Hidden feature causing retailers to drop hit vidgame

The bestselling videogame of 2004 will soon largely disappear from the shelves.

In response to an uproar over sexually explicit hidden material in the game, “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” has been re-rated from “mature,” the vidgame equivalent of an R, to “adults only,” the vidgame equivalent of an NC-17.

As a result, most major retailers will remove the game from their shelves in accordance with a policy of not selling AO games, according to industry group Interactive Entertainment Merchants Assn.

A few retailers may continue to sell the game with the new rating.

Controversy over the content arose in the past month, when it was revealed that a downloadable patch known as “hot coffee” allowed players to view a sex scene in the game. “Grand Theft Auto” publisher Rockstar Games, a unit of Take Two Interactive, initially blamed the content on “hackers,” but an investigation by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, an industry group that rates vidgames, found the content was placed there by Rockstar, though it was intended to be inaccessible to players.

It also led to threatened federal intervention in the vidgame biz. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) proposed legislation to ban sales of violent and sexually explicit games to minors, due in large part based to what she called “pornographic” content in “San Andreas.”

Rockstar is now producing a new version of “San Andreas” that will be available sometime between August and October.

In the meantime, pulling most copies of the game off shelves will make a dent in Take Two’s bottom line. Company lowered guidance for the quarter ending July 31 from $205 million-$215 million and a net loss of 5¢- 15¢ per share to $160 million- $170 million in revenue and a net loss of 40¢-45¢. Expected earnings per share for the year ending Jan. 31 fell from $1.40-$1.47 to $1.05-$1.12.

While it complied with the ESRB decision, Take Two made clear it was unhappy that it was losing millions of dollars because of content it didn’t intend to be available.

“The ESRB’s decision to re-rate a game based on an unauthorized third-party modification presents a new challenge for parents, the interactive entertainment industry and anyone who distributes or consumes digital content,” Take Two topper Paul Eibeler said.

News was revealed after markets closed, and Take Two stock was down 7% at $27.07 in after-hours trading.

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