News Article

Feature: Lifting the Curtain on Game Ratings and the Headache of Worldwide Releases

Posted by Thomas Whitehead

What all of these details should clarify is that there are legitimate discrepancies and issues that download developers and publishers face when trying to bring their games to the eShop platforms. It also provides valuable context on the delays to some releases outside of North America, as it's easy for gamers in Europe and — particularly — Australia / New Zealand to become frustrated at delays and missing games and lambast publishers. Once you look behind the curtain, however, you see businesses of a small scale, in some cases surviving project to project, that work within tight budgets to bring games to Nintendo hardware. When there's such a clear difference between regions, it should give some extra perspective to gamers when release dates aren't consistent worldwide.

Speaking to developers it becomes clear that, in some cases, inconvenience and cost are worth bearing in exchange for arriving in larger markets. Brian Provinciano explains that "with North America, one rating classification covers what also happens to be the largest market for most western games. PEGI is absolutely worthwhile as it covers most of Europe. USK is valuable because Germany is a large market. Past that though, smaller developers really need to calculate the ROI of each additional country or region." For Australia and New Zealand, as highlighted on the previous page, that ROI (Return on Investment) is problematic. This could become an increasing issue as the Wii U eShop welcomes brand-new developers through platforms such as the Nintendo Web Framework, individuals or small teams that perhaps have extremely limited working capital. For RCMADIAX and BLOK DROP U, sales in North America — helped by the free-of-charge ESRB process — are required to help fund other regions.

It is my intention to make my software available to all users. However, due to lack of working capital, I have to release in one territory at a time. Here is the order in which I plan to release BLOK DROP U:

Q2 2014: PEGI supported countries (30)
2014: USK (Germany)
2014: OFLC (Australia)

Time is also a precious commodity for some developers, tied as it is to days when a finished game can make money from sales. Renegade Kid's releases fluctuate from being North America-only to arriving in multiple regions, no doubt driven by those considerations of achieving a return on the investment. While Moon Chronicles and major projects will likely remain on the table for publication outside of NA, Jools Watsham is blunt in his opinion on the processes required outside of ESRB — "For small teams, dealing with age ratings, it can be a significant obligation that takes them away from core development", he explains. "Based on the fact that the ESRB offers an appropriate service, I do not deem the time or cost required to wrestle with the European age ratings companies to be reasonable or justifiable."

Our conversations with developers varied in tone when tackling the question of how reasonable processes are through PEGI, USK and COB. Ripstone, as a publisher that supports multiple developers, very much had a tone of acceptance that the processes are inescapable parts of the business. Jools Watsham has been clear in that he feels Renegade Kid should be allowed to focus on development and have a convenient route to ratings, with the ESRB policy of free access and post-release moderation suiting those aims; the physical media and finished product requirements elsewhere cause frustration. The exchange with Martijn Reuvers of Two Tribes, below, highlights how some feel about the current state of affairs.

You know you need to burn the whole thing on a cartridge, or whatever, and send it to them [PEGI] and they will evaluate it. It takes up to two weeks and, apart from that, you also need to provide them video footage of all the offensive material that's in there. I'm assuming, so, okay, they play the game, and then what? They are going to play through the whole game to see if the video matches up with the thing that they see? I'm really not sure about that, but apparently they need all that stuff, they need the game itself, but on top of that you also need to fill in a questionnaire. So you already have like 50 questions about the game, you basically already tell them what the game's all about, and then they still need that stuff, and you need to give them a lot of money.

...So, yeah, for them it's really like a money machine, I'm not sure why, and I've had a lot of discussions with them, and angry discussions as well. Because they're based in the Netherlands I can be more easily angry, or whatever, but it doesn't get me anywhere. It's basically like talking to a governmental organisation, and they're in the process, they tell me, already two years, of changing things, but they hardly make it easier for smaller developers. So this is PEGI, and the USK, like I mention today, even though you have to pay stuff, I would love to see the USK is gone [though praise was reserved for its more accessible service]; you know, it should be part of PEGI.

