Grand Theft Auto Online is a killer app for PlayStation 5 | Opinion

The deal between PlayStation and Rockstar has the potential to win over millions of fans for Sony's next console

13 years doing this job has skewed the way I look at video game conferences.

Whenever I see a new game announcement, I find myself obsessing over its commercial potential rather than its artistic merit. It can actually spoil things a bit. I remember watching the surprise announcements of Shenmue 3, Metroid Prime 4 and Beyond Good & Evil 2. Here were three sequel to games I love, which were all greeted by screams of excitement at E3... and yet I had to fight the business journalist cynic in me, who was hell bent on tweeting: "There's a reason it's taken so long for these sequels, and it's not because the publisher hates money."

Upon saying that, the reverse can sometimes happen, where I get excited about things that leave most gamers cold. Do you remember Sony's ill-fated Wonderbook? The augmented reality PlayStation 3 IP, which launched with an interactive Harry Potter project called Book of Spells? I was so enamoured with its potential it was my game of the show back at E3 2012 -- proof that I don't always get it right.

In terms of reasons to buy the console, Sony gave us plenty

This preamble is to set up my views on Sony's PlayStation 5 reveal event last week. Ultimately, I concur with the conclusions made by our very own Rob Fahey's -- it was an excellent event.

None of the reveals were especially surprising, and we saw only a few hints of what the PS5 is truly capable of. However, in terms of reasons to buy the console, Sony gave us plenty. The variety of content on display meant that you'd be hard pressed to find someone who didn't see something that interested them. From Sackboy to Souls, and Ratchet to Resident Evil, there was loads of interesting stuff.

In terms of system sellers, however, four games jumped out. The first was Gran Turismo 7. Historically, Gran Turismo has been PlayStation's biggest first-party franchise, with each iteration doing more than ten million sales. The last numbered game in the series, Gran Turismo 6, launched on PS3 after the PS4 was out, which meant it didn't meet its usual high sales standards. And the PS4 game GT Sport took the series in a slightly different direction, although still managed to surpass eight million units globally. So the brand remains a big draw, and Gran Turismo 7 certainly looked the part.

The second game was Horizon: Forbidden West. The last Horizon game is one of just five first-party PS4 games to break ten million sales and is Sony's biggest new IP launch of the generation. It's a major fan favourite and will likely be one of the console's first killer apps.

And then there's Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Arriving barely two years after the first game, it's unlikely that this is a full sequel. But even so, Insomniac's title was a monster hit for Sony, and this is going to be a significant draw for PS5 at launch.

Those three games were the obvious commercial standouts, but there was a fourth that excited me more than (I suspect) most people. If you read the headline of this article, you'll know which game I'm talking about: it was the news that Sony and Rockstar had struck a promotional partnership around the port of Grand Theft Auto 5 and Grand Theft Auto Online.

GTA was an unusual choice to start the show... Even so, this is a major coup for PlayStation

GTA was an unusual choice to start the show, and it's easy to mock the fact that Sony's "Future of Gaming" event opened with a trailer for a six year-old PlayStation 4 game, which itself is a port of a seven year-old PS3 game. Even so, this is a major coup for PlayStation. Grand Theft Auto 5 is the biggest console game in the world, and it remains in the charts in almost every market to this day, shifting millions each and every year. It has become the must own game for every new PS4 and Xbox One customer.

Yet even more significant than its consistent sales performance is the number of engaged players who continue to play its multiplayer mode, Grand Theft Auto Online. This speaks to one of the most interesting challenges facing both PlayStation and Xbox during this new console transition.

Previous generational shifts have all been about the unique games coming to these fancy new machines. What are the exclusives? How does the new FIFA look? What new games do we have coming that we've not seen before? This time, however, it's also about the games we've been playing for years and years.

Multiplatform titles like Apex Legends have large communities that will likely choose a console based on which offers the best experience for their favourite game

Multiplatform titles like Apex Legends have large communities that will likely choose a console based on which offers the best experience for their favourite game

As anyone who listens to the Podcasts will know, I'm a big fan of Rare's Sea of Thieves, an Xbox One exclusive. It's an open world multiplayer pirate game that gets updated every month. I have been playing it every week for two years with my three friends, and we completely intend to keep playing it. That means if I end up in a position of having to choose between a PlayStation 5 and an Xbox Series X, my choice has already been made -- I'll need to get the Sea of Thieves box.

You can expect Microsoft and Sony to be preparing deals and partnerships, just like this GTA one

Sea of Thieves is an Xbox console exclusive, but most other service-based games are platform agonistic. And it's here that you'll find the key battleground for the next generation of players. These gamers no longer see themselves as part of the PlayStation or Xbox ecosystems. Games like GTA, Rainbow Six, Fortnite, Destiny, Apex Legends, The Division and Rocket League are almost like platforms in themselves, with dedicated audiences that will move to the console that best suits their game.

PlayStation has immediately made a play for the GTA audience, and it's doing it in two stages. The first is making a significant amount of in-game currency available to PS4 owners "every month until the PS5 version of the game launches in 2021." This is Rockstar's way of keeping this audience engaged in its world while it works on the upgrade. Then, once that offer ends, PS5 owners are able to claim a free version of Grand Theft Auto Online -- as long as they do so within the first three months of launch.

This may not have been the most exciting thing to happen during last week's PS5 event, but it is a crucial move in Sony's mission to get players to upgrade to its new console quickly. And it's a strategy that will no doubt have been noted by the other big publishers, such as EA, Ubisoft and Activision -- which were all notably missing from last week's event.

Some of these companies are enabling their customers to move from one generation to the other without the next to buy another copy of the game - pioneered by Xbox's Smart Delivery initiative, which has been backed by the likes of Ubisoft, Bungie and CD Projekt. You can expect Microsoft and Sony to be preparing deals and partnerships, just like this GTA one, designed to attract these different crowds of players to their platforms.

In an industry where games have become their own ecosystems, this generational shift will prove more complicated than before. You're not just asking gamers to put down the consoles they've been playing, but the games they've been living in, too. As a result, we should expect the big console games of tomorrow to look an awful lot like the big console games of yesterday.

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Latest comments (2)

Jordan Lund Columnist A year ago
I don't think you understand what the phrase "killer ap" means.

"a feature, function, or application of a new technology or product which is presented as virtually indispensable or much superior to rival products."

By definition, a 7 year old game, which is already available on 5 other platforms, cannot be a "killer ap". There's no reason for GTAO players to buy a PS5 for this game as they already have it on the hardware they own.

In addition to that, it will also be available on the Xbox Series X, so there's not even a differentiator in the new generation of hardware.

tl;dr - "These words, I do not think they mean what you think they mean."
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@Jordan Lund: See also:

"In marketing terminology, a killer application (commonly shortened to killer app) is any computer program or software that is so necessary or desirable that it proves the core value of some larger technology."

Let's be clear, killer app is a piece of software that drives sales and justifies the price of a piece of hardware.

If you're a Grand Theft Auto Online player, the ability to get the upgraded version of the game for free on a piece of hardware would prove the value of that piece of hardware.

Its existence on other hardware also doesn't prevent it from being a killer application. Wipeout is viewed as one of the first killer apps on the original PlayStation, but that also wasn't an exclusive game. GTA V has been a killer app for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

The key difference here, is that PS5 has obtained exclusive elements in an effort to become the next home for GTA Online players.
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