Way back in the ’90s there was a furor over the content in games, which gave rise to the ESRB and its rating system. Slapping the now familiar labels on games allowed them to avoid the possibility of regulations, and while there were still plenty of controversies over the silliest of things (GTA:San Andreas’ Hot Coffee kerfuffle was dumb back then and the passing of time hasn’t made it look any less like a big fat nothing) the gaming industry marched on, getting bigger and stronger year after year. Now the world is a very different place, with content that would have exploded the eyeballs clear out of the faces of the watchdogs of the time appearing regularly on both console and PC. Ratings on retail games are helpful for parents deciding what to buy for their kids, and ignored by everyone else. The key word on that sentence was “retail”, though, with the rating being optional if the game wasn’t sold through a storefront. As of now, though, if you want to publish on console it’s a requirement set by the manufacturer.
It’s a strange thing to come out of the blue. Small-press publishers like Limited Run Games, Special Reserve Games, iam8bit, etc all printed up titles you could only get by ordering online without the hassle of ratings. They sell directly to the enthusiast market and paying for an ESRB rating was a retail store requirement, so why would they go to the expense? While digital ratings are free, and easily gotten with a streamlined form, physical ratings take longer to get and require a fair amount of paperwork. The difference between the two processes, of course, means the digital rating doesn’t carry over when a game gets printed. Making the leap from digital to physical just got that much harder, though, because each of the three hardware makers now have it as a requirement that any game getting a physical release on their system has to have the rating in its usual spot taking up valuable cover-art real estate, explaining to an audience that has no use for it the minimum recommended age group to enjoy their purchase.
Ratings on retail games makes a kind of sense. Speaking as a former Electronics Boutique employee, I can say that parents found it useful in determining the appropriateness of a title for their kids. As a person working the other side of the sales counter it was my job to clarify what these ratings meant and frequently go over the specifics on a title-by-title basis, just in case the kid’s pleading was working and the M rating wasn’t quite so bad as it looked. Kids wanted games, some parents were more than happy to buy completely inappropriate things for their kids, but for the most part the ratings helped inform someone not into the hobby what it was their children were wanting. The worst thing that happened was a whiny 10-year-old didn’t get GTA IV. And then the retail market shrunk as digital took over.
There’s no question that retail still has life in it, but digital is much livelier overall. The lack of printing costs means anyone can create whatever their talent (and available time) allows, and it’s enabled heavy hitters like Undertale and Factorio or smaller, more obscure games like Hyperspace Invaders II and Megasphere. The lack of rating requirement meant that the smaller ones that made it to console had a decent chance of going physical, but every financial hoop is one more point of potential failure in the process. There’s an effort:profit ratio here that just got a bit steeper.
This isn’t a death-knell for small-press gaming by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a new hoop to jump through, and one that has a definite cost associated with it, but it feels like an unnecessary one. The games it’s being applied to aren’t retail product, but rather for the enthusiast market. It’s an audience that already knows what it’s buying and is in very little danger of seeing an inappropriate product end up in the hands of someone whose parents will flip out when they find out what’s actually in there. It’s possible these games might end up in the used retail shelves, of course, but that would require the seller to accept pennies on the collector-market dollar, plus Gamestop, Best Buy, and the others to actually accept these titles as trade-in.
The ESRB has another function outside of parental control, and that’s to be the thing the industry can point to and say “See? We’re policing ourselves.” It was a necessary annoyance in the ’90s, when gaming was having problems, but now feels only slightly more relevant than the Comics Code Authority. While some collectors are happy with the new requirement, feeling it gives the games a greater feeling of legitimacy, the fact that the game was printed with official branding by Sony (MS and Nintendo have yet to open the doors to small-press publishing although they’ve adopted the same requirement) seems more than legitimate enough, and having one less element obscuring the box art is never a bad thing. The requirement that all physical games, retail or enthusiast press, require the ESRB logo is a step backwards to a time when the industry was rightfully worried about distribution regulations limiting the growing market. Those years are long gone, and this is just an unnecessary expense and pointless extra paperwork to tell the consumer things they’re already fully aware of.