I got Grand Theft Auto V the week it came out on PlayStation 3. A friend and fellow fan of the series came over that Friday, and we played it almost nonstop through Sunday. We beat it, I blogged about it, and I moved on.
For me, GTA V feels like a distant memory—not just a relic of the PS4/Xbox One console generation that was eclipsed last week, but the generation before that. It came out first for PS3 and Xbox 360 in September 2013, seven years and seven mainline Assassin’s Creed games ago. But GTA V and its multiplayer component, Grand Theft Auto Online—which appeared on PS4 and Xbox One in November 2014 and on PC in April 2015—are still fresh in many millions of minds. It’s already arguably the second-bestselling game of all time (not counting multiple publishers’ versions of Tetris), trailing only the continuously updated Minecraft, which came out in full almost two years before GTA V and is available on many more platforms, including low-priced mobile editions. And by some metrics, Rockstar Games’ golden goose is more popular than ever.
For most older games, the industry’s changeover to a new crop of consoles spells obsolescence. But for gaming’s great multigenerational juggernaut, which will be rereleased on the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S next holiday season, the launch of new hardware just means more revenue to come. “It’s become The Game people buy when they get a new PS4 or Xbox One,” Zack Zwiezen, who covers GTA for Kotaku, says via direct message, adding, “All your friends and family have it and play it, so you should too. It’s a snowball effect, and with it coming to next gen, there’s no sign this snowball will stop soon.”
GTA V exceeded sales forecasts and set sales records straight out of the gate. Although the game was reportedly the most expensive ever made, its revenue immediately surpassed its budget. In its first three days, the game grossed $1 billion in retail sales, prompting Rockstar’s publisher Take-Two Interactive to trumpet the title as the fastest entertainment product ever to reach that round number. Guinness World Records certified that claim and declared GTA V the bestselling game in any 24-hour period, estimating that Take-Two moved more than 11 million copies (including mine) in its first day on sale. In six weeks, the publisher shipped more copies of GTA V than it ever did of the game’s 2008 predecessor, Grand Theft Auto IV. According to Take-Two’s November 5 earnings call, GTA V has now sold more than 135 million copies, which exceeds the totals for GTA IV, GTA: San Andreas, GTA: Vice City, and GTA III combined. Those games were big-time bestsellers too, but GTA makes them look like Ludendorff next to Los Santos.
The key to becoming one of the bestselling games of all time is not only setting an unprecedented pace from the get-go, but continuing to compile massive numbers with nearly no decline in the subsequent several years. According to market research company The NPD Group, GTA V ranked 11th in United States sales in 2019, years after the arrival of any new edition. In February 2020, Take-Two disclosed that GTA V had sold 120 million copies to date, which—based on previous announcements—suggested that the game had sold roughly 20 million copies in the preceding year. It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely how many more copies will have sold by February 2021, but judging by public reports and Take-Two’s latest update, the tally likely won’t be lower than that of the year before.
Despite its age, GTA V is one of the bestselling titles of 2020. This summer, Take-Two stopped permitting The NPD Group to include the publisher’s digital sales in the tracking firm’s public U.S. sales rankings. But before that, GTA V was a staple in NPD’s monthly leaderboards, placing fifth in January, third in February, eighth in March, fifth in April, second in May, and fourth in June. Sales were strong throughout the year around the rest of the world, too: GTA V was the bestselling game in the U.K. in January and February, and it ranked fifth in September in Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia and Africa, where it was beaten out only by brand-new games.
Like the industry as a whole, Take-Two saw its revenues soar as gaming activity picked up during pandemic-induced lockdowns. Take-Two’s net revenue for the six months ending on September 30, 2020 exceeded its haul during the same period in the prior year by $274.2 million, $174.2 million of which the publisher attributed to an increase in net revenue from GTA V and GTA Online. This spring, GTA V’s average and peak player totals on Steam reached their loftiest levels since the game’s first month on PC, and those figures remain higher than they were at the same point in any previous year.
