With many video games, there’s no “game over” screen, no reason to ever get bored. In a long-standing practice called “modding,” fans create their own new chapters, artwork and other twists to extend the lives of their favorite games.
Many game makers freely encourage the practice and give away free software tools to help.
But some in the industry are now wondering about the ratings implications posed by mods after a Dutch programmer created one that unlocks a hidden sex level in the violent action game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” After all, video games aren’t like the feature films you see in the theater or get on a DVD. They’re made of software code. They’re malleable.
The Grand Theft Auto mod, called “hot coffee,” was developed by Patrick Wildenborg, who made downloads freely available on the Internet about a month ago.
Most major retailers promptly removed the game from store shelves after the Entertainment Software Rating Board, an industry body, changed its rating Wednesday to “adults only” from “mature.”
Like souping up car engines or expanding the capacity of TiVo digital video recorders, modding is largely unsolicited and uncompensated.
For most, modding is all about the love of games, not of dollars — though many large publishers have found ways to cash in on the tinkering that can change the way characters appear or add elements the creators hadn’t intended.
Though most mods are written for PC games, it is becoming increasingly popular on consoles.
In 1999, modders turned Half-Life’s “X-Files” world of government conspiracies and alien invasions into Counter-Strike, a multiplayer game that pits soldiers against terrorists. The mod, which remains popular to this day, had completely new maps, weaponry, graphics and sound effects.
Half-Life’s owner, Valve Corp., eventually released Counter-Strike to commercial success. Many workers at the Bellevue, Wash., company are themselves former modders.
“Hot coffee” in many ways is unique among mods because it accessed content left in the game by its maker, Rockstar Games, instead of adding new material, said Jeff Gerstmann, senior editor at the review and news Web site GameSpot.
When the sex scene was discovered, Rockstar initially blamed malicious hackers for the problem but later conceded that the material had been left in the game by its commercial developers.
It depicts the fully clothed lead character having sex with a woman wearing a thong and T-shirt. The mini-game can be won or lost depending on how well players fill up an “excitement meter.”
Even though Rockstar admitted the mini-game was hidden in the retail game, the “San Andreas” ratings flap could change the way game companies view mods.
In a statement, the Entertainment Software Rating Board’s chief, Patricia Vance, called on the industry to proactively protect games from illegal modifications by third parties, “particularly when they serve to undermine the accuracy of the rating.”
But completely stopping modders could to be a near impossible task, said Sid Shuman, an editor for GamePro.com.
“It’s something, frankly, that digital entertainment is not really well equipped to deal with. You can’t really stop people from making changes,” he said. “People will always find where that one file is, and they will always be able to modify it.”
Another catch is that the game-development process involves programming concepts or levels that are never fully explored but left in games because altering or removing them could cause other parts to stop working.
“Grand Theft Auto” was released in October with an “M” rating, for players 17 and older. It was last year’s top console game, selling more than 5.1 million copies in the U.S., according to market analyst NPD Group. Xbox and PC versions were released last month.
Rockstar has now stopped making that version of “Grand Theft Auto” and is working on secure update that complies with an “M” rating.
In a bit of irony the company is apt not to find amusing, Rockstar says it will also offer a downloadable patch to fix the sexual content in current PC versions.