ESRB intros streamlined ratings process for digitally distributed games

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The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) has expanded its rating system to address the rapid proliferation of digitally delivered games. As you're likely aware, the group traditionally rates games so parents can make informed purchases. Retail titles receive one of six ratings from "Early Childhood" (suitable for those three years or older) to "Adults Only" (recommended for players aged 18 or older).

Naturally, to apply those ratings, the ESRB reviews footage from the games in question -- a service that publishers and developers must pay for. However, this is becoming increasingly difficult as tons of products are released strictly through services such as XBLA, PSN, Steam and the new Windows 8 Store. To help ensure those games are rated, the ESRB has dropped its fee and streamlined its process.

The organization now allows developers to submit a questionnaire about their game's content. Based on the answers provided, an automated system instantly generates a rating that the developer can use on digital storefronts and marketing materials. If we understand the announcement right, developers will be able to access this questionnaire directly through the ESRB, but it will also be baked into the game submission process of many popular digital platforms, including Microsoft's, Sony's and Nintendo's.

Enabling a ubiquitous standard that discloses the amount of violence, sex or drugs in a game is only one part of the ESRB's digital strategy, as it has announced three new supplementary ratings that provide more information about a game's "interactive elements." The group said that at least two thirds of parents think it's essential to know whether the software collects or shares info such as a user's email address, phone number, credit card or location data -- an especially valid concern on digital services.

Trusting developers to describe their own games raises concerns over the potential for abuse, but the ESRB said this hasn't been a problem yet. The group said its questionnaire generally produces the same ratings as its human reviewers, and when there is a different rating, the automated system actually tends to be stricter. Additionally, the ESRB still plans to physically review many titles to ensure its system is working properly, and companies caught cheating could lose their rating privileges. Conversely, developers who believe they've received an improper rating will have an appeals process.

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