Rockstar Games recently confirmed that the first trailer for the next instalment in its flagship series, Grand Theft Auto, would be released in early December.
Since the announcement, online hype has entered overdrive. The game frequently trends on X (formally Twitter) whenever a rumour makes the rounds, and some fans are even giving up smoking to ensure they are healthy enough to play it.
For context around the franchise’s massive success, a 2018 report from MarketWatch named the previous game in the series the “most financially successful media title of all time.” Judging by the hype over a trailer, the next game will likely break records. However, the gaming market has shifted since Grand Theft Auto 5 was released in 2013. Will the latest iteration make the same impact?
The Wild West
To gauge the success of Grand Theft Auto 6, there’s no better place to look than Rockstar’s last mega-hit, the cowboy epic Red Dead Redemption 2.
Rockstar’s games are famous in the industry for being at the forefront of storytelling, but by building on what it learned from Grand Theft Auto 4 and 5, Red Dead Redemption 2 took it to another level. Playing out a dying cowboy’s last days over 50 hours of often slow, intentional story beats, the game was more akin to a prestige film or TV series than games of old. But, as identified in a recent CommentWire, storytelling is the future of gaming. Basically, everyone is doing it.
Once relegated to the world of indie games and more niche titles, this story-led approach has become mainstream over the last few years, meaning that Rockstar is no longer releasing a game into an empty playing field. Recent history alone has seen several high-budget, narrative-driven, and extremely well-received games, from 2020’s The Last of Us Part II to 2023’s Alan Wake 2. Grand Theft Auto 5 has aged well and can hold its own against more recent games, but fans have higher expectations after years of eating well, and Rockstar is under pressure to deliver.
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Grand Theft Auto Online
Grand Theft Auto is an interesting case in the gaming industry. By all metrics, mobile gaming is the future of the industry. Esports will make huge amounts of money while new technologies like augmented reality (AR) will become commonplace. But Grand Theft Auto (and Rockstar’s games in general) feature none of these trends.
However, one trend that Rockstar and Take-Two have jumped on is e-commerce. As stated in GlobalData’s upcoming Tech, Media, and Telecom Themes 2024 report, “Microtransactions are a staple revenue model for game publishers”. For Rockstar, this comes in the form of Grand Theft Auto Online, the multiplayer component of Grand Theft Auto 5.
Developed in tandem with the base game, Grand Theft Auto Online was launched a few weeks after it in 2013 and still enjoys a huge player base. After a rocky start plagued by bugs and technical issues, the online game has received numerous updates and additional content. Since 2013, it has proved incredibly lucrative for Rockstar thanks to copious amounts of microtransactions and a recent monthly subscription service. Grand Theft Auto Online also has its own currency in the form of ‘Shark Cards’, where $89.99 will net you $10 million in-game GTA dollars.
Welcome to the metaverse
However, an online service is far from a sure thing. Following the release of Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar tried to repeat its success in the Wild West with Red Dead Online. Straight away, the online game faced criticism for its microtransactions and balance issues. Following a few sparse updates and a slowly dwindling player base, Rockstar stopped working on the game to focus on developing the next Grand Theft Auto title.
It could be that the analog world of cowboys did not lend itself well to the flying motorcycles and fighter jets that gamers came to expect from Grand Theft Auto Online, or it could be that Rockstar struggled to monetize the sale of horses, revolvers, and cowboy hats.
What is clear is that Rockstar will want to replicate the success of Grand Theft Auto 5’s online side with the release of Grand Theft Auto 6. Reports indicate that Rockstar has acquired Cfx.re, a modding team that produced hugely popular roleplaying mods for its previous games, allowing players to live surprisingly fleshed-out lives in the virtual world. This acquisition suggests that the next iteration of Grand Theft Auto Online will be more roleplaying-focused, pushing it into the realm of metaverse-adjacent games like Fortnite and ROBLOX.
Balance is key
What is clear is that Rockstar will need to retain the high level of storytelling that fans have come to expect while also launching an online component that will keep gamers playing for another ten years.
If players feel that the story has been rushed to allow time for the online side, there will likely be a huge backlash. Just look at the response to the release of Modern Warfare 3.
So, it is no easy feat, but rumours suggest that Grand Theft Auto 6 is the most expensive video game of all time, so it promises to be impressive at least. Whether it meets the high expectations remains to be seen. After a decade of development and little-to-no communication from Rockstar, the gaming world waits with bated breath.