The ESRB won't look at downloadable games until after release, following a change in its the rating procedure.
The difficult and largely thankless task of applying ratings to videogames will no longer be the work of humans - at least, not the humans at the ESRB, anyway. The ESRB has set up an automated system that will apply a rating based on a number of different criteria.
Anyone who submits an online game for rating will have to answer a number of questions in order to gauge just how strong or mild the game's content actually is. There are a number of categories, such as offensive language, violence and sexual content, which in turn break down into sub-categories. The section dealing with offensive language, for example, splits into six different areas, which include racial slurs, toilet humor, and rather oddly, an entire category for the word "ass." Publishers will also have to submit a DVD of the game's worst content, and once that is received the ESRB will issue the rating
The software that assigns ratings is supposedly designed to react like a typical American consumer, which is probably a lot less ominous than it sounds. There will be penalties dished out for publishers or developers who submit incorrect information on the questionnaire, and someone at the ESRB will play each game shortly after it is released to the public to make sure that everything is on the level. Presumably, this will be a fairly short play session, rather than an in-depth review, as that would rather defeat the point of the questionnaire. This new system will not affect retail games, which will still be rated by the usual method of three different raters watching DVDs of the game's content and assigning a rating based on what they've seen.
ESRB president Patrica Vance said that the system that the ESRB uses was put in place in 1994, long before the advent of online gaming. She added that the new system looked at the same elements as the old one did, but was more "affordable and accessible." It's not hard to see why the ESRB would want to automate some aspect of the rating process - there is only so much time in the day, and over the course of a year, the ESRB looks at hundreds of games - but waiting until after release to play the game sounds like an accident waiting to happen.