NEW YORK (CNN/Money) – When you're a small business and you overlook a detail, it often goes unnoticed. When you're a multimillion or multibillion dollar business, it opens up the opportunity for someone to make you look foolish.
Game developer/publisher Ubisoft and, to a lesser extent, Microsoft are both feeling the sting of that lesson these days as the failure to purchase a URL prominently displayed in one of the Xbox's flagship titles this holiday season has turned the game into an inadvertent advertisement for a Web site featuring hard core pornography.
"Rainbow Six 3" is the latest in UbiSoft's popular series. For the holiday season, the game was exclusive to the Xbox platform, but a PlayStation 2 version is due on store shelves soon. As you would expect from a title based on a best-selling Tom Clancy novel, it specializes in detail, accurately reflecting the design and effects of the latest military technology. In focusing so closely on the game elements, though, the company forgot to cover itself in the real world.
|Besides being a big seller, "Rainbow Six 3" has also been a critical hit.
About two-thirds of the way through the game, there's a level set in a garage with posters adorning the wall. The URL at the bottom of each of those posters links to a Web site featuring graphic images, hundreds of links to XXX pictures and the welcome message "Welcome to Interracialporno!"
A multi-player version of that same level can be freely downloaded via Xbox Live and played immediately.
In any situation, this would be a public relations black eye. In the case of "Rainbow Six 3," it's a little more embarrassing. The game, which has been lauded by critics, has been a strong seller at retail. The Xbox version of the game has sold over 220,000 units since it hit shelves in October, according to The NPD Group.
Texan Tony Ashcraft was one of the early buyers of the game and noted the URL as he played. Thinking the link might feature ancillary information on the game, he told me he typed it into his browser, only to find no one owned the domain. On Nov. 22, he bought it and immediately filled it with porn links.
"My intentions were to try to build up traffic and then sell the domain," he said. "That's my ultimate goal."
Ashcraft told me the decision to populate the site with porn links was basically an economic one. Porn generates traffic on the Web – and high traffic counts could make the URL more attractive to buyers. He never attempted to contact UbiSoft, but does claim to have emailed Microsoft before buying the domain, inquiring whether it had plans to register the address. Ashcraft said he never received a response.
He has received email from players who were upset to find the offensive images and links, but said he's unsure how to respond "other than it's just one of those things."
"As far as it being a moral issue, then I don't really have a problem with it," he said. "I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. It would be different if the game was a more popular child's game, such as a SpongeBob game, because I know there would be kids playing that. ... The game is made for people who are 18 and higher. And if you're 18, you can rent or purchase pornographic materials in most states."
UbiSoft is understandably embarrassed and ticked off by the Web site's content. The company was unaware of the situation until asked for comment Monday.
"It's unfortunate that something like this happened," said Ubisoft spokesperson Cassie Vogel. "Our focus is to make a game that people enjoy playing. It's too bad that someone had to do something like this. ... We do apologize if this has offended anybody."
Microsoft (MSFT: Research, Estimates), since it did not develop or publish "Rainbow Six 3" chose not to comment on the situation, referring all questions to UbiSoft.
Ashcraft, who worked in the Internet Technologies business until he was laid off seven months ago, said despite any discomfort on UbiSoft's part, he has no current plans to change the content of the site.
"If they ask me just to change it, just because, they would have to have a pretty compelling reason, which I can't think of one," he said. "If they were interested in buying the domain, then we could talk."
UbiSoft, in a statement released Wednesday, said it had no intention of paying Ashcraft for the domain and it is considering legal action.
"It's a shame that there are individuals out there who would try to misdirect other gamers to pornographic material, at the same time as attempting to extort money from game publishers," it said. "Ubisoft has a clear policy that under any circumstances it will not pay blackmail money to anyone. It was an honest oversight on our part not to register the 'made up' URL. We will make sure it doesn't happen again. ... Ubisoft will proceed to take all appropriate legal measures to protect its game and the interests of its customers."
Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.