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Saturday, July 23, 2005

Asking the Same Question

Star Wars: Galaxies developer Jeff Freeman is asking the same question I am:

What happens when Congress figures out that all games – for PC and consoles – have to given an AO rating if user-generated-content is factored into the evaluation? I mean, even if the game isn't intended to be mod'd.
-- M v AO []

Jeff's take is that this whole thing shows more the futility of the AO rating in general more than anything. Which is a fairly rational take ... I just wonder if the industry will see it that way.

If Jeff sounds familiar, here's why. If you haven't read that interview previously, it's even more interesting now.


So in my continuing quest of all things wifi, I got a Zaurus 5500 with a wifi card off of eBay - of which I'm currently using both to blog right now.

For the most part it's geeky goodness ... it was cheap ($150 for both) ... it's got Linux and a ton of apps and is wildly versatile, sporting both an SD and CF slot. More than a PDA, I'm using it as a portable terminal and media browser. Like a poor man's PSP but with shell commands.

The wifi seems tempermental and while the keyboard is slick, it's taken me about 10 minutes to type this so far. It's also not exactly a powerhouse ... hires mpegs skip and stutter a lot.

The battery life is also remarkably PSP like, showing just how prevalent such issues are with multifunction portables.

Still, it's neat to see this kind of tech become cheap and ubiqitous. This guy is far more powerful than any PDA I've had to date (which has been quite a few), and also the least expensive.

Patricia Vance Clarifies ... or does she?

Gamespot got the president of the ESRB on the line:

GS: My read of your statement yesterday suggests that the ESRB is directing its energy toward modders, not publishers, and is, in effect, saying it's worse to unlock adult-rated content than to put it in the game in the first place.

PV: We're not saying that at all. What we're saying is that if you, as publisher, produce content that's pertinent to a rating, and leave it on a disc--risking that it might be accessed by a modder--then it's your responsibility. And if it undermines the accuracy of the rating, it's your responsibility.

It's up to publishers to take action against third-party modders, not ours. Our only obligation is to make sure that the rating is accurate. The publisher is responsible for creating content. If they then leave it on the disc and it undermines the effectiveness of the rating, then we have no choice but to take action. We're actually putting responsibility solely in the publishers' hands.
-- Cooling Hot Coffee

I really want that to make me feel better, but it really kinda doesn't. It's way too vague and the "action against third-party modders" bit ... on one hand she emphasizes content left on the disc, but on the other she is reminding publishers that what happens to their programs is their responsibility.

I'm not sure that wouldn't include someone putting a naked skin on a model and then putting them into interesting situations. Or even just using a game engine to produce a porn machinima. I mean, that's all just hacking content on a disc. The fact that it's varying degrees of it doesn't enter into Patricia's rhetoric.

And of course, now we have a Floridian lawyer attacking Sims 2 for nakedness.. Since that's somewhat old news, hopefully he won't get traction and this will all die down. Then it will probably be truce time until Hot Coffee 2.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Bit more aftermath?

Wow. Everyone is probably wishing the Hot Coffee stuff would just go away.

I hope that everyone wasn't part of the crowd attacking Rockstar, because they should have known better.

Take-Two itself said in a statement that it's lowering guidance for the third fiscal quarter (which ends July 31) to $160-$170 million in net sales. "Accordingly," the company said, "guidance for the fiscal year ending October 31, 2005 is also being lowered to $1.26 to $1.31 billion in net sales and $1.05 to $1.12 in diluted earnings per share."
-- The price of Hot Coffee: >$50 million

That should give the "Rockstar did this on purpose to raise sales" tin foil cap crowd a bit to chew on. Right, this was all a marketing scheme to increase profits. Because Rockstar being that wildly savvy gaming company was soo wiley as to produce a section of gameplay in a vast conspiracy to lose millions. As if that makes any sense at all. Think for a second people, this clearly wasn't intentional.

Thompson doesn't seem to care. He cites a cheat code that can remove the blur that covers the nether regions. "The nudity placed there by the publisher/maker, Electronic Arts, is accessed by the use of a simple code that removes what is called 'the blur' which obscures the genital areas. In other words, the game was released to the public by the manufacturer knowing that the full frontal nudity was resident on the game and would be accessed by use of a simple code widely provided on the Internet."
-- Sims 2 content "worse than Hot Coffee"

Oh, I'm so tired of trying to explain to people that this guy is insane. I hope those in the industry who have been supportive of things like the Demuzio bill or attacking Rockstar learn that if you give these people a molehill, they'll do their best to raise a mountain on which to preach on. Oh, did the maniac zealot not stay to only one whipping boy? Gee, what a surprise.

