San Andreas rated AO, Take-Two suspends production

[UPDATE 4] ESRB slaps dreaded rating on controversial best seller; Take-Two lowers guidance; Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Target pull game from shelves.

After percolating for weeks, the Hot Coffee controversy has finally boiled over. Today, Take-Two Interactive announced that as the result of an investigation by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), all versions of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas will now bear an AO for Adults Only rating for "Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, [and] Use of Drugs." Previously, the game was rated M for Mature.

The rerating comes nearly a month after the first reports surfaced of the so-called "Hot Coffee" mod for the PC version of San Andreas. After being installed, the widely available mod lets users play a bonus sex minigame as a reward for completing the numerous "girlfriend" missions in San Andreas.

After video of the mod was widely circulated, such figures as ardent anti-game activist Jack Thompson and US Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) blasted the game. Clinton went as far as to publicly equate violent games with cigarettes and alcohol as a hazard to America's youth. In short order, the ESRB launched the aforementioned investigation, which looked into whether the mod was included in the original game or was made by a third party.

In response to the PC mod surfacing and gaining wide notice, Rockstar Games, the Take-Two subsidiary that develops and publishes San Andreas, issued a carefully worded statement in reference to the mod. "So far we have learned that the 'Hot Coffee' modification is the work of a determined group of hackers who have gone to significant trouble to alter scenes in the official version of the game," it read.

However, Rockstar's statement did little to extinguish the fires of controversy. Soon, reports began to surface that console versions of San Andreas contained code for the sex minigame. Late last week, GameSpot editors unlocked the code from a PlayStation 2 copy of San Andreas bought in October 2004, using an Action Replay Max device and a series of cheat codes. Since console games are written on unalterable DVDs and cheat codes cannot introduce new content, the fact the minigame was playable at all means it was included in the original PS2 San Andreas, albeit hidden.

The AO for Adults Only rating means that, according to the ESRB's official definition, the current version of the game now "should only be played by persons 18 years and older" and "may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity." This doesn't sound too far off from the ESRB definition for the M for Mature rating, which says games bearing it "have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content, and/or strong language."

But while they sound similar on paper, the AO and M ratings have one very big difference in real life. Namely, most major chain stores, including the all-important retail behemoth Wal-Mart, will not carry AO-rated games. By contrast, M-rated games aren't even separated from games bearing the T for Teen, E10+ for Everyone 10 and older, and E for Everyone ratings. (Games rated EC for Early Childhood are usually educational in scope and are found in different sections.)

[UPDATE 2 and 3] It didn't take long for the effects of the rating to be felt. Late Wednesday, Target, and Best Buy issued press releases they were pulling all versions of San Andreas from shelves. Unconfirmed reports had GameStop following suit, and Wal-Mart told CNN/Money that it had issued orders to all stores to stop selling the game. "We do not sell games that are rated AO," Wal-Mart spokesperson Karen Burk told the site.

In its statement, Take-Two outlined its response to the commerce-limiting AO rating. "[Take-Two subsidiary] Rockstar Games has ceased manufacturing of the current version of the title and will begin working on a version of the game with enhanced security to prevent the 'hot coffee' modifications," it read. "This version will retain the original ESRB M-rating and is expected to be available during the Company's fourth fiscal quarter." The quarter in question runs from August to October 2005. The company will also release a patch for the currently available PC version of the game, which will lock out the sex minigames.

[UPDATE 4] Wednesday evening, the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association (IEMA), the main game-retailer lobby, issued a statement in the middle of its annual convention. "Our members intend to immediately cease all sales of the game until existing inventory can either be re-stickered with an AO (Adults Only) rating, or exchanged for new versions of the game that has the hidden content removed and the original M (Mature 17+) rating intact," read the statement. "Though not a policy, IEMA members generally do not carry AO-rated games any differently than we do not carry X-rated videos or DVDs, thus it is likely that our members will be removing all copies of the current version and re-stocking with the updated version."

Take-Two braced Wall Street for the financial fallout of the ESRB and IEMA decisions. Its statement, which was released after markets closed, said the company was lowering guidance for its third fiscal quarter (which ends July 31, 2005) to $160-$170 million in net sales and a net loss per share of $0.40-$0.45. Take-Two also lowered its guidance for the fiscal year (which ends October 31) to $1.26-$1.31 billion in net sales and $1.05-$1.12 in diluted earnings per share. The news hammered Take-Two's stock, which was down $1.82 (6.72 percent) in after-hours trading as of press time.

While not good, today's news was not as bad as it could have been. Most industry watchers had expected a hefty fine from either the ESRB or possibly even the government. Some even speculated that the company would be forced to recall all copies of the game, at a catastrophic expense.

For its part, Take-Two stuck by its contention that the rerating was "due to unauthorized third party 'Hot Coffee' modification." The publisher reminded the public that "the scenes depicted in the 'Hot Coffee' modification are not playable in the retail version of the game unless the user downloads and/or installs unauthorized software that alters the content of the original retail version of the title, representing a violation of Take-Two and Rockstar's end user license agreement (EULA) and intellectual property rights."

