For years, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB)’s human classifiers and testers used to watch a DVD submitted by game developers containing all the sexual explicit, offensive language or violent scenes. Afterwards, they would rate the game based on what they watched on the DVD.

According to the New York Times, the ESRB is about to change the way they classify XBox Live, PlayStation, Wii and DSi games. The game-rating system will remain the same. What is going to change is how the digitally-distributed games are classified. PC Games will be rated the old way.

Starting today, Monday, the ESRB will rate console games not through human game classifiers, but through computer algorithms. Basically, the game developers — such as Blizzard Entertainment — will submit a questionnaire to the ESRB.

This questionnaire is divided into the following sections: offensive language, sexuality, smoking, alcohol, and others. Each category will contain sub-categories with the purpose to disclose as much information about the game content as possible.

Once game developers submit this questionnaire, a computer algorithm will automatically set a game rating.

How does this affects Blizzard Entertainment?

Blizzard Entertainment is currently hiring console developers to explore the porting of Diablo III to consoles: PS3, XBox 360, etc. In addition, while some of their current games in development have not been officially announced, some will very likely be ported to consoles.

The way this new ESRB might affect upcoming Blizzard Entertainment games is not necessarily bad. What this means is that games might be able to ship sooner — which is amazing news.

How’s that? Once Blizzard Entertainment submits a questionnaire to the ESRB, their game rating algorithm will automatically rate the game.

Through the old-way, the ESRB might spend a long time before taking a look at a Blizzard game (keep in mind there could be a mile-long waiting queue). The ERSB would test, and rate the game, and there might be some extra time before the ESRB got back to Blizzard. Starting today, all that time-consuming process is now bypassed. It’s automatic.

What is not clear in the ESRB press release is whether downloadable games (known as digitally-distributed games) such as those available from Steam and might use this computer algorithm automatic rating process at some point. In theory, Blizzard Entertainment could ship games digitally via (automatically ESRB-rated), and set up a later time to ship the DVD to stores around the world to meet the official DVD release date.

Last year, Blizzard let players download World of Warcraft: Cataclysm digitally, and players were able to play the game right away at the official release date without having to spend all night at a retail store. Imagine if you could download a new Blizzard game and play a few weeks before it even reaches the retail stores.

To break it down in player terms: “ZOMG! Diablo III on Xbox Live/PS3 sooner!” — of course, if Blizzard is happy with their efforts to bring Diablo III to consoles.

In short, the ESRB is doing a good service to game developers by quickening the rating process of downloadable games.

The ESRB will continue to test the games the old fashion way, with human testers, after the automatic rating. However, at a later time merely to make sure the questionnaire disclosure submitted by the game developer was complete and accurate.

While this new automatic process might cause controversy, game developers will have to adhere tightly to the questionnaire, and make sure they are providing correct info. Not disclosing accurate info might result in severe penalties.

Sounds like a win-win scenario for both the studios and the consumer.

This is the press release issued by ESRB via Facebook:

    Video Game Rating Board Positioning Itself for the Future with Scalable Content Rating Process

    The ESRB is announcing the introduction of a new streamlined rating process for games that will only be sold and downloaded through console and handheld storefronts such as Microsoft Xbox LIVE® Arcade, Nintendo Wii® or DSi™ Shop and Sony PlayStation® Store. These games will receive the same recognizable ESRB ratings via a process whose efficiency and ease of use provides the scalability necessary to address the steady increase of games delivered digitally across an ever-expanding multitude of new devices and outlets.

    Starting today, publishers of these downloadable games will complete a different submission form than is used for all other games. The new form contains a series of multiple choice questions designed to assess content across all relevant categories, such as violence, sexual content and language, among others. The questions also address important contextual factors such as the game’s realism and visual style, its incentives (i.e., whether a certain action is meant to be avoided or results in failure), the player’s perspective (i.e., omniscient, distant or third person vs. immersed, close-up or first person), and more. The responses provided determine the game’s rating, which is issued to the publisher as soon as a DVD reflecting all disclosed content is received by ESRB. All other types of games will continue to undergo the traditional rating process, which involves completion of a more open-ended questionnaire and review of a content DVD by a minimum of three raters who reach consensus on the appropriate rating.

    “The ESRB rating process that has been in use since 1994 was devised before the explosion in the number of digitally delivered games and devices on which to play them. These games, many of which tend to be casual in nature, are being produced in increasing numbers, by thousands of developers, and generally at lower costs,” said ESRB president Patricia Vance. “This new rating process considers the very same elements weighed by our raters. The biggest difference is in our ability to scale this system as necessary while keeping our services affordable and accessible.”

    All games rated via this new process will be tested by ESRB staff shortly after they are made publicly available to verify that disclosure was complete and accurate. In the event that content was not fully disclosed during this process, the rating displayed in the console or handheld store will be promptly corrected. In egregious cases of nondisclosure – which include a deliberate effort to misinform the ESRB – the game and all of its promotional materials will be removed from the store through which it is being sold, pending its resubmission to ESRB.

    “Our rating system is widely considered to be among the most effective in the world, and ESRB continues to be an exemplary model of self-regulation,” continued Vance. “We serve a rapidly growing and evolving industry, and it is incumbent upon us to continually adapt along with it. This new process for downloadable games helps position ESRB for a future that promises an ever-expanding market for games while allowing us to continue empowering parents with the ability to determine which ones are OK for their children to play.”