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Entertainment Software Ratings Board expands downloadable game ratings with free service

The non-profit group that rates video games in the U.S. announced today a new program for quickly assigning ratings to downloadable titles.

The Digital Rating Service will use the same sort of detailed online questionnaire that Entertainment Software Rating Board president Patricia Vance first detailed in 2011. It also brings ratings a step closer to a new global system that ESRB head Patricia Vance described to Polygon earlier this year.

Under the old ESRB ratings system, developers needed to fill out a questionnaire and submit their answers along with a DVD to the ratings board. It cost $4,500 and one week to get a rating. The new system uses a set of questions based on the game's content.

The new system also includes warning labels for interactive elements, including the sharing of personal information or physical location and exposure to unfiltered user-generated content.

Vance tells Polygon that this latest iteration of the new system will be used on games headed to Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation Certified devices, Nintendo eShop, Wii Shop Channel and Windows 8. It will also be used for games available through online game networks, streaming and download services; however, Vance pointed out that this remains an entirely voluntary system.

"Consumers have grown accustomed to using ESRB ratings when making decisions about the appropriateness of the games their families play. With the explosion of devices from which consumers can access games today, our goal is to ensure that those same tools are available everywhere games can be found," Vance said. "More recently, parents' concerns have begun to extend beyond just content to include the sharing of their kids' personal information or location and interactions with other players. ESRB's Digital Rating Service now offers all digital platforms, storefronts and networks the opportunity to empower their customers with consistent, credible, familiar and useful upfront guidance no matter where their family chooses to play games."

While Vance describes the new ratings process as friction-free, she said that it's unlikely it will ever be used for games headed to physical store fronts.

"We keep the long-form process, the traditional process for boxed games, for a specific reason," she said. "For digital games you can change the rating very quickly. For boxed games it's very difficult to change after it ships, so we want a more thorough pre-review."

This continued evolution of the ESRB rating system is a push toward more ubiquitous ratings.

"With the explosion of devices and vehicles for games, we want to make sure that ESRB ratings are accessible for all games," Vance said. "This is an easy way for developers to access ratings and an easy way for a platform to have ratings."