TBT: The Brutal Truth

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Grand Theft Braino: San Schaivo

Hooboy, looks like the world's coming to an end now that we've found out that one of the hottest video games (and the most controversial) - Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - contains a hidden mini-game dubbed "Hot Coffee" that graphically depicts sex. Since the discovery, Rockstar Games (the company behind the franchise) has had their original "M" rating carjacked by the ESRB in favor of the dreaded "AO" for "Adult's Only", which means no major retailer will carry the game until Rockstar releases a revision that removes the nasty stuff, and thus gains the lower "Mature" rating back. Not only that, the controversy has ruffled Hilary Clinton's feathers and now the Beltway is going to conduct hearings on the matter.

So what does the New York-based ESRB; the New York-based Rockstar Games, and the lady Senator from New York State have in common aside from being based in New York? And what really is this "Hot Coffee" thing and the ESRB? Speaking of the ESRB, what do they have is common with Republican Senator Bill Frist? Also, what does this have to do with Terri Schaivo? The answer is simple and I'll bust it all down nice and neat for you but fair warning: I'm bringing an ugly stick.

First, a disclaimer: I'm going to protect my journalistic sources by not naming any names but my sources range from other journalists, specificially those who write for magazines that focus on the video gaming industry as well as software developers. I assure you none of them have any affiliation with Rockstar Games whatsoever so any bias you might detect from this entry is purely my own (hey, I'm an opinionated bastard).

Now, what exactly is this "hot coffee" code buried within GTA: San Andreas. Well, I'm sure if you fire up Google, you could find videos of the sex involved, but incase you've got an imagination, let me describe it as saying it's not any different than what can be seen at 10PM on FX every Tuesday night depending on the time of year (March thru June, "The Shield" is in that time slot and July thru September, "Rescue Me" takes over that same time slot). Or any "R" rated DVD on sale at any retailer. What it mainly consists of is the main character of the game scrogging random women. Depending on how the "hot coffee" code is enabled depends on if the duo is clothed or exposing full polygonal nudity.

How is this "hot coffee" enabled? Depends on the version of the game. For PC, it requires downloading and installing the "hot coffee" hack (a patch of sorts) that modifies or overwrites the default files. The hack has nothing to do with Rockstar Games as it stems from the general public. Hackers and crackers are responsible for this modification. For the X-Box and PS2, things get trickier: it requires a modified console (aka "chipped" -- usually done to play pirate or imported games), all the files from the original DVD pre-installed on the X-Box's built-in harddrive (for PS2, the harddive is a bundled accessory with another game but some harddrives off the shelf at Staples or Best Buy could be compatible), and then a download of the console specific "hot coffee" hack. From there, one will need a way of launching the game from the harddrive instead of the original DVD and there's utilties that allow just that. Another cheaper -- and easier -- way to enable the "hot coffee" code is with a $20-$40 cheating device sold along the same shelves that display video games. There's three of these such devices on the market and each made by a seperate company. These devices are known as a "Gameshark", a "Codebreaker", or an "Action Replay".

Typically, what these devices do is give the gamer cheats that may or may not exist in the game such as infinite lives, invincibility, a stage select, etc. These devices work by being loaded up first on the console so that a small program is loaded into the console's memory. A list of games will show up with thousands of cheats, so the gamer picks the game and cheats they want to use. This tells the small program in the console's memory to expect a certain file to be booted by the PS2 once the discs are swapped with an actual game disc and "hook" it. Once "hooked", it acts as an unseen middle-man between the game and the console's memory and the cheats work by the middle-man program continually writing a pre-determined value to a section of the consoles memory over and over again, hence the desired "invincibility", or "infinite lives" -- the cheat program fools both the game and console. But since these cheat devices work by "patching" memory addresses over and over again with the same pre-determined value, if they know which addresses and which values to use, they can indeed enable extra code hidden on the game that was otherwise disabled by the developer for some reason. The caveat here is with these cheat devices, enabling unused and disabled code can (and usually do) cause the game to crash or lock up.

