Friday, July 14th, 2006

GP Exclusive - Interview with Modder behind Oblivion Controversy

It wasn't nearly Hot Coffee-level, but the ESRB's decision to re-rate The Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion rocked the video game world when it was announced on May 3rd of this year.

As the ESRB would have it, the Oblivion decision was based upon "more detailed depictions of blood and gore than were considered in the original rating... as well as the presence in the PC version of the game of a locked-out art file that, if accessed by using an apparently unauthorized third party tool, allows the user to play the game with topless versions of female characters."

At the time there was much debate in the gaming community over the ESRB's action. The Elder Scrolls series enjoys an almost reverential status among fans of role-playing games. For its part, developer Bethesda went along with the decision, although a company press release expressed frustration with the ESRB, saying, "Bethesda Softworks made what it believes was a full, accurate, and comprehensive submission on Oblivion to the ESRB months before the game's release... Nothing was hidden from the ratings agency."

So what really happened?

GamePolitics has tracked down Maeyanie, the mysterious modder who created the topless Oblivion mod. Maeyanie is a bit photo-shy, but has allowed us to publish a 3-D self-portrait (seen at left). GP Correspondent Colin "Jabrwock" McInnes reconstructs the Oblivion controversy with Maeyanie in this revealing interview:

CM: First off, I just wanted to thank you for letting GamePolitics talk to you about the controversy surrounding The Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion.

Maeyanie: You're welcome.

CM: I guess we could start with some questions about you and your background. Where are you from?

Maeyanie: This is one I'm going to have to not answer. Let's leave it at "not USA."

CM: What kinds of games are you into? What are your favorite recent titles?
Read more... )

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Sunday, May 7th, 2006

ESRB's Oblivion Ruling: It's Curious...

What just happened?

Did the ESRB really re-rate Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion from "Teen" to "Mature"?

Damn right they did. And, hey, let's talk about that. But... but... but... E3 starts tomorrow and we all want to know about the PS3 and the Wii and Halo 3 and Spore and The Sopranos and all the rest of the cacophony of press releases, deal announcements, game trailers, celebrity sightings and attendant hoopla that E3 generates.

Don't color me too X-Files here, but maybe the announcement was timed that way? A couple of business days worth of chatter (the re-rating news hit late on Wednesday) and then, like everything else game-related, the Oblivion story gets vaporized by the ever-expanding mushroom cloud of news that is E3.

If you think about it, the timing is quite interesting.

Oblivion hit retail on March 20th, a full six weeks before the re-rating. That means developer Bethesa and co-publisher Take-Two Interactive already realized the great majority of potential Oblivion sales before the re-rating took effect. (most titles sell heavily just after release and tail off quickly from there).

Nor would the logistics of the re-rating seem to cause major financial problems for Bethesda, since there was no recall and no removal of the game from retail shelves. You may remember that last year's Hot Coffee scandal cost Take-Two and developer Rockstar an estimated $25-30 million in recall, relabeling and re-mastering expenses.

But let's go back to E3 for a minute.

The industry has been taking steps to polish its image of late, including redefining how provocative booth babes can be. Mainstream media attention is likely to be higher than usual, since this is the first post-Hot Coffee E3. Having Oblivion's industry-imposed re-rating as a notch on the ESRB's belt certainly can't hurt when the talking heads begin to ask the inevitable tough questions about game content.

There's also the issue of the Xbox 360 version. The ESRB press release cites the now-infamous topless mod, applicable to the PC version only, as well as "more detailed depictions of blood and gore than were considered in the original rating of the game." Both versions - PC and Xbox 360 - were re-rated, but only the PC version will receive a new content description for "nudity." Both versions already carried descriptors for "blood and gore," and these will remain in effect.From here, it really smells like the topless mod was the key to the re-rating decision, not the blood and gore.

The ESRB's action has caused a low-key, but obvious dust-up between Bethesda and the ratings board. The wording of a Bethesda press release seems almost bewildered by the decision:

"Bethesda Softworks made what it believes was a full, accurate, and comprehensive submission on Oblivion to the ESRB months before the game's release. Bethesda used the ESRB's application forms and believes it adhered closely to their requirements. Nothing was hidden from the ratings agency."

ESRB boss Pat Vance fired back, putting the onus on Bethesda in an interview with GameDaily BIZ.

