Back at the end of January, after we spent months investigating, talking to the Australian Classification Board, and both State and Federal Australian Attorneys General offices, it became clear that an apparent discrepancy in Australian games ratings was no discrepancy.
MMOGs were being sold on store shelves in Australia without the mandatory classification required by law. The whole thing was a tangle of confusing and contradictory information and statements from publishers, developers, industry associations, retailers and government departments. The government departments involved ultimately passed the buck back and forth between State and Federal jurisdictions, until their press-offices simply refused to talk.
Now, at last, the government seems to have gotten its message straight. In the wake of the coverage most MMOGs applied for and received a rating. Even Blizzard's World of Warcraft (a bit of a johnny-come-lately) has a proper rating this month and only Funcom's Age of Conan and Mythic's Warhammer Online seem to be holdouts, as far as we can tell.
For those of you who came in late, Australia (like a number of other countries) requires classification of various materials (including computer and console games) before they may be sold in the country. Noting, of course that 'sold' is distinct from 'purchased'. A purchase doesn't always take place in the same legal jurisdiction as a sale. That's one of the tasty and interesting parts of interjurisdictional law.
Gamespot Australia quotes a Blizzard representative as saying "Blizzard Entertainment has always worked closely with the Classification Board for all its titles. However, back in 2004, we were advised by the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) that the online-only nature of World of Warcraft was unclassifiable under its definition of computer games at that time. Recent changes at the Classification Board have led to their ability to classify online-only games such as World of Warcraft."
Of course the Australian Classification Board (no longer called the OFLC) maintains, as per their previous statements to us, that nothing has changed during the lifespan of World of Warcraft and that it (and other games like it) were always subject to mandatory classification.
After all, by 2004 when World of Warcraft came out, the Classification Board had already rated more than one MMOG.
After we broke the story, and it hit the national newspapers and gaming media there seems to have been a bit of a shakeup. In May this year there appears to have been something of a stampede of MMOG classification submissions from the publishers whom we had previously contacted, with Blizzard apparently hanging back an additional several months before getting World of Warcraft and its expansions classified (being granted an "M" rating, just two days ago).
World of Warcraft's classification is still new enough that stores don't have ratings stickers on the boxes yet (which is a bit of a no-no, but given the unusual circumstances probably not a huge issue). Funcom's Age of Conan and Mythic's Warhammer Online are still on Australian store shelves without any sign of classification however. We suppose that you could phone your local police-station and report those should you see them, if you're feeling so inclined.
One thing that bothers us about the whole affair (other than how such a daft situation could have developed in the first place) is that there are classification entries that we can no longer locate, and others that we can locate, but that appear to be under different (later) dates than they were listed with at the beginning of the year.