Which brings us to the question of how the process can be improved. The least ambitious proposal, echoed across those that we've spoken to, would be for Europe and Australia / New Zealand to share the same ratings system, reducing three processes to one. Other common requests would be to remove the need for physical media to be provided, with electronic transmission allowed rather than placing a download game onto a disc, USB stick or similar device. There are relatively minor requests, too, such as a lifting of the requirement to pay with a wire transfer for fees to PEGI, which bears a cost that standard online payments do not.

The perfect scenario, of course, is for all regions to incorporate the ESRB model, as download developers enjoy a free service that is completed in a matter of minutes. Its policy of post-release moderation — meaning inaccurate or dishonest ratings will be corrected post-release — places greater responsibility on developers as opposed to ratings bodies themselves. The North American agency has also evolved in recent years, with Reuver observing to us that, actually, he recalled PEGI once being more accessible than ESRB. It seems that while costs are gone for download developers, those releasing retail games in North America reportedly pay more than they used to in the region; it's a policy that adjusts to the differences between the physical retail and download industries. To say that developers would prefer a free service, albeit with arguably greater individual responsibility for that rating, should surprise no-one.

A devil's advocate is often required, however. To take iOS and Android as an example, they have no formal external certification. Ripstone explained to us that "Apple's system is self-certified, with no post-moderation that I'm aware of". When submitting an app to iOS you fill out a questionnaire, a rating is then generated and displayed on the product page; as for Android, it has no rating information or requirements of any kind. This hands-off approach may be idyllic for a publisher, but throws up obvious concerns with content reaching inappropriate audiences. The smart device industry is arguably a beast of its own, incorporating diverse functionality and content, while these systems are in the hands of hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of users. These stores are a Wild West of entertainment, with minimal control.

For Nintendo, as well as contemporaries such as Sony and Microsoft, they are selling closed hardware targeting a variety of audiences. There may be legal considerations, and the history of the game console industry has established rules and boundaries since the 1980s and beyond, with regulation a part of that process. Apple and Google, through their respective iOS and Android platforms, have grown a fresh industry at remarkable speed and, as the information in this article indicates, governments and agencies don't evolve and adapt quickly. For Nintendo, caution is to be expected, and conventional ratings processes are an inevitable ongoing part of that — who can forget when Nintendo of Europe temporarily made '18' content inaccessible on the Wii U eShop out-with late hours, all on the basis of a German regulation that hadn't even been signed into law.

Could Nintendo do more? Perhaps, but it's also bound by the ratings bodies in place at this time, as are its contemporaries in the console space. We've already highlighted that it does offer some assistance in handling the communication for COB ratings in Australia / New Zealand, though even so developers still have to pay the fees. It's tempting to say Nintendo should throw cash around, contribute towards rating costs and have a team dedicated to helping process the applications from download developers. That's idealistic, yet whether that would be sound business for Nintendo, and whether it would want to pay for the staff and resources to do such things, is debatable. The big N may feel that its streamlined developer approval, eShop submission and support processes are perfectly adequate, and it's not unreasonable to expect publishers of games to handle aspects of their business by themselves.

What is clear, though, is that the current processes simply aren't optimised — outside of North America — for download-only publishers. Even if the growth of the download gaming market prompts ESRB to reintroduce fees in future, its process is hugely useful and valuable. Europe and Australia / New Zealand, with three separate agencies, physical media requirements, punishing fees and lengthy processing times, simply add to the workload of small, time-pressured teams. It's clear that a more universal approach needs to be found, with regions that in days gone by would be referred to as PAL needing to unify their efforts. As it stands small publishers sometimes have tough, critical decisions to make when releasing their games outside of North America, and sometimes gamers inevitably suffer.

