July 20, 2005

My Take On "Hot Coffee"

I've been pretty quiet about all this uproar about the "Hot Coffee" modification for "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" because I've got friends who work for Take Two, but now that the recall petitions are out, I figure it's time to say what I think.

Developing video games is hard. Not only do we have to make a product that works, we also have to make a product that is fun, a product that will get the appropriate rating for our target market from the ESRB, a product that is acceptable to our publishers (well, we get to bypass that with SiN: Episodes...he he he), and a product that we are proud of at the end of the day.

A large part of game development is prototyping. That's when you're tossing new things into a product in a skeletal manner to see if it will add to the final product. This process often goes up until just a few weeks before a product goes "gold".

Sometimes, the features are cut but the files and code remain in the product. Why? Because developers don't want to introduce new bugs by pruning out older stuff.

Let me give you an example. Let's say that a developer prototypes a bike-tire-pumping minigame. The developer decides it should be a rhythm game, so he develops a rhythm system in the game, adds some placeholder animations and textures, and gets the minigame approved.

At this point, a few things are going to happen. Other developers are going to look at the helper functions and systems that this developer put in to see if they can build on top of what he has. Artists are going to replace the placeholder art with real art assets. These assets may be exclusive to this minigame, or these assets could be shared with other portions of the game.

After a couple of weeks of work, the programmer's system is used by several other developer's code, and the art is used in many other areas throughout the product. Suddenly, a note comes down from the publisher asking that the bike-pumping minigame be cut. Evidently, some kid in Arkansas stuck a bike pump in his ear and pumped so hard that brains shot out the kid's nose, so the feature is being cut to be more sensitive to consumers in Arkansas.

So how do you cut this feature out? The feature is there and works, other code is reliant on it, the art is used in other sections of the game, what do you do? The safest bet is to just make it so that the minigame is never called by the main game. That way, you aren't interfering with code or art.

This is most likely what happened with "GTA:SA." Most games have hidden features in them. Admittedly, very few are sex games. Some are unfinished levels or test levels. Some are hidden characters. Some include unauthorized copies of "South Park" clips. Most of the time, only a game's die-hard fans care.

Now is the ESRB responsible for this? Nope. The feature can only be accessed by modifying a game file. Admittedly, it's only modifying a single byte, but it's still a modification. I'm sure if you modified a single byte in a couple of "The Simpson's" titles, you'd get Homer screaming, "Fuck you, Flanders!" The ESRB can only really review titles as they ship. Now, if the feature could be unlocked somehow within the game, like the "chunky" and "superchunky" codes were in Dungeon Siege, then the ESRB could easily do something. As is, we'll have to be patient to see what the ESRB does.

Update (7/20/2005, 4:59pm): An AO rating. Not surprising.
Update (7/20/2005, 10:44pm): Corrected a typo, responded to feedback in comments section.


Kevin said...

You're being far too kind and easy on the Take Two bastards. My take is they knew exactly what they were doing. Look at all the publicity they are getting now. They probably have the slipstream version ready to go. But then I have a reason to be biased against them don't I?

Ripsy said...

I agree with Michael. I think that the ESRB is overreactting, so are our congressmen. This is a publicity stunt by the ESRB. The rating on the game is mature. This means that it is for mature audiences. If parents were paying attention then there 13 year old kids wouldn't have this game. Do not blame the video game companies for the inefficiency of parents.

Anonymous said...

You must be a Republican with a lame excuse like that!
It must be ok to leave any type of crap on a game so it don't hurt the code when it comes time to sell?

Anonymous said...

why don't you at least take an intro to programming course before beginning to argue about such things that are obviously way, way over your head.

Michael Russell said...

Regarding Kevin, I understand what you have against them.

Regarding Ripsy, I doubt this is a publicity stunt by the ESRB. This is exactly the type of publicity they don't want.

Regarding Anonymous #1, while not referring to sex games, I have worked on many a title where unused assets and code made it into the shipping product. One of our current products has over 294,000 individual art assets in place right now. I can view them to make sure they aren't offensive, but it would take an excessively long time to locate each individual asset in the game to make sure that it was being used in the title.

