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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:

No Caption Provided

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.

No Caption Provided

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+

87 Comments

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OllyOxenFree

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Isnagov

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Edited By Isnagov • 

This can't be? Sorry, interesting article. Mostly wishing the quests were still a thing so I would get rewarded for this. I know, I'm a terrible human being.

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recroulette

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deerokus

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Edited By deerokus • 

Minor correction: PEGI is a European ratings system, not a solely UK one (Pan European Game Information).

Until recently the UK had two ratings systems - especially violent games had to be rated seperately by the same body that rates films, which carried legal force, while all other games were rated PEGI, which lacked legal force. Which naturally confused parents somewhat. They have finally fixed that, though, and PEGI is now legally enforceable.

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patrickklepek

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@deerokus said:

Minor correction: PEGI is a European body, not a solely UK one (Pan European Game Information).

Until recently the UK had two ratings systems - especially violent games had to be rated seperately by the same body that rates films, which carried legal force, while all other games were rated PEGI, which lacked legal force. Which naturally confused parents somewhat. They have finally fixed that, though.

Thanks for the clarification.

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kickinthehead

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Edited By kickinthehead • 

I think like film, there will be a lot of games where it's like "Yeah the green band trailer was cool, but check out the RED BAND trailer, that's what the REAL GAME is like." Should be interesting.

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GalacticPunt

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Edited By GalacticPunt • 

Well, these are actually fairly reasonable reforms. I would have expected more bizarre red tape out of some knee-jerk fear of Washington, but this is the opposite common-sense direction.

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thehunter1320

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Edited By thehunter1320 • 

Whoa.

Looking forward to all of the "exclusive red band" trailers!

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gaftra

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gaftra • 

Always interesting to see how these regulations develop. Did the president's statement about further reviewing violent media yield any fruit? Curious if the Gun lobby managed to spur this forward.

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Evan223

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Evan223 • 

@thehunter1320 I don't think there will be any red band trailers, if I read the article correct any trailer that would show mature content would just be age-gated just like it is now, with only the green band(?) being used to show that the trailer is for an M-rated game but can be viewed by any age.

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AuthenticM

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mrfluke

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Neonie

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Edited By Neonie • 

Since when did the ESRB have the right to set mandatory for anything not explicitly involving just rating games? Aren't they an opt-in group that publishers go along with to put the age rating on their box? They really have no right to say what publishers do with their games or marketing otherwise, they are not legal regulators...

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moffattron9000

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Edited By moffattron9000 • 

@evan223 said:

@thehunter1320 I don't think there will be any red band trailers, if I read the article correct any trailer that would show mature content would just be age-gated just like it is now, with only the green band(?) being used to show that the trailer is for an M-rated game but can be viewed by any age.

You don't need an actual Red-Band for it to be a Red-Band trailer

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patrick

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Edited By patrick • 

@neonie said:

Since when did the ESRB have the right to set mandatory for anything not explicitly involving just rating games? Aren't they an opt-in group that publishers go along with to put the age rating on their box? They really have no right to say what publishers do with their games or marketing otherwise, they are not legal regulators...

True. However, the console makers aren't going to authorize unrated games onto their system. So it is essentially mandatory.

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ftomato

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Edited By ftomato • 

@Neonie They're required by Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft in order to be on their platforms.

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CornBREDX

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CornBREDX • 

@neonie: No store will sell the game without it.

Think of it like the Home Owners Association. You don't "have to" be in a Home Owners Association per say. But it raises land value and is oft required because of it's location so if you aren't in the HOA you lose your land. if you're in the HOA you must follow the HOAs rules. If you don't, you get fined.

It's basically the same. Movie ratings are also this way. You don't HAVE to get a rating, but if you don't no one will distribute your movie or show it (minus maybe a select crowd which wont really get your film seen by a wider audience).

It may as well be a rule even though it's technically not.

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damswedon

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damswedon • 

@deerokus said:

Minor correction: PEGI is a European ratings system, not a solely UK one (Pan European Game Information).

