Censorship in Games – Producers Roundtable (Part 1/2)

Censorship in games is a difficult topic. In some countries, the governments ban games. In some countries red blood must be changed to green or the game won’t be accepted to the markets. The freedom of speech, freedom for artistic expression and the need to take responsibility are to be discussed. Manhunt 2 got an “Adults Only” rating and was recently banned in some countries (although the rating was lowered after the developers made changes to the game).

Who is there to blame? Should studios be more responsible for what kind of games they do? Is it right for government ban games? What about freedom of expression? If governments can ban games, shouldn’t they also ban some movies? Are “Adults Only” ratings enough? Shouldn’t parents watch what their kids play?

Who should take responsibility in this matter?

The following producers give answers to these questions:

Harvard Bonin, Producer at Sony
Peter O’Brien, Bizarre Creations
Ben Gunstone, Production Director at Stainless Games
Frank Rogan, Producer at Gas Powered Games

This particular topic is very timely…and also very, very complicated. As the publishing producer of a notable fighting game that was cancelled years ago I believe I have unique insight. Unlike the recent Manhunt saga it was a business and ethical decision – not a governmental censorship issue.

Even with my personal experience I still can’t make up my mind on this issue. Don’t expect an answer below. I hope, however, I’ve outlined some general issues others can respond to.

Video games are typically viewed as a “kids” hobby. In reality the average age of today’s consumer hovers around 30. While once a teenager pastime it has grown into a much more mainstream activity. Years ago Mortal Kombat went through similar scrutiny but was never banned in the United States. At that time there was no ESRB that rated games and the demand was such that Mortal Kombat made it from the arcade to retail stores with substantial hype. The sales were extremely large. Mortal Kombat also brought congressional investigations from Senator Joseph Lieberman and was likely the first time the US government took notice of the content in games.

So should the government be in the business of regulating games? On the one hand the government regulates many things. Hell, the tax code is based on collecting revenue and incentivizing certain types of behavior…like encouraging people to buy a house. We are regulated everywhere we go through laws – and in many ways we welcome this intrusion to ensure our country is stable and peaceful. Would you like it if the FDA didn’t have food standards or building codes were not enforced? We trust our government to have expertise in the areas noted to create a fair, equitable and safe republic. Many video game advocates point to the always useful “free speech” argument. Specifically to the United States per Wikipedia:

First Amendment – Freedom of religion, speech, press, and peaceable assembly as well as the right to petition the government. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

As Wikipedia also explains:

Freedom of speech is the concept of being able to speak freely without censorship. It is often regarded as an integral concept in modern liberal democracies. The right to freedom of speech is guaranteed under international law through numerous human rights instruments, notably under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, although implementation remains lacking in many countries. The synonymous term freedom of expression is sometimes preferred, since the right is not confined to verbal speech but is understood to protect any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used.

There have been many, many first amendment court cases and often they revolve around the definition of obscenity. The Supreme Court has never been extremely specific on this definition.

However, there is a key difference in most of the regulatory efforts of our government. The majority of the things the US government regulates simply can’t be done by a reasonable person. I could not evaluate if my hamburger was up to health standards. I could not tell you how to earthquake proof the structure of my house. I depend on the government to do these things. I CAN however, judge if media content is suitable for someone under 18. Any reasonably informed, responsible adult can.

In reality the government isn’t the actual entity that “banned” Manhunt 2. The ESRB, in accordance with its definition simply reviewed Manhunt 2 and gave it an “AO” or adults only rating. Effectively, this removes distribution channels like Best Buy, Wal Mart, etc. Thus, there is no reasonable distribution available to justify release. While the ESRB ratings board was originally created as a response to head off governmental regulatory pressure, the government didn’t direct the ESRB to give Manhunt 2 the rating it received.
In this case it is a victim of “the times”. The media sensationalizes school shootings, child predators and MySpace. I’ve heard many doctors even refer to video games as an addiction. Last time I checked addiction was defined as:

A compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly : persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.

