Why is GTA V so popular?

Love it or hate it, Grand Theft Auto is one big money making machine. An exercise in absurdist violence, controversy and immersive gameplay GTA V is an economy unto itself.

Love it or hate it, but you can’t deny that Grand Theft Auto is one big money making machine for the video game's publisher Take Two Interactive. An exercise in absurdist violence, controversy and immersive gameplay Grand Theft Auto is more than just a game, it's an economy unto itself.

The latest rendition of the series Grand Theft Auto 5 (GTA V) launched on Tuesday, and so far it has generated $800 million worth of revenue and sold between 13 and 14 million units. It’s astonishing figure when you consider that it cost Take Two a reported £170 ($A288) million to create the game and each copy is selling for less than $120 a pop.

And if you're still doubting GTA V's economic credentials, Colin Sebastian, a senior technology analyst at US wealth management R.W. Baird wrote in an investor note prior to the game’s launch that he expects the game to generate $1 billion worth of sales in just one month, putting GTA V on track to become one of the largest video game releases the world has ever seen.

Of course, this is all just over-the-counter retail sales. As UbiBlog editor Gary Steinman pointed out over Twitter, all of this revenue has a flow on effect. 

Graph for Why is GTA V so popular?

Successful video games have always turned over mountains of money, but GTA V's preliminary figures are downright astonishing. Hundreds of games launch over the course year, and aside from a special few –like first person shooter series, Call of Duty - they don’t even come close to generating either the revenue or hype that we’ve seen in the past three days with GTA V.

As a brand and a franchise Grand Theft Auto is almost as big a phenomenon as Apple. Fans around the world queued overnight outside video game stores for the midnight launch of GTA V, just like Apple fans do for one of its product debuts.

Graph for Why is GTA 5 so popular?

The queue for GTA 5 at a Westfield shopping centre in London. Photo by @Callux. Source: Twitter

But why exactly is GTA so popular? It’s a simple question – one that many Australian games industry experts and analysts wouldn’t touch. But recognising the ingredients to Grand Theft Auto's secret sauce is crucial to deducing how a video game can become such a money spinner.

So, to have a stab at the answer, Technology Spectator got in touch with several games writers in Australia. You can read all of their fascinating responses here.

The one common theme in all the responses is that as a product Grand Theft Auto is in a class of its own. GTA V open-world gameplay and brilliant game design offers a player the choice to do anything they want in a detailed virtual world. 

The open-world premise is now a feature of many games on the market but as freelancer Michael Irving puts it, Grand Theft Auto is really the “grandfather” of this type of game. Each new release pushes the boundaries of the genre.

The level of detail in GTA  V is astonishing. It’s oozing with interesting content and things to do. And if you can’t be bothered exploring the world of the game you can plunk your character on the couch and watch the hilarious five to ten minute parody TV shows, created as another adjunct to the overall game.

Everyday gamers and reviews alike appreciate the time and detail put into these games. Along with its predecessor, GTA IV, GTA V is sitting pretty as one of the highest ever ranking game on Metacritic – a service that combines official reviews and user review to rank media.

Shock and awe  

Of course, you can’t talk about Grand Theft Auto without mentioning why the latest title in the series received an R18 rating in Australia. The series really is the poster child for video game violence.  

The series has crime-based storyline, and its gameplay enables players to go on rampages and mass-murder sprees if they want to. The game also revolves around gunplay, law-breaking and, at times, sex, effectively making franchise public enemy number one for conservative law makers and lobby groups. But that hasn’t damaged the franchise.

As video game freelancer and GTA thesis writer James O’Connor points out, the games makers have become very adept at turning bad press from these groups into good word of mouth.

If you take the adage that any publicity is good publicity, then the anti-video game violence lobby groups have really done the GTA’s marketing for it. To this point, there were even claims earlier this year that another franchise that attempts to traffic off this kind of notoriety, Saints Row, purposefully attempted to get its latest game continually refused classification in Australia by the classification board for the sake of a PR boost.

A very cheap PR boost at that, considering that it only cost Saints Row’s maker $10,000 per submission to the board.

Combine this with the web and other video and poster advertising that TakeTwo has invested in, and you can be sure that every gamer on the planet has at least heard of GTA series and knows of the new game’s arrival.

GTA’s success is the combination of building a quality product - that pushes the boundaries of a given genre innovation -  and backing it up with an aggresive word-of-mouth driven marketing strategy. It’s a fiendishly simple plan, yet incredibly difficult to execute effectively.

Sound familiar? Here’s a hint, the new iPhones are hitting stores today. 

A number of freelance video game writers, journalists and bloggers submitted an anwser to this question. You can read their detailed responses here.