Until recently the UK had two ratings systems - especially violent games had to be rated seperately by the same body that rates films, which carried legal force, while all other games were rated PEGI, which lacked legal force. Which naturally confused parents somewhat. They have finally fixed that, though, and PEGI is now legally enforceable.

On the one hand I really miss having the old BBFC's 18 rating on games, but on the other hand PEGI's 18 is just a big red box and that is just cool.

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Murdoc_

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Murdoc_ • 

Is the ESRB a governmental regulator? I mean why do I need to follow what they lay out? I never understood that about the esrb.

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Stimpack

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Edited By Stimpack • 

That sounds pretty alright to me. I feel like this is just how things should have been in the first place. So maybe it's a step in the right direction?

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Phished0ne

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Edited By Phished0ne • 

@murdoc_ said:

Is the ESRB a governmental regulator? I mean why do I need to follow what they lay out? I never understood that about the esrb.

Because, without an ESRB rating, no console company will allow the game on their system. It isnt governmental but its a restriction system the games industry has placed on itself to get some leeway with the government.

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MattGrant

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Edited By MattGrant • 

Unless the ESRB has changed its approach at determining what content is and is not mature, I don't see how this will have much impact on the general public. If age gates are removed, then the .00001% too dense or unwilling to circumvent the system by just making shit up will now be granted access to the content every other slightly more inventive and a bit less scrupulous person out there had already.

Also, the bulk of advertising for Mature games, rather games in general, is not from within other games. It is web-based and word of mouth, ad spots and big ass posters rolling by on a bus.

As a matter of policy when it comes to coverage, it's good that this has been noted and reported. That said, I don't think it's a big deal.

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tourgen

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tourgen • 

@neonie said:

Since when did the ESRB have the right to set mandatory for anything not explicitly involving just rating games? Aren't they an opt-in group that publishers go along with to put the age rating on their box? They really have no right to say what publishers do with their games or marketing otherwise, they are not legal regulators...

yeah my understanding is that it's the industry self-regulating and technically it's opt-in. However some retailers won't do business with unrated products - you know like Walmart and such. So it's financial suicide to not get rated.

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MarkWahlberg

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Yay for regulatory bodies implementing more reasonable regulations!

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President_Barackbar

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Edited By President_Barackbar • 

@murdoc_ said:

Is the ESRB a governmental regulator? I mean why do I need to follow what they lay out? I never understood that about the esrb.

The Entertainment Merchant's Association voluntarily decided to abide by the ESRB ratings and refuse sale of M rated titles to children under 17 and outright refuse to carry AO rated titles. These rules were adopted so the industry could police itself rather than have the government intervene, much like the MPAA did with film ratings. So while it isn't technically illegal for a developer to refuse to be rated by the ESRB, many stores will not carry an unrated product (a major exception to this being Steam, which does not require ESRB ratings).

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KillerFly

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KillerFly • 

Maybe we can get trailers for M-rated games that aren't just "look how gory this shit is bro! Waaaaaaaah!!!!!"

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crimsonlordofwar

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@stimpack said:

That sounds pretty alright to me. I feel like this is just how things should have been in the first place. So maybe it's a step in the right direction?

I agree, it's more like Hollywood now, and allows publishers to broaden their scope of advertising. Don't expect to see a CoD advert on Nickelodeon or anything, but maybe an Uncharted game(or something similar)

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smcn

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smcn • 

@killerfly said:

Maybe we can get trailers for M-rated games that aren't just "look how gory this shit is bro! Waaaaaaaah!!!!!"

Trailers are nothing but advertisements that people watch deliberately. The sooner you and everyone else realize that and stop complaining about CG trailers that don't provide anything useful, the happier you'll be.

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Ravenlight

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Edited By Ravenlight • 

WTB: Plugin that skips the first four seconds of every trailer.

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masternater27

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Edited By masternater27 • 

So, I no longer have to enter my birthday to watch a time lapse trailer of the environment in gta set to philip glass music essentially

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Clonedzero

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Clonedzero • 

WTB: Plugin that skips the first four seconds of every trailer.

and the last 5-10 seconds of "preorder at gamestop for the sickest weapon skins bro!"

