At E3, crime pays a lot less
One year after controversy about Grand Theft Auto and others, game publishers retreat from the thug life.
By Chris Morris, CNNMoney.com staff writer

LOS ANGELES (CNNMoney.com) Despite the fact that its latest installment was released seven months before the show, "Grand Theft Auto" was king at E3 2005.

While "GTA: San Andreas" was not on display, everywhere you turned, there was a publisher trying to ride its coattails. Activision (Research) showed off "True Crime: New York," Eidos pitched "25 To Life," Konami (Research) urged you to see "Crime Life: Gang Wars" the list went on and on, reaching more than a dozen such games.

Flash forward one year - and the so-called gangsta genre is showing signs of weakness. Take Two Interactive Software's (Research) "Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories" for the PSP sold fairly well, but failed to meet analyst expectations. "True Crime" and "25 to Life" bombed. And one game that was talked about (but not shown) last year Midway's (Research) "Fear & Respect" was cancelled before it hit shelves.

That's not to say there aren't any games sporting "GTA" similarities on the floor this year. THQ's (Research) "Saints Row" and Microsoft's (Research) "Crackdown" might be kissing cousins to the franchise. But it's clear that "GTA" cloning is less prevalent this year with roughly half the number of titles (many of which were also on display last year).

"Saints Row," due Aug. 29, will apparently be the first gang-themed game of the next generation. THQ is looking to distance itself from "GTA" by pointing out features like the ability to customize your character and a more interactive environment.

The story? You begin as a low-level member of the Third Street Saints, a small gang in Stillwater whose territory is the envy of three much larger gangs who rule the city. Rather than surrendering their turf, the Saints decide to take over the streets ruled by the other gangs.

It sounds familiar, but THQ CEO Brian Farrell insists the game isn't what you expect

"We're not trying to be edgy," he said. "If you really play the game, it's very tongue in cheek. It's not dark. Will there be people who object to this style of game? Sure. We will most likely get criticized especially if it's commercially successful, but it's really not a dark game."

"Crackdown," meanwhile is a futuristic take on the urban environment. You're a cop working to clean up a city in decay. To do so, you'll have to confront and defeat a series of 21 kingpins. The game is being created by the developer of the original "Grand Theft Auto".

Actually, the game most likely to inherit "GTA's" controversial crown this year is Vivendi's (Research) "Scarface". Though it doesn't have the open ended story so many "GTA" clones do, it does have some key similarities: you play Al Pacino's drug dealing character from the 1983 film and you can kill police officers.

What's more likely to attract attention from opponents of violent video games, though, are the death animations, which include limbs and heads being blown off, with the corpses spouting geysers of blood. As well, it pushes new limits in adult language. (The game also drops the F-bomb seemingly every fourth or fifth word.)

Just because you're not seeing as many urban-themed games now, though, don't assume the genre is gone for good. Analysts agree that as developers become used to working with the new machines, they're likely to fall back on proven game styles.

"Because of the development cost and time, those games probably won't show up until E3 next year," said John Taylor, an analyst with Arcadia.

Gangs aren't the only thing with a reduced presence at this year's E3. Games with sexual themes, which have had a notable presence at the last two E3s, are nowhere to be found this year. In fact, the publisher of one sexually themed game "Naughty America: The Game" was not allowed to show its title the show.

That doesn't necessarily mean there's no sex in games, though.

"If there's sexual content in the game and that's hyped, you run the risk of having that game locked out of retail," said Brenda Brathwaite, a game designer and professor at Savannah College of Art and Design. "I think that when developers do that, they run the risk of ... being shoehorned into 'oh this is a sex game.'"

It's easy to point to the Hot Coffee scandal as the reason. When an explicitly sexual mini-game was found in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," the game was re-rated Adults Only and promptly pulled off store shelves until the mini-game's code could be removed.

Analysts, though, say the real reason we're not seeing raunch is a lot more fundamental: economics.

"Playboy: The Mansion" and "Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude," two of the pioneers of games with sexual elements, both flopped in the U.S. (though "Playboy" did sell better overseas). That alone might have been enough to scare other major publishers away from the topic.

"It's a sales thing and a pressure thing," said Mike Wallace, an analyst with UBS. "There's more talk about sexual content today and there's more risk, so if they're not selling, why bother?"

Brathwaite notes the number of developers who focus on sexual content are also still small and, knowing the retail hesitancy they're likely to face, can probably find a larger audience at a different show.

"It's possible [Hot Coffee] had an effect on people developing those games," she said. "They thought 'Hmm, maybe this isn't the best place to be showing the games we have'. But the companies that are making these games have other outlets for them. Take 'Naughty America: The Game.' The Adult Entertainment Expo is probably as good an outlet for them as E3."

A new "Grand Theft Auto" is headed to Xbox 360 next year. Find out when. Top of page

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