GTA V boasts Metacritic’s second-highest average review score on each of the five platforms for which it’s been released. But aside from the obvious selling points—it’s a critically acclaimed installment in a famous franchise—the game has benefited from a couple of advantages that boosted it into a higher sales stratosphere.
First, it had great timing. Carter Rogers, principal analyst at SuperData, a Nielsen company, says via email, “Grand Theft Auto V reached the maximum addressable audience by releasing at the very end of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 generation, and then the subsequent PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions caused it to become a de facto game people purchased with a new console.”
The remastered editions of the game for PS4, Xbox One, and PC featured prettier graphics, higher frame rates, and an optional first-person perspective. The next-gen rereleases due out in late 2021 will offer a 4K face-lift, along with other improvements and new content that will accompany the increased resolution. David Cole, founder and CEO of digital entertainment research firm DFC Intelligence, compares Rockstar’s GTA model to the music industry’s practice of remastering certain artists’ old albums over and over and reselling them in new, deluxe editions to devoted audiences. “Consumers feel they get huge value from GTA V, so they don’t mind buying multiple copies,” Cole says via email.
The differences between new and old incarnations of GTA V aren’t only cosmetic. Much of the game’s renewable appeal comes from its online multiplayer modes. When I blew through GTA V’s 30-ish-hour campaign, GTA Online wasn’t yet available. The online mode went live two weeks after the game debuted and suffered from widespread technical problems and an initial lack of content. Over the years, however, GTAO has evolved significantly as Rockstar has released a series of free updates designed to fulfill the promise of playing in a true sandbox-style environment.
“GTA V took the potential the franchise had for years and made it a reality,” Cole says. “In short, they made it an ongoing open world via GTA Online. You take that combination of a mass appeal product along with a true open world environment that is never finished, and you have something special.”
GTAO’s greatest strength is its extensive assortment of ways for people to play, ranging from deathmatch, capture the flag, racing, and sports modes to elaborate heists and more esoteric adventures. “GTA Online has kept players engaged thanks to its sheer variety and appeal as a lifestyle simulation,” Rogers says. “It can be many things to many people, as we saw with the explosion in popularity of role-playing streams last year.” Although the game is free to play for owners of GTA V, Rockstar rakes in money from microtransactions, courtesy of players who pay to obtain new in-game outfits, weapons, vehicles, and properties. A player’s GTA Online experience never really reaches an obvious endpoint, and jacking up prices for desirable items enables Rockstar to keep people playing and maintain a steady stream of revenue.
Take-Two has promised that GTAO will receive its “biggest update ever”—which is rumored to include the first expansion to the game’s map—before the end of the year. Not coincidentally, the publisher also said it expects the game to set a new net sales record in fiscal 2021. Rogers notes that it’s now the norm for live-service games to stay relevant for more than a decade after release, and that some of the most popular online multiplayer titles, including League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, predate GTA V. “As long as it is managed properly, there is no reason GTA Online especially can’t keep going strong indefinitely,” he says.
Zwiezen doesn’t foresee any falloff in interest either, which could create a quandary for Rockstar as the company plans for an eventual GTA VI. “I don’t think they can stop this game, outside of killing the servers,” he says. “It’s become a monster that makes them money, but also probably scares them a bit as they look towards a GTA sequel.”
The gaps between GTA releases have grown almost exponentially longer as the games’ scales and budgets have swollen. Vice City came out the year after GTA III, and San Andreas came out two years after Vice City. GTA IV arrived four years after San Andreas, and GTA V followed five years after that. It’s been more than seven years since GTA V first surfaced, and its successor—which was reported to be “early in development” as of this spring—hasn’t even been announced. Each of the past three numbered GTA titles was announced close to two years before it came out, which would suggest that GTA VI is still a ways away.
