Take-Two Interactive's (NASDAQ:TTWO) Grand Theft Auto 5, the most expensive video game ever created, with a $265 million budget, set another record on its first day of sales -- it became the fastest-selling video game in history.
Sales for the eagerly anticipated game hit sales of $800 million in a single day when it was released on Sept. 17. By comparison, it took Activision Blizzard's Call of Duty Black Ops 2 15 days to reach sales of $1 billion. Taking a look at Take-Two's 12-month stock performance, it's clear that investors have been waiting a long time for this moment.
Yet GTA 5 is significant in the video game industry for reasons beyond sales totals. It is a franchise frequently targeted by activist groups who claim that violent video games should be banned.
The poster boy of video game violence
In Louisiana, an 8-year old fatally shot his grandmother after playing GTA 4. GTA Vice City, which was released back in 2002, has been blamed by 18-year old Devin Moore, who murdered three policemen in 2003, and by 16-year old Cody Posey, who murdered his father, stepmother, and stepsister.
Those are only a few of several cases calling GTA a murder and mayhem simulator that pushes unstable individuals over the edge. Yet despite that horrid PR record, sales for GTA are stronger than ever.
To understand how GTA became the game industry's greatest blockbuster despite these harsh criticisms, we should take a closer look at how the game evolved over the years from a crude top-down shooter into the virtual 3D worlds of today's GTA titles.
Welcome to the virtual sandbox
As someone who has played all of the main GTA releases starting from 2001's GTA 3, I can tell you that GTA isn't a murder simulator -- it's a reality simulator.
Ever since GTA 3, series director Sam Houser, his brother Dan, and their studio Rockstar Games have taken huge strides in revolutionizing 3D "sandbox" gaming -- in which the player is encouraged to explore an open game world rather than progress on a linear route. Small details, like overhearing pedestrian conversations and listening to fully scripted radio stations, bring the GTA world to life.
The three main releases of the previous console generation -- GTA 3, GTA Vice City, and GTA San Andreas -- all added something new to this persistent, self-contained alternate reality. In Vice City, your character could buy clothes, real estate, and businesses. In San Andreas, your character could work out, go skydiving, or even dive for pearls.
The first GTA game of the modern-console generation, 2008's GTA 4, added even tinier details, such as friends who would call you, an in-game Internet, and TV channels with hours of original programming.
These are the fine details that make GTA more polished than its less well-received clones, such as True Crime (Activision) and Saints Row (THQ). That polish also distinguishes the GTA franchise from poorly made games that simply use violence for shock value, such as Running With Scissors' Postal series.
An adults-only game world
Although the GTA titles are well-made games, they are not for kids. In the United States, GTA is rated M (Mature, only for ages 17 and up) -- yet several instances of "GTA-influenced" murder and mayhem were committed by minors. These games are intended for adults, who have matured enough to understand the divide between fantasy and reality, and not for kids at all.
Rockstar's focus on adult gamers is clear in its heavy influence from classic-crime films, which most kids probably aren't familiar with. Vice City, for example, borrowed major elements from Brian de Palma's Scarface (1983) and Carlito's Way (1993), while San Andreas was heavily influenced by John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood (1991).
So why is GTA often vilified by the media, while those films are considered classics?
Although films can be extremely violent, viewers assume a passive role by watching the events. In video games like GTA, gamers assume direct control over a character who can kill police officers, massacre innocent people, sell drugs, and do other nasty things that they wouldn't do in real life. Well-adjusted individuals can play these events out as escapism, but less-stable individuals might not.
Therefore, GTA's promotion of virtual criminal activities will always make it an easy target for critics, unless it works harder to ensure that the game is not purchased by minors.
What can we expect from GTA 5?
With GTA 5, Rockstar has improved its open-world sandbox once again, this time adding outdoor activities like golf, mountain biking, tennis, hang-gliding, and big- game hunting to its world. In addition, gamers can now follow the lives of three main characters who must work together to pull off complex heists.
Based on initial reviews, GTA 5 looks like a worthy new entry to the franchise, exploding with the energy and ambition that many other modern video games sorely lack.
I tend to think of Rockstar's Sam Houser as the Quentin Tarantino of the video game world. When I watch Tarantino's blood-soaked films, like Django Unchained or Inglourious Basterds, I see a passion for film and respect for the genre that other directors sorely lack. It's the same for Sam Houser with the GTA series -- he makes game worlds that gamers actually enjoy getting lost in.