Bully to blacken Rockstar's other eye?

Upcoming game could provide what critics of Take-Two are looking for--a knockout punch designed to push the publisher up against the ropes.

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In the beginning, there was Hot Coffee. And it was hot.

The Hot Coffee fuss surrounded a dormant piece of hot-to-trot game code that was able to be unlocked on all versions of the best-selling, M-rated Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. That small gift to gamers put Take-Two in hot water with the industry's voluntary ratings board, the ESRB. Last month, the board revoked the game's M rating, rerated the product AO, and forced the game's parent company to pull existing copies (or supply retailers with AO stickers) and manufacture new game discs with the mod-induced sex games deleted.

Of course, stores could still sell the newly rated game, but few did, given long-standing policies of most major retailers not carrying AO-rated games.

Cost of the Hot Coffee episode? $40-50 million for Take-Two. Ditto that amount for the industry.

There are a few recent developments in the ongoing saga of Take-Two and its portfolio of M-rated products (although it's worth mentioning, this is a company that sells more than just M-rated games...Global Star Software, a publishing label of Take-Two publishes the E-rated Leaping Lizards!, among other games rated for all ages).

A day after one Florence Cohen dropped docs on the game publisher in US District Court, a second consumer did the same. Both complaints seek to establish a class of plaintiffs that charge Take-Two with a number of malevolent acts, including Consumer Deception, False Advertising, and Common Law Fraud (all based on New York State General Business Law statutes).

And the plot thickens. The company's upcoming game, Bully, has entered the overarching Take-Two narrative, now in the following two instances.

The first is from a statement by the Britain-based Bullying Online, an organization devoted to ending all forms of "bullying" on school grounds in the UK. Reportedly, that group is seeking a ban of the title on its home turf.

"This game should be banned," the organization's Liz Carnell has said. "I'm extremely worried that kids will play it and then act out what they've seen in the classroom.... Bullying is not a game by any stretch of the imagination. We have around four suicidal children contacting us every day."

Rockstar Games describes the upcoming title as one where gamers play as a "troublesome schoolboy" who "stands up to bullies, gets picked on by teachers, plays pranks on malicious kids, wins or loses the girl, and ultimately learns to navigate the obstacles of the fictitious reform school."

Closer to home, Florida attorney Jack Thompson, an active campaigner who has in the past targeted aggressive e-mail campaigns at politicians and company officers he hopes to influence, is himself mounting an effort against the game--specifically, against certain game retailers as well as the game's publisher.

"A check of Internet web sites today reveals that Wal-Mart, GameStop, ToysRUs, and Amazon.com are all presently pre-selling the game with no questions asked as to age of the buyers," Thompson said in a statement.

Bully is currently unrated, but based on previews, most industry sources expect it to ship with an M rating, meaning it should be sold only to those 17 and older.

In another statement, Thompson asks Take-Two president Paul Eibeler to reconsider the game's upcoming release. "I and others are today calling upon you to stop the release of Bully," the statement, in part, read.

Also contained in the statement from Thompson is a reference to a demonstration slated to take place tomorrow in lower Manhattan, outside the corporate headquarters of Take-Two Interactive. According to Thompson, two busloads of Washington, DC schoolchildren will protest the game's release, though it was not clear what organization was promoting or funding the demonstration.

Just as Hot Coffee cools down, another bully, it seems, lurks in the corners.

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