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Opinion: Time For A 'Hot Coffee' Postmortem
Opinion: Time For A 'Hot Coffee' Postmortem Exclusive
September 8, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

September 8, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

With Take-Two's $20 million settlement with its investors late last week, the long-wrought 'Hot Coffee' episode finally comes to a close. The settlement comes after the $2.75 million the publisher had previously set aside for payments and costs to incensed consumers -- and that's not all.

Once a user mod revealed a hidden sex minigame, the recall, re-rating and re-release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas the publisher had to undertake was surely expensive, concussing revenues -- where major GTA releases usually bring windfalls, the company's third quarter in 2005 showed a $28.8 million loss.

An estimate based on legal costs and lost sales is ultimately just a ball-park guess, of course -- that $20 million also compensates investors for Take-Two's stock option backdating scandal, and the company's insurance paid much of it. It's also impossible to create a precise lost-sales figure.

But the financial cost of "Hot Coffee" to Take-Two is clearly in the tens of millions, at least -- a huge price tag for a small share of game content consumers were never even supposed to see.

How'd It Happen?

Or were they? We'll never know, really -- on one hand, there was no way to access the scandalous content through normal gameplay. On the other hand, the developers had to be aware of the thriving mod community around GTA games; it's hard to believe Rockstar didn't foresee that someone out there would find a way to unveil the hidden content.

That someone turned out to be now-legendary Dutch GTA modder Patrick 'PatrickW' Wildenborg, who claims it wasn't even a particularly difficult mod. "The only thing I had to do to enable the mini-games was toggling a single bit in the main.scm file," he explains on his site -- finding the bit to edit was harder than the toggling itself, he says.

"All this material is completely inaccessible in an unmodded version of the game," says Wildenborg. "It can therefore not be considered a cheat, easter-egg or hidden feature, but is most probably just leftover material from a gameplay idea that didn't make the final release."

Theories abound, certainly -- an experiment with adults-only content that got kiboshed? A developer in-joke no one ever thought consumers would find? An internal prank? But neither Rockstar nor Take-Two has ever explained exactly how or why the mini-game got into San Andreas, and as the episode's shadow has hung over the publisher for quite some time as it is, it's unlikely they'll ever address it.

On The Mend

Under the nurturance of chairman Strauss Zelnick, Take-Two has made a steady, successful turn-around from its checkered past, colored not only by "Hot Coffee," but by the corruption of its past execs. With the company finally in the clean-and-clear, none can blame Take-Two for aiming to move on and forget it.

But the how and why of 'Hot Coffee' is important. The content might have cost Take-Two millions and caused it inestimable headaches, but the entire industry paid for that episode, too.

The scandal impacted the reputation of grown-up video games in the eyes of new consumers taking their first look. 'Hot Coffee' ammunized the old-fashioned protests against games, complicated the battle for mature content and mature consumers, and disarmed game developers hoping to earn respect among "the rest of the world" for the work they were doing.

Take-Two might have finally moved on, but 'Hot Coffee' still hangs over the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, whose fight to build consumer trust in a self-governing ratings system is still weighted by this one high-profile episode where developers ducked outside that system. That the whole of GTA: SA was never intended for the young or easily scandalized becomes a moot point.

The Bad Get Cooler

All this while, time and distance have effectively turned 'Hot Coffee' into something of a positive for developer Rockstar -- safely under the umbrella of its publisher, Take-Two's golden calf can benefit, in consumers' eyes, from its rebel reputation.

Provocative wit, dark humor and continual boundary-pushing is part of the studio's aesthetic, and gamers love a rogue. 'Hot Coffee' has since gone from a costly and serious scandal to the sort of legendary prank that just makes the class bad-boy cooler.

An episode like 'Hot Coffee' would likely have been the end of a less-gifted developer, but far from penalizing its hip talent, Take-Two has bent over backward to retain and reward it in unprecedented ways.

The Collateral Damage

Rockstar brass emerge unscathed as the 'Hot Coffee' chapter closes at last. But the significant damage to the rest of the industry is impossible to count in dollars.

In fact, of the $2.75 million Take-Two set aside to compensate consumer claimants, it ultimately only paid out $300,000. Consumers were angry, but few actually bothered to claim their cash -- proving the "damages" were to things larger and less quantifiable than people's wallets.

Take-Two's prior leadership was ousted and replaced for its numerous failings. A court ruled that consumers who claimed GTA: SA's M-rating was "deceptive" were entitled to money. Shareholders who claimed the value of their investments were damaged by the episode were compensated by law.

Now that legal issues are no longer an excuse for the publisher to be tongue-tied, here's calling for a 'Hot Coffee' postmortem: Why was that content there? What was its original function? Who, exactly, was responsible, and how was it dealt with? What did management and lead design learn from the incident, from both a technical and an HR standpoint?

Restitution has now been made to all the affected parties -- but how will the rest of the industry be compensated for what it's lost to 'Hot Coffee'? The least it can ask for is the facts at last.

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John Manley
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I'm a bit at odds with this. While I'd certainly like to know WHY it was shipped, I don't really think we need to know who to blame, as that would only cause unnecessary strife for them. Ultimately, several people were probably involved, and it doesn't matter in the end.

