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

Developers and publishers give us the details

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.