Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Rockstar Fucked Up, Yo...

I've been reading a lot of forum posts talking about the Hot Coffee mod, and gamers have been speculating that Rockstar is "loving every minute of this" free publicity they are getting. It may be easy to jump to the conclusion that all this attention will translate into more sales for Rockstar (in the "any publicity is good publicity" mode of thought) but it's not as simple as that. This could have far-reaching consequences for the game industry as a whole, and a lot of my colleagues I've been talking to are pissed at Rockstar for this. Here's why:

The ESRB is responsible for assigning accurate ratings for every video game that is published, based on what they consider acceptable standards for content across multiple demographics. Therefore, publishers and developers must communicate and make available to the ratings board every byte of content in their games. Smart publishers know that they need to be upfront with the ESRB about possibly objectionable content, rather than leave their testers to stumble upon it. For example, the portrayal of blood, gore, and physical violence is a very important factor in determining whether or not a game should get a "T" or an "M" rating. The standards are detailed, and very sensitive, and have to take into account myriad factors regarding the portrayal in order to arrive at an acceptable rating. Publishers pushing for a "T" rating (the most popular rating for games, even violent ones, since "M" rated games sometimes are hard to get into more conservative-minded retailers, such as Walmart) may have to scale back portrayals of violence in order to avoid the "M." (The "AO" rating isn't even an option - it's considered on par with the NC-17 rating in the film industry - i.e. box office death.) A few examples of the kinds of things we have to manage: the amount of blood, how it sprays or flows, how long corpses last on screen, whether blood sprays on walls or pools on the floor, whether blood sprays look "cartoony" or "realistic," whether headshots are more gory than body shots. There are dozens more factors to consider. Just like Quentin Tarantino had to make some his goriest scenes in Kill Bill black and white in order to get an R rating, game developers and publishers must also, at times, tone down the blood, remove gibs, or otherwise change their content to get a "T" or "M" rating.

When publishers submit a game for ESRB review, they either have to take video footage of every level, environment, and menu of the game and submit that with a build, or give them cheat codes and access to all levels. They must also tell them about easter eggs, hidden content, unlockable content, etc. The ESRB must know, and should know everything.

Either Rockstar made the content that first emerged from the "Hot Coffee" mod available to the ESRB, and the ESRB chose to render an "M" rating with it, or Rockstar kept the content a secret from the ESRB. Maybe Rockstar kept the content a secret from Take Two's internal QA or publishing apparatus as well. (I'm not familiar with their corporate procedures.) I have a strong suspicion that, had the ESRB known about unlockable content that featured graphic simulated sex acts, they would have asked Rockstar to modify it. I know of games where the developer hid easter egg content from their publisher before. I also know of at least one situation where the developer accidentally left unused assets in the final build - assets that were objectionable - and the publisher had to scramble to remove them in order to go gold.

Regardless of where the fault lies, and although this may translate into a temporary blip in sales for GTA:SA as gamers scramble to snatch up the few remaining copies of the uncensored game, make no mistake - this is a massive PR blunder on the part of Rockstar and it could have far-reaching implications for freedom of expression in future games. At best, it will allow the morality police to feel confident in what they misguidedly believe already - that games are depraved. At worst, it will invite an unprecedented level of government scrutiny on our industry, and that's what's most worrisome.

Rockstar's primary blunder was in their initial statement regarding the Hot Coffee "mod." They made it sound like the modder violated the EULA and used all sorts of hackerish skullduggery in order to inject the game with this content. When we learned that the content was unlockable in the PS2 version, though, Rockstar was caught red-handed. The sex scenes weren't reverse-engineered, fan-created content, as Rockstar seemed to want us to believe...they were hidden, unlockable content that someone, somewhere at Rockstar took the time to create. The fact that it lay hidden is why this is such a colossal mess.

The game industry must hold itself to a higher standard for self-regulation than the music or movie industries. Why? Because movies are immutable, static content, and the venues by which consumers access this content (theaters, DVDs) do not allow for modification. However, computer games are dynamic content, and can be modified at any time, either through official means (patches, map packs) or unofficial means (mods). Though this is only true for PC games at the moment (i.e. console games are unmoddable like movies), it will become true for the next generation of consoles, which will have more established online support and near ubiquitous hard drive support, which will give publishers and developers the possibility of adding or modifying content through patches, add-ons, etc. (Yes, all you smug console jockeys who snort at the PC gamers and their patch will soon know their pain, too. I do not foresee publishers allowing console-based mods with the next generation of hardware, but it could happen down the road, as set-top consoles become more and more like PCs.)

It is the responsibility of game publishers and developers to insure that the content they deliver - even hidden, unlockable, officially downloadable, or unused/innactive content - undergoes the full scrutiny of the ESRB. I firmly believe the ESRB is a diligent, professional organization committed to the best interests of both the industry that creates games, and the public that consumes them. They will no doubt take the most heat from this debacle, but part of their job is to run the gauntlet on behalf of publishers and developers everywhere who entrust them with the task of rating our games. If the ESRB's ratings system holds no meaning for people, then it must be revised, so that our customers can have faith in us again (even if the mounting evidence that parents either don't know about game ratings or deliberately ignore them is true).

America has weathered the constant presence of reactionary moralists pervading government and society over the course of its history, and there is no evidence to suggest that these kind of people are going to go away. We must not, as an industry, be so cavalier with our ratings system as Rockstar appears to have been with GTA:SA, because it will only give the moralists the fuel their histrionic fires of outrage demand. They would like nothing better than to clamp down on our expression, if not shut us down entirely. (I'm thinking of US Senator Joe Lieberman, California State Assemblyman Leland Yee, and, most recently, US Senator Hillary Freakin' Clinton). There will always be people who don't want to see sex or violence in ANY media, regardless of its rating, intended audience, or distribution medium. If we as an industry have our ducks in a row, maintain our own vigilance against depravity and comply with the ESRB's rules, we can calmly point to our own checks and balances and ask the moralists to calm down (they won't but that's neither here nor there). But when the system breaks down, there is little we can do as an industry to counter their attacks. Because, at some level, whether it was at Rockstar, Take Two, the ESRB, or all three organizations, it appears that the system may have broken down.