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.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

GamerDad on Hot Coffee

Andrew sends up his thoughts about the ESRB decision. He takes a pretty heavy hand to Rockstar in general, but this point he makes more clearly than I've been able:

What's being missed is the difficulty. Activating this stuff in the game requires a determined person (or child). It isn't easy and it requires third party equipment like GameShark to do. No child left unattended and innocent is going to "stumble" onto this stuff. And, I might add, a determined child with Internet access and no supervision can uncover MUCH worse things on the Internet with far less effort.

This is a serious issue (especially if Rockstar put the code in there) but the controversy has done more, I think, to introduce this mod to children - than it has done to protect children from it. Believe me, before the story broke most kids had no idea this content was there and the game was released last October (or so). Now every kid knows about it and is probably trying to make it work. Kids are like that.
-- GamerDad & Hot Coffee

Don't Try This At Home

The Neistat Brothers would like to offer this Public Service Announcement about about the dangers of video games in the hands of children. Remember kids, they may not be professional scientists ... but they do have a lot of protective gear. So don't try this at home.

ESRB Re-Rating Bad News for Games

Well, I'm pretty surprised that the ESRB officially changed the rating of GTA:San Andreas based on user modification.

That's bad news people. And if you need proof, here you go:

The company said it cooperated fully with the ESRB's investigation into Hot Coffee and will provide a software patch for current users of the game and parents to ensure versions already out in the public cannot be modified. Take-Two will soon begin working on a version of "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" with enhanced security to prevent the modifications that led to the revised rating, the company said.
-- GTA San Andreas withdrawn in US

Now ... how do you suppose they are going to do that? Let's see, here are some guesses:

1) Sue the pants off for the makers of Action Replay.

2) Institute DRM and copy protection schemes to insure that any modification of the game will require even more technical skill than the Hot Coffee mod (which was fairly considerable)

3) Take legal recourse against anyone who appears to be creating any user modification which could adversely effect the rating of the game.

Now. Take a look at those three and ask yourself ... do you really think that only Take Two and Rockstar will take these actions? Heh. Think again.

The modders I know from the Unreal community could make a decent multiplayer sex mod in about a month. I wonder if Epic is asking themselves right now if embracing mods is worth risking not being sold in Wal-Marts around the country.

It's sad to see the ESRB cowtow to political pressure like this. In the age of DMCA and people buying music they can't even copy from one machine to another, someone can take an existing game, modify it into porn, and cost a company a few million in sales. None of this had any legal standing, but the ESRB just set a completely inane precedent. Brilliant.


If the ESRB is going to put a burden on publishers and developers that requires policing any end user created content that may contain pornographic material, then developers like id, Valve, Epic, and others who actively support the mod community may have to reconsider how open we make our games to changes. In such a case, the ESRB would effectively be requiring us to throw out the baby with the bath water as far as modified content goes. Either way, I think developers and publishers are entitled to understand the ratings process, and in such a high-profile case, understand why the rating was changed so that we may plan accordingly.
-- Todd Hollenshead, CEO of id Software


Your Answer, Hot Coffee Edition

There is no "tan ass" on this site, so whoever is googling for that can stop looking here.

Update: and please stop looking for bodily harm against a certain Floridian lawyer. Don't make a martyr out of a nutcase.

Out of Curiosity

For all the people glad the ESRB "finally took action" (by crumbling underneath political and media pressue) ...

What possible good do you actually see from this?

Game Tunnel June Round-Up

For a the birds-eye view of some current indie games, there's no better place.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

I don't care if everyone already saw it on BoingBoing: I heart

Stardock lets off some Steam

Stardock has opened up (which will actually redirect you to ... but we shan't nitpick), an online game purchase system. Instead of trying to paraphrase how it works, I'll just steal from the website:

For $69.95 you can become a member and receive 10 tokens. Your tokens can be used to purchase any of the games available on the TotalGaming network, at a significant discount compared to buying the same titles standalone. Tokens can be used at any time - even if your membership expires - so they won't go to waste.

TotalGaming members will also gain access to additional content free of charge, like some betas of upcoming Stardock games and more.

