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ESRB Using New Automated System To Rate Digitally-Distributed Console Games
ESRB Using New Automated System To Rate Digitally-Distributed Console Games
April 18, 2011 | By Mike Rose

April 18, 2011 | By Mike Rose
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    15 comments
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing



Starting from today, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the non-profit organization that assigns ratings to over 1,000 video games each year, will introduce a computer program designed to replace the rating process for digitally-distributed console games.

ESRB said in a news release that the program is based on a detailed digital questionnaire that will take into account displays of violence, sexuality, drug use and other subjects that may offend.

The new scheme is being put in place due to the increase in the number of games being released online. The questionnaire will be filled out by the creators of each game submitted, with penalties subjected for nondisclosure. Each category is then broken down into subcategories, focusing on specific areas.

The board noted that this new system will be put into motion this week for all games released via Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, WiiWare and DSiWare. All other games will undergo the traditional ESRB review process.

Each digital console game will be reviewed and given a rating automatically before being released. However, the board noted, "All games rated via this new process will be tested by ESRB staff shortly after they are made publicly available to verify that disclosure was complete and accurate."

"The ESRB rating process that has been in use since 1994 was devised before the explosion in the number of digitally delivered games and devices on which to play them," said ESRB president Patricia Vance.

"These games, many of which tend to be casual in nature, are being produced in increasing numbers, by thousands of developers, and generally at lower costs," she added.

"This new rating process considers the very same elements weighed by our raters. The biggest difference is in our ability to scale this system as necessary while keeping our services affordable and accessible."

The ESRB confirmed last month that the majority of video game releases in 2010 received an E rating, with around 5 percent given a Mature rating.


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Comments


E Zachary Knight
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I think this is a positive step forward .The human component has always been the bottle neck for rating games. With the huge influx of digitally distributed games, they were probably getting overwhelmed.



As for potential controversy, I don't see it being any more of a deal than it currently is. We have had only a single "hot coffee" incident. I don't see any game company willing to go through that. Not that the current process is capable of preventing a future "hot coffee"

Bart Stewart
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Without implying any criticism for this new effort:

1. Why are PC games distributed digitally not also handled by the new system?

2. What are these "penalties subjected for nondisclosure," and who enforces them?

E Zachary Knight
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These are just my guesses:



1. More games are rated for the platforms listed than for game that are only distributed digitally for the PC.



2. The ESRB enforces fines on developers who do not disclose content that could have affected the rating. These fines must be paid before they will rate future games.

Trevor Christman
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Does the ESRB reduce the fee for rating your title in this fashion?

Randy Angle
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ESRB continues to be a strange system...

- retail Console games ARE rated by the ESRB

- retail PC/Mac games ARE rated by the ESRB

- download Console games ARE rated by the ESRB

- download PC/Mac games ARE NOT rated by the ESRB

- download mobile games ARE NOT rated by the ESRB

- browser games ARE NOT rated by the ESRB



Entities like Apple, Google and Microsoft have criteria that they judge age appropriateness for mobile titles that is not the same and not part of the ESRB.



Is the idea of ESRB really just a retail thing that was also adopted by console download games for whatever reason? Does this system still work? Should it be applied to all games (retail/download/browser)? Should it apply to all platforms (console/PC/Mac/mobile)? How do you possibly rate multiplayer games where the experience changes due to who you play with?



It just seems kind of broken to me. It also seems like there needs to be a pricing system that reflects business volume.

E Zachary Knight
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The ESRB is voluntary except where the distribution market requires it. Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft require the rating when you license the SDK from them. All major retail chains require a rating when you want to distribute through them.



There is no central licensing entity for downloadable PC games or web games and so you are not required to get one. You can however get one if you felt so inclined.



As for iPhone and Google Android, they have their own rating process that does not require an ESRB rating. If you are a app developer, getting a rating for the 20 apps you release each year is not financially feasible.



The ESRB does not rate online interactions. If they did, all games would be rated AO.

Randy Angle
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oh, forgot to mention - some download Xbox Live Indie Games ARE rated and some ARE NOT ??? I also see there is a tier for projects that cost less than $250K.



Frankly I'd rather let retail have the ESRB and let the downloadable games spend that money on making their games better - budgets for web and downloadable can be even tinier than $250K... by a lot.

E Zachary Knight
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All XBox Live Arcade games are required to be rated by the ESRB. No XBox Live Indie Games are required to be rated by the ESRB.



They introduced the tiered pricing specifically for lower budget developers who want a rating.



There are only two reasons you would get a rating:



1. The distribution partner you license with requires a rating.

2. You want a rating.



That is it. If you do not meet reason one and reason two does not apply, feel free to release without a rating and spend the money making your game better.

Eric Kwan
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So now they can fine us without actually doing any work. Lovely.

E Zachary Knight
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?



They only fine you if they find you lied in your application for a rating.

Andrew Grapsas
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The ESRB is so antiquated.

E Zachary Knight
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They still serve a purpose. So I don't see how it is antiquated.

Brian Tsukerman
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This is undoubtedly more efficient than the method they were previously considering using, which was hiring multiple Downloadable Games Testers to play and rate the games (a position which I applied for). I can't fault them for this though, especially when the choice is either:



A) Hire multiple salaried individuals to play games and rate them according to the ESRB. With the sheer quantity of digital games, testers would only play each game for a short period of time to get a sense of what "most" of the content will be about, which still has the risk of missing something vital due to either luck or lack of human attention span.

B) Just ask the developer to fill out a questionnaire about the general content, which they should know in it's entirety since they MADE it, and which will be graded by the ESRB's rating system. Thus, if something slips through, it's the fault of the developer, not the ESRB, and the ESRB can exact a fine on the offender for making everybody upset and being uncooperative.



I admit, I'm sad that I won't be able to play games all day and be paid over $30k a year to do it. But it doesn't make sense for companies to sacrifice efficiency, profit margin, and freedom from responsibility just so a game enthusiast can land a sweet gig. I'll just have to find some other way in instead.

Rick Reynolds
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If you don't like this system, you should have seen what it was like before the ESRB came along. There were individual content rating systems for specific platforms and it was fairly confusing for consumers.

Kent NORMAN
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Wait a second! You've got to know the algorithm (computer program) that they have developed and will be using. Here's the way I think that it works: (1) The Game Company tells someone in the company who is familiar with the game to fill out the ESRB questionnaire. I have not yet seen that questionnaire so I don't how long it is, what the questions are, the options, etc. We can only assume that had some professionals develop it using psychometric methods. (2) The answers are aggregated using a formula, which I will talk about in a minute, to lump the game into one of the ESRB ratings and to assign descriptors (e.g., "Mild Cartoon Violence", "Strong Language", etc.). The formula, hopefully, was the result of analyzing a large sample of games with given ESRB ratings. They would have had individuals familiar with the game answer the questionnaire that they developed. Then they used a statistical clustering analysis, such as Discriminant Analysis, to approximate the best fitting formula. Now here are the problems: (1) The ratings will be no accurate than previous ratings since the previous ratings were used to derive the formula. (2) Game developers can easily outwit or circumvent the system by figuring out how to fill out the questionnaire to get the rating that they want. Ultimately, the ESRB has totally handed over the job of rating games to the developers and abdicated their responsibility in the name of efficiency and cost savings. But what else can they do with the number of games that are being produced every year.


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