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Gaming developers’ dilemmas as rating systems impact age targets

As game designers ponder audience targeting for new games, players’ feedback can come to their rescue

Focusing on best practices while also attempting to minimize financial risks is always on the table for game developers. The stakes are always high for planning a great new game. But among all aspects to consider, game designers have to take into account their age targets, and on several occasions make tough choices when it comes to character, story, and action issues. It is usually the USA 10-14 age category that raises the most challenges since it falls under the sensitive ESRB rating system’ guidelines, and certain decisions can make or break a game’s ratings.

Gaming developers’ dilemmas as rating systems impact age targets

In 2020, there were a little over 20 million American kids aged 10-14. Developing video games with more mature features means missing out on this potentially large crowd. This age group may seem moot when considering that out of a total of 330 million Americans, 214.4 million are gamers. And yet, the 10-14 age group received special rating consideration from the ESRB, presenting gaming companies that wish to target it with a challenge.


Recent statistics show that 69% of all games are rated E (Everyone), while 8% are rated M for mature audiences. It is the remaining 23% that covers the critical 13+ rating category that is of interest to many game developers. Their decision-making process can make or break this age barrier and change the game’s market position, even when otherwise intended. A gaming company can sometimes risk losing important revenues as a result of the ratings its game receives, calling for a more careful approach when planning and designing.


The ESRB categories and meanings


Since 1994, when the ESRB system was launched, its ratings helped many consumers to make more educated video game purchases. The raters did a decent job, as 85% of parents claimed they understood the ESRB gaming rating system. Although the average age of gamers stands at a surprisingly 33, when it comes to purchasing games for kids, the rating information becomes very handy for many moms and dads.


There are 7 rating categories that the ESRB employs and in reality only 5 when discounting the 2 “ratings pending” ones. Out of the 5 that count, 2 are dedicated to the 10-14 age category. The 10+ category mentions the possibility of having some mild language, mild violence, and minimal suggestive themes. The ever-popular “Minecraft” received such ratings. The 13+, or “Teen” category, ups the ante and drops the word “mild” completely from the descriptions. It describes language and violence, indicating such points as minimal blood and infrequent use of strong language. Games that received the “T” include the not-less-popular “League of legends”, “Fortnite” and “Destiny 2”. In many ways, these gaming hits helped shape the categories and they are setting up the stage for future games.


But just how game developers are supposed to know specifically what fits and what doesn’t?


The dilemma: how to go about developing and aiming for a specific category


While the definitions for each rating category are short and simple, implementing them may be open for interpretation.


In recent years, the ESRB staff reviews and rates more than 30,000 video games annually, so deciding what game falls into what category is probably clear to them. But what do game designers and developers are supposed to do, when planning for one age category and finding their creation ending up in another? In many cases, it is possible to fix problematic scenes or too suggestive language in order to change a game’s ratings. However, in the case of multi-layered games with lots of characters and actions, rating decisions may present some tough dilemmas for companies.


Since ratings still impact games, content designed with an appeal to a wider demographic can mean a less realistic game, with less vulgarity and violence. Sometimes games are built with more graphic content but are later edited to fit the desired ESRB rating. Shooting characters may appear in a softer version for the T (teen) ratings than when designed for the M (mature) option. But as is often the case, there are gray areas that require adjustments from their developers, for whatever desired outcome and audience targeting.


The solution: analysis of players’ feedback


Creative expert and video game designer Andy Schatz best described the gaming development process as “work-in-progress”. His words we offer the solution to such developers’ dilemmas. Once game designers would consider players as contributors and not critics, their comments may pave the way for better decision-making, planning, and rating. After all, every game was invented for the players.


Gaming companies can employ players’ feedback once they collect and analyze it. The resulting data would probably cover many different aspects of a game, and some of their comments may hint at the desired direction also for the rating issues. Developers’ dilemmas do not need guessing anymore, since players’ feedback can help a lot.


Schatz, when discussing how player feedback can make or break a game, mentioned a situation where a female character was drawn with very suggestive clothing. However, such a design did not fit her true character. He received that comment from a player who was testing the game, and this player’s remark resulted in the changing of the character’s design. While one remark or even many others may not guarantee a game’s success, they can help developers in improving it and making its features more accurate and ultimately better. Using player feedback for game development is a process that continues after the game has hit the market since there is always room for improvements (a “work-in-progress” indeed). Tracking player feedback is an ongoing process, intended to further feature improvement.


Conclusion: players’ feedback can make or break a game


Feedback types in-game designs may vary, but some of them can contribute to resolving rating issues. Such solutions may help and impact gaming development and marketing, thus using contributions from players to improve the end product.


Affogata feedback analysis platform assists gaming companies better understanding how their games resonate with the players. Players can advise on the sensitive issues and aspects of the game, such as violence and language, and whether they think the game fits a certain age group. By this, they help shape the game’s direction and sales potential. When the AI-powered analytics platform can evaluate countless responses from all over the open web, it delivers the true voice and sentiment of the player towards the game, and by doing so helps shape the game’s culture and position in the market.