Exclusive: ESRB’s Patricia Vance Talks Expanding To Mobile

For nearly two decades the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) has been the primary ratings platform for video game content in North America. Formed as a response to legislators critical of the mature content in video games, the ratings system has become an example of responsibility for the industry, showing that it cares about informing consumers about the content in its products.

Traditionally games are rated by professional testers, but in today’s digital age doing so with every game that releases for mobile platforms would be practically impossible. Thus, the ESRB has launched their own automatic rating tool for developers to submit ratings themselves. We caught up with ESRB president Patricia Vance to find out more.

[a]list: Give me details of the automatic rating tool.

Patricia Vance: ESRB has historically assigned each rating by having a group of at least three trained raters review a game’s “pertinent content,” which basically amounts to anything that has the potential to impact a rating assignment. This includes not only the typical content like violence, language, sexual content, drugs, etc., but also elements like the game’s context, objectives, reward system, degree of player control, graphic realism and other related factors. This process is quite thorough, and continues to serve us well for packaged/boxed games. But it is relatively labor-intensive, and is not scalable enough to handle the exploding volume of digitally delivered games that we now see in the marketplace.

In order to address the digital ecosystem, we realized that we would have to adapt our rating process. So we set out to devise a process that was streamlined but still highly reliable, low-cost and easy for a developer to use. That effort culminated in April 2011 when we began using an innovative “Short Form” to generate automated rating assignments for games that are only going to be made available via console download. The form itself consists of a series of basic questions about a game’s pertinent content, which generates follow-up questions where necessary. For instance, if a developer specifies that their game contains violence, they will then be asked whether the violence is directed at humans or other types of characters, whether it is fantastical or realistic, whether there is blood and gore, and so on. The form ascertains the key factors that impact rating assignments by asking questions in an objective fashion. In other words, we don’t ask developers to assess the degree of violence in their game, since that’s a subjective measure. Instead, we ask objective questions about the factors that we know can have an exacerbating or mitigating effect on rating assignments.

The ESRB’s Short Form rating process uses a questionnaire that drills down into key content areas to determine rating assignments.

Once the developer completes the form, they receive their rating immediately.

The fundamental difference between the traditional Long Form process and this new Short Form is that we’ve shifted our manpower from reviewing content prior to its release to conducting post-release review as a means for confirming that rating assignments are appropriately assigned. The advantage of the digital marketplace is that you can affect a rating change post-release much more quickly and effectively than you can with packaged product sold at retail.

The system performed exceedingly well upon its initial launch for console downloadable games, and later in 2011 we were selected by CTIA, the U.S. trade association for the wireless industry, to administer a comparable system for use with mobile apps. In October 2012 we introduced the next phase in this evolution: our Digital Rating Service, which allows developers of all digital-only games to obtain an ESRB rating using the Short Form without having to pay a fee. Eventually we expect to transition to a global version of this process, whereby developers can utilize a single form to obtain ratings from the authorized rating boards in multiple territories at once. The goal all along has been to evolve our process so it is conducive to the practical realities of the marketplace, and ultimately to foster a consistently-applied rating standard that consumers can rely on regardless of where or how they play.


[a]list: So, the decision not to charge fees for the mobile ratings was an attempt to make the ratings more universal and accessible?

Patricia Vance: Essentially, yes. But more importantly, it was meant to address the needs of the typical developer of a downloadable game and app. And the storefronts themselves would prefer not to burden developers, especially the smaller, independent ones, with additional costs. It’s also important to note that our ratings are voluntary. Although game consoles and major retailers of boxed games require ESRB ratings on product published on their systems or sold in their stores, this is not the case in the rest of the digital ecosystem. To better facilitate broader adoption of our ratings across all game devices, we sought to eliminate impediments that might discourage getting one. As a result, we decided that the system would not charge individual developers a fee, and at the same time set out to make it as easy and accessible as possible. We strongly believe in the benefits of providing consumers with a consistent and familiar ratings scheme for all games, regardless of where a consumer accesses them. We also think it’s good for developers to have one rating standard for their game across all devices on which it is published. And the Federal Trade Commission agrees, having advocated for utilizing a single standard for apps rather than the current patchwork quilt of ratings in its most recent report to Congress on the marketing of violent entertainment to children.

