ESRB on iPhone Games: We Can Handle This

The game-focused Worldwide Developers Conference held by Apple this week raised questions regarding ESRB ratings for App Store games. The ESRB followed up with us to further clarify its vision for rating these games.

In the past two weeks, ESA chief Michael Gallagher and ESRB head Patricia Vance have both called for the rating of iPhone and iPod Touch games. Not all of them all at once, but it would further legitimize the ESRB, which the ESA set up in 1994. It would essentially eliminate a competitor - Apple's own ratings - in a growing market and cement the ESRB's claim to being the only trustworthy rating out there. But would the ESRB have the capacity to handle ratings submitted by a developer population that is far larger than those creating console and PC games?

"ESRB has seen increases in rating submissions each year since its founding and has always been able to keep pace," the ESRB's Eliot Mizrachi told us. "We have rated more than 70 mobile games to date and will undoubtedly rate more in the future as the market grows."

Seventy? Over the past, what, four or five years? It's a piddling number when you think of the hundreds of games available through the App Store. Further, many of them are mobile adjuncts to console releases, a different sort of beast from iPhone games. Not all of those need or deserve a rating; but if Apple brings in the ESRB to rate games, with the idea that it'll help parents control what their kids buy for their iPods, then unrated games are likely to be blocked by such filters. The incentive would definitely be there to get a game rated.

And what of the cost? Getting a game rated isn't a free service; the ESRB levies a fee that covers the cost of looking through the code and rating the game. Mizrachi said their existing process for mobile and casual games allows for steep discounts - like 80 percent - in rating fees for games that cost less than $250,000 to develop.

Mizrachi swore that the ESRB is not agitating for rating App Store games because it means more money to them. "Given our highly discounted rate for lower-budget games, rating mobile games is not a financially attractive proposition," he said. "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."