Axios Gaming

Picture of a gaming controller.

October 24, 2022

Happy Monday.

World's shortest game impressions: Upcoming PlayStation mega-release God of War Ragnarök is slick, but I'm early on; Pokémon Scarlet looks promising enough that I'm cramming on Pokémon battle advantages (confirmed that "bug" > "dark") because I know my kids will want to play this.

Today's edition: 1,186 words, 4.5 minutes.

1 big thing: 20 years as the game ratings boss

Photo illustration of Patricia Vance in front of the ESRB logo and shapes resembling the logo

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Courtesy of ESRB

The video game industry’s most powerful ratings group is in a vastly different spot with parents and politicians than it was two decades ago, its boss, Patricia Vance, tells Axios.

Why it matters: The Entertainment Software Ratings Board serves as an industry-funded, self-regulatory shield. It took hard hits early in Vance’s run, which reaches an impressive 20 years next month.

What they’re saying: “We were under attack from a lot of different sides,” Vance says, reflecting on her early years, when Democrats and Republicans alike were calling for crackdowns on violent games and questioning the efficacy of the ratings group.

  • Vance joined the ESRB as its president in 2002. By 2006, she had testified to Congress three times, during a climate of intense scrutiny for violent media.
  • The ESRB had also been smarting from Federal Trade Commission secret shopper programs that found retailers stopping minors from buying M-rated games just 15% of the time. Vance remembers it as “a pretty strong wake-up call to the industry to get its act together.”
  • And in 2005, a hacker discovered half-finished code on the disc for the M-rated Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The content, which came to be known as “Hot Coffee," enabled an interactive sex scene, triggering the game to be re-rated “Adults Only” and pulled from store shelves.

But the ESRB’s fortunes soon turned.

  • A push by the group to get retailers to enforce game ratings saw those FTC results flip by 2011, when retailers caught 87% of minors’ attempts to buy M-rated games.
  • The GTA incident led to stronger enforcement policy forged in part, Vance notes, by future Obama attorney general Eric Holder. That included the threat of a $1 million fine for publishers who failed to disclose rating-infringing content. “I think we rose to the challenge,” Vance says. (Publishers have cooperated, and the fine has never been triggered.)
  • A 2011 Supreme Court ruling enshrined First Amendment protections for games, defeating government attempts to criminalize the sale of violent games to kids.

The challenge of Vance’s second decade at the ESRB came from gaming itself and the flood of new digitally released titles.

  • “We were not going to be able to keep up, and we had to create a scalable solution,” Vance said.
  • The ESRB had been rating games manually based on text and footage submissions from game publishers — and still does for any game with a physical release.
  • But for digital games, it worked with international partners on a free questionnaire system for developers, licensed by most major gaming storefronts such as Xbox and the Google Play Store, that auto-generates a rating that the ESRB may spot-check later. (Conspicuous holdouts to this process: Apple and Valve.)
  • “Back in 2002, we assigned maybe slightly less than 1,300 ratings a year,” Vance says. “In the last 12 months, we've assigned slightly less than 320,000.”

The big picture: “Parental concerns have evolved a lot,” says Vance.

  • Parents still want to know about content, she says, but the ESRB has seen increased curiosity about whether a game lets players spend money and online gameplay, leading to more rating descriptors about that.
  • And as privacy concerns have risen, this year the ESRB tapped a 20-year FTC veteran to oversee its work ensuring product compliance with privacy laws.

The bottom line: “I'm not sure I'll be here in another 20 years,” Vance says of the future of her run. “But I certainly think the ESRB will.”

2. Console supply constraints loosen

Close-up photo of the top of a PlayStation 5 console

PS5. Image: Sony Interactive Entertainment

U.S. video game industry sales data supports anecdotal reports that supply issues with current gen PlayStation and Xbox consoles are improving.

Driving the news: The NPD group, which tracks U.S. sales, reported $490 million in hardware revenue for September, up 19% from a year ago.

  • That marks the third straight month of increased hardware revenue compared to the same months a year ago, according to NPD analyst Mat Piscatella.
  • NPD cited "double-digit percentage growth for both PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series consoles" for September, even with overall gaming spending down 8% this year.

The bottom line: PS5s and Xbox Series consoles are finally becoming fairly easy to get, as we approach the second anniversary of their launch.

  • Now to see how supply holds up for the holiday rush.

3. Need to know

💰 Original Bayonetta voice actor Hellena Taylor, who recently called for a boycott of the series’ upcoming third release, has now acknowledged that she was offered $15,000 for the title role. That corroborates reporting from last week after her viral boycott plea in which she’d cited a $4,000 offer.

🎤 The SAG/AFTRA union contract for gaming voice actors expires two weeks from today. The union declined to comment on next steps regarding the deal, citing ongoing negotiations.

🎮 The California Civil Rights Department, formerly the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, is celebrating a win after an appeals court turned down Activision’s request to get the organization’s widely publicized gender discrimination suit dismissed on procedural grounds.

  • An Activision rep tells Axios the ruling was “disappointing” but maintains the agency had ignored its own rules “in its rush to file a lawsuit.”
  • Both sides are now asking for the trial, expected to commence in February 2023, to be delayed.

4. How games are made: FIFA 23 edition

In-development video game screenshot showing a soccer player kicking a ball. The image is annotated with the numbers 1-5

FIFA 23 in-development animaiton. Numbers added by Axios. Image: Electronic Arts

The recent leak of in-development footage of Grand Theft Auto VI spurred discussion of how little the public sees or understands what games are like pre-release.

  • So I asked developers if they’d like to share an early image from one of their games and explain it.

Today’s shot is from Electronic Arts’ recently released FIFA 23, as explained to Axios by the game’s creative director Kantcho Doskov.

  • It’s a still of an animation of a soccer player kicking the ball, Doskov notes, grabbed from EA’s Frostbite game development engine.
  • The animator’s job for this shot is to gauge when this particular animation — pulled from scores of motion-capped moves — would look natural for the game to display when the player tries to kick the ball.

Breaking it down:

  1. The skeletal red lines are extrapolated from Xsens motion-capture data generated during a real 11 v 11 match, during which players wear special suits that track them as they compete.
  2. The vertical surfboard shape here is the “IK cage,” or inverse kinematics cage, that establishes a range of how high off the ground the ball could be for the foot contact in this animation to look good (the animation is malleable enough that it can auto-adjust foot position within this range). If the ball was higher, it’d look bad and the game would need to cue a different animation.
  3. Small blue and purple arrows indicate the direction of the player and their momentum, which helps determine which animations can be chained on either end of this and look nice (a sidestep animation wouldn’t link up well, Doskov notes).
  4. The “ball-out” range is set by the animator and again establishes when this animation would look good — in this case based on where the ball might go after the kick.
  5. Most of the animation work here is about feet and ground contact, but the mo-cap data also captures the hands, to establish arm positioning and gestures.
FIFA23 animation in motion
Here it is in motion. Animation: Electronic Arts

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🐦 Find me on Twitter: @stephentotilo.

Thank you to Peter Allen Clark for editing and Kathie Bozanich for copy editing this newsletter.

Nearly fell out of my chair on Friday when I heard AEW pro wrestling announcer Excalibur quip: "Who does Sterling think he is? Trying to trademark the term 'Edge' for video games?" That deepest of cuts goes back more than a decade.