The Secrets of GTA’s Massive Mainstream Success

It’s not every day that a video game becomes a mainstream tech story. Then again, it’s not every day that a video game promptly records US$1 billion in sales.

Grand Theft Auto V did just that, however, eclipsing the 10-figure mark three days after its Sept. 17 release. The game’s success is an emphatic declaration that the GTA brand — first introduced in 1997 — is still going strong, and that it will be a force as the next generation of game consoles comes to life.

In this TechNewsWorld podcast, we chat with Jon Hicks, editor for Xbox 360 – The Official Xbox Magazine (UK). Joining us from London, Hicks talks about how GTA appeals to video game aficionados and laymen alike, why the UK-made game is so America-centric, and how GTA gets away with being so … GTA.

Listen to the podcast (20:53 minutes).

Here are some excerpts from the podcast.

TechNewsWorld: There was so much made of the launch of the game last week, and of the insane production costs, which reportedly went over $250 million, and there were also a lot of revenue projections about when it would hit the $1 billion mark. But it’s perhaps worth stepping back and asking how the actual game is. As a video game fan and as a video game critic, what were your initial takeaways, and what do you think about the game itself now that the dust has settled a little bit?

Jon Hicks: Well, I think its success was almost a foregone conclusion. GTA is one of the biggest gaming franchises, and it’s particularly potent because it’s quite a rare release still. I mean, I haven’t actually seen the relative values compared, but the other big-money franchises kind of drop in every single year, like Call of Duty and FIFA. They sell very well, and they do good business, but because they arrive every year there’s diminished excitement around them. They’re a sort of regular fixture.

GTA — it’s been five years since the last one came out, it has this huge audience, it transcends the standard gaming demographic. People will buy GTA and they will buy almost no other games. I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s so successful: Everybody who buys video games buys GTA, and many other people who don’t routinely buy video games will also buy it. It’s got to that level of sort of cultural weight.

On top of that, it’s a really exceptional game, as well. Rockstar [which makes the game] are amazing at creating open worlds, and certainly they really pushed the boat out with Grand Theft Auto IV, which was on Xbox 360 and PS3 in 2008. They’ve actually gone back and kind of stepped it up another level here in terms of the virtual recreation of Los Angeles — the size of the world, the characters of the world, it’s got this really ridiculous level of detail … It’s just a really, really spectacular piece of work.

TechNewsWorld: It’s interesting to hear you talk about how GTA is kind of a transcendent game; I wanted ask you about that. It was interesting reading your official review of the game, and you mention some other titles that you could perhaps compare GTA to — there was No Russian, Righteous Slaughter, Red Dead Redemption. As I was reading it — I’m not a video game connoisseur, and I really didn’t know these games, but I do know Grand Theft Auto, and I have known Grand Theft Auto for 10 years, ever since I had GTA III on my PlayStation. What is it about the game that makes it so transcendent to the point where someone like myself — someone who has a video game console but doesn’t have a particular fascination with video game — why would somebody like me or my layman’s demographic be so fascinated with GTA?

Hicks: I think it’s the freedom the games give you. Most video games, they have very specific formats, there’s a very specific challenge. To go to the other big one I mentioned, Call of Duty, it’s basically a shooting gallery in single player, and it’s a sort of free-for-all in multiplayer. FIFA is football. They’re kind of quite regular.

GTA — it took off with GTA III. That was the first time the game really hit massive mainstream success, and I think it’s because they give you the whole city. You can just kind of wander around with your character, and you can steal cars and drive cars and beat people up and drive into the ocean and all this kind of stuff. It’s a very instantly rewarding, kind of sandbox experience: Even if you don’t really play video games, it’s possible to pick up a controller and play GTA and just mess around with it in a really satisfying way. And again, because the games get more advanced every single time, there’s always an extra layer of systems in there. There are different radio stations to listen to, or the pedestrians react in a certain way…

Most games you have to sort of explain the setup — “you are a soldier and you’re trying to get inside the battlefield” or… I don’t know, video games aren’t historically very good at storytelling. They all revolve around shooting aliens or something for some sort of spurious reason. And if you aren’t particularly engaged in that, and you don’t find the actual act of shooting very rewarding, then it’s quite easy for people to sort of bounce off that sort of thing. I think with GTA, you can just go, “Here’s a world. You can do pretty much what you like. Get on with it.”

David Vranicar is a freelance journalist and author ofThe Lost Graduation: Stepping off campus and into a crisis. You can check out hisECT News archive here, and you can email him at david[dot]vranicar[at]newsroom[dot]ectnews[dot]com.

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