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shodan2020

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shodan2020 • 

If this leads to more informed parenting, good on 'em.

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Stonyman65

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Edited By Stonyman65 • 

@phished0ne said:

@murdoc_ said:

Is the ESRB a governmental regulator? I mean why do I need to follow what they lay out? I never understood that about the esrb.

Because, without an ESRB rating, no console company will allow the game on their system. It isnt governmental but its a restriction system the games industry has placed on itself to get some leeway with the government.

Right. Back when this whole thing started the government basically said "If you don't regulate this yourself, we will" so now we have the ESRB.

This is kind of weird. I assume it will be almost like what the MPAA does at the start of movie trailers. I don't think it is really necessary for game trailer when we already have age-gates, but whatever. If I were to guess, I'd say it's just the industry lawyers trying to cover their asses.

As long as they aren't trying to restrict the sale and/or production of M or AO rated games, I'm okay with it.

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CharlesAlanRatliff

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Omanyte_Jackson

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@murdoc_ said:

Is the ESRB a governmental regulator? I mean why do I need to follow what they lay out? I never understood that about the esrb.

Ah I understand, information on the ESRB is hard to come by, here's a link that can explain it.

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MonkeyKing1969

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It seems like it will make it easier...so why not. I did not realize that ESRB and PEGI rating could not be shown at the same time on the same screen, lifting that restriction alone should make it easier for advertisers.

Tying how games are advertised with how movies are advertised means "politicians" can't start restricting games advertising in odd ways. Being advertised with similar rules now, so bringing-up how games do it now shines a light on Hollywood. A few politicians might have though they could bring up how games are advertised as an issue, but now to do so would make Hollywood a little nervous.

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FalcomAdol

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FalcomAdol • 

Loosening these restrictions seem like poor decisions at a time when game ratings are likely to be under fire.

Even if the changes basically bring them in line with the movie system which has generally been far more permissive.

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Hunter5024

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Hunter5024 • 

I like that you wrote an article about this. Cool changes.

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Zevvion

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Zevvion • 

I actually didn't realize any of this. I don't really see any benefit in this though.

Kids who want to watch the new GTA trailer will - and always have done - just that. But now that it's legal to push their product to a 'general' audiance, I can only see the parents flipping out again how they're trying to market to kids.

So if you ask me, the same people get to watch the trailer as before, except there is now a flipping-out-parent variable.

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Gold_Skulltulla

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Edited By Gold_Skulltulla • 

I know the rating isn't indicative of the age group being targeted by the game (E-rated games are not necessarily kids games, though G-rated movies typically are), but I guess now it'll be up to publishers/advertisers to not exploit it. Wonder how this worked out with prior to this change with a game like PS All-Stars which was rated Teen, but featured characters from Mature titles.

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iAmJohn

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Edited By iAmJohn • 

This is a smart change.

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Lyfeforce

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Edited By Lyfeforce • 

Seems reasonable. None of this is still no substitute for engaged parenting and education about common sense, but it's nice that the industry has one more tool in the box to keep the idiots off their case

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forteexe21

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forteexe21 • 

At least being able to play a game is now at least 4 seconds shorter!

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MordeaniisChaos

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MordeaniisChaos  Online • 

Green is my favorite color and I still think that's ugly as sin.

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MordeaniisChaos

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Edited By MordeaniisChaos  Online • 

@patrick said:

@neonie said:

Since when did the ESRB have the right to set mandatory for anything not explicitly involving just rating games? Aren't they an opt-in group that publishers go along with to put the age rating on their box? They really have no right to say what publishers do with their games or marketing otherwise, they are not legal regulators...

True. However, the console makers aren't going to authorize unrated games onto their system. So it is essentially mandatory.

Yeah, you can't sell a game these days without a rating. Not because of legal restrictions, but because no one wants to sell or support something that isn't rated. Steam might be different, but I never really pay attention to if games have a rating so I never notice.

Honestly, I'm ok with that as long as they don't give really dumb ratings, which they don't.