Then there’s the issue of Australia’s prices for technology and software. Historically, it has always been high - anecdotally, I can remember paying around $AU100 for Eternal Champions on the Sega Mega Drive back in the day - but in the online era where comparable prices and current exchange rates are just a Google search away, it’s a problem that’s much more visible to hardcore gamers and net-savvy parents alike. It’s become a literal joke, referred to as “the Australia tax”, so named for prices that seem senselessly inflated compared to the rest of the world.
The obvious solution for many is to import games from online stores. Sites such as PlayAsia, Zavvi, and OzGameShop are among the go-to places for those unwilling to pay more for the same software, with prices that often come in far under the RRPs from local bricks and mortar outlets, postage included. The unfortunate downside, of course, is that buying online sends countless dollars out of our shores and over to international sellers, and in a time when Australian retailers are crying poor, steering away from supporting the local industry gives the problem an ouroboros twist. Prices are designed to cover costs, but the fewer people there are willing to pay them, the higher those prices need to be.
That’s the principle, at least - in practice, the numbers don’t seem to stack up. According to findings by consumer watchdog group CHOICE, in one particular instance, “it would be cheaper to pay someone’s wage and fly them to the US and back twice, and get them to buy the software while overseas.” Australia’s prices seem ludicrously out of touch with the rest of the world, to the point where companies such as Apple and Microsoft are being called upon to explain their high prices by a federal parliamentary inquiry. Microsoft, for its part, has blamed just about everything including labour costs, marketing costs, training and advertising, rent, transport and distribution, exchange rates, the GST, and “Australian-specific regulations” for its discrepancies.
At the retail shelf, some of these things might seem fair enough - after all, when it comes to physical product, a slice of the costs goes towards the expense of shipping the game to our shores, as well as the rental costs of the store that’s selling it. Yet even when those factors are removed by way of digital distribution, we’re still getting stung just as hard: just look at how publishers continue to jack up Australian prices on Steam for no apparent reason. When even a downloaded stream of ones and zeroes comes with the Australia tax - a channel where physical concerns don’t enter into the equation - it’s hard not to feel a little jilted Down Under.
One can only hope that progress is swiftly made and common sense prevails. Perhaps it has already started, albeit at a glacial pace; it was around this time last year when Apple decided to alter the Australian pricing on its App Store, bringing what were once $AU1.19 apps down to match their US cousins at $0.99 cents. An appreciated gesture, but with our digital prices still as blissfully out of touch as the pipes they come through, it’s clear we’ve still got a long way to go.
Australia’s classification system and high software prices have long been part and parcel of an Aussie gamer’s experience. And in a bubble, these issues would not feel like issues - they’d just be part of the normal journey. But this is 2012. Gaming as an industry has exploded, and those who are involved in it are tweeting, Facebooking, YouTubing, blogging, and otherwise discussing it with others all over the globe every second of the day. The internet has brought Australia into a worldwide conversation - we’re part of the discussions that highlight just how different things are, and when we can jump on a message board to see a kid in the US playing Mortal Kombat, it’s pretty hard to ignore. Australia might be an isolated nation in terms of geography, but thanks to the internet, it’s never felt closer.
It’s that connectivity that has facilitated multiple workarounds. Between proxy servers, online retailers, and out-and-out piracy, dedicated Australians will bend and break the rules in an effort to stay abreast of the hobby they love. And with regards to RC’d games and high prices, sometimes the measures - and the consequences - will intersect. During her GameTech presentation, Jane Fitzgerald pointed out that Australian Customs and Border Protection “can and does” confiscate imported games that are refused classification - remember, they’re illegal to own. Up to March this year, Customs has seized 153 RC’d computer games at the border, 139 of which were copies of Mortal Kombat. An anticipated game for a lower price? Not in Australia, you don’t.
But that’s the thing: with the contrasts laid bare, it’s only a matter of time before things are forced to change. As mentioned above, Australia’s classification system for videogames will receive the addition of an R18+ next year, while the chasm between local and international prices has hopefully begun to narrow. With enough pressure - as years of campaigning and petitioning have demonstrated with the R18+ rating - change can happen. And as any antipode will tell you, it’s change that’s long overdue.
There’s no getting around it. Gaming in Australia is a markedly unique experience. Here’s hoping that’s not always the case.
Darren Wells is the editor of Official Xbox Magazine Australia and contributor to GamesRadar. He’s been a gamer since he was knee-high to an Apple IIe. He really likes lamingtons.