[a]list: Many features of the ratings are the same, but some are unique to the mobile medium. Were these qualifiers decided by the ESRB or did you consult with game makers? Why do you feel notices about online interactions are important?

Patricia Vance: It was mainly the result of consumer research we have been regularly conducting with parents. We are finding that parents have significant concerns related to their children’s privacy when it comes to playing online and in mobile games, particularly the sharing of personal information or location and the opportunity to interact with players other than friends. They consider it essential that a rating system disclose information up front — not just when using an app — about these interactive elements. In fact, two thirds of them consider this information just as important as content and age-appropriateness. These findings made it clear that we had an opportunity to expand the guidance we provide consumers as it relates to managing their family’s games and apps. So we added new notices, called Interactive Elements, that advise about the sharing of user-provided personal information with third parties (“Shares Info”), the sharing of the user’s location with other users (“Shares Location”), and the potential exposure to user-generated content through online interactions (“Users Interact”). At our inception, we were the first two-part rating system, offering consumers information about both age-appropriateness as well as content. Now, with the advent of Interactive Elements, we are the first three-part rating system offering information that goes beyond age and content.

For digitally delivered games and apps the ESRB uses a three-part rating system that includes new notices about “Interactive Elements.”

[a]list: Detail why you think it is important for the ESRB to evolve to digital releases.

Patricia Vance: Since ESRB was established we’ve enjoyed extremely strong and broad support from the video game industry, and that support has translated into tangible benefits for consumers. It has allowed for consistency in rating assignments as opposed to having conflicting ratings on different platforms. It has enabled game makers to use a single rating system in their advertising and marketing materials, and to display ratings in a standardized way. All of this consistency has helped generate very high levels of consumer awareness, understanding, and use of ESRB ratings, and has simplified a parent’s job when it comes to determining if a game is suitable for their child. Our rationale for wanting broader use of ESRB ratings for digitally delivered games is no different: consumers, developers and platforms are all best served by a consistently applied and trusted standard.

From an industry perspective, the ESRB has helped protect creative freedom through effective self-regulation. By successfully fulfilling its mission to ensure consumers have the information necessary to determine which games are appropriate for their family and that game publishers responsibly market their product, the industry has been able to fend off the prospect of onerous legislation or other threats of regulation. The Brown v. EMA/ESA Supreme Court case is a prime example. Our rating system was recognized in that decision as an effective tool that consumers can use to help manage their children’s games. This made the prospect of a legislative remedy unnecessary because the ESRB represented an existing, less restrictive means than governmental regulation. We’re already beginning to see some regulatory concerns arise for digital marketplaces, especially around privacy issues. So we believe that these digital marketplaces would benefit from utilizing the ESRB ratings, particularly with the addition of Interactive Elements. And we certainly believe that consumers and developers alike would benefit from having a consistent standard.

[a]list: If you could inform developers and publishers of any one thing for the mobile submissions, what would it be?

Patricia Vance: I’ve always gotten the sense that, in general, developers view ESRB as a necessary evil, a nuisance to be endured when bringing a game to market. My hope is that this new system will help to change that perception because the Short Form is so simple and fast, and, not to mention, free. No matter what type of game a developer is producing, there’s value in offering consumers ESRB ratings and, frankly, they’ve come to expect it. Our new digital rating process provides a ready-made means for doing that, and it costs the developer very little in time and nothing in money.

Although not the majority by any means, certain developers view the ESRB as a censor, imposing limitations on the content that game creators can include in their game. We feel that effective content labeling can actually foster creativity. Generally speaking, where there is an absence of an established, credible rating standard, retailers, storefronts and platform holders tend to impose their own standards. These aren’t always especially transparent or clear, nor are they consistent. This kind of ambiguity and variance can result in developers self-censoring to avoid problems. Utilizing a credible third party like ESRB for ratings makes the process much clearer for developers and allows them to create their content more freely by providing a uniform, third-party standard that both platforms and developers can support and defer to.

