Today over at PocketGamer.biz, they reported that (link) the Entertainment Software Association would really like to begin rating games on the iPhone App Store, much like they do for all the other games in the industry right now. While some would argue that their intentions are good (“We have to protect the children”), the implementation would be a nightmare, especially if the ESRB’s current model is enforced.
Here’s why - first off, I work with publishers day in and day out, and if there’s one major pain in the butt, it’s the ESRB. Why? Because the ESRB is a ratings body, and ratings by nature are somewhat arbitrary. What, for example, makes it that you can have all the violence you want in a game, and get a “T” for Teen rating, but show one semi-bare butt, and you get a “M” for “Mature”? It’s bad enough that Apple’s own guides for what’s acceptable as far as age-related content goes is arbitrary, but to throw the ESRB’s mess of a system on top of all things would make it a double nightmare, especially for smaller developers.
Let’s look at a few situations I’ve encountered when working with PC and console publishers in the past few years. Game XYZ gets a “T” for Teen with a few descriptors such as “Violence” from the ESRB. With that in hand, you print up the boxes and shipped the game. However, six months later, the ESRB returns, saying ‘You know, we missed the cigarettes and alcohol in the game, and even though it’s just one scene in a cut-scene, you now need to declare it in the descriptors.” They literally wanted the publisher to have stickers made up to overlay the current ESRB on the box for a game that shipped six months earlier, and force every retailer to put the stickers on. Or..the other option was to recall the game in its current box, and replace it with a new one. Either option would cost a fortune in time and effort, and frankly, for a small title such as this particular one, mean the game is now losing money. If I recall properly, in the end, everyone just blew off the ESRB request, and left it at that. Proving again that the ESRB is completely arbitrary - they never called out the publisher again on it from my understanding.
Example #2 - videos. I’ve seen this happen not only to clients, but other publishers as well. While you’re getting your game finished, you can use the “RP” (Rating Pending) descriptor in videos and other content. Once the game is finished, all future videos need your final rating. With the ESRB, they sometimes will come out of seemingly nowhere and say “You need to go back and replace all your old videos with the new rating, and require an age-gate on anyone who posts the video.” So, we’re somehow supposed to force sites like GameTrailers to now throw up an age-gate on videos they published a year ago (to their credit, GameTrailers will do it, they are really good about that.). However, there are smaller, community sites who simply don’t have the tech or time to do it, yet the ESRB comes after the game’s publisher for this.
The App store is a haven for small developers who frankly can’t take the time to put up with this. They’re counting on Apple to vet out content when a game ships (good or bad, that’s another debate). Now, to throw an extra layer of approval in? What a nightmare. Let’s look at this hypothetical situation….
Developer GooeyGoo creates a game. GooeyGoo is just two guys working in their free time to make a game, they don’t have a lot of cash or time, they just want to make a game. To satisfy ESRB requirements, they’ll now have to spend time mapping out the content of their game, including submitting a list of all the text and dialog in the game to the ESRB in the ESRB’s preferred format. Along with that, they’ll have to submit some screens, and follow some of the ESRB’s other format rules, and then they have to wait (thankfully, the ESRB seems faster than Apple at approvals). Once they get approval on a rating, they have to go to Apple to get the product approved for the store. So now, a game they hoped to have out in two months, could be delayed months or even weeks as they submit to the ESRB on top of Apple, and have to create all the extra documentation for the ESRB. If these guys don’t get the rating they are hoping for, they have to vet out their content and remove whatever the ESRB doesn’t like, then resubmit. Two guys in a garage just won’t have the time or resources for this. What’ll happen is they’ll die off, and only the big guys will remain, just like every other platform out there -unless of course, they sign on with a publisher now, recreating the whole process (developer gets a publisher, has to share with publisher, etc) that they hoped to avoid with the App store. Oh, and you can bet those big publishers already pay big fees to the ESA/ESRB that the little guys won’t be able to afford - so, by bringing in the ESRB under the guise of “protecting children” - we really are just perpetuating the publsher/developer system that devs are more than happy to get rid of. But the ESA will love it, as it means more fees for them.
Personally, I’d rather Apple just make a “Mature” section, and let developers and consumers be the police force for it. If you see a game that carries mature themes, and it’s in the “regular” area of the App store, you report it, and Apple then investigates and moves it if need be.
Oh, while we’re discussing this - why is the ESRB only going after the Apple store? Due to its popularity and what the ESA sees as easy access to tons of cash? I tend to think this is the case, because you don’t hear about them nipping at Nokia’s heels, or at Microsoft (Windows Mobile Store.) What about Palm? And RiM (Blackberry) ?
Let it be said that I’ve got nothing against protecting kids from whatever harm may come from a bouncing breast game or another FPS, but at the same time, I think the ESRB doesn’t have the best intentions here - it’s just a cash grab.