A look at how the game industry struggles with "AO" content.
Forty years ago, the most popular video game in America was Pong, a title in which two white slabs hit an equally white ball back and forth. A couple decades later, it was Super Mario World, a game in which two plumbers collect power-ups and jump across colorful worlds to save a princess. About a decade after that, it was Grand Theft Auto 3, an open-world action game in which a mute gangster kills and extorts his way up the ranks of a crime-ridden city. And this past June, it was The Last of Us, an epic reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's The Road in which a single father and an estranged teenage girl struggle with their existence in a lifeless, post-apocalyptic world.
As the mainstream games industry has aged, it has grown in size, scope and willingness to tackle ideas that weren't tackled much in years past. Go to your local shop today and you'll find games like BioShock Infinite, which explores corrupted faith and the constancy of fate. You'll find The Walking Dead, last year's critical darling that deals with death and despair in a lost generation. You'll find Catherine, which examines confused sex, love and relationships in a confused time. You'll find Spec Ops: The Line, which inserts players into the psychological tortures of war.
Yet while these mature titles have dealt with mature ideas, almost all of them have done so — in America — with an "M for mature" rating. But the M rating isn't lenient for everything. If the general trend in gaming is one of thematic maturation, what happens when adult-oriented games want to be more adult, and expand out to subjects that are still scarcely explored? Will the M rating remain so inclusive then? Maybe.
But the games industry already has a qualifier in place for such games if and when developers want to make them. It's called the Adults Only rating. And game companies avoid it like the plague.
The black sheep
The AO rating was formed alongside the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, after gory games like Mortal Kombat and Doom led U.S. senators to propose the Video Game Rating Act of 1994. That would have forced the government to create its own ratings system if the industry didn't act, so the major players set aside their differences and created the ESRB standard that continues today.
In the two decades that have followed, the AO rating has consistently been the least represented of the bunch. To say AO games are rare is a massive understatement. According to its online database, the ESRB has rated almost 31,000 pieces of software since its inception. Of those, 32 of have been rated AO. Of those, only 25 are actually video games. That's good for 0.08 percent of everything in total.
A self-perpetuating cycle
This isn't a coincidence — the marginalization of AO content is something that has been effectively institutionalized by all sides of the industry for the past two decades. It's a self-perpetuating, perceptually and financially motivated cycle that starts with how the ESRB defines AO content in the first place.
Officially, the ESRB says that an AO game contains "content suitable only for adults ages 18 and up. May include prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content and/or gambling with real currency." It lists "Strong Sexual Content, Mature Sexual Themes, Nudity, Strong Language, Use of Drugs, Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Mature Humor, Use of Alcohol and Real Gambling" as potential triggers for the rating.
The age requirement between AO-rated games and M-rated games is just one year, but that separation has proven to be crucial for both console makers and retailers. None of them want anything to do with AO content. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all bar such games from ever appearing on their platforms. Since the trio requires its software to be examined and rated by the ESRB, this leaves zero wiggle room for any console game that seeks to go beyond what's acceptable under the M rating. Over on the PC, Valve allows certain unrated games on its popular Steam platform, but AO games are also nowhere to be found. Apple is notoriously prohibitive on the mobile side.
Retailers have shown the same sentiment. With the exception of online marketplace Amazon, the ESRB's U.S. retail partners do not allow AO games on their store shelves. This combined lockdown sets a ceiling on an AO game's potential profits by default, limiting any releases it could have to lesser-known outlets on PCs. In other words, the AO rating is more or less a financial death sentence. And in today's games industry, taking such a creative risk in the face of commercial isolation just isn't worth it for most. Even for the smaller independent developers that may be more willing to go after adult subjects without publishers monitoring them, losing so much retail support with their lesser resources could prove fatal to their ability to make games.
"I think there are a lot of different reasons [for why we haven't seen many AO games], depending who you are," says Miriam Bellard, whose independent studio No Reply Games released the erotic, AO-rated adventure title Seduce Me earlier this year.
"For a big publisher or developer, big companies tend to be more conservative and don't want to risk their reputations, or upset their employees, with adult content. For an indie developer with a day job, they have their professional reputations to consider. It's scary doing something that might offend current or future employers.
"For all of us there are the economic issues, the problems of getting funding and distribution. Even Kickstarter won't accept adult content. This is especially difficult for indie developers without a day job; we have to live off what we earn on our games, so doing something controversial is a huge risk."