Video games are not addictions any more than excessive reading of books is. At any rate this view that video games disable a person’s cognitive abilities to make reasonable personal welfare choices is simply incorrect. Regardless, the media continues to push video games as a vice and the general uneducated public has bought in. Manhunt 2, while certainly a nasty gore-fest, should be comparably compared to a movie like Hostel…which never received this sort of reaction.

People also point to video games being an active rather than passive activity. The user is killing the person, not the character on screen. I also don’t buy this as all games have characters – often as developed as books or movies.

Finally, the ever present “parents should know what their kids are doing” is really the end all argument against censorship. Parents MUST be familiar with what kids are playing, drinking, smoking, speaking, etc. After all, the parents are legally responsible for their kids breaking the law or committing malicious acts. Unfortunately, many parents are not responsible and do not regulate their children’s activities. Many can’t even self regulate. So should the government step in? If a child is endangered by their family environment the government has the ability to take the child away. So what constitutes a dangerous environment? Smoking? Drinking? Games? It seems to be the whim of the generation as to what constitutes an environment not suitable for children.

There is simply no clear answer to this. The simple legal answer is to classify video games as an “art form” – thus protected by freedom of speech. The general public and media does not seem to classify them under these terms and it will likely be a long time before they do so. Rockstar knew the gamble they were taking with Manhunt 2 and the hot coffee incident probably didn’t help their image. Thus, they did not get the benefit of the doubt when Manhunt 2 came along.

And after all this, I still don’t know what I think.

Peter O’Brien:

I’m likely going to have to keep adding to this so in the endeavour that I am still contributing here are some bite size thoughts:

Who there is to blame? Should studios be more responsible for what kind of games they do?

What we are really talking about here is how sex and violence is portrayed in videogames. You could add religion to that depending on what’s going on in the world at any given time – see Resistance: Fall of Man issue.

Censorship is commonly a product of the times. Look at what was banned yesterday compared to what is considered acceptable today.

I’m no expert on the subject but violence is possibly one of the most common themes in modern entertainment.

Is it right for government ban games? What about freedom of expression? If governments can ban games, shouldn’t they also ban some movies? Are “Adults Only” ratings enough? Shouldn’t parents watch what their kids play? Who should take responsibility in this matter?

Only at the moment self regulatory bodies such as BBFC, ESRB, ELSPA fail to act on the content they review should the governments of the world act. I don’t believe there have been enough serious regulatory malpractices for the government to step in and create an act which unjustly targets our industry.

If the government must act, it must act against the media who sensationalize such issues to the point they create a ‘must have’ vacuum amongst consumers.

Game companies must recognize that they hold ‘a level’ of social responsibility. We are in an age of media war and everyone has the tools to influence the tide.

Censorship is very subjective; this is best demonstrated by cross referencing a set of family values vs. that of social values; what is acceptable can vary greatly.

Parents should be responsible. Parents and guardians should use the systems around them to instil values which support regulation if those regulations are deemed to be for the common good. I’m not whiter than white; when I was a kid I was exposed to media beyond my age but it was more common for me to be exposed to media ‘right for me’. This produced a balanced outlook.

The question of responsibility used to be simpler. However, in an age of media where messages come to us via txt, email, blog, hyperlink, web, radio, phone, TV and targeted branding there is a greater reliance on the systems around a parent, guardian or employer. The problem is, the governments seek to devolve these systems regularly, thus making the challenge increasingly difficult. In an age where a government body deems it inappropriate for teachers to mark in red, because red is a ‘violent’ colour; where do parents and employers turn to for guidance? What messages can we trust?


Who there is to blame? Should studios be more responsible for what kind of games they do? Is it right for government ban games? What about freedom of expression? If governments can ban games, shouldn’t they also ban some movies? Are “Adults Only” ratings enough? Shouldn’t parents watch what their kids play? Who should take responsibility in this matter?

It’s all relative. I was a tester on the original Carmageddon game and that was the last game to get banned by the BBFC. If Carmageddon were released now I think it really would be unlikely to banned.

