A Developer Asks Why Their Non-Violent Switch Game Was De-Listed for Violence

'The Colonists' is just the latest game to suddenly vanish from the eShop, because its content was deemed more egregious in one part of the world.
Artwork from the video game The Colonists
Image courtesy of Auroch Di

The Colonists, a chill strategy game about robots who tell the human race to screw off and find their own planet, released for Switch on May 4. A week later, the game was removed from the eShop, Switch's online store, in some regions over an "issue" with its ratings. I could buy The Colonists now in the United States, but in certain European countries? Maybe not. 

This is a game where the player can build watchtowers that shoot arrows, but those arrows can only hit buildings—they never attack anything living. What could be the ratings "issue"?

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The problem is a quirk related to the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC). Most people are familiar with the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) ratings, the black and white content icons tucked away on video game boxes. The ESRB is only for games in the United States, and there are different ratings systems in different regions. A roadblock facing developers hoping to release their games internationally is trying to navigate all of those ratings systems, with IARC promising to be a one stop shop that helps guide you through it.

In short, IARC asks developers to self-assess the content of their games, and IARC takes that information and applies the appropriate rating in every region. You're golden. In theory.

However, in this case, IARC invoked its right to personally evaluate the content of a game and change the ratings previously granted. Thus, the ratings changed for The Colonists in Russia and Germany. The game's publisher, Auroch Digital, learned this news on Monday.

"The reason listed for this was 'we have reviewed the product and determined that the game contains violence that wasn't disclosed,'" said Auroch Digital marketing and community manager Jemima Crow.

The IARC determined The Colonists was rated appropriately for everywhere but these two specific regions, and did not provide explicit feedback on what exactly it considered violent.

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"We aren’t certain exactly what violence this is referring to as they do not give specifics," said Crow. "Our guess is that it was the act of firing a projectile (arrow from watchtower) at a building. No robot is ever a direct recipient of violence, they do not get injured or die."

Crow attached a clip of the "violence" featured in The Colonists, the best they can determine might have prompted the IARC to shift how the game's classified in Russia and Germany:

"The random arc of the arrows means that some of the arrows appear to hit the bot inside the watchtower," said Crow. "However, that isn’t how we see it—the theory is that the attacking damage is toward the building’s HP, not the bot inside. The bot is depicted as being angry that his tower is being hit. The arrows aren’t bouncing off him, sticking into him, or causing him pain. That’s our thinking but it’s possible to see that footage and think that there is violence being committed against the bot."

Poor bot, I guess, but pretty cartoonish, all told. In The Colonists, watchtowers can toss out arrows and cannonballs, but they're only used to demolish infrastructure, not robots. Part of the metagame in The Colonists is about a constant tug-of-war over land and resources.

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"I think it is difficult to know how harsh we should be with our ratings," said Crow. "We tried our best to be accurate with our self rating. We felt that this kind of violence was similar to that seen in comparable media for young children."

"You may assess a game's content and think little of some mild curses, or pixelated blood, and select options to say they're minor content," wrote Nintendo Life deputy editor Thomas Whitehead in a recent piece on IARC. "An assessor may deem them to be moderate or severe depending on the word or scene in question, and that change can theoretically have a significant impact on the rating."

Auroch Digital isn't sure what triggered IARC to re-assess the game, but IARC's website does note "certain rating assignments may require post-release modification."

"This isn’t us arguing with the rating at all," said Crow. "We’re just trying to show our thinking for why we self-rated the game like why we did, and guessing as to where the confusion might be."

A day later, Nintendo told Auroch Digital the game was coming down from a few different eShop regions, with no discussion to be had. Nintendo is infamously sensitive about this topic, and The Colonists is not the first game to be unilaterally removed before resolution. 

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Interestingly, Megabyte Punch and The Colonists had issues in the same region: Russia.

None of the content in The Colonists is changing. Only a ratings logo will be shifted. But it still requires a patch, and patches cannot be quickly uploaded to Nintendo's servers. There is a process, and that process can take days (or even weeks) before things go through. All the while, a game like The Colonists, which lined up marketing for its multi-platform release on the same day, cannot point people towards the Switch version in some parts of the world.

"We understand the importance of games ratings, so people know what they are buying," said Crow. "We're doing our best to navigate the systems in place and we are working hard to make the game available to buy again on Switch as soon as we possibly can."

Late last week, The Colonists reappeared (everywhere) on the eShop again.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561)