We haven't even covered Japan, which has its own requirements of a publisher with a business address in the region, while there are other regions and countries that have limited releases. That's the crux of the issue for small teams. Behemoths like Nintendo, EA, Activision and Ubisoft have substantial assets and budgets to release games worldwide, in stores and online, with little concern. For download-only companies margins are far tighter, and there's less cash in the bank to fund fees and costs; gamers outside of North America, in some cases, simply need to wait for games to sell in NA before a studio can afford the bureaucracy of obtaining ratings and publishing permission elsewhere. Releasing a game isn't simply about making it and pressing a magic button to publish; beyond Nintendo lotchecks there are substantial hoops to jump through to simply get an age rating.

It can be disappointing for gamers in Europe and — more so — Australia / New Zealand when a game doesn't arrive or is delayed. It can be tempting to say "x released their game here, so why not Y too?". Yet each company is different and has their own pressures and resources. Perhaps greater understanding is needed of the external pressures and challenges we so rarely see; if ratings barriers and costs are lowered outside of North America, close-to-full release parity will come closer to being a reality.

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User Comments (71)



MAB said:

Yeah, the crew behind Unepic apparently don't want to pay for the Australian rating so that's why it hasn't arrived in our eShop... I would rather trade the crappy NES & SNES VC for more Aussie eShop indie support



AlexSora89 said:

Very informative. I'm gonna give it another read - it's awfully nice to finally understand what lurks behind the delays in European release dates.



Nintenjoe64 said:

Thank god for rating systems! Without the sterling work that these people do, the online components of mature rated games would all be filled with pre-pubescent voices shrieking deafeningly and playing horrible music up close to their mics.



Kohaku said:

Remove the region lock and there are no problems with the ratings anymore.



jangonov said:

Kudos to Thomas Whitehead on an incredible article. Things writtten this well, with this much research put into it, and that much thought is why I've been with this site so long.



Xilef said:

Very interesting article. It's a shame it has to be this way with none ESRB teretories.




So is ESRB free for downloads only or free for all games? I gather this is a recent development as well. If it's free for all how is it funded?

The UK had something before PEGI was introduced as well, but I can't remember what that was right now. I wonder how that compared?

This article really paints PEGI in a very archaic light. Which is a downright travesty considering what it's here for. I wonder what other business model they could use though? A subscription basis depending on your developer size? Or estimated releases per year? Having to pay for the same game but just on a different platform it also ridiculous.



StarDust4Ever said:

@Nintenjoe64 To bad the "prepubescent voices" thing is already happening, you know, because dumb parents basically ignore the ratings on the boxes. I was in a Game-X-Change the other day; some woman with three or four little boys running around in the store bought a stack of used Xbox titles. The clerk said "these games are rated M and may not be appropriate", she replied "oh I don't care what they play" and checked out.



LunaticPandora said:

I would still like to know why giant yellow USK stickers need to be printed on any collector's editions boxes but not standard cases, and in most cases that logo is also placed on the case that comes with the collector's edition, taking up more space than it should and ruining the box. I never understood the reason for this.



LittleFuryThing said:


So you discussed the issue of releasing (or not releasing, in some cases) with some of the game devs/publishers, but is there any chance you could ask for an interview with PEGI and OFLC why they feel their practices are - apparently - more appropriate than ESRB?

It would be interesting to read their perspective on why the process is designed to be more difficult and why they have to abide by it.
Frustrating, as it doesn't seem to offer any favours for us EU and AUS gamers.

Tah, very much.



banacheck said:

Thay should be greatful this isn't like the Board of Film Classification in the times of the infamous Mary Whitehouse.



Genesaur said:

Most interesting. I guess I'd always just assumed that the ESRB was a pain for developers; clearly, that is not the case, and I'm glad to have learned that.



Damo said:

@ferthepoet Region locking actually has nothing to do with it. Even region free systems like the PS3 are still subject to age ratings. These companies still have to pay for ratings, even if people choose to import from another region (which of course then has the negative effect of putting publishers off releasing games in certain territories).



