Fri. Mar 24th, 2023
Sell ​​It Elsewhere: How Retailer Restrictions Affect the Game Market

Aurich Lawson

In 2011, video games as a medium scored some major victories against government censorship. In the US, a landmark Supreme Court case gave games full First Amendment protection, invalidating a litany of state attempts to restrict the sale of certain games to minors. Meanwhile, warring states in Australia finally came to an agreement to introduce an R18+ rating in 2011, eventually allowing the sale of violent and sexually explicit games that had previously been “refused to be rated” and therefore no longer for sale in the country .

While these specters of government censorship are gone, retailers and platform owners often still impose their own restrictions on what kind of content they are willing to sell, making the games in question less commercially viable and more difficult to obtain in some cases.

These content-based distribution issues have been in the news a lot lately. A few weeks ago, Target Australia and Kmart Australia started taking down Grand Theft Auto V from store shelves, following a popular online petition against the game’s depiction of violence against sex workers.

Then, last week, Apple required developer Lucas Pope to cover up some brief nudity in the iPad version of the indie title Papers, please. Although Apple later reversed itself, calling the initial decision a “misunderstanding,” the move highlighted the company’s long-standing restrictions on adult and political content in its App Store games.

To wrap up the mini-wave of news, Valve decided to remove the controversial shooter Hate from Steam’s Greenlight section earlier this week, despite seemingly healthy interest from fan votes. “Based on what we saw on Greenlight, we wouldn’t publish Hate on Steam,” Valve said of the game, which encourages and enjoys the indiscriminate killing of random civilians. The company reversed its decision yesterday, adding further uncertainty to their stance on what content is and isn’t acceptable on the service .

How much do these kinds of distribution restrictions affect what kinds of games get made and what don’t? And should gamers be concerned about the power that retailers and platform holders have to potentially disrupt the market for games in general?

“Just sell it somewhere else”

Clearly, none of these individual corporate decisions equate to government censorship on what kinds of games are allowed to be made or sold. Retailers and platform owners have the final say in what products can appear on their storefronts, and they shouldn’t be heavily armed to sell something they don’t approve of for any reason. Game makers can still make whatever they want, even if they’re forced to distribute it themselves or sell it through another, less restrictive retailer. Australian Target and Kmart’s decisions are by no means limited Grand Theft Auto V‘s reach in that country materially – EB Games Australia will still be happy to sell the game to Aussies, for example.

On PC, even Steam’s leadership position doesn’t amount to a controlling monopoly that restricts what content can and can’t be created or easily obtained. When the raw, AO-rated Manhunt 2 was not on Steam and some other PC download services. For example, interested gamers could still find it via competitor Direct2Drive (for a while) and GamersGate.

But decisions by retailers still have an impact. For example, Steam’s disproportionate size and scale in the PC game sales space — 70 percent of the market or more by some estimates — can make it much more difficult for a game to succeed without Valve’s backing. “It’s just not possible to live in this industry without Steam, so I’m just out,” Paranautic activity developer Mike Maulbeck tweeted after his game was removed from Steam, the result of threats against Valve co-founder Gabe Newell.

Het is misschien moeilijk om de onbewerkte, AO-gecertificeerde versie van <i>man hunt 2</i> but it is still available on GamersGate.” src=”×580.png” width=”640″ height=” 580″ srcset=” 2x”/><figcaption class=
Enlarge / It can be hard to find the raw, AO-rated version of Manhunt 2but it is still available on GamersGate.

What is allowed?

The fact that Valve doesn’t provide detailed guidance on what’s appropriate in Greenlight games – beyond the vague claim that they should “contain no objectionable material” – means developers are left in the dark about what isn’t allowed. So far we only know that Hate was briefly unacceptable, and that the “erotic strategy game” Seduce me is undoubtedly about Valve’s line. “Steam has never been a leading destination for erotic content,” Valve’s chief spokesperson Doug Lombardi told Kotaku when Seduce me was removed from Greenlight. “Greenlight is not intended to change that.”

The limits of the “sell it somewhere else” argument really come into play when one company runs an entire platform. In Apple’s case, the only legitimate way to distribute games on an iDevice is to get Apple’s permission to list it on the App Store. Telling a game maker who has been banned from the App Store that he can still put his game on Android or another platform only goes so far as Apple has effectively cut that developer off from a large mobile ecosystem with unique features and hundreds of millions of embedded customers.

Apple’s restrictions also include a double standard; they apply to titles in the App Store, but not to books, movies, or music distributed through iTunes. Those other media can have as much nudity, violence, swearing, and “adult content” as they want and still be fine on an iDevice. “We view apps differently than books or songs, which we don’t curate,” Apple wrote in its first set of App Store Review Guidelines. “If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to criticize sex, write a book or a song, or make a medical app.”

Such wording recalls recent government attempts to restrict the sale of video games while allowing similar content in more established media outlets. And when Apple decides to reject games for political or PR reasons, rather than family friendliness, it raises concerns about a chilling effect on the kinds of games that can be commercially viable in the mobile space.

Faced with these kinds of inconsistent limitations, games will never reach their full potential as a medium. Even those who hate Hate might worry about the effects such vague limits will have on the next developer looking to create a more artistically significant title that pushes the boundaries of gaming.

“It’s one thing for a person not to want to buy a piece of content, which is totally understandable,” said Take-Two Interactive President Karl Slatoff at the BMO Capital Markets Technology and Digital Media Conference in the wake of GTA V‘s removal from Australian retailers (as reported by Gamestop). “But for an individual or a group of people to try and make that decision in front of millions of people…we have 34 million people who have bought Grand Theft Auto V. If these people had their way, none of those people could buy Grand Theft Auto. And that really goes against everything that free society is based on. It’s freedom of speech, and to try and suppress that is a very dangerous and slippery slope to go down.”

The united front against the AO rating

Even individual business decisions on individual storefronts can come close to one de facto if a critical mass of decision-makers introduces the same kinds of restrictions. Look no further than the current console market in the United States; Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all automatically refuse to allow games that receive an Adults Only rating from the ESRB on their systems. The effects of this united front most famously played out then Manhunt 2 was rated AO and only reached consoles in an edited, M-rated form.

Sure, you could argue that creators of AO-rated games can still move to unrestricted platforms like the PC, but having certain games and content completely unavailable to the console market as a whole remains a major limitation. You could also argue that these decisions only affect the handful of games that actually received an AO rating, but you might as well look at the unknown number of games that didn’t get made because developers knew that the “Adults Only content would. never fly on consoles. Isn’t the whole point of an industry-run rating regime to educate consumers about their entertainment choices, rather than putting limits on what games can be made available to large segments of the market?

The movie industry has been through similar battles. In the early years of the MPAA rating system, theaters were en masse refused to show films given the pornography-connoting X rating, and most newspapers refused to advertise them. It wasn’t until 1990 that the MPAA introduced the NC-17 rating for adult films that were not just pure pornography. While many theaters still refuse to show NC-17 films, films with the rating have at least some chance of commercial impact, especially through “unrated edition” home video releases. Today, the NC-17 rating is used quite a bit every year, although the impact of the rating on a film’s commercial prospects is still controversial.

That the gaming industry is going through its own growing pains in terms of what can be sold is another sign that it’s hit the big time. It’s also a sign that in many corners the industry is still growing out of its “kids-only” (or even “primarily kids”) image. It will probably take a generational change – and a few more “mature” games with undeniable artistic merit and broad appeal beyond shock value – before retailers and platform holders as a whole become less wary of limiting themselves.

By akfire1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.