Why is Grand Theft Auto V so popular? It's the question that's at the centre of the games incredible economic success. And in a bid to find an answer we put it to a number of video game writers and bloggers. Here's what they had to say.
James O’Connor - Freelance video game journalist
I remember when GTA III first launched, the primary selling point for many people was the pleasure of existing within the world of Liberty City. In many ways it seemed like the first step towards Jaron Lanier's dream of true virtual reality; we might not have been strapping awkward cameras to our faces, but we were able to step into a world that felt 'real' (by 2001 standards) and realise a lifestyle that we could never emulate. It was the right time for it, I think - thanks to The Sopranos people were eating up mob dramas, and the next generation of consoles needed a powerhouse title like this to really show off what games were capable of. The moral panic didn't hurt either - Rockstar are very good at turning bad press into great word of mouth.
Cutting to the present, I think that the latest Grand Theft Auto games, IV and V, are simply strong examples of brilliant game design. On one level, they go really big. Over the last few years there's been more and more of a divide between the independent scene Triple A development, with many of the big licenses having failed to stay fresh while the little titles are innovating, which has been really exciting. But there's something about the sheer scale of GTA that you can't help but be won over by. These are immense games, so clearly the result of phenomenally hard work, and exceptionally polished. It's like walking into Bunnings and being awed by how huge and comprehensive Bunnings is, only with fewer gardening supplies and more semi-automatics.
But I think the real secret to GTA's success is that taking a stroll down any given street is just as enjoyable as racing through the streets in a stolen limo fending off the cops. Grand Theft Auto breathes. The game world feels like it would still exist, even if you weren't in it, and to simply walk around and watch as the world beats on, to witness the artistry of the game's designers in constant motion, is strangely exciting. Grand Theft Auto first became popular by offering something different, but now it's become something of an event game. You know each release will offer something new yet familiar, that it'll be polished to a shine, that while it may offend or bother you at times it's also going to do its best to delight you at others
Michael Irving – Freelance video game journalist
Grand Theft Auto 3 was huge in its time, being the first major game to present an entire city, in 3D, in a non-linear fashion, for a player to just explore at their leisure.
It gave an unprecedented sense of freedom: you could theoretically go anywhere and do anything.
In GTA V, those options are wider than ever. Sure, you could go on a cop-killing rampage and earn the game its infamous label. That notoriety in the non-gaming community is part of the fun, but really, it's far less blood-and-guts graphic than many.
Yesterday for instance, I was challenged to a running race along the beach by a jogger. Afterwards, I found a Coney Island-esque wharf carnival, so I rode the Ferris Wheel and roller coaster. Because it was there, and I could .
While plenty of other franchises have adopted and expanded on the open-world structure, GTA still feels like the grandfather of it all. The series excels at creating a living city, teeming with things to discover. Its inhabitants go about their business around you, never feeling too mechanical, often responding to your actions in unpredictable ways. The central characters are surprisingly sympathetic, and the tales woven through these sprawling cities are pleasure to unravel. Then throw in a healthy dose of social commentary, and it's just a great fun world to "exist" in.
Tim Norman – Staff writer, Rocket Chainsaw
I think the reason the GTA series is so popular is because the open-world design allows players a lot of freedom to explore and be creative on their own, without necessarily having to stick to the game's main story or side missions. The detail and openness of the world itself really help draw you in and make the game a unique experience for each player.
There's also a lot to be said for the "power fantasy' the game offers, in the sense that, most of your character's actions are pretty reprehensible, but the game always makes it seem like you're doing something cool or good. It's a careful balance between making a character who seems capable of doing these things and also a character players are going to want to play as during the game.
Chad Sean Habel - Editor, SeriousGamer
OK, there’s probably lots of reasons GTA is so popular, as many reasons as there are gamer preferences. The rich open world and “do what you like” philosophy seems to appeals to lots of people, as well as core driving and shooter mechanics. Locations tend to be rich and evocative, and narratives tend to be fairly entertaining in a veiled linear kind of way. The writing is always distinctive and characterised by crass humour, and the branching mission structure has a nicely constrained sense of choice.
However, for my money people love GTA so much because it is the essence of play. Play is always about boundaries and rules, but crucially it is often about subverting and transgressing those boundaries. So the world of GTA has a set of boundaries that completely transgress what you are allowed to do in the real world: carjacking, holdups, destroying police choppers with rocket launchers. And players seem to get a huge amount of joyful glee out of this – I’ll admit, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. (Of course, GTA itself has its own boundaries – there are things you can’t do – but it’s good at covering these up, much like the freedoms of modern society.) But it then goes further: there are a number of social and political codes that are subverted in the world of GTA: more and more in the recent games, it’s OK to be offensive, anti-social, sexist, and so on, and this freedom has generated a self-entitled community who will put together a petition to sack a reviewer who dares to give the game only 9 and, shock horror, mentions the word misogyny. So people feel part of a community of players who have an entitlement to enjoy this fantasy world where (almost) anything goes, and that seems to be pretty popular.
I think a key thing about gaming is autonomy, and this is really where it’s at for GTA’s popularity. Players feel that they really can do almost anything they want in this world, which is liberating in a pretty visceral way. (Of course it’s an illusion, like most constructions of freedom.)
Jarrod Mawson – Editor, Rocket Chainsaw
Grand Theft Auto: generation defining pop culture as seen through the lens of a strangely grounded, yet brilliantly satirical interactive rendition of modern Western society. No matter the lunacy or chaos, there's always a welcoming familiarity at the core of each game's sprawling metropolis.
And perhaps it's this grounding, combined with the freedom to release without restriction no matter how destructive that has provided fans for over a decade an almost cathartic escapism. GTA is that wild weekend you don't quite remember, middle finger to "the man", and reckless indulgence in wealth and pleasure free from the stress, mundanity, and rules of a commonplace life. And deep down, that's something we all desire, if just for a little while."
Josh Whittlington – Freelance video game journalist
I think the reason GTA is so popular is because it's so many things to so many people. As a kid I managed to convince my parents I was mature enough to play San Andreas, but despite all the questionable content in the game that most kids would flock to, I spent more time in the game flying planes and driving trains than anything else. I didn't get into the story missions or heck, even use a firearm most of the time. Some people love walking around the beautifully constructed worlds and just take in the sights, while at the opposite end of the spectrum there's people who just use cheats to get all the best weapons and go on murderous rampages. GTA provides a huge sandbox with plenty of tools and interacting systems to make your own enjoyment, which is what resonates with people so much.