May 7th, 2006

GP Book Review: Play Between Worlds

Play Between Worlds by T.L. Taylor (M.I.T. Press, reviewed for GamePolitics by Matt Paprocki:

It's no surprise that massively multiplayer online (MMO) games have caught on. They're unique to the video game industry in how they portray social interactions. In fact rely on that element to draw players into their worlds. And, beyond the capabilities of one's avatar, whether it be orc, human or goblin, there's a lot more to MMOs than people realize. Author T. L. Taylor's goal in Play Between Worlds, then, is to make sense of it all.

After an appropriately brief history of the MMO genre (going back to text-based MUDs), Taylor begins an academic approach to explaining EverQuest. Her experience is the centerpiece of the book, a four-year romp through the game's world of Norrath along with some additional material to beef up the page count. Taylor succeeds in making it apparent to the reader that EverQuest and its ilk are something entirely different from what people typically expect a video game to be all about.
Read more...Collapse )

ESRB's Oblivion Ruling: It's Curious...

What just happened?

Did the ESRB really re-rate Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion from "Teen" to "Mature"?

Damn right they did. And, hey, let's talk about that. But... but... but... E3 starts tomorrow and we all want to know about the PS3 and the Wii and Halo 3 and Spore and The Sopranos and all the rest of the cacophony of press releases, deal announcements, game trailers, celebrity sightings and attendant hoopla that E3 generates.

Don't color me too X-Files here, but maybe the announcement was timed that way? A couple of business days worth of chatter (the re-rating news hit late on Wednesday) and then, like everything else game-related, the Oblivion story gets vaporized by the ever-expanding mushroom cloud of news that is E3.

If you think about it, the timing is quite interesting.

Oblivion hit retail on March 20th, a full six weeks before the re-rating. That means developer Bethesa and co-publisher Take-Two Interactive already realized the great majority of potential Oblivion sales before the re-rating took effect. (most titles sell heavily just after release and tail off quickly from there).

Nor would the logistics of the re-rating seem to cause major financial problems for Bethesda, since there was no recall and no removal of the game from retail shelves. You may remember that last year's Hot Coffee scandal cost Take-Two and developer Rockstar an estimated $25-30 million in recall, relabeling and re-mastering expenses.

But let's go back to E3 for a minute.

The industry has been taking steps to polish its image of late, including redefining how provocative booth babes can be. Mainstream media attention is likely to be higher than usual, since this is the first post-Hot Coffee E3. Having Oblivion's industry-imposed re-rating as a notch on the ESRB's belt certainly can't hurt when the talking heads begin to ask the inevitable tough questions about game content.

There's also the issue of the Xbox 360 version. The ESRB press release cites the now-infamous topless mod, applicable to the PC version only, as well as "more detailed depictions of blood and gore than were considered in the original rating of the game." Both versions - PC and Xbox 360 - were re-rated, but only the PC version will receive a new content description for "nudity." Both versions already carried descriptors for "blood and gore," and these will remain in effect.From here, it really smells like the topless mod was the key to the re-rating decision, not the blood and gore.

The ESRB's action has caused a low-key, but obvious dust-up between Bethesda and the ratings board. The wording of a Bethesda press release seems almost bewildered by the decision:

"Bethesda Softworks made what it believes was a full, accurate, and comprehensive submission on Oblivion to the ESRB months before the game's release. Bethesda used the ESRB's application forms and believes it adhered closely to their requirements. Nothing was hidden from the ratings agency."

ESRB boss Pat Vance fired back, putting the onus on Bethesda in an interview with GameDaily BIZ.

"Bethesda is fully aware that the content in question," Vance said, "both the more extreme depictions of blood and gore as well as the locked-out content, should have been disclosed to ESRB, which is part of why they have wisely chosen not to contest the rating change."

The various possible scenarios are all very confusing to GP, who admittedly confuses easily. One possibility is that everything is just as reported.

Another view, let's call it the grassy knoll theory, might be that this is as much about strategy, timing and public relations as it is about game content. After all, since Oblivion has pretty much run through the bulk of its retail sales and doesn't have to implement a recall, who really gets hurt here?

Only Bethesda's pride, it would seem.

Want to talk about it? You can discuss this story via the "comments" feature (click below), or in the new GamePolitics Forums...