Windows Vista: Indy Game Killer?


Vista ESRB ControlWhat you’re looking at on the right is, in the opinion of some of its most reputed developers, an interface that will throttle their branch of the game industry. It’s the game menu for Microsoft Vista, and it allows parents to block access to select games, based on their ESRB rating. Which is not a bad feature, really, but as with many Microsoft products, new features created with the best intentions often lead to unforeseen woes.

All this comes out in a GameDaily Biz story which interviews numerous fretful developers in casual/indy games, those low budget, low cost titles generally created for a non-gamer audience. The thing is, since most of them do operate on a slim budget, paying to have their games reviewed by the ESRB (who charge $2000-3000 for the privilege) just so they can make Vista’s rating requirement is a steep investment.

“It’s unfortunately a mercenary way of doing things,” a Microsoft executive tells GameDaily, explaining why indy/casual developers are receiving less support. “Certainly we want Blizzard’s ‘World Of Warcraft’ 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.”

The thing is, in aggregate, casual/indy/low budget games do sell well, as this top 100 list can attest. One classic, Diner Dash, has sold a million units, while Popcap’s Bejeweled has been played by an estimated 75 million people. Though most casual games (like their big budget counterparts) don’t reach those heights, charging a high toll to enter Vista will definitely help keep them down.

The result (unless Microsoft implements a quick workaround) means Vista likely won’t be featuring the next big indy hit any time soon. Instead, we’ll probably see small time developers move their products to Flash and other Web-based platforms— and away from Windows.

This isn’t to say developers of high-profile PC games are happy with Vista either, at least judging by a man associated with a game in the platform’s top twenty. “Microsoft has so many problems with Vista,” Gabe Newell grouses to Game Informer magazine. Newell is co-founder and managing director of Valve Studios, creator of the blockbuster Half-Life games. “I wish they were focusing more on the thing that runs on hundreds of millions of PCs rather than six million proprietary clients… [R]ight now,” he adds, “I’d go with a Macintosh as being a better solution for most consumers than a Vista-based PC.”

The brutal irony? Before launching Valve, Newell worked at Microsoft— Windows division.


Jon R.

Well, wait a minute. $2500 is a bit much for indie games.

If all this ESRB bullshit is supposed to be voluntary anyway, why don’t they just make a special allowance for indie games to rate their own games, and for those cases move to a reactionary punitive system if the rating is grossly mis-used? As in, instead of the $2500 up front, it comes AFTER, and only if there’s some chicanery. And if there is, they can either pay or lose the right to use the rating.

It shouldn’t be a huge problem if ESRB ratings are, in fact, more useful for helping parents decide than anything else. And it’s EXTREMELY arguable that the susiciously anonymous ESRB ratings board does a better job than the developers could do themselves.

Eric B

Also of interest is the diverging opinions of some of the industry’s heavy hitters. Popcap seems to like Vista’s new gaming controls while Alex St. John (Wild Tangent) seems to dislike them. Guess which of those two has a product that will be rendered redundant by the new Vista functionality?

Eric B

A lot of the talk about this seems to have stemmed from a discussion on the IGDA casual games mailing list, among other places. There are some really big misconceptions here.

The only issue with Vista and Causal games is that the cost of the ESRB rating is somewhat prohibitive. Even with that in mind, unrated casual games will work fine with Vista’s gaming controls as long as the end user has not enabled parental controls. If the parental controls are enabled there have been some discussions on the mailing list as to how to get around these issues.

Also, the developer can simply forgo the usage of Vista’s built in gaming controls and just install the game as a regular app and have it appear on the user’s desktop. This will most likely be the most popular way of dealing with this overblown issue.

Also, the idea that applying for an ESRB rating is a complex process is somewhat inaccurate. Basically you just send some example gameplay, go through a huge checklist of content types (types of violence, swear words used, etc), and attach that to a payment of $2500 (or so) and send it in.

Another possible solution for this whole issue would be if the ESRB instituted an Indie/Casual game category and collected a much smaller fee for such games, something in the $300-$400 range. But, who knows if that will happen.

Jon R.

Yep, worry about WoW support. Because problems with being able to play THAT are so fuckin’ rare, and people who pay a premium monthly charge for the privilege of experiencing queues are clearly a hot-blooded bunch.

Joost Schuur

How does Vista know that something is a game and not an application? Certainly the requirement to be ESRB rated doesn’t extend to non gaming apps, couldn’t indy developer’s games just not distinguish themselves from other apps and bypass ESRB ratings?

Likely this would restrict indie developers from using Vista’s other gaming features (because then Vista would know something is a game).

On top of that, kids playing on locked down PCs are less likely to buy a game in the first place (no access to credit cards).

The other argument I’ve heard from indie developers is that it’s the default scary user access controls and other warnings that initiate when you download and try to run an installer that they fear will cause less people to try a downloadable title.

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