "M-rated" game which is meant for 17-year-olds and older.

Donahue believes that Vista's new features address the concerns of many parents who fear that their children may have easy access to inappropriate games.

"You can also turn on the scheduling component that limits the hours your child can play," he adds. "You can turn parental controls on or off -- it's really up to you -- but I think parents are looking for this kind of ability."

But many casual games, which are typically created by smaller developers with skimpy budgets, are not rated for many reasons, including the fact that the ESRB charges a fee to rate games. Some developers fear that they will now be forced to go through the ratings process or risk having their games "vanish" from desktops if parents set Game Explorers to ignore unrated titles.

One SIG online posting from a game developer reads: "Out of interest, does anyone know what an independent developer with a shoestring budget is supposed to do about all this? It would be a great shame if the minimum barriers for development, which are currently extremely low, jumped up and made it hard for successive generations of developers to make their own games."

And another posting: "I work for a company that's just getting its feet wet in the casual sector. Our target audience is under 18, our budget is small, and if we have to get every one of our games ESRB-rated, that could increase our cost tremendously."

And one more: "I've read all the posts here and am wondering how is it that Microsoft is proposing to maintain the current grade push for independent content when the base costs for ESRB ratings are $2,000-3,000. That's like the complete art budget for a lot of startup developers."

Microsoft's Donahue maintains that it isn't an arduous task for game developers to comply with Vista's standards.

"Yes, there's some extra work for them, including their getting a digital signature certificate, which is a security thing that prevents the installation of malware. But doing what's needed is usually not a whole big deal. We've got scads of information for them in the SDK (software development kit) and we have a developer relations team poised to help. If you're running into a programming issue, we are ready to help you be successful on our platform. Not taking advantage of that is a mistake."

But Donahue admits that the retail games sector, which sells boxed games to stores, may be getting more assistance than the casual games sector simply as a matter of dollars and cents.

"It's unfortunately a mercenary way of doing things," he explains, "but, even though we're Microsoft, we do have limited resources. And we do look at the sales charts to determine where our help will have the most impact. Certainly we want Blizzard's 'World Of Warcraft' [currently the most popular massive multiplayer online game] to work flawlessly on day one of Vista because 8 million tech support calls would be a very bad thing. The casual developers don't sell quite as many."

At Wild Tangent, Alex St. John is skeptical. He is the president, CEO, and co-founder of the company that claims to handle about 80% of all the OEM distribution of casual games to PC makers in the U.S. Ironically, he is also a former Microsoft executive credited with helping develop the DirectX technology in 1994 that standardized the way Windows runs video games.

"Microsoft wants you to believe that the Game Explorer will make gaming easier," says St. John. "It's very frustrating that that's not actually the case. In the past, casual game developers didn't get their games rated because those games are generally considered appropriate for all audiences. Casual games are a very family-centric business and ESRB ratings aren't cheap to get. Besides, they turn out these games so quickly and so often that the cost would be prohibitive for a small developer. Now, all of a sudden, these very talented developers who turn out some of the best casual game content may not have the resources to continue."

An additional cost, St. John predicts, will be that of tech support when frustrated customers call developers to fix games that won't play or aren't visible in Vista.

"Casual games are designed to have zero customer support costs," he explains. "Wild Tangent is one of the largest casual game publishers on the Internet, and I have just four customer support people with millions of people playing our games every day. Let's say that just 1% of customers using Vista now need to call us because their games break. Our customer support costs will go through the roof. Yes, I can afford that, but I guarantee that a small developer can't. And if customers get frustrated trying to download and play casual games, you can be sure they'll do it less often, which means they'll buy fewer games. Consider that another cost for developers."

St. John's best advice to parents with PCs running Vista is not to touch the parental controls settings. And his best advice to casual game developers is to spend the money on the ESRB ratings.

"But I implore the ESRB to make it less expensive to rate casual games," he says. And because he anticipates a flood of requests for the ESRB to process casual games in the near future, he hopes that the board can gear up for that inevitability.

While the ESRB doesn't reveal its fee structure, president Patricia Vance described it as "reasonable and only serves to cover the costs of the services we provide to the industry."

She expressed confidence that, if casual game developers all decide to have their games rated, that the ESRB can handle the volume. "Our system accommodates extremely high volumes at certain times of year," she says, "and we have always been able to maintain our 5-7-day turnaround, assuming the publisher's submission is complete."

At Seattle-based PopCap Games, James Gwertzman calls Vista's Game Explorer "a good thing for the industry." He is the director of business development for the company, a leading developer and publisher of such casual games as "Zuma," "Bejeweled," and, most recently, "Bookworm Adventures."

"Up until now, we've had complete chaos; there are no standards whatsoever for how or where games get installed in Windows," he explains. "Every developer is left to his own devices to decide where their games should go and, as a result, the experience for the consumer has been pretty poor and confusing. As a company that relies entirely on the trust of consumers to download our products, we take that very seriously. So we are very supportive of any effort to create standards for how games get organized in Windows that would increase consumer confidence in installing games on PCs. In the console world, there is an extremely managed environment, and consumers are less confused. They know exactly what they're getting and games are installed in a very structured way. In the PC, there's nothing like that."

He admits that Microsoft's approach has been the "very traditional, heavy-handed, Microsoft approach" that does a better job of serving the traditional retail games publisher than the casual games publisher.

"Microsoft didn't take into account whatsoever the needs of the download online community," he says. "And because, over time, games are going to be delivered more and more electronically, that's a big oversight. But this is only the first version -- call it Game Explorer 1.0. We fully expect that all the bugs will be shaken out in Game Explorer 2.0 or 3.0 in the traditional Microsoft fashion. In the short-term, however, yes, there will be some pain for developers."

Gwertzman predicts that the issues with Game Explorer will be longer-term rather than immediate simply because he doesn't expect parents to rush out and install Vista on Jan. 30.

"It will be years before we have the kind of adoption rates for Vista that we currently have for Windows XP," he says, "and, by then, I think everyone will have gotten a lot of these issues worked out. In the meantime, I'm sure there will be some gotchas, some well-publicized issues about Vista and Game Explorer because it's always good press to find holes in Microsoft's armor. But, frankly, I don't expect them to cause any major disruptions to anyone's business. January 31 will come and the world won't have come to an end, I assure you."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.
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