When Electronic Arts agreed in August to buy many of the assets of Virgin Interactive Entertainment, it acquired a library of classic computer and video games that includes "The Seventh Guest," "Dune 2" and "Command & Conquer."
But EA not only acquired those classics, it also got the rights to several new products, including a highly anticipated fighting game for the Sony PlayStation called "Thrill Kill."
Though "Thrill Kill" was set for release over the holidays and retailer Electronics Boutique even included the game in its holiday fliers, EA decided to cancel it.
"We have to be responsible for the content that we make available to the marketplace," says Pat Becker, director of corporate communications at EA, one of the largest publishers of computer and video games. "We felt that this was not the kind of title that we wanted to see in the market."
According to Becker, EA is not opposed to violent games, but "Thrill Kill" goes beyond the standard beat-'em-till-they-drop fighting game.
"The bottom line is that the mandate was to create an 'adult only' game," says Julian Rignall, the former vice president of design at Virgin who was originally over the project. "That's what 'Thrill Kill' was designed to be, an adult game.
"We wanted a game that went all the way. This was supposed to be a full-blown adult fighting game that had sexual overtones and was disturbing."
And "Thrill Kill" lived up to its mandate.
Set in hell, "Thrill Kill" is a fighting game for as many as four players in which all of the combatants are dead.
"All the combatants have been sent to hell, and their manifestations are based on a very warped take on their personalities," says Rignall. "They have no idea of who they are or how they got to hell. If you fight your way through, you find out your identity and why you went to hell in the first place."
Solving your identity crisis in "Thrill Kill" involves violence and sex. In the past, games like "Mortal Kombat" have offended people with raw brutality, but Becker says "Thrill Kill" added sexual assaults to the equation.
This is a charge that Rignall says is a bit inaccurate. "It was designed to look like you're doing sexual acts, but they're not actually doing that. If you look closely, they [the fighters] are too busy beating the crap out of people to do anything particularly obscene. It depends on your take, really."
The game, however, went further than its producers intended. When it was submitted to the Entertainment Software Rating Board, it received an "Adult Only" (AO) rating - the board's most restrictive rating.
"'Thrill Kill' is offensive, there's no mistaking that," says Chris Charla, editor-in-chief of Next Generation, one of the leading video game trade magazines. "It took stupid, needlessly violent games over the top. It was funny in the same way that 'Night of the Living Dead' movies are funny."
But the executive board at Electronic Arts was not amused.
"The decision [to discontinue 'Thrill Kill'] was made as soon as we could make it after we acquired the company," says Becker. "From the time that the deal was closed to the time that decision was made was a couple of weeks.
"It wasn't a decision that was made hastily. Our whole executive team was involved in the decision to cancel the game, and we certainly evaluated it to see if there was something that we could do to make ourselves more comfortable with the content. The tone and the tenor of the game are just too violent."
Not only has EA decided not to publish "Thrill Kill," it has decided not to sell the game to other publishers.
According to Rignall, this is a dangerous decision. "Obviously they have their reasons, but it sets an intriguing precedent. A software company buying up another company, then not releasing their games is not something that I agree with. I'd like to see them leave the choice with the consumer. There are many other companies out there who would happily market it."
Historically, discontinuing games due to violent content has resulted in an angry response from gamers. This is the first time a company has discontinued a completed fighting game that it inherited through a business acquisition, but it is not the first time that a company has decided against releasing games because of violent content.
In 1993, Nintendo had Acclaim Entertainment remove some of brutal moves from the Super NES version of "Mortal Kombat." As a result, the Sega Genesis version of the game outsold the Nintendo version by a factor of more than three-to-one. It also resulted in bushels of angry letters from players of all ages and even a couple of irate parents.
According to Becker, EA has also received angry letters and telephone calls concerning the decision to cancel "Thrill Kill."