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Friday, July 22, 2005

Good Morning Modder, Have Some Cold Coffee

Bad mood morning:

But some in the industry are now wondering about the ratings implications posed by mods after a Dutch programmer created one that unlocks a hidden sex level in the violent action game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." After all, video games aren't like the feature films you see in the theater or get on a DVD. They're made of software code. They're malleable.
-- Video game 'mods' scrutinized after ratings flap


"I tip my cap to that first step of showing responsibility," said Tim Winter, the council's executive director. "Phase two needs to be absolutely getting to the bottom of this coding issue. How did it get into that game? How did it get past the ratings board?"
-- Game's rating change a sign of things to come? [msnbc]


When the smoke clears around the Grand Theft Auto sex scandal, the innocent bystanders of the collision between politics, puritans and corporate dissembling may prove to be the community of "modders" who tinker with game content for their own amusement.
-- Game Over for Modders? [wired]


Sen. Hillary Clinton has called for an FTC investigation of the whole affair, but Take Two is trying to keep attention on the modders. Spokesman Jim Ankner won't say whether the company is removing the sexual content from the new discs (it is if it wants an M rating, the ESRB says) but instead emphasizes that the next release will have "enhanced security" against hackers like Wildenborg.
-- Game Over for Modders? [wired]


Take Two isn't the only one blaming the modders. In its Wednesday press release, the ESRB said it "calls on the computer and video-game industry to proactively protect their games from illegal modifications by third parties, particularly when they serve to undermine the accuracy of the rating."

"That parent doesn't necessarily know that mods are available for their 13-year-old to go out and find that could radically change the product," said ESRB vice president Patricia Vance. "If the rating itself is being undermined by third-party modification, I think we as an industry need to figure out what to do about that."
-- Game Over for Modders? [wired]

...and finally:

Adding even a small measure of technical protection to games could make modding a violation of the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act, says Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Fred von Lohmann. But suing modders misses the point, he argues. "It's not the modders who have done something wrong here.... After all, the content was in the game. If the game publisher was really, sincerely interested in preventing this kind of use of the game, then there's nobody in a better position to scrub the code than the guys who wrote it.
-- Game Over for Modders? [wired]

All emphasis mine.

That last one is the core rallying cry of everyone pissed at Rockstar. Costik even quotes up after that to suggest that going after modders is insanity.

The problem is, guys like Costik might just be realizing that the insanity is just where their browbeating of Rockstar is leading us. When the ESRB themselves are saying that if a kid can alter the content of a game in violation of the EULA, then it's the responsibility of the company to insure those alterations don't modify their rating .... well, modders have a problem. If a kid in his basement with a hex editor can cost a company millions in sales with a modification, do you really think companies are going to be as interested in offering tools and technical advice for kids to do the same? The days of Counter-Strike are over. Mods are no longer a major selling asset, they're merely a value add to a retail box with low risk to the parent company and great opportunity to find upcoming talent. But neither of those benefits are worth the risk of having a couple of kid take your game, turn it into a sexy romp and then become the focal point of Congressional hearing.

Perhaps all the fallout will become "publishers are responsible for all content on a disc - hidden or otherwise" ... but that's not where people like Vance are pushing. And Take Two has a valid point. They didn't break the ESRB with their product, the modification ... beyond the allowance of the EULA did.

The ESRB isn't saying "bad Rockstar for leaving this content intact", they're saying "bad Rockstar for not enforcing your EULA".

And that EULA means ... don't modify Grand Theft Auto.

So, hey. Thanks Greg and everyone else who decided this was a great time to point the finger at someone else in the industry. As a long time modder, it was really nice to see industry figures be so quick to jump to the attack without really thinking the issue through. You've all put the relationship between modders and games at fairly considerable risk. Modders go head to head with their EULA constantly, but that didn't use to be the software industry's problem. Now it is.

And for what?

For what? What did you gain? Did you look good for the parental control groups? Did you teach Rockstar a lesson about version control? Has anyone really thought to themselves, "well at least now the children are safe".

Yeah. Right. Quite literally, thanks for nothing.


Troy Goodfellow said...

Leaning on the EULA is a little silly since, first, it's not even clear that these things are enforceable, and second, Take Two and Rockstar are known for being mod friendly and intentionally design their games with fairly open architecture. The EULA, I assume, prohibits all kinds of stuff that they actually and explicitly encourage. (Does anyone even read them?)

I think that a lot of this "mods are in danger!" stuff is more fearmongering than anything else. I've seen nothing in the ESRB ruling to justify these fears. Mods are already policed by copyright and trademark laws, and most are fairly innocuous anyway.

I just can't see the ESRB expanding its role to include the policing of all user created/modified content. The work involved would be immense and this takes us well beyond what the organization is designed for. And even in this case, they waited for over two weeks before stepping in to review the content. This is not an organization that likes doing things. I doubt that the renewed vigilance will have much serious impact beyond this year.

Josh said...

People do read them and companies do take the EULA extremely seriously if they feel the ramifications justify it. And they are quite enforceable, as companies like Microsoft have proven time and time again.

In fact, any modder who doesn't read their EULA carefully is pretty much begging for trouble. "Read your EULA" was a frequent mantra during the last Make Something Unreal Contest as mod teams had to figure out the best way to distribute their code.

And I don't see how it's fearmongering when the president of the ESRB herself is focusing on the impact mods can have on the integrity of the ESRB rating. Of course they won't police mods - they'll force publishers to do that for them.

Or, they'll issue a new rating based on content from mods. And the publishers will probably listen to it. Why? Because sure, most mods are innocous.

But this one came with a multi-million dollar price tag.

Corvus said...

Don't forget, though, that it came with a billion dollar price tag because the textures and game code shipped on the official product. Had this been just another 100% pure fan creation, it would have been a tiny blip on the radar.

Josh said...

I still disagree there C.

The consumer groups, lawyers and politicians have never really shown any sign of caring about that fact. It's been a point of interest to gamers and people in the game dev community, but from the other side of the fence: porn is porn.

They don't care if the porn came from Rockstar, the mod community or the moon. To them, they just see a game that is porn.

This didn't start because of any of the content being on the disc. It got started before that. It was already past a blip before the PS2 version of the mod came out. And now the ESRB has let the door open for even more to happen.

Unless the ESRB distinctly clarifies that their judgement is based solely on content shipped ... hidden or not, then this will have a pretty serious impact.

And right now, they aren't going down that path.

Corvus said...

I take you point, but I think it became more than a blip due to the question as to the origin of the content. It was the flurry over the nature of the mod that caught the attention of the mainstream, wasn't it?

Josh said...

I think only in gaming circles was it of interest. In mainstream ... sex sells and GTA is controversial. You don't really need much more excuse than that. None of the mainstream stuff sounds very focused on the origin of the content.

And now we have Thomspon attacking the Sims. So clearly the witch-hunters aren't going to stop due to this distinction. And since the ESRB isn't making that distinction either ... it's not looking good.