That's the crux of the matter with "Hot Coffee" in general -- this portion of the game was indeed programmed and developed by Rockstar. In fact, it's an industry practice to develope portions of a game that may or may not make the final cut in the end, mostly because of time constraints or, later on, the crew of programmers became apathetic about it and decided to pitch it. By pitching it, they rarely strip or scrap that portion of code from the game but instead disable it. There's a good and practical reason why the code is disabled instead of removed. Since this little bit of code is linked to the gaming engine, the sound libraries, etc., it's much easier and cost effective for the developer to disable or bypass that section. Thus the engine never executes it. The alternative is removing the content completely which can break other things in the game that have to tracked down and fixed. This process takes time and resources. The majority of the time, all developers -- not just Rockstar -- simply comment it out in order to save time and money and the material is NEVER part of the game. It's just unused and ignored code. Gaming development is on a structured timeline and budget dictated by shareholders and since removing content can often break other parts of the software that function, fixing whatever becomes broken can result in delays in both development and release, which shareholders frown upon. So, all video game developers try to kill two birds with one stone by simply disabling that portion of material because by doing so, both the programmers win by moving forward with development (and remaining employed), and the shareholders and gamers win by no delays.

That's what I believe happened here -- at some point in the delopement of this game, Rockstar looked at that portion of code, expressed doubts or second thoughts about it, and decided to nix it before it was finished (hence the reason why cheat devices cause crashes or lock-ups -- the code was never finished). By "nix" it, they don't mean removing it completely unless time is on their side. If not, then they mean to simply disable it. That's what happened -- they disabled that portion of code from ever being executed. In other words, anyone who plays the original stock GTA: San Andreas DVD off the shelf from start to finish will never witness the raunchy sex acts that take place with the "hot coffee" portion of code because that portion of code requires third-party intervention -- be it with a downloaded hack or a cheat device -- to fool the PC or console into thinking that portion of code is A-OK instead of verboten and that is something beyond Rockstar's control or responsibility. Had time been on their side, it probably would've have been scrapped completely but when time isn't on their side, they're left with very little choice. There's nothing more a head software programmer hates than having to go to the CEO and say, "We need a 6 month delay." They hate it because then the CEO (after he or she is done chewing the head programmer out) has to shop that idea onto the shareholders and they hate delays. They want a timely return on their investment into the company and delays aren't timely. Once Rockstar reached the point where they'd be as happy as their going to get with their game (no programmer is ever totally happy with their projects) and the deadline looms closer, then it's time to unveil their pet project on to the ESRB.

Despite ESRB ratings being "voluntary", they aren't. No retailer will shelve a video game without an ESRB rating. Period. So developers and/or publishers have to pay the thousands of dollars the ESRB charges to rate a game. The ESRB is nothing more than a mafia within the industry. Ever wonder how the ESRB rates games? They take the "Bill Frist" approach -- the developer sends them a video tape of the gameplay and the ESRB bases their rating on viewing that video tape. They don't pick up a controller at all. Never did, never will. Notice the keyword I used: GAMEPLAY. What that means is a video tape of the features of the game -- music, sound, graphics, voice acting, mechanics, hidden characters or modes, etc. -- that the developer intends to ship intact with the game. Since the raunchy "hot coffee" portion of this game was disabled thus making it impossible to show up during stock gameplay, the ESRB gave it an "M" rating. The ESRB isn't interested in content that didn't make the grade. Their only interested in everything and anything that can be seen and heard via stock play. Since Rockstar (or any developer) disables and buries thousands of line of the code they don't intend to use (some of which was the "hot coffee" sexual content), there was no reason to bring it up because they think it'll never be discovered. In the event that it is, they feel it's not their responsibility for they can't totally control whatever tinkering the gaming public will do with their patented and copyrighted intellectual property. They wish they could to a degree ... but can't. Once it's pressed on the disc and sold, their hands are tied.