1. Should studios be more responsible for what kind of games they do?

Every Studio should be responsible for outputting games they think can sell! Should studios feel more or less morally responsible than they do already…probably not. If you are trying to push the boundaries of what can and can’t be seen by games players of the world then you need to be prepared to take the back-lash when that happens

2. Should Governments have the right to ban games?

Basically yes…the banning is done publicly and we as the general public are allowed to publicly debate the issue – it’s not done in secret. Our Society is setup so that the government is responsible for drawing moral lines in the sand. Some of those lines are covered explicitly by the legal system and laid out firmly in law and others by more flexible means like the BBFC. If we as a democratic whole don’t like the decisions then we vote in a government that will change the laws appropriately. That is a bit naive I know but it’s not like this is really that important! It’s not like Rockstar are having their game banned because it criticises the government or tells us any great secret the government don’t want us to hear. It’s banned because it pushes the current boundary of moral and acceptable standards in games today. (Like Carmageddon did 10 years ago and Like Lady Chatterley’s Lover did 47 years ago)

3. What about freedom of expression?

LOL – what about it! I doubt very much indeed that Rockstar are pushing the boundaries on freedom of expression on an intellectual level – they wanted to push the boundaries, create hype and ultimate sell more games. Again I refer back to Carmageddon – yes it was a great game but would it have been so successful if it hadn’t been banned in the first place? Remember Rockstar are past masters at this with Manhunt 1 and the GTA series all pushing the same envelope

4. If governments can ban games, shouldn’t they also ban some movies?

I believe they do? They also advise movie makers what scenes to chop out of films to make them hit certain age ratings (something that is a lot easier to do in a film than a game). As far as I can tell chopping the game wasn’t even an option for Rockstar as the BBFC said one of its key reasons for banning it was:
“Unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing”
And the BBFC could not find single incidents within the game to remove that could alleviate that central issue

5. Are “Adults Only” ratings enough?

They certainly work to a certain extent but again sometimes it’s just not enough. Where does it stop? If its ok to play the part of a sadistic murderer could he also be a rapist? Neither of these things are legal to do in person but under an AO only ratings system both would be ok to sell. It’s all about drawing lines in the sand and defining currently what acceptable standards are.

6. Shouldn’t parents watch what their kids play?

Of course they should!! But do all parent know what games their kids are playing – of course not. What is acceptable standards of parenting vary wildly from family to family – what is normal to your family could be seen as very wrong by another. If you let your 10 year old watch 18 rated violent films you’re not going to worry about the games they play.

The age ratings are there to provide a system by which parents can control the types of games their kids can play. I know as a parent that I take this very firmly on board and work out what I let my kids play. I have no problems letting my 6 year old son play a 12 rated star wars game on his DS as I can’t really see any things in it that he doesn’t come across in either normal kids TV on Jetix or in the school playground. But he wont play a 15 rated game never mind an 18 rated game.

7. Who should take responsibility in this matter?

We all should…and are doing so. A line has been drawn in the sand and now we debate to see if it is acceptable or not. To be really honest I hope that the society we live in today doesn’t find the imagery and gameplay in Manhunt 2 to be acceptable. There is enough blood and violence out there in the real world without actually inviting it into our living room

On an aside I’m not sure if this end of the ratings scale is what’s important. It needs to be kept real and relevant unlike maybe the recent ESRB rating we received for Centipede and Millipede on XBLA where it got an “Animated blood” tag. Yeah it sort of animates but heck its yellow and purple and its from bugs!!! You see this everyday on your windshield! Surely this sort of adherence to rules to the point of stupidity (or maybe point of pointlessness!!) just diminishes the value of the rating system as a whole?

End of part 1
Proceed to read Part 2/2.

The opinions expressed by these producers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, plans or positions of the companies where they work at.

Free Game Production eBook Updated: New Recipe

In the past I wrote a short ebook named Game Production Cookbook. I’ve updated the ebook and currently it contains 10 recipes to speed up your game production, and now and additional bonus recipe. The free ebook is available for those who subscribe (or have already subscribed) into the newsletter.

