A Year After 'Hot Coffee,' Game Developers Are Watching Their Steps

'There's clear internal pressure in studios to be less edgy,' says David Perry of GameConsultants.com.

What's too hot for game designers to handle these days?

In the past year games have come under some of the most intense scrutiny in the medium's history. The tipping point is well known: Thirteen months ago the "Hot Coffee" hidden sex scene got "Grand Theft Auto" yanked from store shelves (see " 'Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas' Gets 'Adults Only' Rating). Since then, laws restricting the sale of explicit video games to minors have been passed — and occasionally blocked — across the United States. "GTA"-maker Rockstar Games is two months away from releasing the violent high school game "Bully." Protesters marched outside of Rockstar headquarters a year ago, and plan to do so again (see "Rockstar's Controversial 'Bully' Game Not A Schoolyard 'GTA' After All").

As far as some game makers are concerned, all this heat is putting a chill in the air. Creativity is being stifled, some say. Not all agree about the severity. And at least one sees some good coming out of it. But several game designers contacted by MTV News said that a year after "Hot Coffee," making games isn't like it used to be.

"We've seen signs that creativity in our industry is being chilled as a result of last year's political and media attention," said Denis Dyack, president of developer Silicon Knights, whose upcoming Xbox 360 game "Too Human" is targeted at older, sophisticated audiences.

One veteran game developer who spoke to MTV News on the condition of anonymity said the impact of "Hot Coffee" was swift. "It was pretty quick," he said. "We were doing this title around that time and we were like, 'Oh wait, that won't do anymore,' and people were scrambling to cover themselves." He declined to give specifics but said the content his team cut was similar to material they got away with in an M-rated game the year before.

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David Perry, CEO of GameConsultants.com and lead creator of Atari's "Matrix" games, said publishers have long frowned on game developers creating extreme content; companies would claim that M-rated games generally didn't sell as well as T-rated ones. "There's clear internal pressure in studios to be less edgy." he said, acknowledging that he held back the content of the "Matrix" games despite their basis on R-rated movies. "What's worse — thanks to the debacle by [publisher] Take 2 for 'Grand Theft Auto' — is that we all now must tread more lightly."

Chris Taylor, creative director of Gas Powered Games and the company's upcoming "Supreme Commander," said, "I don't think it's chilling anyone's creativity, but it probably is making designers think twice before moving ahead with violent or edgy games, because they might have a harder time getting them funded."

The signs that the gaming industry is armoring up against scrutiny are many. Near-automatic industry lawsuits take place against each state that passes legislation against games, and earlier this month, representatives from Rockstar Games pointed out that hassling girls is met with swift consequences in "Bully."

Taylor said the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, the group that currently rates games and that drew fire for not catching the "GTA" sex scene the first time around, effectively allows a wide range of expression. "I think the rating system that is in place gives everyone a mechanism for creating 'our art' that spans a wide range of tastes."

But the developer who spoke anonymously noted that since "Hot Coffee," many game makers have modified their expectations of what the ESRB will and won't allow, and held back accordingly. "If you're going to the ESRB with a rating and it comes back with an 'oh no, this stuff is bad,' then I've seen cases where the developer is like, 'We'd better cut back these other five things, even though the developer hasn't brought them up, as a good-faith effort to show them we're playing along.' "

Game makers will excise material from the margins to steer clear of a severe rating, according to the developer, who added that cuts might be a line of dialogue, or extreme parts of a cut-scene. The top content to cut is sexual violence, followed by sexual content and then non-sexual violence. The developer hasn't seen a cut that has severely impacted the quality of a game or the major intent of the game experience — no turning of Lolita into an adult, for example. "Usually they're not completely destroying the game in the process," the developer said. "But it's a slippery slope, right?"

An ESRB spokesperson declined to comment for the article.

"The kinds of things the censors freak out over are sex, drugs, screaming and blood," Perry said. "So you find yourself saying, 'Do we need to have them scream, can't they just groan?' The more you change, the more watered-down the content becomes, and the gamers know it. I've taken out overtly aggressive moves, nudity, profanity, blood, you name it, all in the name of trying to please the censors. I've changed my opinion now however, to 'Do or do not!' If it's M-rated, be clear from the start, mention it at every chance, get the publisher to agree, and the audience will thank you for not compromising."

While many game controversies have involved content easily accessed in games, such as "GTA"'s ability to beat up prostitutes, the "Hot Coffee" sex scene was actually buried in the game's code and has prompted concern about what else might lurk within games' left-over code. That kind of content is being eliminated more often now, according to the anonymous developer.

"Where you might have used a placeholder obscenity for a line just because it was a joke or named a level for an obscenity, [developers are] definitely getting more serious about it — 'Hey, let's not do that in case someone forgets to take it out later,' " the developer said. "The fact that that sort of thing happens shows you where a lot of game developers' minds are at in the first place ... which might be another part of the problem: that we all find it so darned amusing when most of the rest of the world doesn't."

He also pointed out that the "Hot Coffee" furor isn't all to blame. "Avoiding certain subject matter has been going on for decades," he said. "Like, 'Let's not have a gay-themed character because that might upset somebody.' "

Dyack theorized that there might be a positive side-effect to any self-censoring second-guessing that's happening these days. "Censorship does not always stifle creativity as one may expect," he said, citing the Hays Code, which the U.S. Government implemented in the 1930s to restrict movie content. "Filmmakers were forced to get creative. Instead of showing an intimate scene, they would show a scene with the actors kissing then fade to a train entering a tunnel or fireworks going off in the sky. In an unintended way, the Hays Code helped define the language of film and inspired metaphors that we still see today."

While that notion certainly addresses creative talents making lemonade out of lemons, Dyack also notes that it can be perceived as the bright side of suppressing free expression. He urges vigilance. "With all types of censorship, we run the risk of it becoming so extreme that the art form can be lost and creativity stifled. We have not reached this point yet, but we do have to keep an eye on it to make sure it does not get out of hand."