Therefore, I believe Rockstar (or any developer/publisher) should not be held accountable or responsible for hacks, mods, or "trainers" that enable the unused portions of code in a game. Is Eidos responsible for the nude "Lara Croft" hack? Should EA be held responsible for a bunch of script kiddies that allowed "The Sims" to run around in the nude, too? Should Ed Boon and the gang at Midway Games be held responsible because -- years ago -- I used a cheating device on my copy of Mortal Kombat 4 to be able knock off 20 heads with Johnny Cage instead of one or to add more gore, blood, and carnage?!? Better yet, suppose I hacked the game completely to allow Johnny Cage's split-punch to work on female characters. Should Midway now be forced to change the rating of a 15 year-old game to "AO" because my hackery allows Johnny Cage to engage in the sexual act of "fisting"?!? What if I hacked a 1-year-old game like Mortal Kombat: Deception and changed Kobra's "Heart Rip" fatality into a "Crotch Rip" fatality? Now Kobra can tear off the nether regions of his opponents like a paper towel and shove it in the victims' face thanks to my hackery. Should Midway take reponsibility and change the rating of MK Deception ...... all because of my lame, degenerate ass?!?

That's preposterous.

It's exactly why I'm bringing out the ugly stick on all parties involved in this idiocy. Although there are Republicans in this witchhunt, this issue is mainly the Democrats' own "Terri Schaivo" and may it implode on their faces. Perhaps I can help in that avenue by reminding you all that Hilary Clinton, Tipper Gore, and Joe Lieberman are card-carrying members of the Parent Television Council (PTC for short), an outfit run by conservative Republican moonbat L. Brent Bozell III, the son of the speechwriter for Sen. Joe McCarthy; L. Brent Bozell II (who he himself was arrested in the 1970s for going all Don Quixote on an abortion clinic using a lifesized flaming crucifix). Yes, the same Brent Bozell that can be seen on FOX News Channel as a "political analyst" (read: PARTISAN HACK!) Yes, the same PTC that got their asses handed to them a few years ago in a court of law by none other than WWE Entertainment mogul Vincent K. McMahon with charges including copyright and patent infringement. In fact, ever since McMahon won that case against the PTC, I now refer to Brent Bozell III as "Bozo Bozell" (a play on the name of an old school wrestler Bobo Brazil) so it'll remind him how he barked up the wrong turnbuckle. Bozo Bozell is a lunatic. He has never worked a honest day in his life. Before being hired as a FNC Political Analyst and occassional paid appearances on the 700 Club, his entire adult lifestyle has been bankrolled by all these non-profit "interest groups" he builds and uses to syphon "membership" money from. He and his PTC are politically and religiously trained "free-market" hitmen that will attack anything that isn't "Little House on The Prarie". Recently, he tried to bully FX Networks into removing their hit drama "The Shield" from the airwaves. Apparently, Bozell didn't see the conflict of interest considering both FNC and FX Networks were owned by the same Aussie that signs his "Political Analyst" paychecks. Oh, but once he did, he backed off the many houses that Murdoch built in a big hurry.

Why would the Clintons, the Gores, and Lieberman want to be involved with Bozell is beyond me unless they're not really Democrats at all and are DINOs instead. Hilary's recent snuggling up the DLC sure makes me second guess her loyalty to us on the blue side of the yard. The Gore family lost me along time ago when they destroyed Dee Snider's musical career (but he sure got the last laugh) and, after over a decade of Lieberman and his useless pork-barreling with Sen. Kohl on whether or not violent games create child-killers along with his track record of voting with Republicans, I don't need anymore evidence of his true colors and I'll question his loyalty to the Democratic Party until they lower him into his grave.

This looks like a witchhunt to me. A witchunt on a controversial video game developer for something that -- in light of what's been going on in the White House lately and the quaqmire in Iraq -- should not be important at all and I more pissed off because thanks to what seems to me to be a disengenous mining and pandering for the "Soccer Mom/Weekend Dad" vote, it has burned my ass enough to spend the last few hours blogging about it. And now that Capitol Hill will get involved with hearings in the Fall, I'm expecting more needless pork-barreling and more political grandstading in the guise of "Will Somebody Please Think Of The Children".