Sinister said:

Well the ESRB ratings are easier to get but they are also automated. Noone is actully testing the game. I much more prefere for a game to be tested by an individual instead of relying on the information a developer provides.

You can bitch about the USK all you wnat but they do it right. They get the game, they play the game and they rate the game.



C-Olimar said:

I know it's hard, I just get jealous when yanks get to play cool games like ATV and I don't! Having said that, I do think it's better for a publisher to release a game when it's ready in America than delay it to coincide with the European release.



FritzFrapp said:

@ROBLOGNICK said "So is ESRB free for downloads only or free for all games? I gather this is a recent development as well. If it's free for all how is it funded?"
It's the fast-track download service that's free only. There are fees for retail games, and if I recall, lower fees for cheaper games. It's a nonprofit organisation (NPO). I don't know how they finance the fast-track download service. We covered many NPOs in my time on The Economist, but that's about the limit of my knowledge of the ESRB.

"The UK had something before PEGI was introduced as well, but I can't remember what that was right now. I wonder how that compared?"
The British Board of Film Classification – PEGI are a lot stricter, I can tell you that.




@Sinister The ESRB test the game after it's released. So they'll make you recall the game and either alter it or reproduce all the material to reflect the change of rating.



J-Manix98 said:

@C-Olimar I can't believe you just called us Yanks! That makes me laugh, but I our national Nintendo does have its problems too, such as; Lame pre-order bonuses, and terrible club Nintendo awards. Also the Not-as-good Game bundles... If you can think of any more tell meh!



Jaz007 said:

Nice article. It's good to see the ESRB makes things so easy. It also makes me wonder why Steam indies don't get ESRB ratings. It would be so nice. I don't see why not since it's easy.



unrandomsam said:

Nintendo wants family friendly. Something that is actually reviewed properly is inherently going to trustworthy and hence be more family friendly.

Yet again no numbers in the article.



unrandomsam said:

@Jaz007 Why ? No point in having it at all if it is not tested independently. Imagine if films could do that put what they like and then change it later it defeats the whole point.



MadAdam81 said:

Maybe it's time for us Aussies as well as all the Europeans to lobby our governments to change to an ESRB system. It's crazy that for a small Indy Australian dev team to not be able to afford to release a game in their own.region.
Is Australia like Europe in that each system release needs its own classification review?



MadAdam81 said:

@Damo for digital games, you would actually need to set up a console as an American console with a US credit card to buy from the US store.



ThomasBW84 said:

@unrandomsam Which numbers are you referring to? As I explained in the article, I made the decision not to publish the costs of the ratings services to ensure no NDAs or user agreements were breached, but instead gave some alternative descriptions to provide context of the fees. My interest is in discretion, and certainly not causing any unnecessary trouble for the interviewees, so that's why I took that approach.



FritzFrapp said:

Blue labels? Oh yeah, you must mean the ELSPA. The Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association was a group set up by British publishers – they voluntarily rated stuff that was exempt from classification, for whatever reason, by the BBFC. Both superceded by PEGI.



C-Olimar said:

@JellySplat I think all 3 branches of Nintendo have their own problems. Better synergy between the three will lead to benefit for us all!



Kirk said:

The PEGI ones are so much easier to get at a glance.

There really shouldn't be a cost for rating your games though.



SaKo said:

I REALLY hate living in Australia...
We get to miss out on great games like Cave Story, Shantae: Risky's Revenge, Retro City Rampage, Nano Assault EX, Mighty Milkyway, 99bullets, etc. Plus the fact that the games cost 50% more... and the internet here is slow as heck so I can never join online games...



