Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2013-09-21 06:05:51
GTA V and the Rise of the Blockbuster Game
Grand Theft Auto V raised $1 Billion in software sales in three days. This is an insane amount of money in any industry; that it's a video game is crazy. It took only one day for developer Rockstar Games to make $800,000,000 - not bad, considering the game's supposed £170,000,000 budget, as quoted from newspapers such as the Metro. Its budget was compared in newspapers across the UK (and, I imagine, throughout the rest of the world) as being roughly on-par with a big-budget film like Iron Man 3. Some people predicted that Rockstar would struggle to turn a profit on GTA V - that the game wouldn't sell as many copies as other games in the series due to it being released on consoles nearing the end of their lifespan. These early sales over three days, however, already break global records for a video game release, meaning that any concerns people may have had about the game's budget have fallen silent very quickly.
At the time of writing, I see GTA V every single day advertised on a billboard on my commute to work, as well as on myriad buses (about four or five every trip). I get into work and my co-workers, who aren't gamers, are discussing GTA V because it has appeared in the news: either because of its budget, or because someone has been knifed and mugged for their copy of the game. Whether the news is positive or negative, however, it doesn't matter; the point is that GTA V is an entertainment event as much as it's a video game. That it is selling so well is no great surprise - I've never seen a game advertised so much in the real world before, and I think it will be some time before we see it happen again. There aren't many games that can justify such a strong and expensive media campaign - very few studios have the gravitas to pull it off.
In fact, thinking about it, I can't really pinpoint any other game that has the same kind of cultural pull to it as Grand Theft Auto; the series' satirical pastiche of the world as we know it makes it resonate with the public in a way that other open-world games such as Skyrim can't. Anyone can see a parody of a fast food restaurant and understand what subject matter is being scrutinized; GTA as a series has a universal appeal that no other game can match, because it's set in our universe. GTA remains an exceptional series because it captures the world's imagination. A lot of games from other franchises sell well, but few become so ubiquitous with the public as Grand Theft Auto. The only other games I can think of with the same sort of cultural weight and sales figures would be Call of Duty, but CoD is more of an event for gamers than the general public; I don't think I'll be seeing as many advertisements around my local city when Call of Duty: Ghosts comes out as I will with GTA V.
My only hope is that Rockstar and a couple of the other studios who can shift a billion dollars worth of software in three days remain a minority. While Rockstar have the sheer talent and reputation to pull off spending £170,000,000 on a game, I can't help but point out that as game budgets grow, so too will the risk on the part of the developer. Capcom have complained that Resident Evil 6 sold poorly; Square Enix have issued similar statements about the new Tomb Raider. These games still sold millions of copies, and yet are considered to be under-performing. By hurling more and more money at games, developers naturally need to sell more copies to become profitable. When this happens, the concern is that they won't shift enough copies to justify the money put into the game's development, which means the potential for abandoning IPs that simply don't sell so well, and instead simply releasing more and more games in a series that is going to sell without a doubt.
The risk here is a slump in creativity. While nobody would argue that GTA V isn't a creative game, we don't want every developer to simply make games in one series because it sells well. We see this, to an extent, in the Assassin's Creed series or the Call of Duty series, which are such stable IPs that games wearing their moniker come out annually. It isn't that the games are bad - both series are well made and receive favourable reviews - but as a gamer, I consider variety to be the spice of life. As much as I do enjoy playing games in the same series, developers do need to continue to create new franchises to keep us engaged. Everything stagnates over time, and I think any rational person would consider an Assassin's Creed XIV to be taking the piss a bit. Final Fantasy has managed it, somehow, but I suppose I can let that series off because it's constantly shifting up its world and mechanics (or at least it did before Square Enix became obsessed with the world of Final Fantasy XIII).
I'm incredibly glad that GTA V has been a sales powerhouse and a colossal success. GTA games are always so well-made and full of personality that I love Rockstar for continuing to make games in the series. I hope they continue to do so for many years to come. That said, the nature of the industry means that games have to keep getting bigger and better to be considered an improvement over their predecessors. If the inevitable GTA VI doesn't make $1 Billion in three days, will it be considered a disappointment? As more money is sunk into games development, the amount of financial return required increases; I fear a potential market slump years down the line as AAA games become so expensive to make that making a profit on them becomes more and more of a challenge.
For games to truly advance and grow, they require bigger budgets; the fear is that the medium will become so unrealistically expensive to maintain that only the biggest AAA titles, such as GTA, will be able to survive. Luckily, the rise of the indie developer should help to counter that dynamic, but as AAA titles go, I do predict that it will become increasingly difficult for developers to justify their expenses based on software sales. Having broken records, Rockstar have a tough challenge ahead of them in beating that with their next GTA game.