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Video Game Maker Finds Shock Value

April 07, 2002|ALEX PHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A beat-up sedan cruises up to a woman on a street corner. She climbs in, and the car rocks back and forth. When she steps out of the car, the driver follows, beats her to death with a baseball bat and steals her money.

It's not a scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie. It's a video game called "Grand Theft Auto 3" published by Rockstar Games, a company that established itself as the bad boy of the $20-billion global games industry by serving up unapologetically violent titles.

Violence is nothing new to video games, and every few years a game comes along that stirs the puritanical pot of American sensibilities.

What's extraordinary is that "GTA3"--in which players can hijack cars, shoot pedestrians and kill police officers--is so over-the-top that even industry veterans are questioning whether Rockstar is inviting censorship by feeding an appetite among minors for prurient games.

"It's like selling cigarettes to kids," said Jason Rubin, co-founder of Naughty Dog Inc., a Santa Monica game developer owned by Sony Corp. "The game is rated for adults, but you know kids are playing it because they think it's cool."

Parents and politicians may cringe, but Rockstar's blend of edgy electronic entertainment and Mafioso satire proved to be just the right cocktail for a generation of gamers who grew up on "Pac Man" and are itching for grittier games. "GTA3" was the industry's most popular title in 2001, selling 3 million copies since its October debut.

It has generated nearly $100 million in revenue for Rockstar and its parent, Take Two Interactive Software Inc. The company's fiscal year ended eight days after "GTA3" launched. Take Two lost $8.6 million on $451 million in sales, compared with a $6.4-million profit the year before on $364 million in sales. In its quarter ended Jan. 31, Take Two rebounded with a 79% increase in quarterly sales to $283 million, and record profit of $34.8 million, nearly quadruple its fiscal first quarter last year.

With these numbers, Take Two is a hit on Wall Street. Investors largely have chosen to overlook an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission of Take Two's finances and pushed the New York company's stock up more than 75% since the game was released. Take Two's stock closed Friday at $19.96 on Nasdaq.

Take Two and Rockstar refused repeated requests for interviews to discuss the company's games and its business.

But that hasn't stopped others from talking about "GTA3." Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) has called the game "troubling." Even hard-core fans take notice of the game's violence. A posting on Gamespot.com, a Web site for game enthusiasts, called "GTA3" "one sick puppy."

What worries Rubin, however, is not that "GTA3" contains violence. It's that the game is deliberately designed to shock. The commercial success of the title all but guarantees that other publishers will rush to release copycat games.

The result, Rubin said, is that mature-rated games will become standard fare, and character-based games such as the ones Rubin produces will be shunted into niche markets.

Rubin points to the increase in M-rated titles in the list of best sellers as proof. None of the top 10 titles for the PlayStation console, which came out in 1995, was M-rated. Seven were rated E, for everyone, and three were rated T, for teens. The same list for the current PlayStation 2 console contains two M-rated, three T-rated and five E-rated games.

"There's going to be a race to be more hard-core, more violent, more disgusting, and the nastiest will sell well," Rubin said. "At some point, it's simply a gore fest. I worry that we will lose control.

"Every medium has gone through a period like this. Elvis shook his hips and everybody went wild. But music is considered an art form. Video games to many people aren't considered an art form, at least not yet. They still see it as a toy, one that can be regulated like other toys."

Within the game industry, Rubin is in the minority.

"When I think of censorship, I think of government regulating content, and that's not going to happen," said Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Assn., an industry group based in Washington. "I see a very healthy respect for the 1st Amendment."

Lowenstein said the percentage of M-rated games has remained constant at 6% to 8%. That's partly because an M rating restricts the purchasers to those 17 years and older, limiting the potential revenue source.

"You won't see major publishers jumping on the ultra-violent bandwagon," said Jason Bergman, a freelance game journalist in New York who has followed Rockstar for several years. "It's a difficult thing to pull off well."

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