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Did "Grand Theft Auto" get off too easy?
Believe it or not, a potential $50 million revenue shortfall might be a slap on the wrist.
July 21, 2005: 11:14 AM EDT
Game Over is a weekly column by Chris Morris
Take Two has sold nearly 6 million copies of
Take Two has sold nearly 6 million copies of "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas".
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HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (CNN/Money) - When a child misbehaves, you give it a spanking. But based on Wednesday's actions by the video game industry, when a publisher misbehaves, you say "tut tut" and hope no one asks you to do more.

By now, you may have read about Take Two Interactive Software being forced to replace copies of "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" on store shelves because of undisclosed sexual content that's accessible in the game with a cheat code or widely available (via Internet) modification.

The video game ratings board, under pressure by parents groups and politicians, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., changed the game's rating from M (the equivalent of an R rating in the film industry) to AO (Adults Only, essentially the same as an NC-17). The action forced Take Two to restate its numbers, with a potential $50 million shortfall in revenue this quarter.

That might sound like a pretty severe punishment, but to retailers, other publishers and developers, the company is getting off essentially scot-free.

Consider this: Take Two is projecting a worst case scenario with the warning. In order for the shortfall to be that dire, retailers will have to return the game, rather than exchange copies for the modified version which will be available in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, the rest of the industry now has to clean up the mess left by Rockstar, the development arm of Take Two, which created "San Andreas". And the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), which has previously been widely praised for its ratings system, now looks like a shell operation for publishers.

"The credibility and utility of the initial ESRB rating has been seriously undermined," said ESRB president Patricia Vance in a statement.

At the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association Executive Summit here this week, retailers and other publishers are quietly grumbling about Wednesday's decisions. Where, ask the nation's retailers of video games, is the fine for Take Two? Why, they ask, is the company not being forced to offer full rebates to owners of the game?

Damage control

There's no answer to that, of course. Both Take Two and the ESRB are in damage control mode at this point, both likely bracing for the inevitable lawsuits that will be filed and dismissed in the coming months.

There's equal blame to be shared, though. Take Two (Research) had the opportunity to nip the situation in the bud before the game was published. The ESRB, meanwhile, had the opportunity to show the world it had teeth, but chose to gum the publisher instead.

Let's start with Rockstar and Take Two. There are two possible scenarios: Either a rogue programmer slipped the sexual content into the game without anyone knowing – or Rockstar planned for this to be a part of the game, then changed its mind before shipping.

If it's Scenario A, Rockstar and Take Two have shown themselves entirely incapable of managing their staff. If it's Scenario B, the company has revealed a staggering intelligence or operational flaw.

Video games are basically huge projects with tight deadlines -- so throughout the process, someone's keeping tabs on everything that's going on, including the game's code. The bigger the title, the stricter the quality control.

So if there were plans to include sex mini-games in "San Andreas" at one point, someone knew about it and knew that the decision had been made to remove them – likely to avoid an AO rating. That meant the scenes should have been removed from the game's source code. They weren't.

What's particularly offensive isn't so much that these scenes were in the game -- let's face it, "GTA" isn't the first game to feature sexual content -- but that Take Two was so quick to point the finger of blame elsewhere when it was called on the carpet.

Hackers, it cried, were responsible. The only way to access the content was through an unauthorized, downloadable add-on for the PC version of the game.

Hackers?

OK, technically, that's right. The "Hot Coffee" mod wasn't a part of the game. But once it was shown that cheat codes could unlock the same scenes in the PlayStation 2 version of the game -- which is on a DVD where content cannot be altered -- it was clear that hackers weren't the ones to blame for these sex scenes, Rockstar was.

Sure, you can't access the sexual content without a cheat code or modification, but it's clear at this point that the sex games weren't reverse-engineered or fan-created. Ultimately, the developers and the publisher are responsible for this mess.

So what should the ESRB have done? Opinions vary. Some think mandatory rebates or steep fines are the answer, but the theory that most intrigued me came from game designer Greg Costikyan, who proposed that the ESRB should refuse to give any Take Two product a rating for the next two years.

It's a radical thought -- and one that could drastically affect Take Two's business, since retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy typically do not sell unrated video games (though it's worth noting that many don't have a problem with selling unrated versions of DVD movies). Taking this step would give the ESRB the teeth it currently lacks – and would serve as a warning to other publishers that lying about the content in your game carries serious consequences.

Would it put Take Two out of business? Probably not. The "Grand Theft Auto" line of games has such a large, loyal following that many people would buy it directly from the publisher. And digital distribution is a growing field in the industry.

But it would hit the company where it hurts -- and isn't that the point of a good spanking?

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Why don't video games and religion mix? Find out here.

Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an e-mail.  Top of page

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