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Shareware In Jeopardy

by John Haley
Recently Ambrosia Software received some disturbing news concerning the rating of video games. Currently there is legislation in both the Senate and the House of Representatives designed to persuade the video game industry to implement a self ratings scheme. The Video Game Rating Act of 1994 proposes that if there is not a self rating mechanism in place within one year, the Federal Government will step in and form its own commission to review all video games distributed within the United States.

[Picture of Censored Maelstrom]

It is bad enough that these jokers get free parking at the national airport in Washington D.C., now they have devised a way to get all of the latest entertainment software for free too! Actually, distributing a few Beta copies to our elected officials is not of great concern to us. Heck, let them form their own Capital Hill MUG. The censuring aspect also is low on my list of things keeping me awake at night. So far, no Ambrosia product involves game play where separating spinal cords from their rightful owners is the only way to rack up points.

Of great concern is the accepted definition of Video Game Industry. Although very flattering, Ambrosia Software and Nintendo do not really fit in the same category. Maybe after a few years and millions of shareware registrations yes, but for now, no. Although Ambrosia is considered large for a shareware developer, we are miniscule as a software developer.

Grouping large corporations with spare time garage software developers works out fine for the big fish. It is the small independent developers that will suffer. Nintendo has been given a large say in how the independent video game rating commission is to be set up. Ambrosia and Nintendo, due to the size difference, have greatly differing philosophies about how to go about this (we may have to even go over there and kick some ass). Here are the issues.

  1. Cost with a capital "C." Although hopefully the quality of our products and service doesn't show it, there is a tiny difference in the operating budgets of Ambrosia Software and Sega (I better stop picking on Nintendo or I will be sleeping with Ecco). We are closing the gap daily, but the difference is there.

    The number being tossed around a little too casually for my comfort is $500. That is a five hundred dollar review fee for each new video game brought to market. It is disturbingly unclear if this is per title or per version release. Maelstrom has gone through eight different versions over the years as Andrew has added support mechanisms, fixed bugs and generally improved on it. We could be talking about $4000 in review fees.

    So, if you were a developer that had a decent game and wanted to bring it to market you would be faced with a $500 fee right up front. If you could manage the initial $500 and picked $10 (seems like the average price of shareware) as a price you would have to sell fifty copies to recover that expense. I know, this is beginning to sound like one of those word problems on a fifth grade math test. If a train was heading north at 67mph for 82 minutes...

    If you wanted to upgrade the program to provide bug fixes or additional improvements another fifty copies would have to be sold to raise the review fee. Large game companies do not even blink at these costs. Their games sell at a higher volume, at higher prices and revised version releases are very rare. Ambrosia Software could absorb this cost, but it would affect how often we release revised versions or address bugs.

    The $500 would wipe out most part time developers, where most of the decent shareware games originate.

  2. Second major concern is Prior Review. Traditionally, shareware games are distributed immediately after completion. Just upload the finished code and away we go. Here at Ambrosia we have several Beta testing periods before public distribution, but this is not the norm. A review commission would require some time to interact with each new video game to determine the degree of its wholesomeness. No more instant uploads.

    I am a self admitted Maelstrom addict and I still am finding new things in the program, how long will the reviewers have to spend with each game in order to get a complete feel for it? The Association of Shareware Professionals estimated that there are already over 10,000 video games online which would have to be reviewed before any new business is to be conducted. Don't sit by your modem holding your breath.

  3. Third is the Review Process itself. I am a bit hazy on this. It seems a developer is to be required to make a video of the game in question, so the review board can view game play. Will camcorders now be included in developer kits? Far be it from me to point out how easy it would be to tape "happy" parts of programs and leave the rest for the end user to discover.

  4. The fourth point brought to my attention is Objective View. Who is to decide how much is too much when it comes to violence? And what is objectionable when it comes to sex? Maelstrom has been criticized for using a female sigh as a sound effect. Also, international standards have to be taken into account. I am sure any sort of program will piss someone off somewhere out there. Will games developed outside of the U.S. be subjected to the same review standards? How will this be accomplished? Will there be little cyber border stations along the information highway (I hate that term) where I will have to stop and open my trunk?

Those are the chief issues of concern to Ambrosia Software I do not like to point out only what is wrong in this world. Identifying a problem without providing a solution is not very productive. So here it is. Are you ready? Leave us out. Pretty simple, don't you think? That is the true beauty of it. Exclude online software developers from whatever Big Brother video game rating scheme currently being hatched. Organize some sort of open forum where standards could be agreed upon, what is an "R;" and what is "PG-13." Then allow software developers to self rate their own products. The people who develop video games have the best idea what is in them. There really is no reason to misrepresent one's own software, it will only upset your customers.

The games get rated, independent developers do not go broke and the distribution channel is not slowed down. Is everyone happy? I am open for any additional ideas or questions concerning this issue. Please direct any inquiries to:

            Ambrosia Software, Inc.
            PO Box 23140
            Rochester, NY 14692

           Tel: 716.325.1910 (technical support)
                800.231.1816 (orders only)

           Fax: 716.325.3665

America Online: AmbrosiaSW
    Compuserve: 74777,1147
        eWorld: AmbrosiaSW
         GEnie: AmbrosiaSW
      Internet: help@AmbrosiaSW.com (technical support)
                register@AmbrosiaSW.com (orders only)

More importantly, one way to head this whole thing off at the pass would be to get into contact with those who are backing this legislation. The more people who voice their opinions about this, the more likely it will be changed. The gentlemen backing this bill are:

Senator Herbert H. Kohl
330 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman
316 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

Representative Tom Lantos
2182 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

[Picture of Capitol Building]

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