Bellard knows that risk well, as her game was removed from the Steam Greenlight program last year for what Valve termed "offensive material." But instead of altering Seduce Me's vision — which has reportedly happened with initially AO games like Condemned 2: Bloodshot, Manhunt 2 and a number of others over the years — No Reply decided to carry on with the game even after it was stricken with the rating.
"[We stuck with the AO rating] for a number of reasons," she says. "We believed in what we were doing and wanted to make a game for adults. We were running out of money and couldn't afford to keep fiddling and making changes. And we just didn't realize how much hate we would get, and what the financial consequences would be."
Although the tiff with Valve allowed No Reply and Seduce Me to briefly make the rounds with the press, their popularity was ultimately short-lived, according to Bellard. "We naively believed that the unusualness of our content would make up for the lack of distribution channels and that we would succeed anyway through word-of-mouth," she says. "We were wrong."
According to ESRB president Patricia Vance, though, the AO rating doesn't restrict potential content on its own. "By and large, it's the audience that determines [a game's] commercial success and viability," she contends. "Publishing a commercially viable product sometimes requires making a few creative compromises in order to maximize its marketability. And that's true in every entertainment medium."
The AO rating is often discussed in terms of stifled creative freedom, but that doesn't really hold water. It's not as though a game developer is creating a game and the ESRB shows up wagging a finger, saying, 'You can't put that in your game or it'll get an AO.'
"If creative freedom is of the utmost importance, any developer or publisher is free to distribute their game online where marketplace constraints would not be in a position to influence their artistic vision. It's up to the developer or publisher to generate the demand for their product. And it's up to the market to respond. But freedom of expression doesn't guarantee the right to earn a living through one's art."
Vance says this isolation of AO content is something the ESRB cannot ultimately dictate. "We recognize that there are some commercial obstacles associated with publishing an AO-rated game," she says. "The reality right now is that consoles won't license AO games and retailers generally opt not to sell them. These factors are obviously beyond our control. But as providers of commercial products with brands to manage, it is their understandable right to determine the nature of the product they want to offer their customers.
"That said, this question is best directed to the console makers and retailers. Our job begins and ends with assigning the ratings we think will be most helpful and informative to the consumer and will best match their expectations about the age-appropriateness of content."
A policy decision
But not only do these console makers, major studios and far-reaching distributors refuse to associate themselves with AO games, they also prefer to not talk about them. When asked to discuss their current and possible future stances toward AO content, Sony, Valve, GameStop, GameFly, 2K, EA, Ubisoft and Rockstar all either declined to comment or pointed us to existing statements. Numerous others didn't reply to our requests in the first place.
Those who were willing to talk included Microsoft and Nintendo, but even then they offered prepared, safe statements that mostly deferred to the ESRB's decision-making process. Here's what a Nintendo representative was willing to say on the subject: "Games made for Nintendo systems enjoy a broad variety of styles, genres and ratings. These are some of the reasons our systems appeal to such a broad range of people. As with books, television and movies, different content is meant for different audiences. That's why the ESRB provides ratings to help consumers understand the content of a game before they purchase it. As stated on Nintendo.com, Nintendo does not allow any AO-rated content on its systems."
A Microsoft spokesperson extolled the ESRB in the same way. When asked whether or not the company believes there's any value to the AO rating as it stands today, he replied, "Microsoft has always been a strong supporter of ESRB ratings, which have come to be regarded as an exemplary model for effective media ratings and industry self-regulation." As for whether or not Microsoft feels as if the market's restriction of AO games may be forcing developers to neuter adult-focused games in order to suit an M rating, a company spokesperson said, "We believe that developers and publishers should be able to create a wide variety of games and entertainment experiences. Microsoft Studios and our third-party partners publish games for Xbox 360 ranging from Early Childhood to Mature. From the beginning, we made a policy decision to not allow AO-rated titles to be certified for use on our platforms."
You're probably not gaining much insight from these quotes, and that's purposeful. The common stance from major industry forces toward AO content has been the same: say no and sweep the whole idea under the rug.
There are reasons for that, though. One, for instance, is simply that most AO games just haven't been very good. The Last of Us and The Walking Dead are undoubtedly "adult games" and, as mentioned above, they excel just fine with an M rating. By contrast, the AO games that have made it to market are mostly mediocre, crude or just too out there to appeal to anyone beyond an ultra-niche crowd.
