ESRB Wants App Store Rating Content Business… But What About Xbox Indie Games and Other Burning Questions

The recent discussion concerning the ESA’s desire to have its rating organization, the ESRB, evaluate game content for the iTunes App Store brings a number of questions to mind:

1.) Why?

Having watched how corporations, lobbyists and their related entities do business for some time now, I’m too jaded to believe that ESA/ESRB wants to jump into rating App Store games for the good of society or because it’s the right thing to do. This would, after all, be a significant commitment of ESRB resources. Generally such things happen because there is revenue to be made or there’s power to be grabbed.

Despite its present chaotic nature, the App Store is a rising star in the game space. Getting in on the ground floor would be a coup for the ESRB. Apple has a lot of money, too, and the ESRB is paid a fee by the developer/publisher for each game it rates. Despite my cynicism, ESRB spokesman Eliot Mizrachi told me that it’s not about the Benjamins:

ESRB is a non-profit organization funded by the revenue generated from the services we provide the industry.  Given our highly discounted rate for lower-budget games, rating mobile games is not a financially attractive proposition; however we believe making ESRB ratings available for those games would serve consumers well.  Parents are already familiar with ESRB ratings and find them to be extremely helpful in making informed choices for their families.  
To be clear, our desire is to see Apple integrate ESRB ratings as an option in its parental controls and display a game’s rating (if it has one, the ratings are voluntary after all) in the App Store or on iTunes prior to purchase, not to require that every game available via an iPhone carry an ESRB rating (just as not every piece of video content available will carry an MPAA or TV rating). 


Apple’s integration of ESRB ratings into its parental controls for iPhone games would afford parents the ability to block those video games that carry an ESRB rating utilizing the same tool they are being offered to block video content that has been rated by the MPAA or carries an official TV rating.  It’s about giving parents the same ability to do on the iPhone what they are being offered with other entertainment content and can already do on game consoles and other handheld game devices.     

2.) What would it cost?

I asked the ESRB what it costs a developer/publisher to have a typical console game rated?  Would the cost to rate an iPhone game be less? Mizrachi said:

Our standard fees for getting a game rated cover the costs of providing that service.  However, to make accommodations for lower-budget product like casual and mobile games, several years ago we introduced a highly discounted rate – 80% less – for games that cost under $250,000 to develop.  We believe most iPhone games would likely be eligible for the discounted rate.

3.) Isn’t this a lot of extra work for ESRB?

Mizrachi was asked whether the ESRB has the capacity to handle an influx of iPhone games for rating. His response:

ESRB has seen increases in rating submissions each year since its founding and has always been able to keep pace.  We have rated more than 70 mobile games to date and will undoubtedly rate more in the future as the market grows.  Consumers of those mobile games that have been assigned ESRB ratings should have access to rating information, and if parental controls are available, the ESRB rating should ideally be operable within that framework. 

4.) If the ESRB plans to do App Store games, what about Xbox 360 Community Games (soon to be known as Indie Games)? 

I also asked Mizrachi about the indie games on XBL. Wouldn’t they seem to be a more natural focus for the ESRB before targeting iTunes? Mizrachi said:

Once XNA games graduate to XBLA they are rated by ESRB… ESRB isn’t "targeting" iPhone games.

5.) Who would pay for ESRB to rate App Store games?

Not the creators of $0.99 games, for the most part. They are apparently not making significant revenue. Apple has a deep pocket, of course, although they are not the creator of the games for sale on the App Store. Perhaps the larger industry players such as EA, Namco, etc. would foot the bill for their games. They are already accustomed to dealing with the ESRB.

6.) If only some games are rated, why bother?

But then again, if only the commercial game apps from major publishers are rated, how does that stop your kid from downloading Baby Shaker or Hot Dog Down a Hallway? The foundation for the retail employment of ESRB rating is its ubiquity. Major retailers won’t carry non-rated games. Thus, parents have a reasonable expectation that their 12-year-old will be turned down if he tries to buy GTA IV. If not all App Store games are rated, such an expectation is not applicable. So, what’s the point?