Chubblings said:

@StarDust4Ever Just the other day, I was in a game store, and there was a 7 year old kid with his mother, looking for PS3 games. One of the guys who worked at the game store knew that the kid was buying the game, and recommended God of War, and the mother and kid had no hesitation to buy it.



unrandomsam said:

@Damo It must be that they choose to as opposed to they have to otherwise Steam / Apple / Google wouldn't be able to just ignore that requirement completely. (Or it only legally applies to Retail games).



Usagi-san said:

As much as I'd like more awesome games in australia the ESRB Just sounds like a label printing service.
Have there been any notable games that needed to have their ratings updated recently?



Senario said:

Interesting, while I do agree with ESRB being generally free I wish that it was on a number system rather than using a vague term such as "Mature". It also would stop kids from looking at the box and saying "It's mature! get me this one" Because I'm fairly sure most kids wanted to be mature adults at some point in time. Although I guess it doesn't solve everybody's perception of E for everyone being "Only for kids", that is a silly distinction that people came up with for no good reason.

Basically, PEGI numbers = Better, ESRB freeness = Better. Combine the good parts and you got a better rating system.



Dave24 said:

PEGI is such nonsense it's painful - 18 is 18, adulthood in some (if not all) countries of EU, and yet they need to censor it for adults not to see adult content



Senario said:

@BenTheDemon Kinda, not really. Only from a monetary standpoint. The letter system of E, T, M ect is pretty bad imo compared to the color coded and numbered PEGI system.



deathlysneer said:

New Zealand IS NOT Australia. We have a completely different rating system! Games in NZ don't have to be classified unless they have been restricted in other countries. I wish publishers (and bloggers) would stop lumping NZ in with the stupid Australian market.



Manaphy2007 said:

so our rating system is the best? thats cool and all but the other countries should follow the usa rating system so the others will get games they want for their country



Manaphy2007 said:

@Senario i actually agree, m should be 18+, we should follow the EU rating system along with the freeness and making sure that only the adults get the game though that may not stop kids from finding a loophole like pretending its for their adult relatives and gives the game to these "mature" FPS-nerds



unrandomsam said:

@Senario I would have loved something like Madworld at about age say 11-14. It is not a mature game though its incredibly immature.



JCnator said:

Didn't PEGI's Simon Little unveiled International Age Rating Coalition (IARC) at last year’s London Games Conference? They said that the procedures of getting the games rated will be similar to ESRB and is due to be rolled out early this year. Major industry players including Nintendo are interested in IARC. While this seems to be important for the gaming community, it somehow went unnoticed by the network.

Source link:



Squidzilla said:

Brilliant and informative article here. Makes me want to dig up ''This Film Is Not Yet Rated'' for a rewatch!



ThomasBW84 said:

@JCnator Interesting stuff, it'll be interesting to see how widely it's adopted; I get the sense cogs always turn slower in these things than the agencies / bodies themselves would like to pretend. I think there's plenty of debate to be had between how much control ratings agencies and devs should have, respectively. Certainly there are talks and rumours about new systems coming in, seeing whether they're adopted and come into force will be the key.

We shall see! It's be great to have a worldwide system, regardless, so that regional disparity could be limited to localising languages, arrangements with platform holders etc, with ratings one less hurdle.



Razzle said:

Typical Australian approach - bog everyone down in red tape so a few public servants with can justify their existence. Wrap the kids in cotton wool so much they suffocate! This is a terrible approach and makes me feel for Indie developers especially. Plus, I am an Australian gamer and I really want to play these games!



losingtheplot said:

great article. love the COB here. though i would not want the esrb's hockey mum stance on sexuality all around the world thanks



TingLz said:

@Jaz007 Probably because the big 3 (Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft) all require ratings while Steam does not



Jaz007 said:

@Unca_Lz Makes sense, but if it's free and takes 10 minutes, then I don't see how it wouldn't be worth it. That's what puzzles me here. (Unless there's I misunderstand about it being free)



Yoshi said:

@Manaphy2007 Don't forget that ESRB has an AO rating, standing for Adults Only (18+). Its just that almost every developer and publisher frowns upon games that have that rating.



