Sometimes the smallest detail can cause a big headache.
Developers of the PlayStation 3 title "The Last of Us" are scrambling to patch the title upon learning that a pair of phone numbers that appear on a sign in the game connect people to actual sex hotlines.
The numbers, which were first discovered by a reader of game enthusiast site Kotaku, were an accidental inclusion, says the developer. But experts say it's still a PR stumble that could be embarrassing for Sony.
"That was an artist's mistake," the game's creative director Neil Druckmann told Kotaku. "We're now working to take it out. It was just an honest mistake."
A Sony spokesperson said: "We included some random phone numbers in the game starting with 555, which is a common practice in North American television shows, films and video games, as they are fictitious numbers. It has come to light that for certain 555 phone numbers that begin with an 800 area code, the same does not apply, so a patch was created to address this issue. The patch was deployed today in North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia, and will be deployed shortly in Japan."
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One of the two sex phone lines is now, seemingly, out of order, but as of press time the other one was still working.
To be sure, the "Last of Us" is an M-rated game, which means it's recommended for ages 17 and higher. But because some parents and children ignore the game ratings systems—and because sex is such a hot-button issue for some parents groups—analysts say Sony might have some push back.
"It's going to be a negative for Sony but not a strong negative," says Billy Pidgeon, an independent market research analyst. "I guess some troublemakers could try to run with it, but anyone playing that game should be old enough to go ahead and call those numbers."
The irony of a sexual tie to The Last of Us is that the game features one of the strongest female protagonists in recent gaming history. While Ellie, the 14-year old players must escort across a post-apocalyptic plague-infected world, could easily have been a damsel in distress character, she is very well developed emotionally. Naughty Dog even fought to keep her on the game's cover despite requests to downplay her.
While neither Sony nor Naughty Dog, widely considered to be one of the industry's top developers, wants to deal with the headache of having a porn connection to their game, they're hardly the first videogame company to deal with X-rated controversy.
In 2004, Ubisoft was riding high on the success of "Rainbow Six 3," but had failed to secure ownership of a website that was shown on an in-game poster about two-thirds of the way through the game.
An enterprising player, realizing this, quickly purchased them and loaded the site up with hundreds of advertising links to XXX Websites and pictures—and put up a banner reading "Welcome to Interracialporno".
The player, at the time, admitted his goal was to build up traffic and sell the site. Ubisoft, after a bit of corporate posturing and insisting it would never pay the player for the domain, did quietly buy the domain back from the user.
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That same year, even a game that proudly promoted its sexual themes found itself in trouble. "The Guy Game" was a title that blended a standard trivia game with the then-red-hot "Girls Gone Wild" phenomenon. Players who correctly answered enough questions would be rewarded with live-action video footage of co-eds exposing their breasts.
But one of the women included in the game was only 17 at the time, which resulted in a temporary restraining order prohibiting Microsoft, Sony, and others from selling any game that contained the girl's image, voice, and name.
Of course, when it comes to videogame sex controversies, it will be hard to top the "Hot Coffee" scandal involving Take-Two Interactive. A hidden mod within "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" allowed players to unlock a mini-game that allowed in-game characters to have sex.
The feature was originally part of the game, according to the book "Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto," but was scrubbed because of fears retailers would refuse to sell it. Once it was discovered, it became a lightning rod of controversy.
Politicians (including then-Senator Hillary Clinton) suggested new regulations for the videogame industry and a class action suit was filed. Take Two eventually agreed to pay more than $20 million into a settlement fund for plaintiffs of that suit.
It was also forced to re-rate the game, which helped lead to a $28.8 million loss for the company in its fiscal third quarter of 2005.
Sony, however, isn't likely to see any sort of impact along those lines. Because the inclusion of the numbers was accidental and efforts are already underway to remove them, the most notable impact on the company will likely be a little embarrassment and a PR black eye.