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ESRB’s new ‘in-game purchases’ label: Our 5 biggest questions

What hasn’t ESRB told us about its new warning about loot boxes?

close-up of ESRB M rating on back of three game boxes Samit Sarkar/Polygon

The Entertainment Software Rating Board, most commonly known as the ESRB, announced that it will soon add a back-of-the-box label alerting consumers to the presence of in-game purchases. These run the gamut from microtransactions, like loot boxes, to paid downloadable content — including expansions.

We received several details about the ins and outs of the label, which should start appearing on new game boxes in the coming months. But while the ESRB has explained much of the reasoning behind and usage of the descriptor, there are a handful of questions we still have about how it will affect the future of our games and game purchases.

How will games that have already been released be affected?

The label will certainly be applied to new games going forward. But could we see re-releases of pre-existing games — like, say, another edition of the microtransaction-laden Middle-earth: Shadow of War — requiring the board to affix a new label to the package? Will the board have to subject the game to another full ratings review, despite the in-game purchase label not strictly counting as content? The ESRB hasn’t specified.

Where will the label be found on the box? How big will it be?

Consider the back of a standard PlayStation 4 game’s box. It’s a mess.

close-up of game information section on back of box of Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 for PS4
There’s ... so ... much ... going on here.
Samit Sarkar/Polygon

Since the ESRB won’t be including “in-game purchases” as a descriptor within the standard rating label, publishers will have to make room for it somewhere else among all that clutter. Much of the stuff on the back can’t be excised; game boxes are already a sea of legalese and platform-specific details. Even if a publisher does make a decent amount of room for the new language, it’s hard to say parents will be able to easily spot it, anyway.

Will the label get more specific than noting that a game includes “in-game purchases”?

ESRB isn’t known for its verbosity. Although its website provides a more detailed explanation for why a game earned a certain rating, the ESRB doesn’t get in-depth with what it includes on the game’s box itself. We wouldn’t be surprised to see the board do the same thing with the in-game purchases identifier: If there’s a note on the box, you may have to log on for more information.

How will this be applied to games that have not publicly announced paid DLC?

This relates back to the re-rating question. Let’s take the example of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Just weeks before its March 2017 launch, Nintendo announced that it would release a $20 expansion pass for the game, which would include post-release premium content. In the consumer’s mind, this is different from the type of ongoing microtransactions implied by the “in-app purchases” label — which resembles the warning on many mobile games.

Would the season pass have to be noted on the game’s packaging, going forward? Or is this information that Nintendo and the ESRB will have to supply elsewhere? It’s unclear to what extent the ESRB will require publishers to inform consumers about the possibilities of spending extra cash on their games.

Will this call special attention to microtransactions, virtual currency and loot boxes, or does it cover any in-game purchase?

It seems clear that this policy specifically covers anything include in-game that requires spending additional, real-world funds to unlock. But games like Overwatch and Fire Emblem Heroes give away loot boxes on regular bases. You could play either of those games without spending a dime; does this mean they deserve the same exact distinction as a game like Metal Gear Survive, where additional save slots are price-gated?

We’ve reached out to the ESRB for clarification on these questions and more. We’ll update if and when we receive answers.