If you want your copy, join the newsletter to get the free game production ebook. After you confirm the subscription, you will receive information on how to download that booklet.

The newsletter contains special stuff that is not available in the blog or elsewhere. The newsletter is also used to inform you about the juiciest GameProducer.net content (such as new sales statistics or new roundtable sessions). I’ve usually sent about one or two emails per month.

You may unsubscribe by simply clicking a link in any email you get from me. get free newsletter

How to Kill the Game Atmosphere

Recently I saw a thriller where one guy told story about a person who got lost in the woods, and the person eventually was frozen and died. In the end one of the main characters walked in the same forest, got lost and was freezing.

As I was watching the guy walking on the snow, I was wondering that “something isn’t right here”. At first, I wasn’t sure what it was, but something made the scene unbelievable. Later I realized: it was the breathing that didn’t fit the scene. They had set the scene properly: there was snow and frost and all. The guy had frozen hairs and was moving like he’d about to freeze. But the one thing that made it look bad was the “wrong” breath. The air that came out of guy’s mouth didn’t freeze. Everything else was frozen, expect the air.

And everybody whose lived in Finland knows that if it’s darn cold (like there was in the movie) then also the air freezes when breathed. This didn’t happen in the movie and it somehow made the whole scene look bad. It was perhaps a tiny issue, but since they wanted us to know that it was very cold in the forest – they should have dealt with the air as well.

It’s possible to kill the atmosphere in games if you are dealing with realistic style. I’m not too picky about realism, but if in Rainbow Six the players would jump 2 meters high (like in good old Quake where it’s okay), I think I wouldn’t have played the RS that much. It could have killed the atmosphere.

That’s something you don’t want to see, right?

The Most Important Factor In Game Production

People factor.

I might be exaggerating a bit here, but if I’d had to list the three factors that have caused most of the problems (and also have made the project possible!) during the Edoiki game development I’d say: people, people and people. It’s not so much other people, but the balance that team (including stubborn producers) must find and the things that happen in people’s lives.

Pretty much every technical problem can be solved one way or another (since they aren’t emotional problems) but the moment you put more than one developer in the same room, you can rest assured that there will be problems to solve.

I say “problems”, but I must point out that while people are perhaps one of the main reason for problems – they are also pretty much the main reason for solutions. I’ve been working with a great Edoiki team from where everything has been solved so far. This couldn’t have happened without great people (I’m not referring to myself here).

Indie game teams face the risk of losing team members (I’m referring to what happened yesterday) that can have big impact on the project, and since indies often cannot work with limited budget (we do this because of passion, not only for the profit) it’s a risk one should take care of. I didn’t see this coming, but I’m thankful for Michael for letting me know at this point. It would have made things even worse if I hadn’t heard about his situation now but months later.

I’ve been praising that producers won’t need game art in the beginning of the project, and I believe that’s still true today. You may easily use placeholders to prototype. What I would like to add is that even though you don’t need game art in the beginning, you have to find the right people in the very beginning who are going to work as long as possible: hopefully the whole project. Hiring and “firing” people takes time and effort, and would need to be minimized.

It’s the people factor that counts most.

Environmental Artist (3D Modeler) Wanted For Edoiki

Our 3D artist Michael is leaving our “band” (because “life happened to him”) and while this was bit sad news to us (he was doing some awesome work) there’s no other thing to do than to move on. The biggest lesson so far in game projects is that people are the biggest factor. In the end, it boils down to having a great team that sticks together.

Edoiki game is coming along nicely and now we are after an environmental artist who is willing to work for royalties (up to 20%).

You need to be capable of doing Japanese/Chinese style quality buildings, foliage and props like in the picture below (For another example image, please click here – you should be able to create buildings and items like in the picture.)