"Bethesda is fully aware that the content in question," Vance said, "both the more extreme depictions of blood and gore as well as the locked-out content, should have been disclosed to ESRB, which is part of why they have wisely chosen not to contest the rating change."

The various possible scenarios are all very confusing to GP, who admittedly confuses easily. One possibility is that everything is just as reported.

Another view, let's call it the grassy knoll theory, might be that this is as much about strategy, timing and public relations as it is about game content. After all, since Oblivion has pretty much run through the bulk of its retail sales and doesn't have to implement a recall, who really gets hurt here?

Only Bethesda's pride, it would seem.

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Thursday, May 4th, 2006

California's Leland Yee Trashes ESRB, Take-Two Over Oblivion

The fallout continues.

Yesterday, of course, the ESRB abruptly changed the rating of Bethesda's Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion from T (13 an older) to M (17 and older) based upon some extra blood and gore as well as a user mod which allowed players to create topless female characters.

Moments ago, the office of California Assembly Speaker pro Tem Leland Yee (D) issued a press release in which Yee savages both the ESRB and Take Two Interactive, co-publisher of Oblivion.

"Take Two Interactive just doesn't learn," said Yee. "It was only ten months ago that this same publisher deceived parents by first putting hidden sex scenes into their already ultra-violent video game and then lying about the fact that they allowed the content to be included."

Yee also criticized the game rating process used by the ESRB for not evaluating the entire content of the games it reviews. On this, the Assemblyman's press release says, "Unlike the movie industry's rating board which reviews the entire content of a film, the ESRB rates games based on very limited viewing of the game and rely almost entirely on information provided to them by the game manufacturer."

"While the retailers may have been made aware of the re-ratings, how many parents are still unaware that these games include such graphic content," added Yee. "In both instances, thousands of children had already purchase the game as well as many parents who bought the game thinking it may be appropriate for their child. Take Two Interactive continued to receive all profits and was not penalized in any way."

"The ESRB again has failed our parents and clearly has shown they can not police themselves," Yee continued. "Plain and simply, the current rating system is drastically flawed and here is yet another reason why we need legislation to assist parents and protect children."

The timing of the Oblivion flap and Yee's response has an ironic California twist. Next week lawyers for the game industry will face off against the California Attorney General before a federal judge in San Jose to argue the fate of California's 2005 video game law, which Yee sponsored.

At present Yee is also involved in a tough three-way primary battle for a seat in the California Senate.

The ESRB declined to comment for this report.

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What Its Creator Has to Say About Oblivion Topless Mod

It's a story GamePolitics passed on more than a month ago and, to be honest, we're still not sure how much ink the user-modified topless female characters in Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion deserve.

On April 2nd a source we know and trust pointed us to the patch at Adult Game Reviews (definitely not safe for work). The site also has nude skins for the previous Elder Scrolls RPG, Morrowind as well as for Tomb Raider, The Sims and several other games.

But the patch available there may also be found at Oblivion Source, a fan site which describes itself as "dedicated to the upcoming Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion game and TES (The Elder Scrolls series) games in general..."

The creator of the nude Oblivion patch, "Maeyanie," uploaded the file on March 24th, just four days after Oblivion's release. Maeyanie's comments to the file seem to place responsibility for the creation of the breasts in question with the developer:

"In the process of trying to create a nude skin for Oblivion, I found Bethesda had already done all the work for me. They just covered it up with underwear afterwards... Please note, this is a realistic nudity mod, not a pornographic one. The file included removes the bra welded to the skin of females of all races, showing things as most people know they are in the real world after removing upper body clothing. It will not show every female in the game as topless."

Beyond the usual tech challenges, Maeyanie's motivation for creating the topless patch is given as:

"I do this because I hate government/society/whatever forcing companies to 'protect our innocent population from seeing those evil dirty things 50% of them possess personally anyways' not because I'm trying to turn it into a porn game."

Maeyanie mentions also that he or she was unable to patch the lower character torsos - thus sparing the world genitalia-equipped Oblivion characters. As of this writing, the patch is still available at both Oblivion Source and Adult Game Reviews, but GP wonders how long that will last.

Although Maeyenie's feedback among Oblivion Source users was generally positive, a long volley of comments appended to the patch file page indicate that some fans almost immediately feared a Hot Coffee redux. Cook commented "DON'T RECREATE HOTCOFFEE!! I give you a 1 (rating out of 10). I appreciate your work, but be afraid of the oppressive game companies..."

chr43 wrote, "If you want nudity, go buy a porn game or movie instead of ruining a good game. Eric added, " guys are really pathetic. Please stop reinforcing negative gamer stereotypes that people who play games are sexually frustrated deviants."

