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Visual Novels And The ESRB’s Rule About AO-Rated Games

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    MangaGamer recently removed the All-Ages version of Cho Dengeki Stryker, one of their visual novels, from their website. The adult version can still be downloaded off the MangaGamer website, but the All-Ages version now needs to be purchased via Steam. When asked by a fan why this was the case, MangaGamer provided the following response via their ask.fm account:

     

    “We ran into several issues with our all-ages games (Cho Dengeki, eden*, Princess Evangile, and Go Go Nippon) being rated by the ESRB.

     

    Namely, the ESRB does not allow any adult content (IE our weekly ranking and recommendations bars) to be displayed on any product pages for games rated Mature or lower. As such, we were forced to remove the catalog pages for the above all-ages versions under the threat of fines and penalties. You can still purchase each of them through Steam, though.

     

    In the near future we’ll also be updating our age-gate to accommodate the [Adults Only] games we feature (ef, eden*). Moving forward, we plan to avoid these issues by abstaining from ESRB ratings unless circumstances require them.”

     

    To sum it up, the ESRB does not allow AO content to be displayed on product pages for games rated M and below, which is why Cho Dengeki Stryker had to be taken down. Now, you might ask why MangaGamer didn’t simply have the ESRB rescind their rating for the game, so they could put it back up on their website alongside their adult content. However, it appears the ESRB does not rescind ratings once they’ve been assigned, unless production of the game in question is cancelled.

     

    “To clarify a bit on the ask.fm comment, the ESRB did not demand that catalog pages be removed,” MangaGamer’s John Pickett informed Siliconera. “We were told that we could not have any adult, graphic images displayed on the product pages for our M and T rated titles. Our problem of course, is that what the ESRB was referring to was our Weekly Ranking and Recommendation sidebars, which are automatically updated and adjusted based consumer purchases.”

     

    “So our ‘graphic images’ were being displayed because that’s what our customers have been buying. In order to comply with the ESRB, our options were remove the catalog pages, or undertake a major overhaul of those backend systems that would only inconvenience our customers and make it harder for fans to find products that might interest them. So considering those factors, removing the catalog pages was the only option for us.”

     

    Pickett added, “Probably the biggest, most unanimous reaction our staff had to this issue was ‘Wow, it’s no wonder Steam refuses to handle AO content and remains pretty adamant about keeping it off their platform.’”

     

    With that last statement, Pickett is referring to the fact that most adult visual novels featuring sexual content have to be edited for their Steam release. While games that feature nudity or sexual content in passing like (The Witcher and Mass Effect) are considered acceptable, Sekai Project, another visual publisher that published a censored version of the visual novel Neko Para on Steam, say that games with a focus on sex are not allowed on the store.

     

    Sex aside, AO-rated games might have a future on Steam, although one can’t be certain of this yet. Valve recently allowed an incredibly violent AO-rated shooter—Hatredto be featured on the Store store, making it the first Adults Only game to get that far. While Hatred hasn’t made it past certification yet (the game is scheduled for release in Q2 2015), it should be interesting to see if it manages a Steam release.

    Ishaan Sahdev
    Ishaan specializes in game design/sales analysis. He's the former managing editor of Siliconera and a contributing writer at GamesIndustry.biz. He also used to moonlight as a professional manga editor. These days, his day job has nothing to do with games, but the two inform each other nonetheless.

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