The Entertainment Software Rating Board has just posted the ratings breakdown of games published in 2010. As you can see in the chart above, a little more than half of all games received the all-ages rating, while games rated E10+ and teen were fairly even at around 20% each.
Games rated mature only made up 5% of all games released this past year, a statistic which may surprise you. With how much drama is drummed up in the media, you would think that most games were hyper-macho bloodsports filled with enough raw sexual energy to make even Dr. Ruth bow her head in shame. In reality, those games are but a drop in the pond.
I personally am not surprised. Mature games have never taken up a large slice of the pie. There was a peak in 2004 and 2005, during which 12% of all published games were rated M, and after which the percentage kept declining. What does surprise me is how M-rated games are able to gather the lion's share of consumer and enthusiast press awareness despite their relative rarity.
What were some of the biggest games of 2010? Off the top of my head, I can think of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Red Dead Redemption, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Mass Effect 2, and Halo: Reach, only one of which is not M-rated. I could probably think of more, pulling from the download space and the pool of critical darlings like Donkey Kong Country Returns that don't run up a high, bloody body count. However, when it comes to the BIGGEST sellers of the year, the one's that pull in the big bucks and walk away with the end-of-year awards... c'mon! Let's be real! And other recent years would be no different.
Why do these games typically have the biggest sales despite carrying an age rating one would think would handicap them? After all, PG-13-rated films do loads better than R-rated films in the box office because of the wider audience net they're able to cast. And why are the best-scoring games of the year typically the one's with the big M slapped on the cover?
I don't want to be cynical and declare that these games succeed merely on shock value, because it's so easy to dig up proof that being shocking for the sake of it doesn't work. No, these are games that receive the biggest budgets, the best development teams, and the most lenient time schedules. These are the games that publishers want to be the biggest of the year, and they do everything they can up to launch to ensure those results.
Save for the odd Nintendo first-party title, the marquee titles are directed squarely at the adult market. In a way, I can understand the logic behind wanting to court the older consumers who may be a little more discerning in their choice of entertainment. But why does this have to be at the expense of quality entertainment targeting a broader spectrum? We've seen surprise hits in recent years from dance games to simple iOS and Facebook apps, but their successes are brushed aside for "pandering."
When did dark and gritty become "legit gaming" and colorful and friendly become "lowest common denominator gaming"? Epic Mickey may have been E-rated, yet its hook was that it was a darker, more sinister take on the world of Disney. Would anyone have anticipated the game as much if it was as light and fluffy as any other Disney game, all other things being equal? Why won't Cliff Bleszinski do another game in the vein of Jazz Jackrabbit? Why does it seem like all the big-name developers who had their roots in family-friendly fare decided to go running full sprint in the opposite direction and never look back?
Will there ever be a day when a non-Nintendo game staring some bright-eyed young hero with a heart of gold can once again be as highly anticipated as the latest open-world shooter with underworld dealings and explicit content? With most games taking a lighter approach, there damn well ought to be.