Ever since its inception, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, or ESRB, has had the AO rating in its repertoire of ratings. AO, short for Adults Only, is a relatively rare rating to get with only 27 games ever getting the rating (now 28 with Hatred’s inclusion). Most of them get it for essentially being porn games, with very few getting it for violent acts and one getting it for real-money gambling. Unlike other rating boards around the world, the ESRB does not ban a game for having certain content nor does it refuse a rating (like the BBFC and Manhunt 2). However the AO rating is pretty much a kiss of death in the U.S. as no major retailer will carry an AO game (except maybe GameStop) and all three console manufacturers and Valve’s Steam (from what I’m guessing) don’t allow such games to be sold nor played on their respective services. This was back then when the only way to get your games was in brick and mortar stores.
But with the rise if digital storefronts, it’s now possible to release games with content that could be considered AO. On PC at least, while not rated, games like Katawa Shoujo and Monster Girl Quest probably wouldn’t see the light of day on Steam. And yet they have gained something of a healthy following. On top of this, those games are available directly from the developer’s/publisher’s websites. So in exchange for exposure, they get the freedom to sell whatever they want on their own terms.
So how exactly would games like these find a way on major storefronts like Steam or major consoles?
Behind The Counter
Before I present the idea, I should probably explain why AO games are niche to begin with and why a game getting it currently is as good as dead. In the U.S., most major retailers, including Target, Best Buy, and Walmart, will not carry AO rated games. While some might carry unrated movies and even some hentai (though I feel some retailers are oblivious to what these actually are), there’s still this frustrating stigma of videogames being mostly for kids. Still, at least in the case of unrated movies, they’re softcore at best. The only way you could possibly get an AO rated game was in a specialty store like Gamestop, and even then you have to specifically ask for it since its behind the counter and not on display (unless you have a Gamestop that doesn’t give a damn).
The reasoning for these measures is so that soccer moms don’t walk in and assume that new Lula game is good for little Timmy the moment she sees it on the counter. It’s also so that any potential politicians and lobbying groups don’t raise a bitch fit over said Lula game (don’t ask me how I know about the Lula games). It’s pretty much like this for almost all media with content that could be deemed as Adults Only (except books for some reason). So for brick and mortar stores, they have to pretty much display clean covers for everything so that the shoppers’ experiences aren’t sullied by the sight of boob. I might have no problem, but little Timmy’s soccer mom might not be so appreciative of these titles on the shelves. Look no further than the alternate covers of Catherine that stores like Target and Best Buy used to see what I mean. Simply put, they don’t want to deal with the shitstorm that might happen with what’s on the cover and/or what exactly the game has inside.
Not On Our Console
The great thing about mediums like books, movies, and even TV shows (to an extent) is that the platforms are wide open to any and all content. You won’t find many hardware manufacturers trying to stop you from making what you want. The people who make DVD players won’t block your copy of Hand Maid May (don’t ask how I know about that). Book makers won’t refuse to print out your own version of 50 Shades of Grey. And hey, if you have cable, you can buy that PPV of that hot porn actress you like so much (can’t go wrong with Bianca Beauchamp).
Sadly, this isn’t the case with consoles. While the PC scene is just as open as the mediums I just mentioned, consoles are very much a closed market. The console manufacturers pretty much dictate what goes on their console and what doesn’t. And the current rule shared by the Big Three (Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony) is that AO games are not allowed on their consoles. Their reasoning is pretty much the same as the stores that would stock their games. On top of this though, they’ll have to worry about politicians, pundits, and now activists, that will stop at nothing to see these manufactures shamed and go bankrupt from dealing with lawsuits. In the end, the manufacturers didn’t want to be known as the one with the AO game. GTA: San Andreas was a hard lesson to learn after the Hot Coffee fiasco.
However that was back then. Lately people have been more open to more adult content in their games and appearing on the consoles. With bare tits of GTA V, Heavy Rain, and God of War to the graphic deaths of Mortal Kombat 9 and, again God of War, people are more open to seeing and experiencing things that would’ve never flied back then. And while it’s foolish of me to say this, I think even the console manufacturers might be open to more adult content on their consoles. I believe that much of the fear AO games might’ve had on the gaming masses is no longer an issue. Those that want their adult game fix know where to go.
For Their Eyes Only
Nowadays, it’s really about controlling who sees the content and who is buying it.
Case in point, Senran Kagura Burst. Over here in the U.S., it’s a digital only title as opposed to a physical due to the possibility of retailers not wanting to stock such a game, even if it is T rated (and awesome at that). Even on Nintendo eShop, it’s not easy to find. You have to specifically search “Senran Kagura Burst” or filter everything to only show XSEED games to make it show up. Nintendo most likely knew what this was, and tried their best to make sure that those who wanted it can find it and didn’t keep popping up to those who found it “offensive” when looking for something else. Think of it as Nintendo’s version of asking for something behind the counter.
In the grander scheme of things, internet shopping has become much more personalized than before and another way to control what customers see — and possibly better too. Sites like Amazon will pitch you products closer to what you like. Say for instance I search for Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. On my next visit, I might see more MegaTen products aimed at me. On the other end, I never shop for things like Martha Stewart Living or Lugz boots, so I’ll see those ads less, if at all. So anyone can look for anything, and potentially have the right products aimed at them. So if something like a Tenga product is something I’d like to buy, I and like-minded people will see those products more and not the general public.
To put it another way, brick and mortar retail stores have to stock things in such a way that it’ll be inoffensive since everyone goes to their store and everyone can see everything unfiltered. Online however, the experiences are tailor made to specific users, so pretty much anything from the most innocent to the most extreme can be stocked
So now that the market is still expanding, we’re able to see things and experience them like never before. And while the console manufacturers and the ESRB and more lenient on certain content than before, I don’t see them lifting the restriction on AO games, at least not without some rules and measures in place to ensure that their ass is covered, no one is offended, and the consumer gets what they want.
