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Getting a score from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is a crucial step for any video game or app that wants to go to market. Currently, it assesses digital games through what’s called “the Short Form” process, which is free. Indie developers were concerned to hear that the group will phase out this process later this year, fearing that that means they will have to spend more money to sell their games online. The ESRB has said that even though it is phasing out the Short Form application, it will still be free for developers to get ratings for their digital games through the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC).
Participating storefronts include the Microsoft Store, Nintendo eShop, the Oculus Store, and Google Play, and the PlayStation Store will also accept these ratings as well at a later date. The Amazon App Store and Apple App Store have not been mentioned, and they will likely continue to review games internally. Similarly, the PC marketplace Steam doesn’t require developers to obtain ratings for their games before submitting them.
The ESRB assesses game content and gives out ratings based on whether or not the game is age-appropriate — and it can cost quite a lot of money, especially for physical games that will land in retail stores. Indie developers were exempt from paying this fee because their games were first sold digitally before releasing limited-edition boxsets. But in November, the organization changed that rule because Sony required that all physical games had to have ratings. Even at a discount — for instance, ESRB said that games with a budget less than $1 million were eligible for a lower fee — small studios and publishers ended up having to shell out $3,000 or more to get a score.
In order to get a physical game assessed, developers must fill out a “Long Form” application which involves a questionnaire as well as video footage of all “pertinent content” — cut scenes, typical quests, and any extreme examples of violence, foul language, sexuality, and drug use. At least three professionals at the ESRB then review that footage. The Short Form application for digital games is just a questionnaire, and the rating is generated automatically, which explains why the cost is so much lower.
ESRB is now phasing out this Short Form application, but it says that developers will still be able to get a free assessment through the IARC, which is a partnership between various rating organizations such as ESRB and PEGI in Europe. According to an ESRB spokesperson, most storefronts will accept IARC ratings.
“It’s true that the Short Form rating process will soon be discontinued, but developers and publishers will still be able to obtain free rating assignments for digitally delivered games and apps via the IARC rating process,” said an ESRB spokesperson in an email to GamesBeat. “The Microsoft Store deployed the IARC rating system years ago and has committed to providing access to IARC ratings for all Xbox digital game developers. The IARC rating system is also available to developers of digital games and apps in the Nintendo eShop, Google Play, and the Oculus Store. It will soon be deployed by the PlayStation Store, as well. ”
Some of these storefronts have already switched to IARC. Google Play, Microsoft, and Nintendo adopted it in 2015 and the Oculus Store shifted over to those standards in January 2017. The only newcomer will be PlayStation Store, which hasn’t announced when it will be transitioning over to IARC for digital games.