When you subscribe to you are provided with our Stardock Central application, which is our core technology that allows you to manage your games. Through Stardock Central your games will always be kept up-to-date and you'll never have to worry about losing what you buy, since you'll always be able to re-download your purchases in the future, even if you don't renew your TotalGaming membership.
-- TotalGaming.Net

Notable Hot Coffee Column

Notable because it actually has a decent focus on a gamer:

Among the many teenagers taking advantage of game cheats and mods is Charlie Smith of Glendale, Calif. An avid video-game player, Charlie competes in online leagues with his fellow gamers, and he has downloaded mods for the controversial "Grand Theft Auto," or GTA, as well as other games. Charlie hasn't used the Hot Coffee program, he says, nor has he come across any others that might change a game's rating in the same way.

The mods he uses do things like allow his character to fly and make him less likely to die during a game. He doesn't know anyone who's looked at the Hot Coffee mod, he adds. "That seems like sort of an isolated thing," Charlie says.

Far from being a negative force, the mod community in general has come to play an important role in the development of the industry, say media watchers.
-- What lurks inside video games []

Nice to see an unbiased column which doesn't try to throw down fear in order to hook readers.

Fight it out, AIM style

For about thirty seconds of entertainment, go see, where you AIM handle can do mortal battle with another. Basically it's googlefight for the neuvo-IRC crowd.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Clinton, Yee, Demuzio and You

Today it seems the Illinois law fining clerks and store owners for the sale of "adult" video games to minors will go into effect. Somewhere else, certain other politicians will be beating the podium decrying similar issues and coming up with the same basic ideas. Course, as I pointed out in "Seriously, let's think of the children", it's not going to change a thing because parents will just keep buying the games anyway.

The problem isn't an epidemic of kids buying mature games, it's parents buying mature games for their kids. Why? I think Jeff said it best:

But the parents aren't even listening to this debate. Kids still play rated-M games. Somehow they're able to play for hours and hours and hours without their parents knowing about it. And what, the store clerk should have stopped them? (Like, "I can't stop my little children from playing 37 hours a week of Baby-Killer 3, because I don't understand this little letter on the box it came in!").

I get the feeling that a big part of the problem is that the parents do hear the "video game violence is bad" side of the argument, but they don't believe it. They're probably the ones who bought the game to begin with, and they still will.
-- Jeff Freeman, SOE Developer and Parent

Now I see the fight from the other side going basically like this:

1. Hear about new laws
2. Assume new laws violate First Amendment
3. Stops worrying about new laws

Problem is, the pro-gaming side isn't paying enough attention. These new laws aren't concerned with free speech, they're going after public safety. In case you haven't had the "is it OK to yell FIRE in a crowded theater" test lately, public safety usually trumps free speech. So it's high time to stop being complacent about it (or worse, as a certain very well known game writer replied ... "the gaming industry deserves it") and start paying attention.

The problem is that this is a pretty dangerous foundation the witchburners are setting up. Video games, to them, are a violent and dangerous and cause public harm. Unless the pro-gaming side of things remind people that games and nicotine are really quite different, most people will simply not care.

In other words, the same reason why parents keep buying Grand Theft Auto is the same one why most parents won't care that it could be classified as a health risk.

Behemoth's Next Big Thing

Derek over at The Independant Gaming Source (or tigger as I like to call it) has pictures and details of the next game from Behemoth, the makers of the indie success Alien Hominid:

There wasn't too much else to see, honestly! Tom told me that there was an entire small level available, but the game always crashed halfway through (or a player would get stuck in mid-air). Along with the roast beast, there was also a "weapon pick-up" in the form of a golden thing-a-ma-bob. The pick-up didn't seem to have any noticeable effect on the game at this point in time. Enemies consisted of orc grunts (who wore different outfits but seemed to behave the same), and an orc wizard, who popped out of the bushes to cast some spells.
-- The Behemoth's Next Game: Exclusive SDCC Preview!

Sounds awesome, and there isn't enough FBI agents or yetis in the world to keep me from getting it.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Clinton's Solution

Clinton's soon-to-be-proposed legislation will call for a $5,000 maximum penalty for retailer caught selling or renting violent and pornographic video games to minors. Much like the way cigarettes and alcohol are sold, M- and AO-rated video games would be kept out of minors' reach by being placed in locked cases and behind counters, only to be retrieved with ID, she said
-- Clinton to propose legislation on video games

So, um. To everyone who said the Demuzio Law would just get laughed away and never had a foundation to begin with?

This is only getting worse. Not better. Don't expect the First Amendment to protect games here.

I gotta head out for a while. More on this when I get back.