Of course, Rockstar has been busy: In addition to cultivating Grand Theft Auto Online, the studio developed 2018 blockbuster Red Dead Redemption 2 (which has sold 34 million copies) and its 2019 GTAO-esque online product, Red Dead Online. Zwiezen, who also covers Red Dead for Kotaku, says that Rockstar has stuck to the same blueprint with RDO, right down to an early lack of content and inconsistent release schedule. He, Rogers, and Cole all concur that the game should be viable for years to come but that its Old West setting somewhat limits its versatility and its appeal (particularly outside the U.S.) compared to the contemporary locales of GTAO.
RDR2 came out more than eight years of arduous development after the original Red Dead Redemption, so the protracted wait for GTA VI isn’t shocking, especially in light of the fact that the company is aiming to cast off its culture of crunch. “The success of the [GTA] franchise has been really about getting the product right and not rushing the launch,” Cole says. “GTA V showed why that is a solid strategy, and it also worked for Red Dead Redemption 2. The success now means they can take the time to get GTA VI right so that it lives up to expectations.” With GTA V still selling, new editions of the game slated for 2021, and GTA Online flourishing, Rockstar isn’t in any hurry to rush out GTA VI or release single-player add-ons like GTA IV’s episodic expansion packs. “The ongoing success of GTA Online has likely been a deciding factor in why the studio has moved away from single-player DLC found in GTA IV and the original Red Dead Redemption,” Rogers says.
Even so, the studio’s financial incentives will eventually align behind a big push toward GTA VI. “At a certain point revenue starts to peak without a big new release,” Cole says. “Buying GTA V is currently very cheap. Epic offered GTA V for PC for free early this year. The next new revenue hit will be GTA V for the new consoles. However, that pales in comparison to launching a GTA VI at $70 for all platforms.”
Considering the almost unparalleled popularity of GTA V and GTA Online, Rockstar doesn’t need to expand the franchise’s player base for GTA VI to be another smashing success. It just needs to ensure that existing players can make a smooth transition to the sequel without wiping out the progress they’ve made in GTA Online. “I think they split GTAO off GTA V and let it be a separate thing that can connect to GTA V and VI,” predicts Zwiezen. “In fact they sort of already have plans to do that with the PS5 version of GTA Online being free.” Take-Two has stated that a stand-alone version of GTAO will debut during the second half of 2021 and will be free for PS5 players for the first three months after launch.
One would think that the enduring (and profitable) appeal of GTA V and GTAO would inspire imitators, but the behemoth mostly has the space to itself, in part because GTA long since established its dominance of the genre. “Many game developers already tried releasing GTA-like games back in the 2000s after the success of the PS2-era GTA titles,” Rogers says. “By the time GTA V released, other publishers had already moved on to making open-world games that were differentiated from GTA by their settings or mechanics instead of trying to make a modern-day crime-themed game that would invite direct comparisons.”
At this point, then, Rockstar is likely to continue minting money, even as its players gradually switch consoles. “Given the head start GTA Online has, it would be difficult for a competitor to catch up in terms of production values and volume of content,” Rogers continues. “It’s a similar issue to what new MMOs face when they release and have to compete with established giants like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV that have been getting content updates for years.”
To make matters more daunting for potential competitors, building a game like GTA V requires a bigger budget and development team than live-service phenomena like Minecraft or Roblox that thrive on user-created content. “GTA is a high-end open-world game where the content is created by top-end game designers over many years,” Cole says. “This model is extremely difficult to copy because you need the extraordinary content first. Even a franchise as successful as Call of Duty struggles with that storytelling aspect that Rockstar has created in its successful products. It becomes like trying to copy Star Wars or Marvel.”
Thus, after ranking as the most-played or second-most-played title on the past two PlayStations and Xboxes, the game with three playable protagonists appears poised to extend its dominance into a third console generation. “Look, you wake up one day and your legs, they just give, and you just can’t run anymore,” Michael tells Franklin (and Franklin later echoes to Lamar) in GTA V’s campaign. For GTA V and GTA Online, that day still seems a long way away.