ESRB Head Explains How DLC & Ratings Work

April 18, 2008 -

This morning we posted a story from from MTV Multiplayer regarding the ESRB's position on downloadable content (DLC).

We heard back from the ESRB with a clarification from president Patricia Vance (left):
Companies are free to offer downloadable content to their games as long as the pertinent content is the same as the core product. If it isn't, they have to submit it to the ESRB.

If the downloadable content earns a more restrictive (higher) age rating, and it is of an optional nature, it must display the new rating prior to the user downloading it. The core product's rating won't change, unless the new downloadable content is part of a required patch, as is typically the case with MMOs that must be patched in order to play.


Sounds reasonable enough to me. Of course, this means Rock Band will be four-letter word free, unless we sing it instead.


i heard that GTA4 is to have two exclusive DLC content items for the 360, and there is likely to be more content on the side.

i don't think it's unreasonable to expect all DLC for a game to rate at the same level as the original game.

laying this out on the table now makes sense, since it hasn't happened yet. now everyone is on the same page as far as content is concerned.

@Halo for OT people

I think it should be a T game myself. I've never seen anything that happened in Halo that was particularly M worthy other than the possibility of tons of alien blood.

On the gambling, I'll admit that's also an AO issue, mainly because only adults are allowed to gamble with real money. As for the "prolonged scenes of intense violence" (as stated by the ESRB website), I suppose that's also covered by the AO, but I don't blame the AO for those types of games not being made (or the console makers, really). Rather, I don't think it would be as lucrative a business choice as some people think, even if stores would carry them. A lot of people are turned off by such intense or realistic violence, even from a gameplay perspective where we run around and shoot virtual people all day. Much in the same way that slasher films don't get a particularly large following compared to the other genres of film.

Besides, I've played many M rated games that had what I would consider "prolonged scenes of intense violence," so it would have to be especially intense to garner an AO. Violence just doesn't get the same attention for AO consideration that sex does. Which is why I keep fixating on "AO being about sex." But I suppose it isn't always true, so I'll try to consider the rating in broader terms from now on.

I'd be interested in seeing a list of Manhunt 2 changes that dropped it from AO to M. So far, the only example I've heard was cutting off a man's testicles.


At the same time, nobody would dare to bring on the scandals by trying to bypass ratings that way.

Meh, I say it seems like a reasonable requirement.

What if it could only be downloaded through people's online accounts who had them at ages 18 and over???


Too many opportunities for lying. I kind of agree with this. If your going to have a product at a certain rating, shoot for consistency.

The only problem I have with this is is selling upgraded content on DLC but still I guess its not to bad to have it if the ESRB would drop AO add in 15/16 mature teen level and make 17 Mature the highest level, and let the console makers weed out the OTT content games by simply not approving them.


The reason they don't drop it is because their out to rate all games, period, and some games might not get ESRB certification. The AO rating is to flag pornographic content. I would agree with an OT level. Make it 15.

[...] wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptDownloadable game content must maintain the same rating characteristics as the original game, says ESRB president Patricia Vance (left). MTV Multiplayer reports on comments made by Vance at last week’s MI6 conference: If a [publisher] submits a game to us and it gets a teen rating and then [the publisher] wants to add downloadable content to that game in the future, which is obviously happening a lot today, they have to keep the content in the downloadable product consistent with the core rating. It can’t go out of bounds. [...]

What's the story with the Gamezone link? It doesn't work, and it comes through on EVERY story.

I thought media sold electronically didn't need to be rated


Sorry for the copy and paste, but dropping the AO is a very bad idea. Here's why, from another thread:

"Ah, but the M rating isn’t technically “for adults.” That’s the whole point of it having the 17+ attached to it. By making it one year younger than legal adult age, it opens up minors as a potential market for the M rated games. Additionally, AO is almost exclusively used for porn games, and very rarely for the truly violent imagery of games like Manhunt 2 (and even then, the AO content had to do with cutting off a man's testicles). Basically, the AO is about Strong Sexual Content.

Basically, the one year difference between M and AO (17+, 18+) is a “safety net.” They put the truly objectionable content (porn and hyper violence) in the adult’s only category, which makes M rated games “safe” for sale at stores where people that aren’t legal adults might be able to purchase them.