Regarding Anonymous #2, I've worked as a developer for two years and a tester for five years. I've shipped over a dozen products. I've worked on products where the change of a single line in the code causes the game to crash. I've worked on products where a single byte changing in an asset file caused the wrong assets to load (hence the Homer joke). Besides, I'm not going to take criticism from someone who can't even capitalize their own sentences.

I'm not defending Rockstar's content. I'm merely stating that I understand how such content could make it into the shipping content.

Especially at the end of a project, you need to be able to justify every single change you make to any file, because each change requires anything that touches that file be retested.

Ben said...

Stumbled onto your blog this evening. I have to say that I am completely angered by the goings on around this game, being a big fan myself. I'm amazed at how its such a problem, since this minigame happens to be one of the only things allowable in the real world from these games. I'd also like to mention that, as far as I know this happens in every platform, the player freezes in place after completing the minigame, so its not actually fully playable. I wish someone had sit down with Hilary and explained to her how this may have come to be.

TjL said...

It's one thing to have a scene that is cut because it is later decided that it was not needed for some reason.

But the scenes in question were definitely put in on purpose, and the company lied about how they got there ("Oh, we didn't put that in there, it was someone else").

I have no doubt that it's hard. I also have no doubt that these scenes a) were never intended to be publicly released (they put them in there for the hardcore fans to find) and b) could have been left out from the beginning before any other code would have depended on it.

Someone there made the decision to code the scenes in the first place. You can't come along later and say "Well it's too hard to remove the sexually explicit scenes now!" That's like my son painting

TjL said...

(oops, clicked wrong button)

..."That's like my son painting on the wallpaper and then complaining about how hard it is to clean off."

Michael Russell said...

Again, I'm not defending Rockstar's content. I'm merely saying that based on standard practices in the industry, I can see how "removed" content can end up on the released media.

Anonymous said...

Right on Michael! People got to learn to step outside the box and see other views. (and I don't support or agree with them either!)

Steve Williams said...

If this kind of sex minigame was hidden in say, Lego Star Wars, the complaints would be wholly justified and the authorities should take action against the programmers.

But come on, the GTA game as shipped revolves around gratuitous killing, violent robbery, drug dealing, kinky sex (casino robbery misson), gambling, reckless driving and is rife with bad language - it already has and deserves a mature rating, what's the problem with adults watching some cartoon sex if they're so inclined to 'mod' the game?

The real issue is that too many kids are playing the GTA series and that is something the authorities should be taking up with the parents and/or store owners concerned.

Curt Parker said...

Nope, Steve Williams, the real issue is that a game that was rated M and was allowed to sell in places like Walmart contained scenes that should have given earned it a rating of AO that would have prevented it from being sold.

The problem is that the ESRB reveiwed content that Rockstar told them was accessible, and it turns out that they were a little dishonest about the accessibility of that content. It was alot easier to access than they let on. Rockstar said it was impossible to access when in fact is was possible.

What should have happened? The ESRB should have reviewed all content in the game, not just that content the deveopers deem accessible. Rockstar should have also have been a little more forthcoming in what content existed in the game. I mean, the obviously put the mini game in there, then they had to "leak" the fact that it was in there in order for someone to stumble upon it.

Steve Williams said...

Curt, maybe things are different here in the UK - the game is rated '18' and supermarkets also sell '18' cert films that contain sex scenes (not hardcore of course, but neither is the 'hot coffee' mod from what I've seen online).

Putting aside Rockstars comments and what you see as the ESRB's failings for a moment, are you saying you don't have a problem that Walmart sells a game that 'as shipped' and 'as reviewed' allows you to bludgeon people to death with a 16" rubber dildo whilst dressed as a gimp, but have a problem with the fact that you can unlock a cartoon sex scene in the same game?

Surely, if the sex scene is too much, so is the dildo, the gimp suit and the violence? I can't see the difference? Either you're (im)mature enough, or not. Hence my comment regarding the 'real issue'.

Maybe Rockstar meant it was 'impossible' to unlock the scene whilst playing the game legitimately - that's true as far as I know. 'Modding' modifies the code, physically changing it beyond what shipped.

And how can the ESRB review content about which they have no knowledge? Please elaborate.

Anonymous said...