You don’t have too be a pro or dedicate most of your hours in this project, but you need to do some hours and meet the following requirements:
- Modeling skills (3D Studio Max will do fine – as long as you can get us .3ds files everything is fine)
- Texturing skills (you need to be able to texture the models – with similar style as presented in the above images)

Your job
You would be responsible for creating outdoor objects (such as buildings, trees, rocks etc.) and naturally helping with the game design and testing as much as you want.

Brief project description
Edoiki is a Japanese themed single-player & multi-player game. The core idea lies in a tactical samurai game, where disguises and sneaking plays important role.

Contact me
If you got interested (or know somebody who could work with us), please contact me and please put links to your work samples or portfolio.

What Are Your Game’s System Requirements? Look At These Stats

Valve has published survey results where over million respondents informed detailed statistics about their gaming computer system. While English (60%), German (12%) and French (10%) languages dominated there were many other reported languages (For example Italian, Finnish, Spanish, Korean among others). The survey began on May 30th, 2007 and the last stats update – at the time of writing this blog entry – was done on August 21, 2007.

Bear in mind that these stats come from Valve’s Steam – where players range from casual to hardcore gamers.

DirectX stats
I found it quite interesting that 2.31% percent had DirectX10 as their default, 53% DirectX 9 (with Shader 3), 24% DirectX 9 (with Shader 2), 15% DirectX 8 and 5% DirectX 7. Basically you can get from these stats that those developers who are making games for DirectX9 or higher will miss 20% of the players.

DirectX9 was first introduced five years ago (and DirectX 9.0c about three years ago). If it took about half a decade for DX9 to become popular (80%), one can wonder when DX10 will be used by majority of the gamers. While Vista will perhaps make it easier for DX10 to penetrate, it will still take some time (as for the record: 8% of respondents reported having Windows Vista)

Screen resolution stats
2% reported 800 x 600 resolution and the rest were mainly 1024×768 (37%), 1280×800 (41%) or higher. It’s good to remember that these stats come from certain type of gamers, but still it gives some idea about the system requirements.

For comparison, 4% of GameProducer.net visitors have 800×600 resolution, 32% 1024×768, 30% 1280×1024 and 8% have 1280×800 resolution. (From about 300,000 unique visits).

Internet connection stats
18% didn’t specify their connection speed, but roughly 80% of users had connection speed 256.0 Kbps or higher. This says something about the people who gave answers, since there are many countries where Internet connection speeds are not as high as these.

More stats
The survey contains lots of other information about computer speeds, system memory, video card drivers, hard drive space and many other factors which might be useful for you when you determine your target audience. Check out the full survey report here.

Are Game Portals Evil?

Portals (the downloadable games part) business model in a nutshell goes something like this:

Step #1: Pour lots of money marketing the game portal and attract developers to sell games via the system.
Step #2: Take 50-70% cut from sales and go to step #1.

That’s a “little” simplified model, but that’s the basic core. Of course one must add lots of elements such as hiring and firing people, customer support, developer relations, game wrapping, the many elements in marketing and promoting games and so on. In the end the profit making (for downloadable games) still often boils down to those 2 steps: get lots of games to lots of people and take a decent cut.

The good thing portals have is that they fund sometimes game development and naturally can reach wide audiences (that would be otherwise very difficult for starting indies), but on the other hand they also take a neat piece of the profits – too much for some people.

What’s your take on this? Are game portals evil? Or perhaps the “necessary evil”?

Or are they perhaps helping expanding the game markets and bring profits (and fun) to mass markets? What do you think? Would the game world be better or worse without portals?

See the evil poll at the forums.

What Is It For Me

Today one GameProducer.net reader asked how I benefit from updating this site and running the forums. Here’s a list of some way this site benefits me.

Writing this stuff makes me feel good
I enjoy writing, and I enjoy putting stuff on paper (must run in the family or something since my father and pretty much all my uncles are some type of journalists or writers). I simply like writing about what I’ve learned, and seeing other people thanking for the content makes me feel good that I’ve positively contributed and helped others. (And whenever somebody says I write trash I feel good that I could have been an example to avoid ;))

Helps me to learn
I want to learn, and it helps when you type down what you’ve learned. Updating this stuff helps me to learn.