The point I’m trying to make is, if you eleminated the AO rating, then you leave the M rating open to even more scrutiny. And many more stores would choose not to carry them, just like they don’t carry AO games. I mean, that would basically put games like Call of Duty in the same category as porn games. Considering the US’s attitude towards letting kids get their hands on sexual content, that would be shooting the gaming industry in the foot."

Overall, I agree with the article. If you submit a game for review at the ESRB, and get a certain rating, you should keep future content downloads consistant with that rating. Otherwise you are trying to pull a fast one.

What about user created mods???? Any game can have something added to it to make it either M or AO rated with them.

Online Experience may affect ESRB rating!

Anyway, I think this is ADDED content and might be subject to be higher than the original rating to the highest rating of M. There's no way we'd see anything higher than AO. Also, how often does the added content differ in ratings? Or are we just saying this to avoid another scandal?

Don't developers usually have to reapply for a new ESRB rating with each expansion anyway? I know we're not talking about off-the-shelf here, but what difference does it make?


They talked about PUBLISHER generated content (quite a mouthful), not user generated content.

The ESRB know that the publisher have no control on user generated content.

I think it's a reasonable decision.

What concerns me is the possibility of a game the ESRB rated T, but which was right on the border of M (or E, right on the border of T). I'd personally want to be able to tell the ESRB, "Give me the higher rating so you don't hamstring me on DLC." If the ESRB offers that option, great, no problem. If the ESRB says, "No, your game got a T, and that's what it got," that creates a problem, because then if my borderline game gets some borderline (on the other side of the rating) I may have to censor it.

I understand what they're going for. I just hope they're going to allow publishers to opt for a higher rating if they have DLC planned that might not fit the lower rating. It's not as cut and dry as I think the ESRB wants to make it.

This is only the beginning. Next up, giving all games with online capabilities AO ratings because a 10 year old might swear over the chat lines.


I think that the point they were making is that if DLC has content that would need a higher rating than the original, then the game would be rated higher.

That seems a little bit of an extreme generalization, Pix. Not to say that that isn't the bread and butter of censorship, but I think 10 year olds swearing can be filed under "User Generated Content" like anything else.


I thought that T games could have everything but the F-bomb.

This is a pretty good idea. I think what she is refering to is added levels and such on already rated games.

BY this, she is saying that the DLC for GTAIV cannot include a Hot Coffee level because it would change the rating of the game from M to AO.

Adding new cars and weapons will not effect the game's rating.

User created content will never be rated and can't be controlled. You cannot punish the publisher because some kid will be spouting racist or homophobic trash talk during a death match. That will never happen. That is why they include the "Experience may change with online play" proviso.

Now if a developer or publisher wants to release something that would be a higher rating, I am sure that the ESRB would be willing to rate that content on its own if needed.

I wonder, did this came out BECAUSE GTA is so near?

Why would these guidelines for downloadable add-on content mentioned in Vance's discussion have anything to do with the release of the "AO"-rated director's cut of Manhunt 2 -- through digital download or otherwise?

Maybe the point the MTV article (and GP?) is trying to make is that it would be against guidelines to release an "AO" add-on for an "M"-rated game? If so, that point is unclear (and also largely unremarkable IMO). The comment also seems to suggest that the "AO"-caliber content in Manhunt 2 is still coded on the "M"-version discs; just waiting to be "unlocked." Remembering Hot Coffee, I am not sure that is the case, either.

The only other problem I have with this is that it seems to call on publishers to rate their own after-market content -- a conflict of interest. For the most part, this may not be a big problem in practice, but there have already been instances in which publishers and ESRB have had different interpretations of content guidelines (again, remembering Hot Coffee).

Possibly. Will GTA4 have DLC? If it does, then considering how much publicity GTA gets, then it's understandable that this was brought up beforehand.

Or it could just be a coincidence.

That sounds reasonable enough. Keep the mature DLC in T games limited to user-generated things, not ones from the company itself.

Well... you get what i mean.

I like it.

Papa Midnight

*Reads title*

Drop dead.

Any idea what this might mean for User Generated content? I mean, lets say someone builds a map in the Make Something Unreal tournament, and somewhere in the map is something (like an image or whatever) that would increase UT3's rating. If Epic were to then encourage people to download it free of charge to vote on the winner, what then?


It's just for DLC. I don't think it means anything at all for user-generated content.

