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Opinion: ESRB Mobile App Initiative Underscores Industry Power Shift

Opinion: ESRB Mobile App Initiative Underscores Industry Power Shift Exclusive

November 30, 2011 | By Chris Morris

While you have to admire the Entertainment Software Ratings Board's push into the mobile app space, it's hard not to be disappointed with Tuesday's joint announcement with CTIA.

Getting AT&T, Microsoft, Sprint, T-Mobile USA, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless on board is a step, yes, but it's akin to announcing a new Grand Theft Auto that's being made by first year game development students. It sounds great, until you think about it for a couple seconds.

The dominance of Apple and Android in the app marketplace is so overwhelming that any deal that fails to include them as part of the announcement falls flat. As of mid-October, mobile users had downloaded 18.2 billion apps from Apple, according to Xyologic. Android app downloads stood at 6.76 billion. Apple's App Store, meanwhile, boasts 500,000+ apps, while the Android Marketplace comes in at 300,000+.

Numbers for the carriers weren't available, but you don't have to be an analyst to know they're significantly lower.

The absence of Google and Apple from the announcement raises a number of questions.

The biggest -- and easiest, in some ways -- is obvious: Why didnt the two companies join the movement?

Apple's answer is an easy one to deduce. They are reticent to cede any form of control of their multibillion dollar iEmpire. And it's hard to blame them. The system has worked fine for the company -- and most users -- without the ESRB, so why change things now?

The larger answer for both is a bit more interesting, though. Adopting the same ratings system as the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii would, in some ways, lump app gaming with the traditional gaming industry. And there's not a lot of upside to either company in doing that.

Apps have succeeded, in part, because they don't carry the stigma among the mainstream that being a "gamer" does. Go to any random social event and try to start a conversation about the latest Rayman game. Then hit another and start talking Angry Birds. Guess which will engage the fellow attendees and which will earn you confused, odd looks.

The app market is the anti-video game industry, in some ways. Not "anti" as in opposition, but instead as an opposite. It has adopted a new development/release schema. It prices its products in an entirely different fashion. And it creates disposable experiences that cater to short attention spans.

The ESRB and CTIA both say they anticipate other storefronts to adopt the ratings system, but without Apple and Android on board, it won't make much of a difference.

Worse, by pushing into the mobile space, the ESRB may be showing its colors as a political arm instead of one whose motives are completely altruistic. Dueling ratings systems smack of a new VHS/Beta war. As the parties fight over who will be the dominant arbiter of age appropriateness, consumers are left confused as the ratings process becomes even more muddied.

In the long run, the ESRB/CTIA announcement could be another sign of shifting power in the gaming industry. Normally, the ESRB gets what it wants. But it has no leverage against Apple and Google. If a publisher refuses to submit a game for ratings, that game will never make it to retail. And while that may not be entirely fatal (Minecraft has done just fine without a rating), it's not a stance most game makers are willing to take.

But Apple and Google? They can comfortably ignore the lobbying, the somewhat empty announcements and pretty much whatever else the ESRB throws their way. Their growth trajectory is going to soar regardless.

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