However, I have a bit of contention with the whole "Hot Coffee bringing down the industry." Only people who got involved were those already involved in the fight against video games as being unholy. Most gamers took it as was said - the bad boy pulling his tricks. I know, personally, I never even bothered to unlock it. I'm sure if you ask most people these days, they'd be like "Hot Coffee, I heard of that.. isn't that a trophy for GTA4?" No, It's warm coffee, poking fun at themselves over it.

From what I saw, the people who were 'shocked' were the parents buying their kids M-rated games and failing to be informed about them. They couldn't believe some content like this would have slipped its way into the ultra-violent shooter they bought for little Jimmy! Seriously?!

So I don't believe the industry 'cred' has been irrevocably damaged, and that people should be called out for it. But I do believe it would be nice to have a consensus on just how it managed to make it into a published game, as it might help other studies to take a second look before sending something out the door, as well as the impact afterward from a postmortem perspective.

Chris Remo
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I agree with John. I think it's far past the point where it matters who was responsible and why it was on the disc. I think Wildenborg, quoted in the article, pretty much nails it: it "is most probably just leftover material from a gameplay idea that didn't make the final release."

Calling out some specific staff member for that kind of thing is the wrong way to go, I think. Unused material is left in games all the time, it just usually doesn't have the misfortune of being exposed in such an explosive way. In just about every other case, it would be a completely benign oversight isn't necessary. Obviously in this case there were larger repercussions, but that's hindsight for you. As to finding the culprit, there are much better ways for Rockstar North to use its time.

Kristian Roberts
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I must agree with Mr. Manley above.

It is to be sure that quality controls exist such that publisher know what they are publishing (and so don't get bitten for it).

At the same time, I must reiterate a position i often find myself harping on (and one alluded to by Mr. Manley): how is "hot coffee" 'worse' than the rest of GTA3: Andreas? it should not be the position of the gaming industry to defend itself from allegations of damaging the develeopment of children by citing the difficulty of accessing nudity in a game rife with the most degenerate (and amusing) of subject matters.

Rather, (in my oh-so-humble opinion), the industry should undertake to defend the place of maturely themed games on stores' shelves in a broader sense. Only when the moralists of the world see games as a medium no different that film (which is likely the console/PC game's closest analog in the so-called traditional media), will incidents like this cease to damage the industry's reputation. indeed, the industry itself needs re-orient the perception of legislators such that (as with other media) games are not toys, but credible media like another. Sure the ESRB makes a good start, and corporate consolidation is usually to be found in maturinging industries, but there is a long way to go. Standard job descriptions, clearer market segmentation, and the like must also occur. In short, the games industry must itself mature.

To return to "hot coffee" the real sin here is not in the content, but in the immaturity evidenced by Take-Two's allowing the content in the marketplace without knowing. Disorganization is the enemy, not a mini-game with boobs.

The perception that 100 hours of wanton and brutal violence is okay, whereas minutes of soft-core sexuality is verbotten in video games is a related (and largely North American) issue. But that is a rant for another day.

Fiore Iantosca
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This 22 mill settlement was because the executives and PR machine at Take-Two were HORRIBLE during this incident. Shareholders were MORE upset how it was handled than the actual hot coffee incident.

I agree completely with Kristian's alst two paragraphs, those are key

Brian Harris
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Unused content gets left in video games all the time. Quake 3 had code and a model for a grappling hook that got cut. Sure a grappling hook isn't risque, but I'd argue that the 'hot coffee' content wasn't either (or at least, not any worse than the rest of the game).

Michael Vargas
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In 1995 TIME Magazine praised Doom and claimed it was "no gorier than a Sam Peckinpah movie".

In 1999 that same publication vilified the same game as responsible for the Columbine shootings. Not that it was true, as all those dismissed lawsuits later proved, it's just that Doom earns more magazine sales as a scapegoat rather than as a work of art.

There are cleraly any number of vultures out there that love to profit from the bones of the videogame industry.

There are two problems that are compounding this. One is, as David Cage so brilliantly noted at the recent GDC Europe, is that developers are too often just rolling over every time the vultures come out to bite, essentially creating a moral hazard that encouraged the feeding frenzy over Hot Coffee and created a climate that impacted us all artistically. If developers really insist on putting scandalous stuff in their product that in turn makes waves for all of us, they should damn well stand by them and stand up to these vultures, as EA did with Fox News during the Mass Effect scandal (they put Fox in their place so badly, Fox issued an apology, something even Obama could never hope to get).

The other is that, aside from maybe Wall Street and the American automobile industry, there is no other industry as plagued with more incompetence and unaccountability, especially in upper management, than this one ("management dickheads", as Greg Costikyan calls them). There are way too many guys in this industry that shouldn't be given mops, yet are juiced in anyway and they are all dragging this industry down, from dumb decisions that get entire studios and teams shut down to this Hot Coffee bullsh*t, and I for one am sick of it. Whoever these assh*les were, their brainless mistake gave us all major headaches, and I'd like to know who was responsible, if only to make sure I don't ever hire them.