The ESRB has often likened the AO rating to the film industry's NC-17 rating, for instance. While that's true in the sense that both are catch-all tags for anything deemed not suitable for mainstream audiences, in practice the comparison doesn't always hold water. Films like Shame, Bad Lieutenant, 1996's Crash and others have left lasting impressions on their industry while still portraying their grown-up subject matter respectfully. Yes, games are not movies, and yes, there are plenty of horrid adult films, but the ratio of exemplary NC-17 films to exemplary AO games is lopsided. The same applies if you compare them to adult novels, which can be found in stores all over the country.
Works like Lula 3D, an adventure game that touted a physics engine called "Bouncin' Boobs Technology," or Riana Rouge, an FMV-based game that stars a Playboy Playmate, has porno-level acting and is predictably littered with T and A, aim to do nothing more than tell low-brow jokes and show nude women prancing around. Others like Singles: Flirt Up Your Life or Playboy: The Mansion are naughtier derivatives of better games.
Others are basically just porn. Some studios make their AO games knowing full well that their market will be limited. One of these is Peach Princess, a California-based company that has imported numerous "visual novel" games from Japan and translates them for an English-speaking audience. A number of these (though not all) have been "eroge" or "bishoujo" games, which are explicitly sexual by nature. Peach Princess' head, Peter Payne, realizes that these titles are only going to be popular for a particular enthusiast audience, and does his business accordingly.
"We actually love being able to be in a business where the restrictive policies of Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and Apple don't affect us — the good old PC software market," Payne writes in an email interview. "If we were dependent on how many Xbox users bought our software, and if we had to remove pictures of panties because of Microsoft's policies, it would be the most boring and mundane thing in the world.
"We're overjoyed at the freedom we have. It's far from perfect, of course — many fans of Japanese eroge choose to pirate them rather than buy them, which greatly limits the quality of games we can bring out — but we have a lot of fun finding out what games our fans want to see in English and doing our best to get them for them."
But while Payne is content with a more limited approach, all of these less-than-stellar AO games have earned the rating a perception of being sleazy, shoddy and, ironically enough, immature. As a result, there's a particular stigma surrounding anything AO-rated, one that creates mostly negative associations with the words "AO games." Nobody sells them, nobody allows them, nobody makes them and the ones that exist are borderline offensive. That has led more than a few game makers from ever associating with the product in the first place.
Bellard opines, "In general, ratings are very useful, it's important for people to know what potentially offensive content is in a product before viewing it. I think the problem with the AO rating is the baggage that comes with the term. AO implies 'dirty,' 'smutty,' 'pornographic,' 'tasteless,' et cetera. I'd love to see the AO rating changed to M18+, like the E10+ rating. This would see the same information given to people without the pejorative connotations."
Reasons to be hopeful for AO
The nature of adult content will likely limit the audience for future AO games regardless of how mature they ever become. Even still, the possibility of expanding a medium beyond its current limitations has led some prominent developers to call for more adult-oriented projects. The idea isn't necessarily to stop video games from being fun, but rather to expand the possibilities of what they're capable of as a whole. As the industry continues to age, this goal could become more appealing to developers.
Mullich says, "The hurdle that game makers who attempt to deal with mature topics in a serious manner must overcome is that, while movies are often considered to be works of art, games are still seen as frivolous entertainment for kids. Now, the reality is that people of all ages now play games. According to an ESRB study conducted in 2010, 25 percent of gamers are under 18, but 26 percent are over 50. So there is no reason that game makers shouldn't tackle themes that appeal to an adult audience."
And while certain people at larger studios try to wade through all the baggage that comes with making adult games today, various independent developers are setting a precedent for mature games without the need for large retailers or publishers.
Indeed, the big guys that are interested in creating adult content may be best served following the lead of the many indie games that are already tackling larger themes in an affecting manner. Many of them are released solely through digital distribution on (mostly) their own terms, and thus do not have to go through a larger game's ratings process. This method of delivery is only growing, and it diminishes the amount of hoops a studio has to jump through to release whatever game it wants.
Titles like Will O'Neill's Actual Sunlight, Christine Love's Digital: A Love Story and many others are far from big-budget, commercial smashes, but they thoughtfully tackle grown-up subjects away from the ESRB's influence. They may not be "Adults Only" games, but they are "games for adults." They're becoming increasingly recognized, they're often well done and they could influence the kinds of themes larger AO games would be willing to examine in the future.
