I'm ever so slowly catching up on news from (and slightly before) E3. Yea, I was there (and there's pictures to prove it!), but it's kind of like going to a sporting event in person as opposed to watching it on TV; it's more fun in that you can focus on what you want to see at any given moment, but you don't get a running commentary on the "big picture."
Anyway, how about this whole The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - ESRB re-rating controversy? If you're not keen on the muddleheaded ESRB's latest blast against the videogame industry, some anarchist / jokester / militant nudist-sympathizer created a mod that strips the Oblivion ladies of their tops. Based on the modification (available only for the PC version of the game, not the 360), the ESRB bumped the game's rating from Teen to Mature.
Doom creator John Romero blasted the modders with these oft-quoted comments from his blog:
What's the point of this all this? That modders are now screwing up the industry they're supposed to be helping. In 1993 we opened up all our data to the industrious and ambitious folks out there who want to see what it's like to be able to make their favorite game a little more like what they'd want.....and get a taste of being a semi-game designer in the process. The most awesome example of what this philosophy has brought is CounterStrike.
Now what's going to happen? You'll probably start seeing game data files becoming encrypted and the open door on assets getting slammed shut just to keep modders from financially screwing the company they should be helping. And the day a game company's file encryption is hacked to add porn and the case goes to the ESRB for review - that's when we'll see how well game companies are protected from these antics and what the courts will rule. Hopefully it'll be on the developer's side.
Oblivion isn't an MMORPG, so why do we care? It might be yesterday's news, but it's relevant to games like World of Warcraft, EverQuest 2, and any future MMO that might want to allow users to have a hand in how the game interface looks and plays. I'm not so much concerned with visual hacks; the devs seem to have a pretty good handle on keeping their art assets well-encrypted so far (Dofus is the one mainstream game exception; at GDC our demo included a frontal shot of a "prostitute" strutting her hacked, heavily pixelated stuff in front of God and everybody).
I'm more afraid that pablum descriptor on the typical ESRB rating MMO box ("Experience may change in the course of gameplay") might not cut it when WoW users denounce [insert protected class here] using the customized text option of a mod like Scrolling Combat Text (which, to my knowledge, doesn't pass through a language filter or "ignore" check). Or, now that integrated voice chat has finally made inroads, that somebody will say something entirely inappropriate and utterly untracable (there are no logs for GMs to parse when it comes to voice). Dungeons and Dragons Online and Auto Assault were the first experiments in integrated voicechat; and so far, we haven't heard a complaint (no pun intended). This may change when high stakes PvP-intensive EVE Online gets player audio this fall; I, for one, have heard some ripe ones skirling across my EVE corporation's Ventrilo server.
Smaller MMOs need a critical mass of players, and my sense of the typical small-scale MMO gamer is that he or she doesn't really thrive on controversy. Where as a re-rating might pose a small financial blip on Oblivion's radar, it could devastate a small MMO developer like Ankama (makers of Dofus); community-intensive MMOs need a critical mass of players to stay healthy. But then again, Dofus's rating is RP (Rating Pending) almost 10 months after its launch, and games like head-lopping MMO Age of Conan are dealing with the issue by setting their sights on a Mature rating from the start. But, for any game, it's a non-issue until it's a big issue.
Suffice it to say that in the MMO arena, we haven't heard the last from the ESRB. Or maybe even the first. Hopefully unofficial figurehead Jack Thompson will continue to make the ESRB a bad joke with his asinine Chicken Little-esque remarks about our videogame-corrupted brains.
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