The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) has announced a change to one of its policies that could have a dramatic effect on how many indie games get physical releases in the future. Before this September, developers used to be able to launch a boxed version of an existing, digital-only game without needing to pay for an additional ESRB rating. This is no longer the case.
A new tier was announced for rating digital-to-physical games, meaning that independent developers need to pay $3,000 to get a game rated as a boxed product if the game’s development budget was $1 million or less. All three console manufacturers now require for every game to pay this fee and be labelled with an ESRB rating, even physical editions of games that have already released digitally. This has hurt a company like Limited Run Games, whose business model revolves around bringing physical launches of previously released digital titles into the hands of players and collectors.
“You may have noticed that things have been rather slow recently after a very busy July and August,” says a statement from Limited Run Games. “There is a reason to this – we had a large slate of games scheduled for this month and next, but had to roll them into the future. In late August, the ESRB announced a new industry-wide initiative to offer lower value-priced ratings for physical releases. It is now required by all three platform-holders to have physical games rated by the ESRB. We’re hard at work on getting our upcoming slate rated properly and expect our next physical PlayStation 4 releases to hit on October 13th. These will be our first games to feature ratings printed on the packaging and all games going forward will be rated. All other US based publishers will be held to the same standard. Unrated physical releases are no more.”
While physical PlayStation 4 games were affected in this case, it is noted that every publisher will be held to the same standard, and thus this affects Microsoft and Xbox games as well.
“Obtaining ESRB assigned age and content ratings has always been voluntary,” an ESRB spokesperson tells Engadget. “That said, many US retailers, including most major chains, have policies to only stock or sell games that carry an ESRB rating, and console manufacturers have typically required games that are published on their systems to be rated by ESRB.”
Douglas Bogart, co-founder of Limited Run Games, does not have an optimistic outlook of the impact of this decision. He even went as far as to call the ESRB a “monopoly,” where your business lives or dies by their whim.
“We can’t just sign any game we want any more solely based on whether we liked it or not. It needs to have a broader appeal so it can sell more units. Basically, this killed off small-run indie games. Video games have a high cost as it is and then adding that ESRB fee on top of it, pretty much makes it unfeasible,” Bogart said.
“That’s a whole month’s salary for some developers, or funding for their next game,” Bogart says. “Some of these people are literally living meal-to-meal.”