Paul Eibeler, Take-Two's president and chief executive officer, also gave his personal thoughts on the matter in the statement. "We are deeply concerned that the publicity surrounding these unauthorized modifications has caused the game to be misrepresented to the public and has detracted from the creative merits of this award winning product," he said.

"The ESRB's decision to re-rate a game based on an unauthorized third party modification presents a new challenge for parents, the interactive entertainment industry and anyone who distributes or consumes digital content," Eibler continued. "Rockstar Games is pleased that the investigation is now settled and they look forward to returning their focus to making innovative and groundbreaking video games for a mature audience."

[UPDATE 1] A Los Angeles Times story on the rating quoted Take-Two spokesman Jim Ankner as admitting that "there is sex content in the [San Andreas] disc. ... The editing and finalization of any game is a complicated task and it's not uncommon for unused and unfinished content to remain on the disc." However, a Rockstar Games spokesperson flatly told GameSpot that Ankner "was misquoted."

There was no misquoting Patricia Vance, president of the ESRB. In a sternly worded statement on the ESRB site, she said "we have concluded that sexually explicit material exists in a fully rendered, unmodified form on the final discs of all three platform versions of the game (i.e., PC CD-ROM, Xbox, and PS2)." She also had harsh words for Take-Two. "Considering the existence of the undisclosed and highly pertinent content on the final discs, compounded by the broad distribution of the third party modification, the credibility and utility of the initial ESRB rating has been seriously undermined," she said. "Going forward, the ESRB will now require all game publishers to submit any pertinent content shipped in final product even if is not intended to ever be accessed during game play, or remove it from the final disc."

Vance did concur with Rockstar's assertion that the sex minigames were "programmed by Rockstar to be inaccessible to the player and they have stated that it was never intended to be made accessible. The material can only be accessed by downloading a software patch, created by an independent third party without Rockstar's permission, which is now freely available on the Internet and through console accessories." A Rockstar spokesperson said the company was considering legal action against Action Replay, GameShark, and other makers of console cheat devices that allow access to the sex minigames.

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Discussion

36 comments
Flint247
Flint247

Why do Video games need to have stuff like this in it? Is it really necessary?

GamingMind
GamingMind

i play it and it doesnt make me a freak.

ZJohnnyZ
ZJohnnyZ

Where can I buy/pay more for the sex version?

L7UWP
L7UWP

[QUOTE="whiteboard91"]Jeez people when are the guys in charge gonna realize that its violence that should be censored; NOT sex.[/QUOTE] NOTHING should be censored...

whiteboard91
whiteboard91

to chilipepperman: its not stupid at all that people think a game will affect a person. In fact games can and have had an affect on people before, for example when manhunt came out some stupid kid decided to make a real version of his own and went out and killed a few people - he was influenced by the game. As for who is responsible, i'd say the parents since if they care then they should prevent kids from getting hold of very violent games. Shop owners who sell AO games to blatant 12 year olds should carry a lot of the blame as well. Now then whats all the fuss about here? A sex minigame. Jeez people when are the guys in charge gonna realize that its violence that should be censored; NOT sex. Sure, it ain't great to expose kids to porn as they can get the wrong idea that relationships are about sex not love. Of course it depends on the manner in which the sex is depicted. Surely though, violence is a FAR bigger problem - i mean acts of violence directly kill people everyday! The people in power need to sort their priorities out and just stop and have a think for a minute. Off the point slightly, but why is there no dedicated lesson in most schools, such as PSHE, for sex education? Because of mother****ing censorship! EDUCATE PEOPLE = a start to waving goodbye to HIV and AIDS. Censor VIOLENCE, NOT SEX EDUCATION. Another thing: ESRB really should be scrapped i think, i mean why not use the british/ european rating system - PEGI. To me it is so much more simple and more sensible as for the age ratings. You have 3+, 7+, 12+, 16+ and 18+, as well as the film style ratings of 12, 15 and 18. The ESRB has 17+ and 18+ which to me seems just plain stupid because there is actually a really big difference between M and AO games. For example, and correct me if im wrong, Halo 2 on pc is rated M 17+ in USA yet in England it is rated 16+. Now to me a 17+ rating for that and an 18+ rating for GTA does not at all distinguish the difference enough. Halo 2 is a 17+ for saving the Earth and killing some evil aliens; GTA is for people just a year older to kill as many innocent civilians as they want, when and where they want. Somethings wrong eh? At least a difference of two years gives a clearer indication as to the differences in content, and Halo 2 a 17+?? Its barely even violent, blue and purple "blood" is about as far as the violence goes! Damn i could go on for hours, and just one final thing: i completely agree with everything GTAero said in his first two paragraphs. Oh and dont get me wrong, im a GTA loving, violent-games playing 15 year old. But then according to the authorities it doesnt matter so much if that influences me into carrying a gun around so long as im not having sex with my girlfriend. And for clarification i dont carry a gun, i hate violence in real life and im not going to kill anyone due to playing GTA.

chilipepperman
chilipepperman

its so stupid that people actually think a game will affect a person. i have played all the GTAs and im a perfectly fine person. sometimes you have to ask: "what the **** thats to all you people who think videogames are equated with drugs.