[...] wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt This morning we posted a story from from MTV Multiplayer regarding the ESRB’s position on downloadable content (DLC). We heard back from the ESRB with a clarification from president Patricia Vance (left): Companies are free to offer downloadable content to their games as long as the pertinent content is the same as the core product. If it isn’t, they have to submit it to the ESRB. [...]

Someone show this to JT and see what he thinks.

Sounds perfect!

@WarOtter, Dark Sovereign
Actually, maybe it might. WarOtter's Unreal example is of user-generated content that is also publisher-condoned. The Sims and Neverwinter Nights come to mind as other examples of game series whose publishers actively promote (and often redistribute) user-generated content.

I understand, one way or another, it's still easy enough to draw a line between "user generated" and "publisher distributed," but I'm not sure it's 100% clear where that line should be drawn. If a publisher redistributes user-generated content for free on a website it owns, does that make it officially part of the game and subject to these ESRB guidelines? What if the publisher doesn't host the content on its own site, but links to a user-run site that does?

In any case, I am still not sure if Vance's comments indicate "the way it is" or "the way it should be." Is she describing an actual aspect of a publisher's current contractual obligations with ESRB, or is she just describing how she thinks DLC should be handled by publishers, even though there's really no way for the board to actually enforce it?

@Stinking Kevin

Her only enforcement power is to change the rating.

@Dark Sovereign
"Her only enforcement power is to change the rating."

Yes, I suppose that has always been the case, but when the ESRB changed the rating on GTA:SA and Oblivion, the costs of recalling the originals and re-printing boxes fell on the publishers, right? Expensive, but understandable, since the cases were made that both Rockstar and Bethesda were not 100% in compliance with their contractual obligations to reveal all potentially offensive content contained in the game code.

That is a little different from a situation I can imagine. Let's say I am a publisher who has paid to have a game rated and who has complied completely with all contractual obligations. Let's say it gets a "T." What if I then release controversial DLC content a year later, which I judge to also deserve a "T" rating, but which the ESRB considers worthy of an "M."

As you point out, Vance's comments suggest the ESRB could re-rate the original game "M," but who is responsible for executing that re-rating? Who pays for the recall or re-packaging? If I am a publisher who releases after-market DLC that I honestly in good faith consider to be "T" rated, I have complied completely with all ESRB regulations. Can the ESRB actually force me to swallow the financial and cultural costs involved with re-rating a game that has already been on store shelves for a year?

(And even if it can, should it be able to? It doesn't seem fair. Of course, in real life, it would be cheaper for the publisher to just pull the DLC and keep the ESRB happy, but that is not the point I'm trying to make here.)

I don't see why both gamers and nongamers are still making a big deal out of the rating system.

Leave it alone. It is fine where it is at.

IT seems to me that she is trying to avoid confusion for the consumer. If the publisher releases a game that has a T rating, the customer expects all content produced by the publisher to be T rated. Say that the publisher releases DLC that would warrant an M rating. How is the customer supposed to know if it is not rated. They would download the content and find out that it was not what they expected and that could cause problems.

This is a good preemptive move. DLC has not really been a big thing until this generation. Previously, most extra content was in the form of expansion packs that were rated. Now publishers can release content without going through retail channels.

Things change and the ESRB is trying to adapt to those changes before it gets out of hand.

Man,everyone is making a huge fuss over GTA.

I really won't be paying attention to it,as I don't care for GTA.


Same here.

@Stinking Kevin

In this particular situation the content can be recalled far easier. They don't have to rennovate discs unless they plan on keeping the content. I doubt that any developer would add something that would change the rating. I figure that would change the tone, which isn't what a developer usually wants.

The new clarifications are much more palatable to me. It had seemed before, that if you released DLC that was M content for a T game, you'd have to re-rate your whole game. Turns out you only have to re-rate if it's a mandatory update/patch. Most non-MMO DLC is just going to have to have the DLC rated independently of the game, which is reasonable and responsible.

I agree with the comments agreeing that DLC should conform to the game rating, but here is another example:

In Forza Motorsport 2, there is an extremely versatile graphic editor for creating car designs, which you can then trade and auction within the game using money earned in the game. Essentially you are downloading 'skins' for the cars (as well as ownership of the car itself). Now the thing is, because of its power for graphic design, many MANY designs go way beyond M rating, featuring graphic and extremely explicit sexual images (which I have no problem with) but these would certainly raise the E for everyone rating the game has at least to M if the designers had included any of these skins. So now, since you have adult material available via download through the game itself, should this change the rating, even though these were user generated?