Alex K
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Michael, TIME magazine isn't written by one person. I'm sure those two comments were two different opinions.

John Hahn
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I'm 24, and when I was growing up my parents didn't care if I watched Terminator 2 and/or any other R-rated action movies with gratuitous violence, but they would stop and fast forward past (this was VCR days) the sexual content in the movies. My parents never cared if I played violent video games or watched violent movies, but sexual conduct was another matter. I might go out on a limb here and say that this behavior that many parents have where they taboo sex and not violence is not uncommon in the United States, and I believe this is the root of the 'hot coffee' issue. Don't get me wrong, I love my parents and I think they were way cooler about things than many parents are, and I turned out to be a sane, balanced adult. However, as an adult looking back on that, it is bizarre to me that many of us view the act of procreation as more explicit than someone getting their head blown off with a shotgun.

Bruno Dion
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Also Micheal (poor guy will think we are picking on him), I'm pretty sure Fox never released an apology, that psychologist/author that was on the show did because her book was getting destroyed on Amazon.

Also, John Hahn is right. A lot of people are more uncomfortable with sex than they are with violence. Same goes for the exposure to children they may have. I'm pretty sure that they is a big psychological issue that is linked to our North American and mostly catholic past.

John Hahn
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Bruno, it's not unique to Catholics. Many baptists and other protestants are notoriously intolerant of sexual activity. Many baptists throughout history didn't even let their kids go to school dances because they believed dancing was sinful, for crying out loud.

Michael Vargas
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Nonsense my friend, debate is good. :) Here is the link to Fox’s apology. The Fox News correspondent repeated the apology from one of their own pundits regarding Mass Effect, noted that gamers were very upset over the story, and invited the developers to Fox News. While one could nitpick that (and Fox News would really, really prefer if you did) that sounds like contrition to me.


It could be a matter of opinion, but in my view at least, TIME is a journalistic publication that presents facts and analysis. Neither articles were editorials, and both claimed analysis that discredit each other (Doom is no violent than some movies from the ‘60s VS. Doom is so violent it brainwashes children into murder). The publication pretty much did what big money media often does; it decided that Doom was worth more to it financially as a villain, despite whether or not it conflicts with its own published articles on the subject. The practice is now so blatant in the news media that they are receiving serious criticism all the time over it (for example, CNN allows its pundits to fuel the “Obama is a foreign citizen” rumor despite having journalists on the same network discredit the same rumor...even on the same day). Also, TIME Magazine in particular has been making bogeymen of videogames for years; note this outrageous Pokemon cover, so over-the-top that it made this Top 10 Most Absurd TIME Covers list:

Doug Poston
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Like it or not, in the US we are far more accepting of exposing minors to violence than sex in media (compare Janet Jackson's halftime show to the endless replays of the latest hockey fight).

As for EA standing up for Mass Effect vs. Rock Star "rolling over" Hot Coffee, EA followed the rules so they had a legal ground to stand on. Rock Star appeared to be on questionable grounds.

Kevin Reese
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Pretty much all of us will have sex in our lives (I hope ALL of us :) ), but hardly any of us will ever run over a cop with a police cruiser, and then shoot a prostitute with a shotgun.

It still boggles the logical side of my mind to ponder how uh... 'morally corrosive' human intercourse is considered to be in games, compared to mass murder.

Victor Gont
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I would really like to see a PR statement about this from those directly involved. While i enjoyed the game a great deal and did not bother to check what all the fuss was about with the content, the media fallout of the topic was interesting to watch.

Also an analysis of this topic from those that promote the game industry as art, and the effect on their campaign of media recognition would also make for a compelling read.

As for the parallel with the Mass Effect/Fox issue, i don't think that is a viable comparison. Both Geoff Keighley and the gamers' reaction accounted for much more than EA could have done from a legal standpoint.

Jamie Mann
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For me, Wildenborg summed things up perfectly:

"All this material is completely inaccessible in an unmodded version of the game. It can therefore not be considered a cheat, easter-egg or hidden feature, but is most probably just leftover material from a gameplay idea that didn't make the final release."

People leave leftover material in virtually all industries - whether it's spare cabling in a duct, placeholder screwholes in a car or unused function calls in their code or a pile of components mouldering in the corner of a warehouse. Very few complex things finish up exactly the way as originally envisaged: there's always compromises, priority changes or external factors to consider.

In terms of impact to the games industry: there was definitely a chilling effect in the short term, but in the longer term, dragging "adult" themes into the open should generally help, by changing the public's perception of what a game is. We need to get out of the 1980's "Nintendo/Atari/arcade" mindset: we've come a long way since the games industry was generally targetted at the teen/pre-teen market. Look at the movie industry: a lot of films which were originally banned outright (e.g. the video nasties) have been "rehabilitated" by time and are now freely available, while films which once would have commanded a 18 rating (at least in the UK) can now be viewed by 12 and 15 year olds.

Give it another ten years and the games industry will be a lot more comfortable with truly adult themes: in the meantime, the trailblazers still have to watch their steps...