This time, Rockstar claims it isn't their fault that the controversy has rained down, as opposed to positively begging for it with Manhunt in summer 2004. A thirdparty mod(ification), known as Hot Coffee, will change some scenes in their latest million-selling opus Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to show the main character having sex with prostitutes - and given the reaction by family groups in America, you'd be forgiven for thinking that was even worse than killing them.
It's rather convenient that both the mod and the over-inflated reaction to it has only arrived with the Grand Theft Auto game dealing with African-American gang life, as opposed to the Italian- and Latin-American crime crossovers of the two episodes before now: GTA III and Vice City. After all, you've been able to carry out all manner of illegal acts which you may not have wanted kids to see, in glorious 3D, for the past four years, in titles from the same publisher. Mods for these older games were as innocuous as changing Tommy Vercetti's clothing to tuning the mood of the populace to induce rioting but few, if any, purported to serve up sex on a disc.
The Entertainment Software Ratings Board is re-examining the game and has the ability to change the rating to AO for Adult-Only, the gaming equivalent of America's NC-17 for movies. This would introduce enough restrictions in sales to stop San Andreas' meteoric American sales at a lousy five million copies on PS2 alone.
However, maybe Rockstar has a point in protesting and co-operating fully with the investigation. Similar manufactured controversy did not happen when the original Tomb Raider series, whose graphics also improved with time, was modded to allow Lara Croft's clothes to be removed at the touch of button. Similarly, Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball on the Xbox was practically laughed at when a modder programmed a method of removing the virtual swimwear. Neither game received a retrospective ratings adjustment. Maybe it's true that Rockstar has become a whipping boy for the moral majority in the US, even if it courted it as marketing for less than stellar titles in the past.
The key difference for the UK is that once a game has been submitted to the British Board of Film Classification, largely for PR purposes, there are generally no further internal industry markings or ratings on the packaging such as those from ELSPA or PEGI - with legally enforceable punishments, you know where you stand with the big red circle. Not so in the US, where San Andreas was granted a M(ature) rating by the ESRB and scores of seemingly unconcerned parents bought the game for their kids anyway, before blaming the publisher, the retailer or anybody else for their children being “exposed” to an adult title.
Maybe a little undeserved press attention may push Rockstar and Publishers Take Two to serve up a new franchise separate to GTA and not bother with junk like Manhunt - then again if the flagship series is doing five million units on one format, without the Number Two console and the PC to add on top, you know it'll be back. Strangely, the format on which the mod may spread the widest, the PC, has been largely ignored in the mass marketing effort - but if the game looks like it may be censored in any way, then there should be a last minute sell out and the game will be assured a continued half-life on Ebay until the next sequel.