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Mooning Steve Ballmer: How a Bungie dev's butt may have cost Microsoft $500K

An image of a butt hidden in the source code of Halo 2 for Windows Vista caused quite a stir eight years ago, ultimately causing the game to be delayed and the ESRB to issue a new rating descriptor for the game.

That story is an interesting look at gaming's past, and for the first time we're able to share the entirety of the debacle, which was rumored to have cost Microsoft upwards of a half-million dollars.

So where did the photo come from originally? It began as a prank inside Bungie.

bungie butt

"It started way back during the development of Halo 2 when Steve Ballmer stopped by Bungie for a visit to see the studio. It was during that brief visit that one of the Lead Engineers Charlie Gough, Chuckie as we all call him, waited in hiding for a perfect moment to secretly moon our esteemed guest and made sure someone with a camera would capture the moment," an anonymous source familiar with the matter told Polygon.

"We were all kinda scared of Ballmer but thanks to the speed of the actual mooning he never knew what happened, until now maybe. The photo made the rounds at Bungie and printouts of it regularly showed up in the funniest places around [Microsoft's] Millennium Campus. No one knew what it was about except us."

Other people who were at Bungie during this time were able to confirm the identity of the butt as well. We've reached out to Charlie Gough, but have yet to hear back as of the time of this writing.

This is all well and good, just developers playing a stupid prank, but then it made it's way into the game.

"Strangely coincidental to this, one of the proprietary 3D file formats at Bungie was the .ASS file format. A standard BSP file in the old Bungie Engine tool called Guerrilla," the source explained.

"The Environment Artists used these files the most, importing and exporting them daily. There was one particular flaw in Guerrilla that didn't allow for non-uniform scaled transforms, generating an error message letting the artist know he had an error. This was often referred to as the '.ASS Error' It didn't take long for someone to append the photo of Chuckie's butt to the error, and there it remained for some time until someone on the GeOps Team found it buried in Halo 2 PC."

This wasn't something people were ever likely to stumble upon. "The interesting thing is it was buried in a tool, within an error message that would only appear if you had exported geometry with this very specific disproportionally scaled data. The odds of the average consumer finding it would be improbable. Even a savvy modder making their own map might never see the error," the source told Polygon.

Nothing is secret forever

But someone did find it, and during the days of Hot Coffee this was a big deal.

"I remember a lot of big meetings happening the week it was discovered. The boxes had already shipped and no one knew what was going to happen. After a few days they came to us (the whole team) and told us the story," the source said.

"The ESRB was going to fine Microsoft if the rating didn't reflect the recently discovered graphic nudity embedded in the game. The solution was to recall much of the product and apply the newly printed ESRB rating sticker informing the consumer that the game contained nudity. The game was already rated M, it already had 'Blood, Language, and Violence' listed, but the new label added the one single word: 'Nudity'."

The game was delayed so the stickers could be applied.

"No one at Bungie got fired but I heard a few guys at Microsoft proper did. I'm not 100 percent certain how much this all cost, but the rumor was upwards of half a million," the source said. We reached out to Microsoft to comment on this story and this number specifically, but they declined to comment.

"After that things got really serious at Bungie. Very serious."

Bungie split from Microsoft later that year, though it continued working on Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach. It has since shipped a little game called Destiny.

Gameplay Preview: Halo 5 multiplayer

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