GTA 5’s Road To Success
GTA 5 is a game that just won’t slow down. This veritable juggernaut of interactive entertainment has broken 75 million sales in its fourth year of commercial availability, hit the top of the sales charts three times in 2017 alone and sold more copies last year than the two that preceded it. This is a four-year-old game that’s outselling major AAA releases that have been highly anticipated for months.
As the best-selling unbundled game of all time, it’s quickly hurtling towards the coveted position of the best selling game, period. But the question remains: how did it get here?
The answer to that comes down to a lot more than just a whole lot of cash tossed at the marketing department. That happened too, though – more than half of the game’s $265 million budget was spent to publicize it – but that alone couldn’t have propelled the title to such heights of financial success. In fact, it was the combination of several factors, some of which were situational, while others were built over a decade, that lead to this unprecedented defiance of standard software sales models.
The situational factor allowed Rockstar and Take-Two to prove just how on-point they are when a great opportunity presents itself. GTA 5 was released around the turn of the console generation, and they knew exactly how to get the most out of such a turbulent time in gaming. GTA 5 was hardly the only generation-spanning title, but somehow it managed to exploit the situation to its fullest.
GTA 5 was initially released in late 2013, almost exactly a month before the launch of the current-generation consoles. Naturally, Rockstar could have waited and released on all four consoles at the same time, but they didn’t – most definitely on purpose. GTA 5’s draw was so great that people went out and bought the old-gen versions even with new consoles a month away – probably against their better judgment. Sure, the bulk of the sales went to people who likely didn’t intend to upgrade immediately, but this move boosted sales for sure.
Then, a year later, the Enhanced Edition was released. Besides an obvious graphical upgrade, it also included a brand new first person mode, increased capacity for GTA Online lobbies and-and the wider selection of cheats for the Xbox One and PS4 versions. People who held off waiting for it bought the game en masse and countless previous players upgraded right then and there. In the meantime, the previous version was still selling well. Then, yet another year later, the game was once again released, but this time on PC, opening up to yet another new demographic and once again offering returning players to buy the game a third time, and you can bet that several did.
While launching on whopping five platforms certainly helps, it wasn’t the only key to success – after all, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed was released on freaking 12 platforms and didn’t break any sales records. The stroke of genius here, though it really isn’t rocket science, was that the different editions were not launched at the same time. Basically, the way game sales work is that there is a massive spike upon launch. Day-one purchases and pre-orders actually account for the bulk of sales these days. Usually, games enjoy one such “launch-spike”, whereas GTA 5 had three.
Not only did this keep the game in the news, keep it relevant and keep it new, but it ensured that a sizeable chunk of players would re-buy the game, meaning more sales without having to reach more people. This, coupled with the continuous sense of anticipation for the next edition kept the game’s hype right up in the clouds even after initial launch.
The other major contributor to the game’s success was fame. The GTA franchise first debuted in 1997, and in the years since then it racked up so much critical acclaim, word-of-mouth praise and media controversy that everyone and their mom knows “what a GTA is”. It’s arguably the most mainstream franchise next to Pokémon and Super Mario that exists. That kind of reach is rare even among AAA titles, and very, very few franchises are even remotely as well known.
Years of mainstream publicity isn’t something money can buy, no matter how much green you toss at your marketing manager, which is why some other multiplatform games with bigger budgets – Destiny, for example, had a budget of $500 million and launched on 4 consoles – don’t even scrape the kind of sales that GTA 5 rakes in continuously to this day.
Really, the combination of factors that lead to the success of GTA 5 was more or less a one-off thing, until the next console generation comes along, anyway. Let’s just hope we don’t need to wait for GTA 6 until then.