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Grand Theft Auto V's endless success is the story of an era

Still topping charts four years after launch, GTAV is unprecedented - perhaps the first game to ever enter the public consciousness in this way

A lot of exciting things have happened in the games industry since 2013. That time has seen the mobile game space rise to maturity; it's seen Sony return to console dominance with PS4, and Nintendo bounce from its greatest heights to its lowest ebb.

And yet one thing has stayed consistent throughout that entire four-year period. Through it all, Grand Theft Auto V has steadily, unstoppably continued to sell huge numbers every single week. In 2017 so far, it's the best-selling game in the UK; in the United States it charts in fourth place.

Previous entries in the Grand Theft Auto series were, of course, landmark titles in their own right - both culturally and commercially. Their content sparked controversy and, from the point when the series shifted into an extraordinary open world with Grand Theft Auto 3, their enormous sales pushed them into a mainstream consciousness that had generally glossed over videogames up to that point. Grand Theft Auto came to be the series that defined perceptions of games in the 2000s, perhaps even more so than Mario or Sonic had done in the 1990s.

"Never before has there been a game like GTAV, which has served as a touchstone for an entire era of gaming"

Grand Theft Auto V, however, has quietly gone beyond that and become something even more. I say quietly, because it's not necessarily something that you see if you're an ordinary game consumer. For most of us, Grand Theft Auto V was a game - a really great, beautifully made, fantastic game - that we played for a pretty long time a few years ago. We've moved on, though sometimes it comes up in conversation, or you see a really crazy stunt video on YouTube; it's part of gamer consciousness, but arguably no more than a number of other superb games of the same era.

Yet unlike all those other games, GTAV keeps on selling. People keep walking into shops and buying it; 340,000 copies in the UK alone this year. The only way to explain those sales is to assume that they are representative of GTAV being purchased along with, or soon after, the upgrades being made by many consumers to next-gen consoles or higher spec PCs. Far more than its predecessors, the game has become a cultural touchstone - something that you simply buy by default along with a new game system.

Of course, individual game consoles have had must-own games before; how many people bought Halo with the original Xbox, or Mario 64 with the Nintendo 64? Never before, however, has there been a game like GTAV, which has served as a touchstone for an entire era of gaming. The closest point of comparison I can think of is something like The Matrix, which was the go-to DVD for people buying new DVD players in the late 1990s, or Blade Runner's Directors' Cut, which served a similar role for Blu-Ray. Nothing before now in the realm of videogames comes close.

"Something we don't know, however, is what people are actually doing with those new copies of GTAV"

Something we don't know, however, is what people are actually doing with those new copies of GTAV; the huge question is whether they're buying them for the game's excellent single-player experience, or whether they're diving into GTA Online. The online game has been a runaway success for publisher Take Two, and has definitely helped to prolong the longevity of GTAV, but it's hard to quantify just how much it has to do with the continued strong sales of the game itself.

That question is important, because if people are primarily buying GTAV as an online game, it makes it a little easier to categorise that success. In that case, it would belong alongside titles like League of Legends, World of Warcraft or Destiny; enormous, sprawling games that suck up years upon years of players' attention.

From a commercial standpoint, the industry is still a little unsure what these games are or what to do about them; they are behemoths on the landscape that everyone else needs to navigate around, but while many people share an intuition that they collapse revenues for other games in the same genre, it's not entirely clear as yet what influence they really have on everything else on the market. If GTAV fits in with those titles, albeit on a level of its own to some degree, then it makes sense; it fits a pattern.

"GTAV became embedded in our collective consciousness until it was The Game You Buy When You Finally Get A PS4"

My sense, however, is that GTAV is something entirely different. It's not quite, as Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick rather bombastically claimed at E3, that there are no "other titles... clustered around GTA from a quality point of view." GTAV is a brilliant game, but it's hard to support the claim that there's nothing else out there of similar quality.

Rather, it's that GTAV has struck a series of notes perfectly, stitching together a combination of elements each of which is executed flawlessly and which combined to make a game that is memorable, replayable, funny, challenging, and - vitally in this era - a never-ending source of entertaining video clips for YouTube or Twitch. Almost every aspect of GTAV is good, but there's no single part you can point to and say, "this is why this is the game that defines an era." The magic lies in the sum, not the individual parts.

And perhaps it's something more than even that; perhaps GTAV isn't just the right game, it's also a game that's appeared at the right time.

Think of the average age of a game consumer, which is well into the thirties at this point. Think of how games have come to be a part of our cultural conversation; no longer in a dismissive way, but as a field of genuine interest, a source of inspiration for other media, a topic of watercooler conversation. Think too of how videogames have begun to inform the aesthetics of the world, from the gloss of Marvel's movies to the more obvious homages of Wreck-It Ralph or (god help us) Pixels. Somehow they've even managed to rope Spielberg into adapting inexplicably popular execrable teenage gamer fanfiction novel Ready Player One. Games are embedded as part of the world's culture and, more importantly, part of how we talk about that culture.

GTAV arrived, in stunning, endlessly discussable, endlessly uploadable form right at the moment when that transition was being completed. There's no way to quantify this, but I'll wager GTAV holds a special record that'll never go in Guinness' book. I'll wager it's the most talked-about game of all time. Not because of controversy or scandal; it's a game that's just been talked about in conversation after conversation, four years of discussing stunts and jokes and achievements and easter eggs, until the game became embedded in our collective consciousness until it was The Game You Buy When You Finally Get A PS4.

There's never been a game that occupied a place in the public consciousness quite like GTAV; but now that such a place exists for games in our collective cultural consciousness, perhaps it won't be very long before more fantastic games roll up to take on similar roles.

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Latest comments (4)

Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University4 months ago
You gotta figure the continued sales were also helped by the game releasing on the PS4/X1 a year after it debuted on the 360/PS3. I bet a ton of customers rebought the game as they upgraded to new hardware.
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Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments4 months ago
The best comparison might be minecraft - games that provide players a long lasting setting for open ended gameplay.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 4 months ago
In a world filled with knock-off products, GTA has no knock-off to speak of (sry, Saints Row and Mafia, but NO at the same time). Release a first person shooter or racing game and it will not take long until the new hotness will eat your long tail sales. GTA stands unopposed, as do some other games. The Civilization series, Football Manager, or sport simulations are examples of games where there is usually only one, not one by each major publisher.

If one thing sets these games apart, it is also the fact that they are way harder to knock off compared to the low hanging fruit that is also out there. Match three toys to life game based on Tetris pieces sold in stores is probably thrown together faster than a good basketball simulation or entertaining game satirizing an entire society with a multiplayer mode. Does not mean it will sell better though, so Tetris pieces it is.
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 4 months ago
It also has to be said, GTA have used the concept of DLC/online content in a way which a lot of DLC producers seem to overlook - they have extended the game, allowing players to spend more time developing characters and a story they have fallen in love with (I refer here not simply to the main game's scripted narrative, but to the story players make for themselves through their actions in the game's world).

When we release DLC or other extensions that are essentially restarts or tacked-on content, it doesn't feel that same. When people fall in love with a game, they don't want it to end, and GTA online has made that happen through long-term updates and open-world design.

Don't get me wrong, I still find GTA V's content way too uncomfortable for me to play happily, but from a business point of view, one cannot ignore how successfully they have extended the game, and how easy they have made the creation of compelling viral content for youtubers, which acts as a reminder for players "Oh yeah, I was meaning to pick that up again".
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