[a]list: What’s the most challenging thing about mobile game ratings Would you say it’s the sheer number of titles released any given day?

Patricia Vance: The volume hasn’t been an issue since the system we’ve put in place is designed to be scalable and manage high volume. Of course, we still need to monitor for accuracy, but we believe we will be able to identify potential issues fairly quickly. I would say the greatest challenge will be gaining broad adoption outside of the traditional game platforms. We’re making progress, but there is certainly more work to be done. Our goal is simple — to make sure that consumers everywhere in the U.S. and Canada have access to ESRB ratings regardless of the device used to play games.

Google Shows More Of Glass

Google announced that they are launching an “open beta” of sorts for Google Glass. They are taking applications for users to experience the device, which is wearable technology where users can take videos, pictures or perform light web functions with a few short vocal commands.

“We’re looking for bold, creative individuals who want to join us and be a part of shaping the future of Glass,” announced Google. “We’d love to make everyone an Explorer, but we’re starting off a bit smaller. We’re still in the early stages, and while we can’t promise everything will be perfect, we can promise it will be exciting.”

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“The deadline for applications is February 27. If you are chosen, we will reach out to you with an invitation to become a Glass Explorer (please remember to follow us so that we can contact you directly),” Google notes. “Explorers will each need to pre-order a Glass Explorer Edition for $1500 plus tax and attend a special pick-up experience, in person, in New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles.”Find out more at Google.com.

PS4 Will Play Used Games

There were many rumors and concerns that the PS4 would be a device that would both block used games and require users to always be online. However, Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida shot down both of those rumors in a post-press conference interview.

“That’s the general expectation by consumers,” said Yoshida. “They purchase physical form, they want to use it everywhere, right So that’s my expectation.”

“Yes, you can go offline totally,” added Yoshida. “Social is big for us, but we understand there are some people who are anti-social! So if you don’t want to connect to anyone else, you can do that. You can play offline, but you may want to keep it connected. The system has the low-power mode – I don’t know the official term – that the main system is shut down but the subsystem is awake. Downloading or updating or you can wake it up using either the tablet, smartphone or PS Vita.”

Source: Eurogamer

2K And WWE Make It Official

2K and WWE officially announced that they have signed an exclusive multi-year agreement granting 2K the rights to create WWE video games across all major platforms and distribution channels. As expected, Yukes in Japan will continue to develop the main franchise, including the latest iteration: the upcoming WWE ’14.

“The WWE series is a great addition to our stable of triple-A titles, and we’re very happy with this exclusive agreement with our new partners,” said David Ismailer, Chief Operating Officer for 2K. “We look forward to capturing the excitement of WWE and marrying it with the same commitment to authenticity and entertainment that we give to our NBA 2K and MLB 2K franchises.”

“2K’s reputation for outstanding quality and dedication to authenticity are a perfect fit for WWE,” added Casey Collins, Executive Vice President, Consumer Products for WWE. “This new partnership will ensure that WWE continues to be one of the leading video game brands in the world and we look forward to continuing the franchise with the benefit of their expertise across a variety of platforms.”

“The development work on the WWE franchise is impressive, and we’re excited to combine our background in developing the NBA 2K series with theirs in this new partnership,” concluded Greg Thomas, Executive Vice President of 2K Sports. “Fans can expect the most authentic WWE experience on game consoles this fall.”

PlayStation 4: Analysts React

Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter has come out and said that he believes that the PS4 console will release at a price between $399 or $449. He also thinks that the smaller jump in hardware power from the last generation means that developer budgets will only increase modestly.

“We remain confident that the new console will have a lower initial MSRP than the PS3, which had a lofty starting price of $599 that we believe negatively impacted its longterm popularity,” wrote Pachter.