'When I'm horny I don't want to think'
The problem with making a high-quality AO game — an Adults Only killer app, if you will — is that it's challenging. Not just to market, but to design and create as well. Whether they want to deal with love, sex, drugs, addiction or what have you, adult games that seek to go beyond the familiar are different, and thus usually have to be designed and written in different ways.
"It's an interactive medium, and that always poses certain challenges when moving outside the running, jumping or shooting space, and so on," says Rhianna Pratchett, the acclaimed writer whose credits include Mirror's Edge, Heavenly Sword and the most recent Tomb Raider. "The industry does have a tendency to default to a set of verbs we're most comfortable with. Therefore the stories we tell are often limited by the actions that can be taken by players."
Seduce Me's Bellard, meanwhile, says that she learned these difficulties firsthand when she first tested the AO waters. She and her No Reply partner Andrejs Skuja initially worked for Guerrilla Games, designing for the popular, and violent, Killzone series of first-person shooters before branching out into something vastly different.
"Andrejs and I were both visual designers at Guerrilla," Bellard says, "and while Andrejs did enjoy designing sci-fi soldiers, and I did enjoy designing futuristic buildings, we were getting a little tired of the desaturated gritty aesthetic. We wanted to do something bright and vibrant and thoroughly modern, just for a change. We weren't trying to make a 'love not war' statement; I believe there is room for both in gaming."
But when it came time to make Seduce Me, a game that attempted to evoke the eroticism of popular, and widely available, adult novels like Fifty Shades of Gray, Bellard and Skuja found that translating sexuality to game mechanics was a major undertaking. They ultimately decided to base much of the title around various card games, a decision that was met by general disapproval by audiences and critics alike.
Bellard recognizes these struggles in making adult games. "There are huge design challenges," she says. "I was determined to do a game about sex, where the game mechanics evoked human relationships. I don't dislike interactive stories, the typical structure for a Japanese adult game, but I don't find them inspiring. I really wanted to make a game out of the process of building a relationship. This is a relatively unexplored area of game mechanics — most game mechanics are based on war or commerce — and what is out there, games like The Sims, seemed too girly to use in a guy's game.
"In retrospect I made a big mistake with Seduce Me's mechanics. A few people understood and appreciated what I was trying to achieve with the card games — I liked the way each game felt like the conversation it represented — but, in the end, an analytical frame of mind is not the mood people want to be in when playing a sex or relationship game. As a good friend of mine put it, 'When I'm horny, I don't want to think.'
"This has been a huge learning curve for me. For the next game I want to develop mechanics that not only mimic the buildup of human relationships, but that also fit with what players want out of a sex and relationship game."
David Mullich is the veteran developer behind complex adventure games like The Prisoner and I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. In his eyes, the difficulty in actually developing a game around adult content is only compounded by the difficulty of approaching said subject matter with proper care and consideration. Mullich says he's "always wanted to make a game about terrorism," for instance, but that the aforementioned stigma surrounding AO games puts such content under a more stringent microscope.
"Because of that stigma, game makers need to be careful that their games do not come across as being exploitative or insensitive to controversial subject matter, nor to inadvertently appear to condone or promote antisocial behavior," he says. "The game mechanics they employ must be appropriate to the game's tone and subject matter. If the game is attempting to deal with a serious issue in a serious way, they may need to use game mechanics that are engaging, but not amusing or exciting, so as not make light of the material."
To recap, there have been and would be serious design challenges to creating explicitly adult-oriented games. There are massive commercial restrictions on AO content in today's marketplace. Very few publishers or console makers are willing to even talk about the rating altogether. Certain mature games have been thoughtful, instant classics without needing more than an M rating. Political and perceptual issues abound around the rating as well.
So is there any reason to believe that AO games will have a more prosperous future?
Reasons to not be hopeful for AO
While the games industry is slowly but surely seeing an uptick in adult-focused content, a future filled with AO games still looks to be a ways away. There are various reasons why we don't see many big games about eroticism, drug use, more biting violence or sex, addiction and the like, but one is simply because that kind of content separates developers from a chunk of their audience.
"To me, as a game designer, I want my game to be played by as many people as possible," says Al Lowe, creator of the Leisure Suit Larry series of adult comedy games. "I'm not interested in pursuing an 'art market.' There are people who want to do that and that's cool, I appreciate them. But in my case, I want to make as many people laugh as possible. And that's kind of limited by an AO rating.
