Many PlayStation owners received a system notification on Thursday that the frenetic arcade-style shooter Super Stardust Ultra is getting bumped up from an ESRB rating of E to E10+. A video game's rating doesn't usually change after it's been released. In this case, strangely, the rating will change even though, for some people, the game will not.
Super Stardust Ultra
The reasons this is happening aren't fully clear, though we've pieced it together as well as we could. Some of it is due to a content change, as the addition of a first-person VR mode -- which will only be available to people who already own the game if they pay to download/unlock it -- warrants a stricter rating. But it also appears to involve the idea that ESRB ratings don't just pertain to the games you can play but to the files you have on your console, even if you can't access all of them.
The straightforward part of this unusual ratings change involves a change of content. Super Stardust Ultra, which was released in 2015, is a top-down shooter, a bloodless game that merited nothing more severe than an E rating. A new virtual reality mode that will be released to coincide with the launch of the PlayStation 4's PSVR headset next week, will drop players into a first-person VR perspective. First-person games tend to have stricter ratings.
It is that content change, a Sony rep told Kotaku, that was the reason for the ratings bump from E to E10+. That mode isn't being given out for free. Owners of the game have to pay to access it. Alternately, a more expensive $US20 ($26) version of the game will come with it.
The odder part of this is that the rating will change for anyone who has the game and connects it to the Internet, even if they don't actually get access to the first-person VR mode.
"Users who do not have VR will still be able to purchase the original SSDU for $US12.99 ($17), but it will automatically patch when connected online to the updated parental controls for the E10+ rating," the Sony rep told us.
While it might seem strange that Super Stardust's game's rating could change even for players who don't get the VR mode, it makes a little more sense when one considers how game patches and ESRB ratings work.
Modern game patches often include the data for modes and levels that will be sold as paid downloadable content, meaning that Super Stardust owners who get the patch are likely going to be downloading the files for the VR mode, even if they won't have access to them. In situations like these, paying for the DLC just means unlocking access to files that are already on the player's console.
Super Stardust Ultra's new first-person VR mode, which will be available as DLC for the $US13 ($17) non-VR version of the game or as part of a new $US20 ($26) version of the entire game, VR mode and all.
As for the ESRB ratings, they don't just govern what a player can access. They also cover other gaming content on the player's game disc, or, in this case, presumably, what is bundled as part of a download. An ESRB spokesperson told Kotaku that they couldn't speculate on why the rating for Super Stardust's non-VR base game would be changing, but noted that 'if the DLC is delivered in part via a mandatory patch, that could be a contributing factor."
The ESRB is the U.S. gaming industry's official ratings board. Publishers consent to have their games rated to provide retailers and players guidance about which age group a game's content is appropriate for. Over the past decade or so, the ESRB has been adamant about applying its ratings to the full contents of a game, even a game's hidden or locked off parts.
That vigilance goes back at least to the 2005 "Hot Coffee" fiasco, in which a person sifting through the files for Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas discovered an otherwise-inaccessible, half-made sex mini-game on the game's disc. After the player made it accessible with a mod the ESRB bumped the game's rating from Mature to Adults Only. To get the rating down to an M, GTA's publisher printed new San Andreas discs that excluded the "hot coffee" sex game code.
According to a 2005 Gamasutra story, the ESRB sent a letter to publishers reminding them that "pertinent content shipped on the game disc that may be relevant to a rating must be disclosed to ESRB, even if it is not intended to ever be accessed during game play."
Presumably, any 2016 game patch that contains content that would be accessible simply by paying for it would also be covered by an ESRB rating, though this is not something we've been able to get the ESRB to spell out in quite such clear terms as of the publication of this post.
Kotaku had explored one other possibility for the rating change: the addition of VR. When users of the new PlayStation VR headset first boot up a game, an on-screen notice warns them that "the VR headset is not for use by children under 12."
The ESRB rep said, however, that VR alone will not inherently elevate a game's rating. "Hardware alone does not impact a rating," they said, "While we encourage parents to adhere to any health advisories from manufacturers, we have rated VR games E in the past because of the nature of the content, and will continue to do so in the future as long as it is warranted by the content."
VR alone doesn't change a game's rating. What we have here, though, is a rare glimpse at the fact that, in this age of digital releases and constant patches, a game's rating could change with nothing more than the addition of new files downloaded to your console the next time you boot the game up. You might hardly notice a difference or see a reason in the game for the change, though it's certainly nice when your PlayStation warns you.