(This example does not take into account the moderation by Turn10 employees who do what they can to restrict the trade and posting of pornographic cars.)

@ Warotter

Thats User Generated Content (UGC from here on in) not DLC. It would be impossable to police, though I can agree that sort of thing should raise the rating, though there is a disclaimer on boxes along the lines of "Gameplay may change online".

This is interesting. I wonder if a company will ever decide to sell an almost empty game (the basic core) for full price, with the intent to release free DLC that is of varying flavors and ratings? Allowing them to sell the core game at E rating lvl, distributed by all major stores, in most regions... and then with simple credit card or whatever check the user can DL the beef of the game in E up to M or even Ao versions as DLC.

It's an interesting concept. And I know it's almost useless as a "why not just do full digital distribution?". And the reason would probably be that currently, DD isn't going to sell as much to as many.

Just an intriguing thought..

Dark Sovereign/Are'el

AO is being used to ban or cripple violent games, AO is dead and everyone knows itthe console makers can block porn games out right, hell the consoles makers can let in some AO titles but they refuse to handle review approvals.

AO is dead its an infecaint rating level thats to sweeping in its ban, however I would stipulate you could keep it use it for the real "pornographic" titles but make it where a new teen level 15/16 wil be the new mature level at least in the since it will pick up all the games to hard for 13 and to lite for Mature (Halo,metroid,ect,ect) this lets the mature level handle the unedited side of gaming for isntantce manhunt 2.

AO should be the NC17 marker for gaming it is not its used to childishly force some games to redo things when these games are already made for adults.

AO as it is dose not work either fix it or drop it, continuing the staus quo only grows my discontent with the process, there should be no difference in film and game rating levels , how a topless nude DOA volleyball game can be slapped with a AO yet the movie version would be a an R, I don't buy the made up excuses for a seconded, do it get it done, retail will avoid the the "hotter" titles aiding the the use of a fully working ratings system.

With AO being nerfed the ESRB is the death star minus the mega canon and shields.

For games under the age of 17 ya I can see the need for limiting the content to that age cap,however for 17plus, SCREW IT, there is and I repeat there is no need to nanny it.

From the Article: If the downloadable content earns a more restrictive (higher) age rating, and it is of an optional nature, it must display the new rating prior to the user downloading it. The core product’s rating won’t change, unless the new downloadable content is part of a required patch, as is typically the case with MMOs that must be patched in order to play.

Doesn't this already happen with XBOX Marketplace? In the little side bar with the information, it lists the rating for the new content, or has the DLC for it been allowed to add the original rating unchecked?

It ALSO sounds like a DLC can be made (if Microsoft would publish it) to raise the rating from M to AO. The one thing this might mean, is that it gets more intrusive. For example, you choose to download something that has a content rating not in the original (the DLC has L for language, or even a full AO rating), you click the button to download it, the screen goes white, shows the AO in the left half, have the right half have all the content rating and descriptors with boxes like
[ ] I hereby declare that I read and understanding the ratings.
[ ] I do not wish to download content with vile language.
Or, you know, maybe more of "Agree" "Decline", making another screen you have to click through when you buy something.
However, with the rise of false currency, like the WII Points (no DLC there yet though), or the Marketplace Credits or whatever they are called, does that mean you can no longer give your kids credits and say go wild? (Though that WOULD be the parents responsibility not any of the companies.)

So, am I completely misreading what it means, since everyone else seems to say it HAS to confine to exactly the same rating and descriptors or raise the overall rating, the last part seems to refute that?

Or, one last consideration... is this the ESRB giving a rubber stamp to self-rate DLC with a requirement to submit it to the full ESRB if the self-rating seems to go up? (Which is REALLY bad, considering, you know, that Oblivion was originally rated T, and RockStar believes Manhunt 2 deserved an M without the cuts...)

In which case, that is NUTS. I could see being given a quick glance over item packs or car packs or what have you, but, anything SHORT of that should require the ESRB to look it over. Even a courtesy glance, even for the item packs.
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