May 28, 2006

[Games] Between a blockhead and a hard case...

Last week, I spent two days training Ritual employees on the ins and outs of the various ratings boards across the globe.

What drove the training was that there is a lot of hatred in this industry towards ratings boards, including the ESRB, but not a lot of understanding.

On one side, we've got groups who see scandals like "Hot Coffee" and "Hot Mead" and think that the ESRB isn't doing a good job of controlling the content inside video games.

On the other side, we've got developers who see the ESRB as their enemy, with the looming threat of an "AO" rating or severe descriptors ready to force them to remove portions of their artistic vision and/or eliminate a massive chunk of sales.

To be honest, I see both sides, but I don't think that anyone really has stopped to look at things from the ESRB's point of view.

The ESRB was created as an independent ratings board in an effort to prevent the government from stepping in and ratings games themselves. In that way, the ESRB is identical to the MPAA.

There are other similarities to the MPAA. There is an ad code which says how you can and cannot advertise your titles, as well as limitations on marketing for certain ratings. The ESRB owns their rating mark and merely licenses it out, so if you violate the terms, they can force a recall or resticker of the title. The people who do the rating itself have no professional association with the industry. And finally, the ESRB is funded by the submission process.

How the rating system works is that if I want to rate my game, I get a submission packet from the ESRB. Based off of my knowledge of the content in my game, I fill out the submission packet. I also create some extra exhibits as necessary, be it a soundtrack CD and lyric sheet, the voice-over script, a list of cheat codes, etc. Finally, I create a video cassette that shows normal gameplay, as well as the worst items from the submission packet. Everything on the tape must be in the submission packet somewhere. I assemble all of this, pay a fee to the ESRB, and in a couple of weeks, I get my rating and descriptors. Outside of those two pieces of information, I receive no information as to why the ESRB granted that rating. After the product ships, I'm required to provide copies of the game to the ESRB. They double-check the rating at that time.

Movies work in a similar fashion. Ratings are granted several months in advance based off of a roughly-edited version of the movie, but movies are often edited up to the week before the movie initially screens.

In both cases, if something that would materially change the rating is introduced, a resubmission is required. In the film industry, "Snakes on a Plane" is a good example. They were initially shooting for a "PG-13" rating, but because fans were demanding Samuel L. Jackson to use some more...ahem...severe profanity, they added the scenes and the movie was upgraded to an "R" rating.

Likewise, if in "SiN Episodes: Emergence," we decided that we wanted Elexis to be nude, we'd have to resubmit because we don't have a "Nudity" descriptor.

I guess the point is that while everyone in this industry wants a say in how the ESRB rates our titles, we can't have a say. Our "say" consists of either accepting the rating, or making changes and resubmitting. If we were able to do any more than that, the ESRB would lose their biggest defense...that they are independent. They have to remain seperate, lodged between blockheads who would ban or regulate us, and the hard cases who believe that rating is equivalent to censorship.

8 comments:

ninken said...

Very Interesting! Thanks for the insight on the ESRB ratings work I guess it’s much better than a government control.

Morgan said...

I believe the IGDA is currently discussing with the ESRB the development of 'help documentation' for the IGDA.

Andrew Timson said...

Our "say" consists of either accepting the rating, or making changes and resubmitting. If we were able to do any more than that, the ESRB would lose their biggest defense...that they are independent.

Well, I disagree slightly--I don't think that asking to know exactly why you recieved the rating you did removes their independence.

While I wish that the ESRB had more of a clue about how computers operated—or else the whole "hot coffee" bit would've been completely ignored—I understand the importance of their independence.

Michael Russell said...

The biggest reason that the ESRB can't tell us why seems to be that the moment they do, the rating system becomes more a game than anything else.

"Oh, so 4 ounces of blood is an 'M', but 2 ounces of blood is a 'T'...can I get 3 ounces in?"

While as a developer, I'd love to have a concrete list of ratings criteria more than anything else, I also understand that artists love riding the boundaries...and trying to cross them.

Morgan said...

I wish that the ESRB had more of a clue about how computers operated—or else the whole "hot coffee" bit would've been completely ignored

The ESRB does understand; unfortunately, the Hot Coffee and Oblivion incidents have been spun to the point of ridiculousness by the associated developers/publishers (i.e., Take-Two.) You can send a Teddy Bear care package to the White House, but they'll still find the internal bomb offensive. Rule: Don't hide pertinent content! Remove such content per the terms of the contract to which you are party.

Some people tend to overanalyze the contract terms and inquire, "Why does the ESRB care about hidden content?" I usually reply, "For the same reason that airport security checks what's inside your luggage." The rules may seem stupid, but the rules exist for good reasons, such as the legal protection of the airport and then the safety of passengers. Contracts are not established to facilitate business efforts. Contracts exist to resolve problems that occur following worst case scenarios. One of those worst case scenarios includes the failure of the submitter to disclose all pertinent content.

Andrew Timson said...

You can send a Teddy Bear care package to the White House, but they'll still find the internal bomb offensive. Rule: Don't hide pertinent content!

It's not pertinent content if it can't be accessed via normal means. A better analogy would be that the White House might find the "I hate George Bush" message written on the stuffing offensive, but in the normal use of the teddy bear, you'd never see it; you'd only find it if you deliberately disassembled the bear, something that the attached tag (or EULA, in the case of software) says you can't legally do.

Morgan said...

It's not pertinent content if it can't be accessed via normal means.

The phrase "pertinent content" is defined by the ESRB in the submission contract. All content that is defined as "pertinent" is pertinent, and all "pertinent content" must be disclosed. This is policy that goes back long before the Hot Coffee incident.

The product EULA does not protect the developer/publisher from violating its contract with the ESRB. The "EULA" is exactly that. The "End User License Agreement".

Andrew Timson said...

Ahh. I haven't read any such contract, so I don't know exactly what they consider to be pertinent. Obviously, it's not what I would consider to be pertinent. :)