Earlier this year, I asked the question: Is AAA game development a sustainable business model? My conclusion at the time: yes, but a company needs to do more than just pump out a pretty looking game with the latest Cryengine powering its backend to be successful.
There's plenty of evidence of this too, as we've seen a lot of big name games, with giant publishers behind them and even bigger budgets powering production, falling flat in 2013 alone. There was the Tomb Raider reboot, Aliens Colonial Marines, Gears of War: Judgment, God of War Ascension, Hitman Absolution. Not all of these were bad games or even massive failures, but all of them undersold and struggled to break even, which in terms of the tens of millions of dollars that were behind them, is a big problem.
And that's what's so interesting about GTA V, because it's the most expensive game ever made, at over $150 million on production, with the multiple tens of millions that was no doubt spent on advertising it online, on bill boards and on TV. Making that back was going to be a challenge, but of course Rockstar did so in spades.
Mere days after release, it pulled in over a billion dollars and that money is still screaming in. It's made so much money so quickly, that it's become the fastest selling entertainment product ever, beating out movies like Titanic and Avatar, all other games throughout history and there isn't a single music album that can hold a candle to it.
So what's different about this game that didn't propel other AAA games of 2013 to the same lofty heights? Is it perhaps because GTA V is part of a big franchise that Rockstar can leapfrog off every time it makes a new game?
Part of it, for sure. That's why games like Call of Duty and FIFA manage to pump out the same kind of game each year with minor updates and still be some of the best selling games of the year. They offer an experience that's immediately engaging, because people have played this kind of thing before and it comes out regularly enough to tempt them back out.
But that can't be all of it, as many of those games mentioned above as being failures in the eyes of their publishers, come as sequels or prequels or reboots of long standing franchises. Gears of War has been around since the early days of the Xbox 360, God of War since the latter years of the PS2 and Tomb Raider has been kicking around since the mid 90s.
No there has to be more to it than that.
Really, GTA is the perfect storm of marketing, hype, polish and innovation. GTA 3 was a massive hit when it was released, because it introduced many gamers to their first big, open 3D world in a realistic environment. Its expansions in Vice and Liberty city built on this, but IV again showed us what an immersive world could be (even if I'd argue it's perhaps the weakest in the series) and it drew people in once again. V has done the same, offering the biggest open world ever created, giving it a seemingly unending list of things to do.
Rockstar also takes its time, spending years on its games, with thousands of people (GTA V's credits have clocked in at over 39 minutes long) and over $150 million as its budget. While games like anything else can go over budget or drag on too long, Rockstar has shown consistently that it's good at managing big game making resources and beavering away at it until its seamless. Of course there's bugs like anything else, but the level of detail in these games goes to show that Rockstar leaves no stone unturned when it comes to crafting its game world and it makes sure to give itself the time to do it. Some of this is down to its industry clout as such a successful developer, meaning it is unlikely 2K gives it much grief when it comes to release times, but it's still a smart move on Rockstar's part.
And on top of all that, it has the marketing and hype. GTA is a franchise that draws praise from critics and fans and condemnation from people that have never played it. On one hand you have massive advertising budgets making sure it's impossible for you to miss that a new Grand Theft Auto game is out, combined with masterful sneak peaks, leaks and slow burn media releases and on the other hand, you have everyone that hates the violences, misogyny and crime crying foul about it.
When all those factors come together, along with the fact that GTA and Rockstar have a decent fanbase already, it's no wonder GTA V did as well as it did. Rockstar is like the Pixar of the game development world. It stands alone as a developer that can do almost no wrong. Sure it has the odd dud like Max Payne III, but even that sold a few million copies.
GTA V didn't do well just because it was the sequel to GTA IV, it did well in its own right and because Rockstar knows what its doing with such a hot property.
Image source: Henryninetythree
Author: Jon Martindale