LikwidX3
LikwidX3

whoever believes gta is a disgrace to gaming, you should stop playing videogames. a bad game is a disgrace to videogames, not a game you dont like just because its not your style, whatever though. gta was a key, that unlocked alot of potential in videogames for "mature" people to enjoy. its not that big of a deal; this hot coffee thing, its not like a person who plays through the game without cheats is gonna run into it. but whatever, no use in talking, some people will always remain close minded.

DaDude253
DaDude253

well M-17+ and its now AO-18+ woot!! one more year to go!! lol

Aaron19Z7
Aaron19Z7

The sex-minigame is wrong and all but what gets me is the killing cops and innocent civillians, FOT FUN! No wonder more and more people want to ban games.

353535355353535
353535355353535

those hackers must have a whole lot of time on their hands

Calltheherd
Calltheherd

actually, tampering with it was breaking the EULA

Killerrabbit123
Killerrabbit123

To quote george carlin: "I would rather have my child watch two people having sex rather than two people trying to kill one another." He used a more colorful word for "having sex."

Cloud737
Cloud737

"A Rockstar spokesperson said the company was considering legal action against Action Replay, GameShark, and other makers of console cheat devices that allow access to the sex minigames." WTF? Sue them for what? For offering codes that unlock content put there by your own fault? Although no other word of it has been heard until now, that statement and thought of it just makes Rockstar seem really bad.

esanchez7587
esanchez7587

This is old news but I know it's a great idea to remove the "Hot Coffee" mini-game, since if it's in a rated M game, it should be either up to AO or deleted the code. Anyway, not sure about it now but I do hope this gets deleted. Also, screw you guys who have seen this mod!!! That's wrong watching animated characters having sex!!

hart704
hart704

I have tons of M rated games. Come and arrest me too! Come on! I'm beggin' ya, Thompson! Make me famous!

GTAero
GTAero

In Sweden most people have a more moderate attitude towards sex, and a stronger disbelief to everyones right to bear arms. - Whats the fuzz about people F***? - Anyone know of some other means to populate the world? How can we still be around if we carry guns like wallets - never leave home without it! (?) You Americans accept violence, murders and blood in films and games, but not sex!!!!!? - Have

DbleBassDrummer
DbleBassDrummer

Stock up now on M Rated San Andreas with the sex minigame! eBay it in 2 years for a profit!

kalkhaja
kalkhaja

i think the coffee burnt my tongue

Ace_The_Ace
Ace_The_Ace

Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11111111111111111!!!!!!!!!!!!!

alcoholhamster
alcoholhamster

'what is more natural than sex?' well, um trees, rocks, that kinda thing... that isnt a real argument

umnklang
umnklang

Censorship...retail strategy...amphetamine psychosis!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Toadonpa
Toadonpa

This whole thing got blown out of proportions.

-_locky_-
-_locky_-

who the hell wants to watch animated people have sex anyway?!!!!

a_beautiful_lie
a_beautiful_lie

Man I gotta say that's hilarious. I got the game but just found out about that hot coffee mod. I'm not gonna go try it cause pixelated sex doesn't really do it for me but I think take-two really shot themselves. Only thing is there has been other stuff like this released, just on less popular stuff, and no one seemed to care. Yeah it was absurdly stupid of em to put it in but why should they get more heat than smaller titles?

BSC123
BSC123

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

BSC123
BSC123

Your "sex is natural" argument is off topic and spurious. Wal-Mart and the major chains don't sell porn, either. Hot Coffee is being equated (and rightly so) to pornography, and such things aren't _legally_ allowed to those under 18. The chain stores pulled GTA:SA for one reason and one reason only: They're "family" stores, and to retain the good will of those family consumers, they're going to pull anything that reeks of pornography. Just because minors have access to porn doesn't mean that they're right - it just makes a lot of people wrong.

Sheegot
Sheegot

Insane... What is more natural than sex? What's next? a game where it's illegal to eat meat, to satasfy vegetarians?

Stu_ponk
Stu_ponk

What is all the hoo-haa about? This is the first time I heard about this (thanks GS) and I must say its rather cool. Its thanks to these types of developers that we have great games with a touch of humour. I'm sure they didn't intend it to be lewd. I've not seen the scene yet but I dare say its no worse than most. Its hard to say from my perspective, being 25, as I see all this as being natural. But thats just it, even at a young age I was aware of Adult goings on. Surely the implications are no worse than the pole dancing bar you own in Vice city? And its definately no worse than Manhunts gore fest. For me these games are just fun. In my younger days I just took it as fun then too; often not knowing the full implications of the acts etc etc. Its only now at my older age of 25, having seen real nasty fights that games like Manhunt seem a bit too close to being over nasty; many of you wont learn this until you're older. So, as for lewd sex scenes, its just a part of life, and as long as its in graphics/cartoon form, then what the hey - oh and they have an age certificate anyhow dont they ---- so whos to blame? .... parents!