This is where my idea comes to play.
Getting The Goods, Sunglasses Not Required
Let’s say for example Torotoro Resistance, the developers of Monster Girl Quest, wants to sell the game on PSN and it gets an AO rating. What Torotoro can do is something I like to call the Club Nintendo method. You might have to excuse my unfamiliarity with what this is actually called, but this is how I know this works.
You see, on Club Nintendo, Nintendo sometimes offers games not available to anyone else outside of Club Nintendo. Not only that, those Club Nintendo exclusives are unlisted on the shop fronts. Grill-Off With Ultra Hand? Ya ain’t finding that on Wii Shop Channel normally. And if you’re a Japanese 3DS owner, you’re not going to find Advance Wars: Days of Ruin listed on Nintendo eShop either. These are only for Club Nintendo members. To get these exclusive games, you go to the Club Nintendo website, redeem your coins for the game you want, then when the transaction is complete you’re given a download code. You then go to the console that the game is on, enter the code, and voila, there’s your game. Hit download, and now the game’s all yours.
So now back to the Monster Girl Quest example. What Sony can do for Torotoro Resistance is host the game on PSN, but make it completely unlisted. It won’t be advertised, listed, nor searchable. It’s completely hidden and only available to only those that have the download code. Sony could then tell Torotoro they it’ll be up to them to handle any and all transactions away from the Playstation Store front (with Sony still getting a cut of the payments like any other game). So then on Torotoro’s website, fans can purchase the game directly from them, much like any other digital title. You enter your credit/debit info, any personal info to make sure you’re legit, etc. If you don’t have those or would rather use the money in your PSN wallet, you can discretely link your PSN account to the customer account Torotoro uses. Then when the transaction’s done, they give you a download code. You then go to your Sony console of choice (PS3, PS4, Vita), go to “redeem code”, enter the code Torotoro gave you, and bam, there’s your game. Hit download, and now the game is yours. No one is “offended” by what your bought, and it was all discrete.
But what about after you download? So far I’ve written this idea under the assumption that only one person is the the sole user of a console. But what about if you’re not the only one in the household that uses it? What do you do then? Well after downloading you’re given the option (which is made known to you) to hide the game from your public library of games and only access it via “Search” and with a password. Likewise if you’re the only one using a console, you can disable hiding the game and have it completely visible. And if you’re worried about trophies being visible to your online friends, you can already hide certain trophy collections. Think of it as hiding the goods under your mattress (protip: don’t do it with DVDs, trust me on this).
Handling The Backlash
Of course since this is
Puritanica this U.S., there’s bound to be backlash of some sorts between the console makers vs. politicians, pundits, lobbyists, and activists. “What gall, selling such filth to our children!” the parents yell. “How could you allow such an objectifying game on your console!” the activists type scream. This is going to happen, and this is where the console makers must stand their ground and reassure the public of the following.
1) Consoles have parental controls. While it seems like a useless thing to say time and time again, especially since passcodes can be guessed eventually, some people, namely politicians, like to conveniently forget that these exists and levy blame on the console makers for not having such measures.
2) These games are not available in physical stores. There’s bound to be someone in the group that’ll say that little Timmy can just “walk into a Gamestop and pick up that new booby game,” even though they’ll most likely be denied both the sale of the game and even being shown it. But I digress. The public can assured that AO games are not available in physical stores.
3) The games are unlisted on XBL/PSN and not sold through normal means. The console makers have to reassure the general public that these AO games cannot be found on their respective markets so easily nor are they advertised on the storefronts themselves. They are unlisted and can only be found and bought using verified accounts on third party sites.
4) Those sites are treated like any other adult site and are blockable. Again, something conveniently forgettable, but there are programs to block adult sites from minors and those who’d rather not see them on both computers and smart devices. So the parents must be parents and watch what their kids do online, both on a computer and on a tablet/spartphone.
Not entirely foolproof. There will be workarounds. But could at least soften the blowback from the general public.
Finally let’s talk money. Like I said, an AO game is pretty much a kiss a death to any dev/pub, and can still be one with this method in place. A multi-million dollar developer and publisher wants to sell their game to as many people as possible, and an AO rating would relegate them to digital-only with a very limited way to sell it. Considering how much money they spend on development and advertising, an AO simply won’t do. Unless there’s a company big enough with a franchise that is equality as big to stick to its guns and keep an AO rating, the reality we see now will still be a reality in the future for the bigger guys.
But for the smaller guys, it could be just fine. Like other niche markets, we find out about our products online and not through TV commercials and magazine ads. The market for niche games is much smaller than your usual AAA market, with 100,000 copies sold being a success. The hyper-niche is even smaller than that. An AO game would probably have a smaller audience, or about as small as a hyper-niche. To put it another way, the market is already there. They don’t need to plop down millions for an ad campaign or development, and the market they want most likely browses online anyway. All they have to do is contact the proper channels (meaning not the big guys since they’ll probably spin it into some dumb BS). They could even get a little oldschool and have a online mailing list, then depend on word of mouth if a new game is made and if it’s any good.
There’s also pricing, which is something of wild beast and will make this article go too long. So, these are my thoughts. Not perfect and could be screwed up somewhere, but a stepping stone for AO to not be a complete death knell for those that want to make these kinds of games. Like I said once before, if there’s a market, tap into it. Ain’t no shame in doing that. All console makers need to do is let them do it. And if that happens, the fear that an AO rating brings to a developer may finally disappear, and a new market may finally be open for mass consumption.