“The smaller jump in graphics this cycle, coupled with a PC-based architecture, should result in a smaller incremental increase in game development spending by the publishers than in prior console cycles,” Pachter added. “Although the PS4 will likely be able to play games at higher frame rates than its predecessors, we believe publishers will be reluctant to significantly increase their development budgets to maximize game frame rates, as the improvement will be largely unnoticed by many gamers.”

Meanwhile, EEDAR vice president Jesse Divnich thinks that Sony was right to take the wraps off their next console months before E3 at their own private event. “It was wise of Sony to announce the hardware and key features early in the year,” he said. “By announcing early and at an isolated event, it allows Sony to capture 100 percent of the attention of gamers, technology enthusiasts, and industry insiders; whereas historical hardware announcements would occur at E3, which often created a mind-share battle between others announcing new technology. Sony’s announcement now gives publishers plenty of time to prepare for E3 and it shifts the focus of the show to the software, which ultimately is what gamers look forward to the most.”

“There are pros and cons to both announcing early and potentially being the first market, but what it comes down to is the current sentiment in the market,” added Divnich. “If the market is vibrant, thriving, and innovation is still occurring, you generally want to abstain from being first to market with a new technology. In our current climate, console sales have stagnated. We’ve squeezed nearly every bit of innovation out of the current platforms and consumer interest in high-definition gaming is waning. Sony’s timing was perfect.”

While many details were revealed, there was no form factor for the PS4 and no precise launch date or price was given. Still, the console is coming this year, and there’s plenty of time and opportunities (like E3) to reveal things like the look and price of the console.

“Sony’s best chance at changing momentum is being first to market,” said Divnich, before adding, “For competitive reasons, I am not surprised that pricing was not discussed. I think Sony learned a valuable lesson with the launch of the PlayStation 3 and I wouldn’t expect the same mistakes to be made next generation. We wouldn’t expect pricing announcements until closer to launch.”

Source: GamesIndustry International

Diablo III Coming To PS3, PS4

Blizzard senior vice president of story and franchise development Chris Metzen took the stage during Sony’s PS4 press conference to reveal that Diablo III will come to the PS4. He also confirmed that the game is coming to the PS3.

Diablo III on consoles will include a four-player co-op mode for online and offline multiplayer, something Metzen said was crucial to the design. The new interface and game itself will be shown off at PAX East.

Mass Effect Themed Risk Game Coming

Electronic Arts took to Facebook to confirm that they are going the route of Metal Gear Solid 4 and launching a Risk version of one of their games. In this case, it’s Mass Effectand it’s based around the scenario of the galaxy being at war from Mass Effect 3.

“Oh yes, it’s real, and it’s coming this Fall!” posted the company on Facebook.
Source: Facebook.com

Exclusive: Not Clowning Around

By Meelad Sadat

If your kids liked the quirky, comedic cut scenes in the original Skylanders, you should know Brain Zoo Studios is behind them.  The studio has a knack for creating memorable pieces of animation, whether it’s cinematics for a game, a trailer or an opening sequence.  A few years ago it nabbed an Emmy for work on the TV show Sport Science, where it created CG animation sequences showing athletes in motion.  Now after building its pedigree on projects for other properties, Brain Zoo is ready to birth one of its own.

The studio turned to Kickstarter earlier this month, hoping to get backing for an original series called Pepe & Lucas. The series is based on an animated short that Brain Zoo says was considered for an Academy Award, making last year’s long list.


The IP mixes old and new, using silent movie presentation and a visual style reminiscent of old cartoons to tell the story of two down on their luck street performers.  The storyline, while modern in setting and based on how the fallout from a failing economy can affect anyone, is influenced by the Great Depression era.  The characters hark from the same period.  A quick look and it’s apparent exactly who the bumbling Pepe the clown mimics.  He’s Charlie Chaplin.  Even in brief glimpses the property comes across as thoughtful and funny, qualities that mirror the personality of Brain Zoo founder Mo Davoudian.

