In the year since Hot Coffee was discovered, the industry, so seems, has seen it all. There’s been a slew of legislation, threatened, promised and delivered. Age verification and ratings compliance have been stepped up at the retail level and the venerable ESRB has fundamentally changed its rating policies.
But has it changed the way we mod and play games? It depends on who you ask.
For the hacker at the center of the controversy, little has changed. “The hot coffee controversy hasn't affected how I play or buy games,” says Patrick Wildenborg, the modder known to many simply as PatrickW. For Patrick, the worst part of the controversy was weathering the media storm that forced him to disconnect his phone for several days just to get some peace.
He acknowledges that it has had an effect on the GTA mod community, however. The second version of San Andreas was made “much more mod-resistant” according to Patrick, and among members of the community, there is doubt that future versions will be moddable at all. “This has already made good people leave the scene,” Patrick adds. Among those that remain, there exists a certain amount of caution. “Some innocent modding stuff isn't getting released,” says Patrick, “because modders are afraid it might cause another controversy.”
When Patrick first released the Hot Coffee mod to GTAGarage.com on June 9, 2005, neither he nor any member of the community could have imagined the absolute firestorm it would create in the months to come. An active, tight knit and established mod community, members worked on levels, dissected code and exchanged techniques. In a matter of weeks, however, all that would change as they found the fingers of the game industry, politicians and citizens groups pointed squarely at them.
By July 6th, nearly a month after the mod first appeared on GTAGarage.com, news of the now infamous hack had made its way out of the industry publications and sites and become national news. That day, California Assemblymember Leland Yee and the National Institute of Media and Family (NIMF) had issued separate press releases warning parents of the mod’s existence. While the warning may have kept some away and alerted parents to the illicit content, it also drew a great many people to it. Illspirit, a modder and administrator of GTAGarage.com, is still surprised at the reaction. “Before NIMF and Yee ‘warned’ everybody about Hot Coffee, we only had a couple of thousand downloads on the mod,” he said. “After the media panic, over a million! In late summer of last year, our server was pushing like 7TB of data a month.”
Throughout the controversy, Rockstar Games and its publisher, Take Two Interactive, had remained largely silent. On July 8th, however, they too pointed their fingers in the mod community’s direction. In a press release, the game’s publisher noted that the mod was “the work of a determined group of hackers” and further noted that the group had gone to “significant trouble to alter scenes in the official version of the game… by combining, reconstituting, and altering the game’s source code.” Wildenborg had disagreed, saying that it was a minor change, and that everything one needed to create the mod was right there on the disc and just a few bits and a hex editor away.
Though it was ultimately discovered that the mod community, and Patrick in particular, were not to blame for the content that shipped on the disc, the mod community and the practice of modding itself had taken a serious hit nonetheless. First, they had been blamed for creating the content. When that proved false, they’d been blamed for creating a means to access it. The ESRB had even gone so far as to suggest that publishers and developers “proactively protect their games from illegal modifications by third parties.” The treatment left many in the GTA mod community with mixed feelings. On the one hand, modders extend the shelf life of games by creating additional content and playability at absolutely no cost to the developer or publisher. On the other hand, others accuse modders of creating or revealing content that gives the industry headaches.
Looking back on the controversy, Patricia Vance, Executive Director of the ESRB, acknowledges the dual role that modders play. “It has always been clear that mods can add value to and extend the life of a game through the addition of new content, and even act as an incubator for new ideas and new game concepts that may serve as models for game publishers in the future.”
For Vance, however, the positives of modding may be outweighed by the negatives. “[T]he undeniable reality is that mods can also introduce content into a game that isn't in line with the rating assigned by ESRB, and of course that can be a concern. Parents rely on the ratings to inform them about what they can expect to find in a game. When mods change games in ways that parents didn’t and, in fact, couldn't anticipate, the risk is that those parents may lose a degree of trust of the ratings. Clearly, we all have an interest in making sure parents can trust the ratings.”