I agree 100% with Michael...I am a software engineer and we ship "dead" code all the time. It is much easier than taking extra time to rip it out (as it can cause more problems than it is worth).
This game was already rated with an M...does this really change anything? Is this mini-game really what puts it over the top for people? I don't think so. Either you can handle this game or you can't, adding some sex mini-game is not that bad.
It is also not the ESRB's fault/problem at all. How can they be expected to rate game based on things that might be in there? This mini-game is not accessible through regular gameplay, so it should not be included in the rating. What aboutt he little sex mods for the Sims? If this sets any precidence, then that game should also be rated AO as you can, with some modding, have sex in the game. Please...do we really belive that should happen?
This whole thing was a publicity stunt by some senators to get their names in the paper. Our nation as a whole is waaay too uptight about all of this stuff. It is just sex...come on, other countries have it on regular prime-time TV. Why are we so backwards that we cannot handle that?
Just my 2 cents...

Ben said...

I have to disagree with Curt Parker. The minigame IS impossible to access in the game without a cheat code or a modification. This is, albeit small, hacking the game. Rockstar didn't lie about anything, they worded it in a way that was extremely careful. Technically they told the truth. Everything that is in the game rightfully earned it an M rating, which is 17+ around here. Some retailers don't even sell them to anyone under 18, and I've gotten carded for much tamer games. This was, in fact, a small hacking that took advantage of preexisting code, even if the entire thing already existed. There are many games where adult things have been added by the modding community. I'm reminded of sex animation beds that are available on the internet for The Sims. If games are going to be judged on possible alterations, thats going to give every game out there an AO rating, worse case scenario of course, but still by this logic that is how it would work. The minigame was cut, it is not accessible in any way without modifying the game, so I don't understand why that should change the rating at all.

Claus Rasmussen said...

From a sex-liberal country over here in Europe (the first one to set free porn, google it if you don't know it), I find it very odd, that some (hopefully few) people in USA are so busy and upset about the one thing everybody's mom has done at least once.

If my kids where to go out in real life and practice anything from a video game, I'd prefer they would enjoy the hot coffee before anything else from GTA SA.

Oh well, enough of the obvious points. Actually I just wanted to point out a quote from GTA SA itself:

Carl Johnson: Whoa, that gun is huge, where did you get that?
Cesar: Same place I got my pants, this is America!

Hehe, nice comment there, Rockstar Games.

Is it correct what I've heard; you can buy a guns and ammunition in WalMart, but not the newly AO/18+ rated GTA SA?

Michael Russell said...

Yes, Claus, you are correct. At several Wal-Mart's across the nation, you can purchase hunting rifles and ammunition, but you cannot purchase AO-rated titles.

In Wal-Mart's defense, however, they also do not stock NC-17 or X-rated titles, the movie industry's equivalent of the AO rating.

In Rockstar's defense, the activities in the Grand Theft Auto games are mild compared to the aftermath of a good game of rugby.

Deji said...

Funny. GTASA is an 18 rated game (in the UK, anyway) and if they were to have left the scenes accessible, it would probably still be an 18 rated game.

Hell, in one of the first missions there is B/J action going on in the background... But ESRB still rated the game 18. Maybe this would've changed with these scenes in? Maybe that's just a little too extreme? Or maybe not... Because lets face it, it's just animation. You don't even see anything "innapropriate".

When Take2 were forced to take action, the solution was a patch that blocks users from modding the game. So we're basically judging this whole thing based on "how moddable the game is" rather than what is originally in it... The thing that stands in the way is still the same, hexidecimal code. By opening the application in a hex editor, the player can enable modding, then open the "main.scm" file and add hot coffee that way.

I mod San Andreas myself. It has been a great learning asset for me. I can even safely say that San Andreas literally changed my life for the better. It has gotten me interested in programming, scripting, film-making and more...

I myself have been able to enable "hot coffee". Yes, it's pretty simple after a few hours on studying the code and learning how to edit it... But it still requires effort. Even if it didn't, you have to open the game files using something not created by Rockstar or TakeTwo... So really, they did nothing to aid the coder in this... Also, since variables are un-named in compiled script, the coder wouldn't originally know what "bit" to edit in order to activate this without trying every single one to test...