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Indies feel the pinch from Sony's new ESRB mandate

Special edition physical versions of online titles have to be rated, and it's not going over well with some small studios

For small game developers, every penny counts. Fees to get a title rated are a necessary component of putting out a physical release, but that wasn't always the case for smaller special edition runs of online titles. Sony's recent mandate that small indie games getting physical releases be rated by the ESRB has had a significant financial impact on some studios, Kotaku reports.

While ratings for digital titles are free, Sony's decision in August that physical versions of those titles must be rated has led to the cost of goods becoming prohibitively expensive. Small studios looking to get into retail are subjected to the same "Long Form" process as big publishers. If a title costs less than $1 million to develop and was rated for digital release at least 90 days prior to submission, the ESRB said publishers can pay $3,000 for a retail rating.

An ESRB spokesperson commented, "A growing number of publishers have released physical versions of products that have previously been available solely through digital means (which includes physical packaging that contains a download code or product-specific POSA card). Those games must be submitted using the Long Form process. However, to accommodate publishers of digital games with a small development budget who didn't initially anticipate releasing their game in a physical form at retail, ESRB recently introduced an even more heavily discounted rating fee."

Ruiner, a cyberpunk shooter developed by Reikon Games and published by Devolver Digital, was cited as a prime example of what happens when indies have to pay retail rating fees. Special Reserve Games had originally planned to put out a physical release for Reikon, but in October wrote: "The process of obtaining this rating comes with a fee that puts the production costs for new releases like Ruiner out of the acceptable range for us to produce physical discs for PS4. This decision was agonizing, and we have tried multiple ways to reach a compromise, but sadly, we have had to change our plans to produce our intended collector edition PS4 discs for Ruiner."

Special Reserve Games CEO Jeff Smith further commented to Kotaku, "What I can say is that for a game like Ruiner, the mandate to acquire the rating for our very small batch run was going to increase our COGs (cost of goods sold) by 35%. That is significant, especially when this mandate was imposed while we were already in production."

Limited Run Games is another company that helps indies with physical releases, and recently did so for Housemarque's Nex Machina as well as Cliff Bleszinski's LawBreakers. Co-founder Josh Fairhurst remarked, "A lot of the developers we work with have created really obscure and small titles, many which may have sold pretty poorly digitally. That money we're paying the ESRB [now] could have kept our partners fed for several months while they created their next game."

Sony has yet to comment on the report. It'll be interesting to see if either Sony or the ESRB changes the rules to make it a bit easier on the indies in the future.

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Latest comments (4)

As a developer/publisher of games primarily targeted at countries outside the US, the ESRB fees have always been far too exorbitant to allow us to publish physical media in the US. For us it would be $15,000 per title per platform, it is something a niche title cannot bear.

We'd certainly welcome any reduction in fees, but it would need to be MAJOR.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany9 days ago
I thought this was the rule already? through that first party already demanded a rating for every physical game in their respective region.

@Ross Symons: Just being curious, what is the current price for a PEGI and USK rating? iirc the USK is mandatory by German government and PEGI is only in some countries, correct? (Even though every 1st company demands physical games to be rated)
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Jaakko Maaniemi PR Coordinator, 10tons Ltd.9 days ago
Isn't this really quite inaccurate? I'm quite sure the policy comes from ESRB, not Sony. It's ESRB's responsibility anyway.

Secondly, the ESRB rating certificates for digital games have *always* stated abundantly clearly (direct quote in full):

"4. This rating may be used on all digital storefronts, but not on any physical product."

So surely there has never been any doubt about the matter. Before widespread physical releases it just hasn't been enforced much. Either the publishers of these physical releases haven't been aware of this or they've flaunted the very clear guideline knowingly.

@Alfonso USK is not mandatory for digital distribution in Germany, PEGI will do at least for everything but the highest ratings. PEGI fee for a small (measured in install size, of all things) digitally distributed game is 256 euros per platform.

IARC of course provides all ratings for digitally distributed games for free, but IARC is only used in Google Play and by Nintendo (at least on Switch).
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany9 days ago
@Jaakko Maaniemi: For USK, I meant mandatory for physical games in order to be advertised. Still thanks a lot for your answer and the information on it :) Wonder why the price of the PEGI is so cheap compared to the ESRB, 256 is a big difference even with the cheaper 3.000$ ESRB option.
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