Hopefully we will learn more about the ESRB’s plan as we go forward.

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  1. MechaTama31 says:

    Regarding question 6, it would be simple to add the option to block unrated games in the device’s parental controls, alongside all the other ratings.  Think of it as a whitelist of ratings to be allowed, not a blacklist of ratings to be blocked.

  2. Erasmus Darwin says:

    I suspect that this isn’t about the ESRB wanting to rate iPhone games.  They know it’s silly, and they know the economics won’t work — too many games, too little cash, and you can’t get by with just a tiny fraction of the games being rated.

    Instead, I think their goal is to prevent Apple from creating their own rating system.  Apple already reviews everything before it goes on the app store, and they’ve been criticized lately for the seemingly arbitrary rules that cover approval.  So the next logical step would be to come up with more explicit criteria and some form of rating system.  Given that the iPhone app store represents its own unique marketplace, an Apple created rating system would have the ability to grow and thrive while a new game rating system in any other U.S. venue would be doomed while trying to compete with the established ESRB ratings.

  3. Flamespeak says:

    "the App Store is a rising star in the game space"


    Not really. Even developers that make a successful app have said there is no money to be made because the market (app store) is flooded with too much stuff and the games are sold too cheap.

    It is a time wasting device, but no big companies and most indie ones are seeing it more as a waste of time to invest in because of the cost involved versus the return.


  4. TBoneTony says:

    But I don’t like the idea of small indie game developers having to pay allot just for the ESRB to rate their games. 

    There needs to be some understanding that indie developers have to survive too, instead of being forced into paying high fees to the ESRB just to rate their games that can be downloaded on the App store.


  5. TBoneTony says:

    Hope that the ESRB realizes that they can’t ban games on the App Store so it will be wise to allow the AO18+ rating for games that needed it. Like it is only logical because of the comerical stores in America refusing to allow AO rated games.

    and us Gamers have shown that we are well into our 20s and 30s when it comes to our gaming background.


  6. Chaplain99 says:

    Mostly likely the AppStore will adopt an R/P rating, albeit more severe than the one for PC and console games.  That way, they can rate some games and consider the rest as part of the generic "The ESRB is not responsible for the content of this game/Online content not rated by the ESRB" message.

    "HEY! LISTEN!"

  7. Adrian Lopez says:

    "ESRB is a non-profit organization funded by the revenue generated from the services we provide the industry."

    Rarely discussed fact: Executives who work for non-profit corporations often draw significant salaries. The fact that it’s a non-profit in no way establishes that the ESRB isn’t after the money.

    The last thing the indie game industry needs is the ESRB’s bureaucracy.

  8. Mad_Scientist says:

    The thing is, I imagine most Iphone games are fairly simple to rate, as they aren’t usually massive things with a ton of content. This would probably mean the ESRB’s expenses for rating them would be much lower than normal games, and thus the fees could be much lower as well. Though whether this would be low enough, I cannot say.

  9. E. Zachary Knight says:

    I would say that less than 5% of the developers on the iPhone would be able to even afford a rating for their first game. Then less than 8% will be able to afford a rating for any subsequent game.

    Granted, these numbers a re pulled from thin air, but they would represent fairly well, if not on the generous side, the state of development on the iPhone.

    There is no way to get enough ESRB penetration in the app tore without lowering the rating fee to less than $100 (the cost to get a game submitted to iTunes)

    E. Zachary Knight
    Oklahoma City Chapter of the ECA

    E. Zachary Knight
    Divine Knight Gaming
    Oklahoma Game Development
    Rusty Outlook
    Random Tower
    My Patreon

  10. CyberSkull says:

    I think the ratings model from the Xbox Community/Indie games would be best: have other authors and users rate based on content.

