Red Dead Redemption 2: Don’t Bury GTA Online Just Yet
Red Dead Redemption 2 is going to be a record breaker. This is a game that we barely know anything about, but which is hyping people up like crazy, the media is covering extensively and critics are already lauding as a “GTA killer”.
Sometimes, the name and track record of a company, accompanied by a rare phenomenon of immense word-of-mouth publicity, is enough to propel a game into the international spotlight with nothing but a shorthand paragraph of vague info and a cinematic trailer to show for itself.
Plus, you know, the stamp of quality from Rockstar and the promise of a sequel that will eclipse the near-universally praised 2010 game, Red Dead Redemption. The sequel-power is strong with this one. Now, we have no sales data yet – the game hasn’t even released yet – but considering three different venues of pre-orders are open for the title, chances are a large chunk of the investment has already returned to Take-Two Interactive Software, the parent company of Rockstar Games.
Considering Rockstar spent half of GTA 5’s $265 million budget on marketing, and chances are RDR2 will see similar expenditure, but that we haven’t seen much of that yet and people are already pre-ordering this thing, it’s easy to assume the release will absolutely shatter every sales record there is and wipe the floor with all competitors. And it will.
All but one. In this case, it seems the apprentice won’t overcome the master and take the latter’s place. The very predecessor of Red Dead Redemption 2 – not in the franchise, but in the developer’s gameography – will be the only opponent it won’t be able to overcome. It’s not for a lack of effort though. The reasons for GTA 5’s success, and more importantly, lasting success, were an amalgamation of factors that cannot be induced with cash alone. It hit a kind of sweet-spot that rarely presents itself, and Rockstar squeezed everything out of this beneficial situation it could.
Even if we don’t account for the mind-boggling mainstream popularity of GTA 5, which is one of the biggest factors contributing to its over 75 million physical sales, plus who knows how many tens of millions of digital sales, there’s still much that RDR2 cannot take advantage of. In fact, the biggest boon to GTA 5’s sales was not its engrossing story, stunning graphics, entertaining cheats or expansive multiplayer. It was most likely the turn of the console generation. The game was released around a time that was both exciting and turbulent in gaming. It was the changing of the guard, in came the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, out went the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
When the game first launched, it only did so on the older-generation consoles, since the new ones weren’t around yet. Even though people knew a new console gen was around the corner and GTA 5 was almost guaranteed to get a re-release, the game sold over 35 million in its first year. It took mere hours to make a return on investment, and the game made a $1 billion profit in 3 days. Naturally, when games first launch, there is a massive spike in sales since the vast majority of people who are conscious buyers (meaning they know they want this product and specifically seek to buy it) will purchase day one. The other category is the unconscious buyer, the kind who walks into a store, looks at the shelf and goes like “oh, this is interesting, let’s buy it”, but they don’t matter right now. Thing is, Rockstar got away with three of these launch-day spikes because they launched GTA 5 on 5 platforms over the course of 3 years in 3 phases.
Red Dead Redemption 2, on the other hand, will launch on just 2 platforms on one date. Sure, there are rumors that the game will eventually come to PC, but that’s still 2 platforms and one launch-spike short of GTA 5.
However, let’s keep in mind that sales aren’t the only thing that matter. Of those ~75 million players (sure, some are multiple purchases, but digital sales aren’t included, so the approximation holds), how many still play today? Not a lot, actually – well relatively. About a year ago, Take-Two reported over 8 million unique log-ins to GTA Online per week. While in their more recent earnings reports they gave no concrete data, they did say that number has only increased since then.
A fraction more than 10% of customers still play the game three years after launch, which is actually a pretty good rate, believe it or not. The majority of those players are the kind who don’t consider themselves gamers, and very likely don’t know squat about Red Dead, nor care. The vast majority of the current players of GTA Online – the ones driving the multi-million dollar Shark Card business – won’t be switching over to Red Dead Online when it hits. Sure, Rockstar’s Wild West franchise might be hot in gamer circles, but it doesn’t have a grip in the mainstream.
Which brings us to another point. Take-Two Interactive wouldn’t allow Red Dead Online to kill off GTA Online. The latter is like a miraculous chicken that lays golden eggs infinitely, while the former will lay one or two diamond ones then pass out. Shark Cards bring in ridiculous amounts of cash annually thanks to GTA Online’s defiance of the typical video-game lifecycle. Unfortunately, Red Dead Online likely won’t be immune to the damage caused by age, and even when a negligible amount of players will still roam the sandy steppes on horseback, millions will still blow each other up with Hydras on the virtual streets of Los Santos.