In an earnings statement released by Take-Two, the parent company of GTA publisher Rockstar, it was announced that the game has shipped 45m units since its initial release in September 2013; almost 10m of those on the year-old PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles. And it isn’t even finished: a PC version is due out on 24 March. The mammoth figure represents sales to stores rather than to consumers, but even with this in mind, the game is doubtless up there with the likes of Tetris, Wii Sports and Super Mario Bros as a titan of the games industry.
Of course, the chaotic and exhilerating Grand Theft Auto adventures, which follow a menagerie of hoods and criminals through endless blood-splattered missions, have been best-sellers since the revolutionary Grand Theft Auto III hit the PlayStation 2 in 2001. But what is it about this controversial series that makes it endlessly appealing?
Here are the five key factors.
Rockstar understands the pop culture moment
The Grand Theft Auto titles have always been able to skewer and explore contemporary trends. Rockstar founder Sam Houser came to games from the music industry, where he spent time making music videos for BMG Records, and he brought with him a keen understanding of youth culture obsessions. 2002’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, for example, brilliantly tapped into the exploding eighties rediscovery, channeling Miami Vice and Brian de Palma’s Scarface into a pitch-perfect satire on criminal ambition, with an amazing soundtrack crammed with contemporary pop hits. GTA V pastiches everything from reality TV to invasive social media, plastic surgery, celebrity gossip and, yes, video game violence.
The environment is a narrative
Rockstar’s Edinburgh-based design team intricately crafts each game’s sprawling open-world environment, ensuring that there’s always something new to discover. Whether that means cycling to the peak of Mount Chiliad in GTA: San Andreas or exploring the wrecks off the coast of Los Santos in GTA V, players are constantly rewarded for developing their own activities. The team also fills the landscape with secrets and in-jokes; that may mean a sign saying “No hidden content this way” in GTA IV’s Statue of Happiness, or the yeti rumoured to wander the wilderness of San Andreas. In this way, players create and curate their own mythologies, providing the digital realm with a sense of shared culture and history.
The spinning plates structure
Grand Theft Auto was one of the first “open-world” games to present players with a series of narrative missions interspersed with side-quests and activities that have nothing to do with the over-arching plot. In this way, players can quickly swap between activities, temporarily abandoning missions to, say, race jetskis or apply for a pilot’s license. At any one moment, there are myriad options and demands, so players constantly feel engaged.
The basis in reality
However insanely violent Grand Theft Auto is – and it is insanely violent – the design grounds every action in naturalism. While the rival Saint’s Row series has slipped into hyper-real extravagance, including trucks with cannons that shoot players across the environment, GTA features credible vehicles, weapons, urban layouts and criminal structures. It’s the contrast between the anarchy of player actions and the seeming order of the environment that creates the guilty pleasure. Crashing a car or punching a passing pedestrian in GTA V has almost photo-realistic veracity, appealing to that part of our nature that enjoys reality cop car chase shows and You’ve Been Framed blunder videos. Except in GTA we are complicit – there’s part of us that thrives on that too.
The value of anticipation
Grand Theft Auto is not an annual franchise like Fifa or Call of Duty. Rockstar spends around four years developing each title, then careful teases new instalments over many months: the first trailer for GTA V was launched in November 2011, two years before the game arrived. The company is hugely guarded over pre-release announcements, controlling the dissemination of information, eschewing big events like E3 and Gamescom to establish its own rhythms of revelation and silence. While other publishers flood the market with trailers, screens and behind-the-scenes documentaries, Rockstar is an enticingly closed shop; a dictatorship of hype. When the game eventually arrives, we know a little, but not too much, so everyone gets to discover their own version. In this way, with quite spectacular skill, Rockstar gamifies consumer participation. The narrative begins, not when the virtual actors appear on screen, but when the fans begin to speculate on new content. Everyone in the entertainment industry tries this, of course. But no one does it like Rockstar.
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 4th February 2015 12.20 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010