"So when we did [recent remake Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded], we could have made it as dirty as we wanted to. We had no publisher telling us not to. It was our choice. But we decided to go for the laughs instead of the nudity and other things that would get us into a higher rating."
Other people involved in game development believe that looking ahead to the future of AO games is premature, since adult-oriented M-rated games are still in their nascent stages. "Storytelling of any kind in games is damn hard," says Pratchett. "And we've still only just scratched the surface of what the medium is capable of, narratively speaking.
"The fact that we're only now really seeing mainstream games tackling more emotionally complex themes is proof of the fact that we're not ready, yet, to tackle AO content with the required care and attention. Shame: The Game is still a long way off. I believe we'll get there in our own way, though."
Pratchett further believes that, while writers like herself are interested in working on games with adult themes, they aren't typically concerned with the more explicit nature of AO games. "As a games writer, you are very used to working within quite strict boundaries," she says. "It's the nature of the job. I certainly think writers are open to exploring more complex and engaging themes in their work, but I get the feeling that's still in the M vein, rather than AO."
Some still find practical value in how the ESRB currently determines what is or isn't an AO game.
"I look at this from two angles," Lowe says. "One, as a creator of intellectual property, and the other, as a creator of children. I am a parent, I have children, now I have grandchildren. And I want people to know what they're buying. I don't want to surprise them, and have them buy a game and take it home and give it to their kid and find out that it's whatever rating that kid shouldn't play."
And at the end of the day, a widely accepted AO rating may encourage new styles of games, but it doesn't guarantee that they'll be any good. Vance contends, "What sells a game is not the violence or sex, or how graphically either is portrayed. Plenty of games have had copious amounts of one or the other, or both, and didn't sell well.
"What makes for a successful game are things like good game design, compelling writing, believable characters and, most of all, enjoyable game play. Our rating has no impact whatsoever on a game's ability to deliver on these."
Working within boundaries
Well, as per usual with these things, the answer is somewhere between yes and no. As long as there's the possibility for games like Lula 3D to exist, the AO rating will, at the very least, stay the way it is now. Vance says, "Our job is applying the rating that we feel provides the most reliable guidance about the age-appropriateness of a game. So long as there are games that include content that is suitable only for adults, there will be a need for an AO rating."
But as for whether or not the perceptions about AO games will change, and whether or not we'll ever see at least some AO games that examine adult topics without resorting to gratuitousness, the future isn't so clear. Judging by the major console makers' and retailers' unwillingness to even talk about the subject, it doesn't seem likely that the rating's inherent financial ceiling will go away anytime soon. That still kills off many potential AO titles from the get-go.
Yet there are still a few reasons to believe that the industry will "get there," despite all the hurdles AO games continue to face. For one, the fact that recent games have seen success while staying mature could encourage other developers to take further risks down the road. Last year, Vance herself stated that it's "very possible" that AO will be more widely accepted in the future, and that she thinks such acceptance would be "a good thing for the system."
Today, she notes that if a developer was willing and able to make an AO game that appeals to a broader audience, the rating as a whole could gain more support. "I would expect that if the marketplace were to respond favorably to AO-rated product, developers would be more inclined to produce it," she says.
The fact that the marketplace has responded favorably to more grown-up M-rated games is an encouraging sign, then. And according to Ballard, at least some game makers are ready to move into new territory. "I think a lot of devs are interested [in making AO games]," she says. "I can remember a number of after-work drinks conversations on how awesome it would be to work on a sex game. I think the reason we don't see more adult content is not from lack of interest."
That all of that interest could be more easily turned into success as digital distribution gradually eradicates the influence of regular retail and publisher support. "Up until now, the games industry has been dominated by big companies. Big companies are conservative by nature," Ballard notes.
"However, the games development landscape is changing. With the development of middleware tools, like Unity3D, it's getting easier and cheaper to develop a game. Distribution isn't perfect, but it's still easier than the old days of convincing a publisher to sell you at retail.
"All of this means that we're poised for the same kind of renaissance that happened to film with the invention of the digital camera. I am positive that we will see more experimental, controversial and challenging games in the future." But for now, the possible future of official AO games remains just that: a possible future. The chances are mixed. There's more reason than ever to have hope that they'll expand, but the results are still a wasteland. They remain under the rug. They remain, as Ballard says, "an area with huge potential." We just can't say whether or not anyone in this big industry will be willing, or allowed, to capitalize on it.
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan
Illustrations: Saul Gray-Hildenbrand