  11. JDKJ says:

    That knife can cut both ways. Obvious bullshiting can be just as damaging to image as obvious stonewalling. In some instances, more so. The public’s usually willing to give some credit for a willingness to tell the truth.

  12. E. Zachary Knight says:

    The response is about PR though. If they said what you suggest, it would be perceived as the ESRB stone walling the question. Not very good for PR. By wording it the way they did, it puts the impression of being a bit open, but still revealing just as little information. Better from a PR standpoint.

    It is like the difference between dumping a girl by telling her she is ugly and you are sick of looking at her and telling her you think you should just be friends.

    E. Zachary Knight
    Oklahoma City Chapter of the ECA

    E. Zachary Knight
    Divine Knight Gaming
    Oklahoma Game Development
    Rusty Outlook
    Random Tower
    My Patreon

  13. JDKJ says:

    Fine. But then the more approriate response is: I’m sorry, but by the terms of our agreement with developers/publishers, that sort of information cannot be discussed or otherwise disclosed. Instead of that numbo-jumbo bullshit non-response.

  14. ZippyDSMlee says:

    It will always be needed for as long as we have a consumer driven society, its like as long as something that sells well is good and reproduced by others because it sells and nothing else..


    I am a criminal because I purchase media,I am a criminal because I use media, I am a criminal because I chose to own media..We shall remain criminals until Corporate stay’s outside our bedrooms..

  15. ZippyDSMlee says:

    The ESRB needs to standardize a secondary review method and pay scale in order to cover things outside normal published games.


    First off a 2 tier fast path system if it’s not aimed at minors it falls into 2 categories someform of ‘not rated’ or ‘ALL’ ranting basic apps and such would fall into this and M if obviously edgy/poor tasting  enough (shaking baby,ect) everything else falls to the 2nd tier that might require more than looking over a 2-4 page form, not filing it out correctly will lead to fines before the title can be relisted under the correct ranting, if its popular enough the title is relisted automatically under the correct rating but the developer does not get anything until the fee is paid, the profit made from the title during this time goes to the fee, once the fee is paid the dev can chose to de list it or leave it up..


    Pay scale or profit distribution can be done in 2 ways one the network publisher (MS,PSN ect)  pays the ESRB a small yearly contract fee (under 10K)  and 1% of profit off the title goes to the ESRB, this can easily be done through electric pay systems,  or the network publisher (MS,PSN ect) pays a larger contract fee(10+ K) and take 1-10%  off the top of what the title makes. When you have 1% of the GDP of PSN/WII/MS/ect indie devs that’s a nice chuck of change, either way as long as devs are not getting bilked for more than 5% of what trickles in it could make a nice, simple but refined system that’s not lop sided or filled with loop holes.  


    TL : DR Basically simplify the review process to weed out “zero content” titles like straight up apps , utilities and puzzle games and titles that try and be over the top and thus automatically fall to M, the rest can be slotted into PG or teen once reviewed more,  automate the payment process to take 1-5%  of the profit off the title until a developer can afford to pay the official onetime fee.


    Pros: Everything gets rated, might help in refining the review process.   

    Cons: Everyone has to pay pennies on the dollar that comes in on top of normal listing fees to the publisher/network.    


    I am a criminal because I purchase media,I am a criminal because I use media, I am a criminal because I chose to own media..We shall remain criminals until Corporate stay’s outside our bedrooms..

  16. JDKJ says:


    Q: What [does] it costs a developer/publisher to have a typical console game rated?

    A: Our standard fees for getting a game rated cover the costs of providing that service.

    WTF kinda answer is that? A non-answer, that’s what it is.

  17. DarkSaber says:

    Too many questions, no satisfactory answers, the ESRB is totally not ready for what they are planning. Maybe put more effort into planning instead of chasing what you think is a nice payday?


    I LIKE the fence. I get 2 groups to laugh at then.

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