Here's something they can pork-barrel into: There isn't many children involved in the gaming industry. If so, Nintendo would be in first place instead of third and platform/action adventure games would be trumping sports games and shooters. That isn't the case as the majority of gamers in the industry are in the 17-34 age demographic and comprive of over 85% of the gaming industries entire revenue, which was $9.9 Billion in 2004. Top titles of that year were:

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - PS2 - Take II Interactive
Halo 2 - XBX - Microsoft
Madden NFL 2005* - PS2 - Electronic Arts
ESPN NFL 2K5 - PS2 - Take II Interactive
Need For Speed: Underground 2 - PS2 - Electronic Arts
Pokemon Fire Red W/ Adapter - GBA - Nintendo of America
NBA Live 2005 - PS2 - Electronic Arts
Spider-Man: The Movie 2 - PS2 - Activision
Halo - XBX - Microsoft
ESPN NFL 2K5 - XBX - Take II Interactive

The majority of these games are sports titles and shooters aimed at the mature gamer 17 or older with only two titles that have children or early teenagers in mind. Also, game rental statistics at BlockBuster have greatly reflected this by stocking more sports and shooting games than any genre. Therefore, children must make up very little in the gaming industry in terms of demographics and sales because children don't have jobs -- they have Mom and Dad. Therefore, if children are amassing large quanties of "M" rated games, it's most likely Mommy & Daddy's fault for either buckling to their sniveling or not monitoring their gaming habits. Mature gamers in the 17-34 demographic not only have jobs, but live on their own. They pay their own bills. They're tax-payers. They're voters! Politicians who alienate them are doing so at their own peril for that's the same demographic that gets the majority of their news from Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" (who schools our sorry press corp every single night) and their entertainment from that same channel with "South Park" and I hardly need tell you how the "South Park" fans voted last year (hint: sure as hell wasn't BLUE!) If these politicans want those voters and their financial contributions as well as possible votes and contributions from software developers, try earning it by walking away and leaving them alone because if you think you can intimidate the gaming industry into forking over some of that $10 Billion a year by forming a lobby, then I'm afraid you're the ones barking up the wrong turnbuckle. Moves like this are more likely for the gaming industry to form a PAC that'll work to flush you sanctimonious morons right out of Washington (at this point, more power to 'em -- I think we could use some good fresh meat instead of bunch of has-beens).

Rockstar Games & Take-Two Interactive also gets a good thwack from my ugly stick for the inital hemming and hawing about this "hot coffee" ordeal until they got busted in their lies instead of coming clean and being honest with us. Sorry guys, but this country has only room enough for one Clueless McClellan and your sorry impersonation of him -- lies and all -- doesn't impress me. Because of your finger pointing, the entire $10 Billion gaming industry is now going to be skating on thin ice in fear of Big Government breathing down their necks. So many other software developers are now on the radars of these politicians looking to grandstand and pontificate on your damned failure.

Lastly, I must shake my ugly stick towards the readers because, when all is said and done, our blue politicians hoping to grandstand over this mess much like their GOP counterparts did with Terri Schaivo can't do so unless you let them get away with it. They want to take the easy way to the voting booth by milking this, hoping that you'll be lulled with their self-serving rhetoric all the way to the ballot box or the cash box. Viola -- convenient marks for a vote. With a horrid deficit, lack of health care, lots of corruption within the GOP-helmed White House, a clusterfuck of a war that has killed nearly 2,000 soldiers and cost us billions (some of which that just disappeared out of thin air once Halliburton and Bechtel got their grubby hands on it), there's simply more important things to concern ourselves and Washington, DC with ......... than a $50 video game.

A $50 video game that even Larry Flynt would snark, "You've got to be shitting me?!?"


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