It's been seven years since the words "Hot Coffee" changed the video game world, but they still make developers wince.
The Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas mod, discovered by enthusiasts, unlocked a playable, interactive mini-game where the game's lead character has sex with his girlfriend. And it opened a Pandora's Box of controversy when it was exposed.
Author David Kushner, who wrote the stellar "Masters of Doom" in 2003, has returned his attention to gaming with "Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto". The book offers a fascinating behind the scenes look at Rockstar Games and how the team created the multibillion-dollar GTA franchise.
As part of that story, Kushner also offers new details about what went on at Rockstar -- and parent company Take-Two Interactive -- as the Hot Coffee scandal was playing out. And it doesn't paint either company in the best light.
Kushner writes that Rockstar co-founder Sam Houser had been pushing to include sexual content in the game since mid-2004. In an email to Rockstar's director of operations, he listed the content he wanted to include and added "I know this is a tricky area but I want to find a way for this work [sic]; the concept of a glorified shop (walmart) telling us what we can/can't put in our game is just unacceptable on so many levels."
While he argued passionately and the idea was considered, Rockstar was ultimately ordered to remove the content from all versions, amid fears that most retailers would not stock the title.
Due to a looming deadline, the code that included the scenes was not removed, but hidden from players. And since hidden code did not have to be disclosed to the ESRB, the video game industry's ratings board, it never was.
Houser's plan was to release a patch for the PC version of the game at a later point, which would put a sex scene back into that version. Before that could happen, though, the modders found it -- and all hell broke loose.
When Houser saw the online chatter about the mod, he quickly phoned the company's New York office to let them know about the issue. Reporters were already calling with questions, but the head of the PR department gave his team strict instructions: "Don't answer the phones. This is going to get ugly."
In internal communications, Houser defended the decision to hide the code rather than delete it, saying simply yanking it from the game could have caused other parts to break. Yet Gary Foreman, Rockstar's technical officer, disagreed, calling the decision "laziness, pure and simple".
Things quickly began to escalate with a series of lies. When the ESRB demanded to know how it had happened, Take-Two and Rockstar implied the content was not on the disc, but was the work of hackers. And when a GameSpot reporter managed to get a Rockstar PR rep on the phone and asked if the code was included on the discs, the answer was a succinct (and untruthful) "no."
No one believed them. The ESRB launched its own investigation into the issue and reporters kept digging, eventually learning that the mod was unlockable on the console versions of the game.
Before long, politicians were involved, suggesting new regulations be put on the video game industry, while activists like attorney Jack Thompson were giving Rockstar a drubbing in the media. GTA San Andreas got pulled from shelves and re-rated to reflect the mature content, though it still went on to become the best-selling game for Sony's Playstation 2.
It's really an amazing story and a must-read for gamers. "Jacked" is available now.