Summary: Take 2 and Rockstar's next big game is suddenly on the ropes, essentially banned in the UK and United States and on all the consoles. Where does Rockstar go from here?
The British Board of Film Classification, which also handles ratings for video and PC games in that country, rendered a decision to ban the sale of Manhunt 2 in UK stores last week (the Irish equivalent rating board quickly followed up with their own ban of the game). In its printed decision the board stated that in other games they try to recommend cuts or changes to make the game acceptable to the ratings system. However in Mahunt 2's case the board felt that could not happen, saying, "Manhunt 2 is distinguishable from recent high-end video games by its unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing. There is sustained and cumulative casual sadism in the way in which these killings are committed, and encouraged, in the game" The statement concluded with the board saying that in their opinion allowing the sale of the game in the UK would cause "a range of unjustifiable harm risks, to both adults and minors, within the terms of the Video Recordings Act, and accordingly that its availability, even if statutorily confined to adults, would be unacceptable to the public."
Later that week, Rockstar Games admitted that the US's ESRB ratings board has slapped an "AO" (Adults Only) rating on Manhunt 2. This rating would be bad enough for the game since nearly all retailers do not allow the sale of games with such a rating. However it was later revealed that Sony and Nintendo don't even allow AO rated games to be sold for their console systems (Microsoft doesn't either, by the way) which effectively bans the sale of the game. In a statement near the end of the week, Take Two Interactive announced that they would temporarily delay the release of Mahunt 2 (it was scheduled for release on July 9) as they look into their options which could include appealing the decisions of the BBFC and ESRB, cutting content in the game to get a lower rating, release the game on the PC (which would bypass the console companies' bans on AO rated material) or simply cancel the game outright. In their statement about Manhunt 2's delay, Take Two stated, "We continue to stand behind this extraordinary game. We believe in freedom of creative expression, as well as responsible marketing, both of which are essential to our business of making great entertainment."
So what happens now? FiringSquad decided to contact a number of game developers to get their opinions on this latest dust up by a Rockstar Games title and what it might mean for the industry as a whole. FiringSquad contacted Rockstar Games a number of times to get a Manhunt 2 interview; those requests were not returned. FiringSquad also contacted the ESRB for comment but their spokesperson declined our request, saying that their policies keeps them from talking publicly about a game's rating for 30 days after the ESRB gives their designation for a game.
Derek Smart, the head of 3000AD, feels that Take Two Interactive knew that the content in Manhunt 2 was going to at least push the boundaries of the ESRB rating system, "The ESRB questionnaire for one, is pretty detailed but clear and not open to misinterpretation. I should know; I just sent in a ratings submission for one of our upcoming games. So, whoever filled it out (the producer I suppose), must have known that they were pushing the boundaries of an M rating. The game must be really and truly over the top - and have no redeeming [gaming] qualities - to get an AO rating. For my money, they were probably hoping to get by with an M rating and calling it a day. The AO rating must have been a shock. Or not. My guess is someone is being fired right about now. If they haven't already been, given this latest spat of Take2 firings and studio closures."
Desi told us, "We feel it’s a privilege to be on a console, not a developer’s right. Console companies have the right to set their own policies regarding content. Again, I think the real issue is that the AO rating currently has the effect of a Scarlet Letter A. As consumers in a supposedly free market society we should be able to choose what we want to purchase or play, no different than other entertainment products. Unfortunately the video game industry has not matured to that point yet."
Smart told us that Take Two Interactive should be able to take responsibility for the content of Manhunt 2, saying "Nobody said not to make an AO rated movie or game. But by the same token, if you decide to develop and publish a game, e.g. Manhunt 2, that is clearly outside the norm, you should expect to take the heat for it. So, sure, make your M or AO rating game because there is most probably an audience for it. Go ahead, exercise your right to [protected] free speech, your artistic freedom and all that crap we take for granted so some can abuse it at will. But just don't go crying foul when the system - designed to distinguish it from other fare - gives it a deserved branding. After all, thats what the ratings system is all about. Whether it works or not is irrelevant because it is not the ESRB's responsibility to police the people (retailers) who actually sell the games. In much the same way that they can't tell a developer what type of game to make. So, a game with an AO rating, is still likely to fall into the hands of a teenager."