StarDust4Ever said:

@brewsky No, it's not the developers that don't want to publish AO games. They are perfectly legal, however none of the console manufacturers Nintendo, Sony, MS, Apple, Google, Steam, noone will license AO games, leaving only PC gamers in the loop. Secondly, decency laws would require the games to be sold in those shady "back rooms" or in novelty shops, where the clerk hands you the goods in a brown bag. This leaves out the vast majority of retailers who would refuse to stock such games even if perfectly legal, for fear of public backlash. What you're left with is a very small niche market so games will have to be developed cheaply and sold at high cost. Unlicensed "adult" games were developed for Atari and NES, and the companies involved all went bankrupt, creating what is essentially high priced novelty items for collectors. And if a person is that desparate, there's plenty of crude flash games freely available in places like newgrounds.



Wowfunhappy said:

Hey, so while I appreciate NintendoLife not wanting to put developers in a tough position, have any non-employees done any research into the matter that they could independently share? I haven't found much myself and, unfortunately, I feel like I'm still missing a lot of the picture here without hard numbers.



ThomasBW84 said:

@Sweet16 In what way? In terms of the quotes from developers about rating for the country, that's their experience, even if it's obviously disappointing.



Seren77 said:

Nintendo needs to subsidise the costs and help people get this done. If they are going to sell the console in these countries they need to make sure they are getting all the games too



Cengoku said:

Do as my brother and me did. We're living in Europe and we don't buy anymore consoles and games from here. My brother has the US versions of Wii u and 3ds. I own the jap version of those. I don't care anymore about going to stores here



unrandomsam said:

@Cengoku I would do that were it not for the massive risk of ending up with loads of digital content on the device and no way to get it repaired.



123akis said:

why do regions need different age rating companies anyway!? we are ALL humans!! ALL regions should JUST use ESRB



Sweet16 said:

@ThomasBW84 A big problem is the conflation of Australia and New Zealand, which are completely separate countries with separate ratings systems. In addition, the body which was formerly the OFLC is the Australian Classification Board. I have no idea what COB is supposed to be? The article also demonstrates a lack of understanding for why the American system can not simply be imported over.



ThomasBW84 said:

@Sweet16 COB was an abbreviation that pinged around in the interviews, admittedly it seems to be an informal term for the Classification Board in Australia, so point very much taken. As for Australia and New Zealand, our interviewees only go through one process for the region, so I took their lead on that.

I proposed various ideas for how things could move forward outside of North America, and I'd be surprised if ESRB stays 'free' for downloads forever, for example. It seems that was a gesture to cater to a smaller market, which may evolve. As another commenter has pointed out, there are attempts (backed up by comments from one of our interviewees made as an aside to me) to unify ratings more and make them easier to obtain in Europe and beyond. Hopefully that'll come through, but we'll see.

On the Australia / New Zealand connection made, I'll have another look into that, and certainly some of those I spoke to referred to them together, with one process for both. As I say, I'll look again.



Senario said:

@123akis No, mature is a very vague term and much less information is actually conveyed by their ratings on the box. PEGI's system does the numbering better but in terms of monetary cost, ESRB does it better. If there was a way to merge the two systems and take the best of each then we would have a system that would work worldwide. Also different countries have different definitions of appropriate content. In many countries around the world if there is too much violence they can cry foul. In America if you drop the tiniest hint of sexuality or anything close to that theme then they get really outraged with no good reason. Or even just a tiny bit of skin somebody deems too much. Because that is certainly more dangerous than violence (sarcasm).



unrandomsam said:

@ThomasBW84 Why no numbers ? (Surely the way to get them would to be just ask as if you were going to make a game). It is very different if it is £100 to if it is £10000.



HawkeyeWii said:

Wow didn't know the other countries had such a tough time. I'm glad I live in the USA. The others seem like a pain for publishers.

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