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ESRB Changes Rules for Marketing Mature-Rated Video Games

Publishers allowed to cut general audience trailers for Mature-rated games, a la movies, and restrictions relaxed for cross promotions.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board has, as of this morning, implemented changes that will hugely impact the way Mature-rated games are advertised on the Internet. A three-page document from the ESRB outlining the changes was sent to game publishers today, and it was passed onto me.

The ESRB has confirmed the document is legitimate.

Most notably, video games marketing will be following the lead of film. Publishers now have an opportunity to produce and distribute trailers for Mature-rated games and games expected to be issued a Mature rating at a much larger “general” audience. These specifically cut trailers will have a green “slate” that airs before the trailer rolls, and is required be on-screen for at least four seconds.

It’s very much like the green “the following preview has been approved for appropriate audiences” bit that appears in front of most movie trailers. Here’s the ESRB’s example:

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Trailers intended for this “general” audience will not require an age gate on websites, but such trailers must be approved by the ESRB prior to release. It will be business as usual for trailers that fully depict the game’s included violence and sex, age gates and all. The ESRB describes the process this way:

"A trailer, demo, or video (of any length) for a Mature-rated game that has been deemed suitable for a general audience through the ESRB pre-clearance process will not require an age-gate. Please note that pre-clearance of Mature-rated game trailers posted without an age-gate is mandatory and must be submitted to [the ESRB]."

To no one’s surprise, there are no changes for Adults Only-rated games, of which there are few.

Another potentially big change impacts the “cross-selling” of products. Cross-selling is, in essence, using one product to help sell another. It’s why Sony’s including early access to an upcoming demo for The Last of Us through this week’s God of War: Ascension. One game is Mature-rated, and the other is likely to be, so the ESRB signed off on cross-selling The Last of Us through God of War.

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The two examples given by the ESRB are “a promotional insert for a game placed in another game's packaging or a banner ad for another game on a publisher-controlled 'official' game website.”

Under the new ESRB guidelines, it’s now possible to promote a Mature-rated or potentially Mature-rated game within a game that's been assigned a lower rating. The only way for this to happen, however, is through explicit approval from the ESRB. Here’s how the ESRB outlined it:

“On a case-by-case basis a company may obtain approval prior to public release via the ESRB pre-clearance process to cross-sell a Mature-rated game with a less restrictively rated game. Supporting documentation (e.g., media and/or marketing plans, demographic data) will be required to demonstrate that the games being cross-sold have the same intended audience and, where audience demographics can be verified, that the cross-sell is in compliance with the ESRB’s target marketing guidelines.”

When asked about these changes, the ESRB released a brief official statement.

"This policy addresses cross-marketing of games, not bundling products together," said the organization. "The fundamental goal is to ensure that the cross-promotion of products is appropriately targeted. In doing so we may consider a variety of factors including the nature of the product, audience composition of the media vehicle being used, the intended audience of the game, whether registered users are of a certain age, whether an age-gate is employed, etc."

There are two other changes outlined in the documentation, as well.

One, the ESRB previously required demos (both standalone and full game unlocks) to have a game’s rating displayed a period of four seconds before the game begins. This is no longer required, so long as the demo's download page includes the rating information and is “clearly visible prior to access.” Publishers are asked to “use their best efforts” to display the ratings information at store kiosks with demos. This does not change the requirement for trailers--those must always display before the trailer.

Two, the ESRB currently has a rule where ESRB ratings and ratings from international organizations, such as Europe's PEGI, cannot be displayed next to one another on publisher websites and social media. Most likely it's because the ratings are not considered equivalent. The ESRB has noticed some publishers choosing to display no ratings at all, so the ESRB has ditched that rule for websites and other areas where geo-segmentation (what’s displayed changes based on your location) isn’t possible.

All of the above changes are, according to the ESRB documentation, effectively immediately.

Patrick Klepek on Google+