I’ve meet some people I thought I never could
I’ve met some top notch producers from companies such as EA, Relic Entertainment, Ubisoft and many others. For ages I’ve played games that were produced by these companies. Today I also talk with some of the game makers.

I’ve met lots of new indies
I’ve met many indies and made friends. There’s lots of talent and potential out there, and it’s been nice to get in touch with these folks through this website.

This site is a good promotional channel
Thanks to my visitors and readers who have linked to my site and kept reading it (and suggesting things), the site has grown and I can use it as a promotional channel for many products.

I get free stuff
Some people offer me free stuff (mainly free games, but also some DVDs etc.). Now as I got here, I’d like to remind that I enjoy good gaming/business books which I would happily review. Ssimply contact me in case you want to send me stuff. For example, if you have PC games or good (non-fiction) books you’d like to get reviewed, send something in my direction. I’m also open to other bribes.

I get food to our dogs
I also generate some income by displaying ads and selling stuff – and this helps getting food when you don’t feel like going hunting squirrels. I’ve also made some contacts and deals that have generated decent amount of the green stuff.

It’s a great way to challenge
At first I wanted to grow my site from zero to 10,000 monthly visitors – and after reaching that goal I simply aimed higher. At the time of writing the site gets around 35 000 monthly visits and next step is to reach the 100 000 level. It’s a great to challenge myself with this.

It boils down to this
I like writing this stuff. I like helping people – and that leads to the most valuable reward in itself. The more I contribute positively to other people, the more good stuff I seem to get. This system – some call it karma – seems to know that you really gotta do the “give” part first and focus unconditionally on that. If you help others just so that the others could do something for you, it won’t work for long – and perhaps isn’t fun anyway.

Helping others in itself should be fun. How else could you have motivation to do that – if you are just doing it so that you could get something in return?

Program Your Game Bug Free – Carefully

Today as I was going through our Edoiki game code and realized I needed to get rid of some old code and replace it with better. I made some changes to bit poorly programmed part in the interface system and it caused me a headache. For some reason after making the code cleaner, the game characters stopped moving.

I (bit hastily) made some fixes that didn’t help anything. I made a few more quick changes, yet the bug remained.

Then I stopped for a moment, and took a deep breath. If I was going to fix this problem, it wouldn’t do any good to try to make it quick. Bug free programming always beats quick programming. I went through a big chunk of code line by line getting rid of some old code. I took all the time in the world, and carefully went through the lines and fixed them line by line. As I was progressing I saw clearly where the errors were and was wondering how it could have worked in the past – since there were some obvious flaws. As I fixed some bad code, making new changes was easier.

In the end, it didn’t take me many minutes to finish the fixing of that piece of code – and I thought that there were two lessons for getting rid of bugs:

Bug free programming ensures a stable base
Ensure that you kill all the bugs in the program as soon as they occur. This ensures that you have a stable base, and can build your product on top of it. I’ve practiced this guideline in the past as much as possible, and I’m pretty confident that it’s the best policy. I think killing bugs is pretty similar to building a house: better make sure that there’s a solid base before putting walls on top of it.

Killing bugs takes time
There’s no need to program in haste. I tried that, and it didn’t work out. It took me much less time to fix problems slowly. Some bugs will take more time, some less – and that’s just how it goes. Simply take your time: there’s no need to rush.

New Edoiki Game Screenshots

I posted some Edoiki screenshots to the new forums. In the shots there’s some new ground texture and some messing with the lights in game. (Yeh, maybe we should get torches – they are always look great in games). It’s good to show progress – it’s good for the team, and good for yourself.

We also solved the animation problem by sequencing animations in one file. I mentioned these problems in an earlier post and I’m glad that they are all sorted now.

That’s it for now, more articles and Edoiki game stuff coming in the future.

Update: I just realized that people needed to register to the forums to see the screenshots, I’ve updated the forum configuration and now the screenshots are visible to everybody.