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Why your favorite indie game may not get a boxed edition

Why your favorite indie game may not get a boxed edition
From Engadget - November 13, 2017

Before September, it was possible to launch a boxed version of an existing, digital-only game without paying for an additional ESRB rating. This policy allowed Limited Run to be a lean operation, avoiding ESRB fees and still releasing physical versions of weird digital games (all of which are already rated by the ESRB).

In September, the board announced a new tier for rating digital-to-physical games, allowing any title with a development budget of $1 million or less to be rated as a boxed product for $3,000, rather than the standard submission price of more than $10,000. With this change, all three console manufacturers made it a requirement for every game to pay this fee and carry an ESRB rating -- even physical launches of digital titles.

"Obtaining ESRB assigned age and content ratings has always been voluntary," an ESRB spokesperson tells Engadget. "That said, many US retailers, including most major chains, have policies to only stock or sell games that carry an ESRB rating, and console manufacturers have typically required games that are published on their systems to be rated by ESRB."

In this case, "voluntary" is a complicated term. Developers are not legally required to slap an ESRB rating on their games, but without one, they are shut out of the mainstream marketplace.

"There's no nice way to put it; they basically have a monopoly," Douglas Bogart, co-founder of Limited Run Games, says about the ESRB. "There's no one above them. You have to follow their rules. Your business basically lives or dies by their whim, which is really scary, in my opinion."

Limited Run Games specializes in producing physical copies of otherwise digital-only, independent console games, in small batches. These are collectors' items for fans of cult hits, strange projects and underappreciated gems. The whole endeavor is meant to preserve the indie industry for posterity. With hundreds of new games coming out nearly every day, it's easy to lose a tiny, digital-only title into the ether -- unless its box is sitting on your shelf, snuggled between Halo and Zelda.

The new mandate is a hurdle for Limited Run, which attempts to cover production fees for all of the indie games they box up, taking a portion of the profits afterward. Since Limited Run sells the physical editions through their own storefront, they have historically not needed to secure additional ESRB ratings or pay any fees. Now, Limited Run and the developers they work with are required to pay at least $3,000 to the ESRB if they want to get physical.

"We ca not just sign any game we want any more solely based on whether we liked it or not," Bogart says. "It needs to have a broader appeal so it can sell more units. Basically, this killed off small-run indie games. Video games have a high cost as it is and then adding that ESRB fee on top of it, pretty much makes it unfeasible."

Some indie developers hit it big with a sub-$1 million game, and for them, the new tier is a great discount. However, for many small developers, $3,000 is an insurmountable barrier.

"That's a whole month's salary for some developers, or funding for their next game," Bogart says. "Some of these people are literally living meal-to-meal."

Limited Run co-founder Josh Fairhurst adds, "The physical release that we are putting out could be the difference between them living another day as game developers or closing up shop and going back to something else. I think that what we are doing in terms of making them money is really important."

And then there's the necessary Long Form rating process itself, which can add months to a boxed edition's release schedule.

"It takes considerably longer now to get a game through the entire process to market, and it also hurts the developer on how much money they are getting," Bogart says. "It's delayed a lot of our stuff, which, as a business, hurts."

For AAA and mid-size publishers, the new, discounted rate for digital-to-physical games is a net positive -- if they publish a game that cost less than $1 million to make, they get to save a few thousand dollars in rating fees. Small indies, however, are now on the hook for at least $3,000 if they want to release a physical product through a service like Limited Run, iam8bit or Special Reserve Games.

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