In order to protect the trust it has tried to build up with parents, following the Hot Coffee controversy, the ESRB put some of the onus on the people who develop and publish games. “We asked the industry as a whole to be more conscious of how mods might impact ratings, however whether that might be happening is more a question for publishers than for the ESRB,” Vance said. “That being said, it is obviously impossible for the ESRB to consider content that may at some point be introduced into a game by a third party. The most and best that ESRB can do when it comes to ensuring that its rating assignments are accurate is to obligate publishers to disclose all pertinent content they produced and will ship with the game, including, as of July 2005, content that may not be playable (i.e. ‘locked out’), but will exist in the code on the final game disc.”
GTAGarage.com, the original resource for the "Hot Coffee" mod, has taken the necessary downloads offline voluntarily.
For the ESRB, this disclosure policy ensures that their ratings are truly reflective of the publisher-created product as a whole. When it comes to mods, however, Vance noted that the “ESRB has no ability nor intention of holding publishers accountable for the actions of third parties who independently introduce newly created content into a game through their own modifications. We simply want them to be aware of the risks it presents in terms of consumer trust in our system, and when warranted, desirable or possible to try to do something about it.”
This leaves modders, like those in the GTA community, in a limbo of sorts. “On one end, there are people who plan to keep modding whether Rockstar, the ESRB, Congress, etc. like it or not, and would put up a fight even if they tried to shut us down for some reason,” says illspirit. “Towards the middle, there are people who find it a slight annoyance or speed bump. Just past them, others are slowly looking for the proverbial greener pastures of modding (or just starting their own games or getting into the biz) while doing less GTA related stuff.”
At the far end of the spectrum, however, illspirit echoes Patrick’s concerns about those who have left the scene. “[There] are people who feel totally betrayed that either just hang out for the community side and could care less about GTA anymore, or have left altogether.” Among those that illspirit claims have left is “Barton Waterduck”, the modder who found the first bits of Hot Coffee in the PS2 version of the game. “[He] pretty much came to the conclusion that Jack Thompson and company were right about Rockstar being heartless, greedy, exploitationists and quit. And that guy had been around since the days of alt.games.grand-theft-auto on usenet.”
Some modders were reluctant to talk publicly, even using pseudonyms, about the effects of Hot Coffee on the mod community. One modder who had been involved in creation of the original Hot Coffee mod feared that he’d lose his job if his employer found out that he was involved in something so controversial. Others didn’t want to give Rockstar or GTA: SA any more press than they’d already had. The bitterness from the early days of the controversy were still fresh.
“The idea that they'd even shut us out like that, plus the fact they don't talk to anyone anymore, not even to give us promotional screenshots for fansites, has left behind a mixture of resentment and apathy,” says one. “I mean, sure, I understand why they need to lay low and all, but explaining and defending the situation is tiresome. For instance, every so often, people will pop up in forums and such asking why mods won't work with their new copy of the game. And when people buy the game just to play one of our mods, I can't help but feel guilty for inadvertently helping to sell them something which doesn't work. Doubly so when they had previously owned a console version.”
The controversy also had what illspirit calls a “chilling effect” on content. To the surprise of many, the mod community is censoring itself. “Not only do we have to worry whether anything remotely sexual will cause another media firestorm, but pretty much everything else,” he says. “There's even been a couple of purely technical mods scrapped for fear the luddites would assume they were features ‘hidden’ in the game. All it takes is one moron from Miami seeing a new feature, user-created or otherwise, to start screaming about ‘hidden content’ and send the ball rolling downhill again, especially in an election year.”
In the end, Illspirit summed up the community’s feelings. “As a whole, I'm not sure Coffeegate has really affected how I or anyone else play or buys games. In general, most of us wouldn't buy games before that didn't allow modding. So all Coffeegate would have really affected in that sense is the possibility of more games to avoid.”