Chmielarz, however, stated that console maker's decision to ban the release of AO games could be an issue in the future. He told us, "That thing is a real problem, not the AO label. Is it really so good for business that a given console will never have AO content? Somehow it did not kill DVD market... And it will not kill PC market... We all know it's on the contrary. I mean, MS/N/S can do whatever they please with their consoles, they can ban games that do not feature pink elephants - it's their hardware. But we have entered an era where graphics is almost photorealistic (e.g. Gears of War), so this problem with adult content will start to bite developers in the ass more and more. 10 years ago killing a man meant hundred pixel silhouette dropping on the floor in 3 frames of animation. Now we can see a single blood drop and parts of the brain splattered all over the wall. And if adult people want to see that, they should be allowed to. And for every Manhunt 2 PC, there will be a copy of a console game not sold. Ok, that's an exaggeration, but I hope it's clear where I'm going with this. I don't think labelling is stupid and unfair, but I think censorship is."
Smart told us that in his opinion, Take Two has only two real options: "(a). Scrap it. After all, unless it sells, the developers can't recoup the development advances. Take2 can easily write it off. In fact, if they did this, it would go a long - long - way to showing the industry that this new gang at Take2, take this stuff seriously. That premise is rubbish of course; since one would still ask how they [Take2] allowed a game of this nature to get this far without the producer reigning the developers in. If this were my company - and I were in a management position - I'm having everybody - and I do mean everybody involved with the project - fired. This is just as bad as that whole "hot coffee"debacle which cost the company so much in such a short time. You'd think that someone had learned a valuable lesson. I guess not. (b) Scrap the boxed retail release and sell it via digital distribution. Sure, the mainstream retailers (e.g. Walmart) with websites still won't sell it; but thats irrelevant because I'm sure that IGN won't mind the business. :-D Heck, Steam has close to three million subscribers. You throw it up there and my guess is that they'd probably recoup - at the very least - their dev expenses. Of course that [recoupment] would take longer than a boxed retail release"
Desi told us that Take Two should try to charge ahead and release the game with its original AO rating, saying, "What they should do now is what they should have done with ‘Hot Coffee” – they should man up to it and attempt to validate the AO rating as a legitimate consumer product, accurately rated, and acceptable to a certain audience, instead of back pedaling and only making the situation worse. A major publisher like Take 2 has the ability to make a difference. Only when major corporate players in our industry decide to address this content issue realistically (and honestly) will our industry grow for the better. They need to take a hard look, an honest view, and ask themselves is this game fun to play or does it suck. I don’t see them being altruistic at all. They will find a way to get it published and salvage what they can."
And how does this latest brush with the ratings board affect game developers as a whole? Fawkner told us, "Not at all. If we were doing a game like this, I would be working with the appropriate groups from day one, making sure that we didn't cross any lines. Desi also said, "Not at all. There is a difference between AO for extreme sexual or violent content, and fun sexual teasing or slap happy comedic violent humor. We’re making POSTAL III, and we have one goal – to make it a FUN game to play, and as FUNNY as it can be at the same time. When are developers going to realize games are supposed to be fun? POSTAL III will be on Xbox 360/PC/Mac. We take our responsibility as game designers very seriously. Our goal is to make POSTAL III a great game that is fun and not obsessed with violence or immature adult humor, not to shock or reward negative social behavior." Kingsley repeated their statements, saying "Not at all, particularly if they are games with a strong creative theme and the adult content is present for a reason. Most audiences can tell the difference between classical erotica and gonzo porn."
Chmielarz, however, believes that there might be some effects on this decision to game developers, but added that those effects are, ".... not in a way most people suspect. I actually believe it's very interesting and challenging to create an adult game while having some limitations. Take "24" for example, no one has any doubts it's brutal, adult TV, yet they don't have any cursing there. Or "Godfather" - second part features an extreme gore, yet it's considered one of the best movies ever and is available to wide public. So it's doable, you can have adult product without the stigma of AO sticker. But if you choose a theme for your game like Rockstar did with Manhunt, you are basically asking for it..."
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