The comments appear to have taken their toll on Maeyanie, who wrote, "Due to the number of thoroughly depressing comments, I'm no longer providing any support or updates. Nor will I release any further mods of this nature, for this game or others. I'm not regretting having made this. But I am regretting releasing it to the horny, immature masses out there..."

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Bethesda Responds to Oblivion Rating Change

Whatever you think of the Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion ratings mess, give Bethesda Softworks points for standing tall.

In a press release posted on Bethesda's website, the Oblivion developer admits that it - and not co-publisher Take-Two Interactive - handled the ESRB rating application process. Take-Two, of course, took a major hit over last year's Hot Coffee scandal, and their involvement - however peripheral - with Oblivion has already caught the attention of some game industry critics.

Bethesda reports that it will "will promptly implement the ratings change that the ESRB has ordered for Oblivion."

The company does not plan a product recall or a change in Oblivion to meet T (teen) rating standards. Nor will Bethesda contest the ESRB's decision. The company will work with Take-Two (whose name is, curiously enough, completely absent from the press release, which refers to it only as "co-publisher") to re-sticker existing inventory. New copies will be printed with the M (mature) rating ordered by the ESRB.

As far as it role, Bethesda said it made what it believes was a "full, accurate, and comprehensive submission on Oblivion to the ESRB months before the game's release. Bethesda used the ESRB's application forms and believes it adhered closely to their requirements. Nothing was hidden from the ratings agency. No effort was made by Bethesda to lobby or influence the agency for any particular rating."

Bethesda goes on to say, "There is no nudity in Oblivion without a third party modification. In the PC version of the game only... some modders have used a third party tool to hack into and modify an art archive file to make it possible to create a mesh for a partially nude (topless) female that they add into the game. Bethesda didn't create a game with nudity and does not intend that nudity appear in Oblivion. There is no nude female character in a section of the game that can be 'unlocked.'"

The Oblivion ratings issue does not bode well for the mod community, as witnessed by Bethesda's comment that, "Bethesda can not control tampering with Oblivion by third parties. Bethesda is taking steps to ensure that modders can not continue to hack into Oblivion's art archives to create partially nude figures."

Depite the problems presented by this rather messy episode, Bethesda reaffirms its support for the ESRB as well as for Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion.

GP: ...and well they should. It's a fantastic game. As far as their comments about the mod community, it's a concern, but who can blame Bethesda?

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Friday, March 31st, 2006

Bethesda Founder Speaks Out and "Office Massacre" Keels Over

Christopher Weaver (left), co-founder of highly-respected game studio Bethesa Softworks (Elder Scrolls: Oblivion), pens a fascinating op-ed for Next Generation.

Weaver was responding to an earlier Next Gen story detailing a planned mobile phone game, Office Massacre. In speaking out he joins the likes of Warren Spector and Doug Lowenstein in counseling the video game industry to be more prudent in its content choices. Weaver writes, in part:

"The rank stupidity of the people who brought us the Hot Coffee scandal was bad enough... Now comes another bunch of idiots who do not understand the first thing about social responsibility... When will we learn?"

Don't get the impression Weaver favors censorship. He once sued Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and the National Institute on Media and the Family over the inclusion of Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall on a list of ten worst (i.e. - most violent) games. As Weaver continues:

"I am not saying that we should limit our imaginations only to safe areas. But creativity demands that we can do better than copying tragic life events for crass entertainment. Nor am I suggesting we roll over and cater to every self-anointed group who claims that right is on their side. Such people are often very wrong as well."

"So, when I tell you that I believe we as an industry need to be aware of our perception by the public and government, I tell you with personal investment in protecting your freedom to be creative and not kowtow to everyone with an opinion."

"The games industry has grown large enough that it is perceived very differently today than it was even ten years ago. Along with burgeoning financial might comes social responsibility. If we as an industry fail to look carefully at what we do... then someone else will do it for us."

"And in case you think we are somehow protected by (the ESA), even the likes of... Doug Lowenstein can't make gold out of things like office shooting sprees... What comes next, Virtual Columbine?

GP: There is both wisdom and credibility to what Weaver is saying. Perhaps not coincidentally, Next Gen also reports today that developer Alten8 has scrubbed plans for Office Massacre.

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