We spoke with Davoudian on the inspiration behind Pepe & Lucas and why he chose Kickstarter.

[a]list: What made you decide to move into IP creation, is it a new development or a longtime passion now taking shape?

Davoudian: We are very passionate about our work and providing our clients with high quality content.  Producing our own IP allows us to push the technology and expand our pipeline allowing us to better serve our current and future clients.

[a]list: Why did you decide on doing this as a Kickstarter?

Davoudian: We produced the eight minute Pepe & Lucas CG animated short film out of our own pocket internally here at Brain Zoo last year.  After it made the long list for Academy Award consideration, we decided to give Kickstarter a try in hopes of growing the franchise, funded by like minded people.  We felt that this would allow us to maintain control of the property rather than using outside investors.  We understand that the film animation category might be a tougher nut to crack, but we also feel that people might love the opportunity to be part of developing a property for a wider audience, enjoyable for both kids and their parents.

[a]list: Games and music Kickstarters rely on using the product to get backers.  Do you think that’s a challenge with getting backing for an animated series, and if so, how are you getting around it to entice backers?

Davoudian: We see the eight minute Pepe & Lucas short film as our product which we want to develop into a 22 minute television pilot.  We feel that [payoff] is good wholesome entertainment for the entire family.  The message of the story is based on good values and working together for a common goal.

[a]list: Do you have any plans to reveal stretch goals?

Davoudian: Our stretch goal for the campaign is to consider developing Pepe & Lucas into a mobile game which would also be included as a reward to potential Kickstarter backers.

[a]list: What sort of updates can backers look forward to?

Davoudian: Our backers can expect added concept drawings and designs in the coming days.  We will also post updates on features, personal messages from our creative team and status updates.

[a]list: Outside of the Kickstarter, what has Brain Zoo been working on?

Davoudian: In addition to Pepe & Lucas, we have also been producing our second IP short film which will be unveiled later this year.  So it’s been a very busy and productive year for us.

Another passion of ours is our goal to try to keep animation jobs here in the U.S.  Pepe & Lucas… as well as all of our projects during the past 17 years have all been produced in our studio… here in Los Angeles.  We feel very strongly about supporting local talent rather than outsourcing our work.  As we are watching U.S. based animation studios and visual effects companies closing their doors, we hope to rally the support of our clients, studios, networks and publishers to hire U.S. talent rather than outsourcing to help strengthen our economy.  We also need to offer better U.S. tax incentives to boost our industry’s health.

[a]list: Thanks!



Hoax Hacking For PR

Soon after Burger King’s Twitter was hacked earlier this week, Jeep experienced the same on its feed. Now the trend has taken on another facet – the orchestrated hoax hack.

Looking to capitalize on PR around hacked Twitter accounts, Viacom properties MTV and BET went in cahoots, pretending their Twitter accounts were hack and parading as one another. To be clear about their involvement, they created the hashtag #MTVHacking.

The attempted punking may have proved that not all publicity is good publicity. Twitter’s community didn’t appreciate the hacking, with many turned off by the shenanigans.

If either brand was hoping to generate a following, it may not work to their liking.  Socialbakers reported that Burger King netted 60,000 Twitter followers after their hacking went public.  A day after experiencing the same Twitter woes, Jeep didn’t see the same spike.

Twitter has spoken up about MTV and BET’s effort too, saying it’s no laughing matter.  The social net reminded everyone that the fact that hackers compromised 250,000 accounts on February 1, which may be related to what Burger King and Jeep have experienced, is serious business.

“This attack was not the work of amateurs, and we do not believe it was an isolated incident,” Twitter said in a statement. “The attackers were extremely sophisticated, and we believe other companies and organizations have also been recently similarly attacked.”

In retrospect, the events seem to prove the importance of agile marketing and the “always on” approach brands need to take with their social media presence.  Scott Monty, Ford social media director, summed it up while sympathizing with Burger King’s plight.

“It’s not about being always on during the work week anymore. It’s about always being on no matter what day it is,” said Monty.