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Are the ESRB’s in-game purchase stickers just a sticking plaster approach?

The ESRB announced yesterday that it would be adding ‘In-Game Purchases’ stickers to the boxes of physical games, and to information where digital games are sold, to denote games with microtransactions, loot boxes, DLC etc.

Our first reaction is that this is a good move, more information for consumers at the point-of-sale is always a good thing, especially if it helps to ward off any kind of unwelcome, and usually uninformed, legislation.

However, the blanket nature of the sticker means that practically every major release will receive it, whether it’s a single-player title with a single DLC release to come further down the line, or a game that has random loot boxes dropping game-balance affecting gear.

For those looking for some kind of grand assault upon the likes of Battlefront II’s game-altering loot, this is certainly not it.

GOING MOBILE

The sticker, be it physical or digital, is essentially following the same path that both the App Store and Play Store have been treading for many years now with ‘Contains In-app Purchases’. And given that mobile was really the fulcrum of such monetisation strategies, it doesn’t look like likely to have a lot of impact on sales.

However, the very vagueness of the label might be an issue. Publisher’s may want to take further steps to define the kinds of purchases in their games, rather than being at the mercy of the the not-very-helpful wording.

One strategy is to move the sale of DLC out of the game itself and instead just promote on the console and in the store. That way the game itself has no in-game purchases and so it doesn’t have to have the sticker, though this is likely to impact sales we’d think. It’s somewhat a grey area of where the game begins and the console system software ends we think.

THINK OF THE CHILDREN

“The video game industry is evolving and innovating continually, as is the ESRB rating system. ESRB’s goal is to ensure that parents have the most up-to-date and comprehensive tools at their disposal to help them decide which games are appropriate for their children,” said ESRB president Patricia Vance.

“With the new In-Game Purchases interactive element coming to physical games, parents will know when a game contains offers for players to purchase additional content. Moreover, we will be expanding our efforts to educate parents about the controls currently at their disposal to manage in-game spending before their kids press ‘Start’.”

The rhetoric here is largely about parents making informed choices, rather than any stigma against gambling-style mechanics. The ESRB is planning on backing up with a campaign to ensure parents know how to take controls of payment options on their devices.

The games market is prospering on microtransactions and this isn’t going to change that. Increasing parental awareness that paid-for console games use similar systems of monetisation to mobile apps might come as a surprise to a very small few (presumably those that don’t keep an eye on their credit card outgoings) but we’d be amazed to see it have any serious impact on the incomes of GTA Online, FIFA Ultimate Team, or the industry’s continued reliance on such incomes.

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

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