This week another eShop game seemed to fall victim to a surprisingly common issue: age ratings. The Darkside Detective: A Fumble in the Dark is temporarily removed from the North American eShop, with the developer stating that they hope to get the issue resolved in 'about a week'. A member of the development team described it as "an issue with a ratings mismatch". [Update: Happily, after just over a week offline, the game is now live again on the Nintendo Switch eShop in North America]
Naturally, when this happens some wonder how and why this issue pops up. The reasoning for those questions is sound; surely age ratings are approved before release, so why would they be an issue after the fact?
Well, for anyone curious or indeed confused by this happening every now and then, we'll try to clear it up.
The key fact is that download-only games get their ratings for the majority of territories in a very simple and free way; it's a different process for physical retail products, it should be noted. This is important, and is a huge win for the smallest developers and publishers in particular. Digital stores and their infrastructures used to be very different, of course, but in this modern age the market is generally accessible and welcoming to even the smallest companies.
Obtaining age ratings for a download game used to be expensive, slow and, frankly, a headache.
Obtaining age ratings for a download game used to be expensive, slow and, frankly, a headache. It was a hot topic once, believe it or not, as some games started skipping territories for practical or cost reasons; if you want to travel back in time, we did an extensive feature on this back in 2014. In summary, there were multiple ratings agencies, and some had fees and requirements that simply weren't worth it for smaller Indies. ESRB in North America, at that point, were setting a good example by dropping fees altogether for download games.
In late 2015 there was the good news that Nintendo was adopting the International Age Rating Coalition system (IARC) for eShop releases, and that's been the case ever since. In basic terms, it's a quick and free way to get ratings for every major territory except for Japan; Japan's CERO system is still separate, but releasing games in the country is also a distinct process in most cases anyway. Importantly, if you're releasing a game in the Nintendo of America or Nintendo of Europe territories, you can get ratings for all of those territories at no cost and with the click of a few buttons.
So, how does it work? At the point of getting your age rating it's entirely self-governed; you fill in a questionnaire about your game, and the system then tallies the results and provides you with the information and metadata for the ratings across all territories. This includes all of the descriptors, everything, and you can then have the ratings automatically applied to your eShop product. Of course this all takes place before release, but assuming you know the source material in detail it's a 10-15 minute job, which is remarkable.
Naturally some will ask whether this is open to abuse, but the more pertinent question is why would you risk it? To start with reasons why abusing the system is a waste of time, for one thing Nintendo eShop doesn't display age ratings very prominently; in fact in EU trailers you don't even technically need to show an age rating at all for a download game. The Switch does have excellent parental controls so that children are kept away from potentially mature content, and that's a far more effective deterrent than the small age logo at the bottom of a product page.
Another reason you don't want to understate your game's content for a lower rating is that you may fall foul of a spot-check or the game may be checked following a report. The IARC system is self-governed, but there is a system in place that catches games where the age rating and content aren't a match.
In my experience (it may have changed in recent months) if a game went up two bands in the relevant rating scale it would prompt an immediate temporary removal from the eShop. It's an easy fix — you simply accept the revised rating given and it is applied to your game — yet the process is a little slow. It can take 1-3 weeks, and if a game is freshly launched and had a relatively high profile release (Darkside Detective 2 had its trailer posted on the official Nintendo YouTube channel, for example) it is no doubt a blow to lose early momentum while you wait for gears to grind and a new rating to apply.
The fact Darkside Detective 2 has only disappeared from one store shows that the issue could be minor, or region specific; the wording of a "mismatch" and "some weirdness on the backend" with regards to this one may also suggest a more simple admin error, such as a rating not transitioning or matching properly from the IARC certificate onto the eShop product. In any case, we're highlighting some causes, not stating these are the exact reasons for this most recent takedown.
In any case, a clash of content and rating can occur, but at times this is a wrinkle in the IARC questionnaire system. You may assess a game's content and think little of some mild curses, or pixelated blood, and select options to say they're minor content. An assessor may deem them to be moderate or severe depending on the word or scene in question, and that change can theoretically have a significant impact on the rating. The questionnaire is thorough and well constructed, but occasionally changes can feel like they're subjective, rather than objective.
The IARC questionnaire is thorough and well constructed, but occasionally changes can feel like they're subjective, rather than objective.
With text-heavy games, in particular, it's worth going through scripts carefully. My approach to age ratings was typically to overstate, go slightly higher if necessary rather than shoot low, so that sudden de-listings didn't happen.
One visual novel game actually had a rather gruelling scene (which was effective in the context) that would have meant a mature rating globally and not even getting released in Australia; for context, the same scene had little impact on the Japanese CERO rating. In that case we worked with the developer to re-frame and lightly rewrite that scene, so it had teen ratings and also got through in Australia. Not all would agree with that, but 99% of the game's scenes remained untouched in order for everyone to be able to play the game, and the decision was agreed with the creator. That's just a reality of releasing a game globally across many age rating agencies and into varied societies.
But sometimes these age rating snafus happen and no blame is needed. It could be one word, one image or a slip of a mouse curser on a web page that causes the issue. Mistakes happen in all parts of work and life, and unfortunately in a small number of cases it means lost sales as a game goes through hoops to re-appear on the store; the only difference in the end will likely be a little age rating logo at the bottom of the eShop page.