'Grand Theft Auto' publisher plays it safe
Take Two Interactive Software cancels controversial game after previous run-ins with ratings board.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - If the video game world were a high school, Take Two Interactive Software would be the guy in the leather jacket who blatantly smokes at his locker.
It's a company with an edge - and it has carefully cultivated that edge into substantial profits with games like "Manhunt," "State of Emergency" and, most prominently, the "Grand Theft Auto" franchise. But as public scrutiny of the gaming industry has heated up, Take Two has found itself under regular fire from industry opponents, disappointed investors and the industry's ratings board.
2005's infamous "Hot Coffee" scandal, where sex scenes were found hidden in the code of "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," resulted in the game being temporarily pulled from shelves - and earlier this year, the ESRB, which sets ratings on games, changed the rating on "The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion," saying the game had more blood and gore than were considered in the original rating and citing the presence of a modification that would allow users to play as a topless female character.
Over the past year, Take Two has seemingly shied away from its reputation as the industry bad boy. "Bully," a game that tells the story of a troublesome schoolboy who stands up to bullies and teachers and pulls pranks around campus, is reportedly still under development, but is surrounded by a corporate cone of silence. And Take Two recently (and very quietly) cancelled "Snow," a real-time strategy game that let you advance from a marijuana smuggler to drug kingpin, managing an international smuggling operation.
The reason is anybody's guess. 2K Games, the Take Two division that was publishing "Snow," confirmed the cancellation, but declined to give any sort of reason. It might have been because of the controversy the game was bound to kick up. It might have been because the game's developer, FrogCity Software (along with fellow studio PopTop Software) was recently folded into Firaxis, a Take Two-owned development studio run by industry legend Sid Meier. It may have simply been that the game wasn't turning out to be any fun.
"Snow" wasn't the biggest title in the company's portfolio, but it was hardly low profile. The game was on display at E3, the video game trade show, in 2005 (though it didn't appear this year). It's somewhat rare for a game to get that far along in the development cycle and be shown to retailers, then cancelled.
It happens, of course. Activision (Research) introduced "Dead Rush" at E3 2004, only to spike the game a few months later. And LucasArts killed "Sam and Max: Freelance Police" and "Full Throttle" after E3 showings.
Then again, neither Activision nor LucasArts are in the crosshairs of industry opponents.
Take Two was rightly criticized for the Hot Coffee debacle - and, in all honesty, probably got off easier than it should have. The long-term affect on the stock, though, was notable. Take Two (Research) shares closed at $27.07 the day of the ESRB re-rating. They're fallen nearly 40 percent since then.
"The stock price fall is attributable to many missteps, but one of those missteps was Hot Coffee," said P.J. McNealy, an analyst with American Technology Research.
The storm on that started with Hot Coffee has spiraled somewhat, however. The re-rating of "Oblivion" was questionable. The game is hardly gory and the modification allowing nudity is not as cut and dried as it might seem.
Game characters are essentially made of two parts: wireframe models (which determine body shape) and 'skins' which are stretched over those models. The nudity in "Oblivion" basically came by stretching a renamed version of the male 'skin' over the female model, which was only possible by using a modification created by a player (presumably a particularly lonely one). That's a bit of an oversimplification, but even the technical version is hardly the stuff of scandal. Still, because of Take Two's history, it was enough.
Had "Snow" made it to store shelves, it undoubtedly would have brought with it a firestorm of controversy - and publicity, whether good or bad, translates to sales (just ask Eidos, whose "25 to Life" - a game even the company ultimately admitted was "not a good title" - saw increased sales due to objections by the law enforcement community).
But the cancellation of the game might be the first sign that Take Two is paying much closer attention to its image - both with its industry peers and its investors.
Morris is Director of Content Development for CNNMoney.com. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org