Brand collaborations are big business in gaming these days, with comic books, movies, musicians, sports leagues and car makers regularly showing up in games like Fortnite, Roblox, Fall Guys, and more.
And while Grand Theft Auto Online has many of the same metaverse-like qualities of those titles and occupies the same echelon of massive success, its collaborations have been far fewer, and much easier to overlook.
Speaking with Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick ahead of the publisher's earnings report this week, we ask if there's potential for the game to do more on the brand collaboration front, and whether past controversies or the franchise's satirical brands make that more difficult.
"The world of GTA is a fictional world, so to bring real-life brands in, they really have to be iconic and they have to fit within that world"
"The world of GTA is a fictional world, so to bring real-life brands in, they really have to be iconic and they have to fit within that world," Zelnick says.
"It's very much a creative decision driven by the team at Rockstar. It's not a financial decision. We run all of our businesses here in an effort to engage and captivate consumers, and then we figure monetization takes care of itself. We wouldn't include a brand just based on a financial opportunity in any of our titles.
"There are other titles that are really well suited to involving brands and even having direct advertising, NBA is one of them, PGA is another. When you involve yourself with those games in the real world, you have an expectation of seeing advertisers and sponsors. But you don't really have that expectation in Grand Theft Auto, except for fictional brands. So to bring a real-world experience in requires a lot of thought and sensitivity to consumers, and I think that's what Rockstar Games is known for."
With Rockstar Games recently confirming that it is indeed working on a new Grand Theft Auto title, we also ask about managing expectations for a follow-up to a game like Grand Theft Auto 5, which has now sold-in 165 million copies, and whether a singular hit like that takes sequel math of "whatever the last game sold plus X%" off the table.
"Yes, yes it does, as you'd expect," Zelnick confirms. "I don't know that we seek to manage expectations. When we put together our guidance, our job is to go right down the middle and tell the market what we think will happen. We'll do the same thing here. But we wouldn't normally take a SWAG at any release and simply say 'the results of the last release plus X.'
"Typically we beat our guidance, and that's a reflection of working really hard to do so, not a reflection of somehow cutting the guidance down"
"We would look at the title itself and how we think it's going to perform, the Metacritic scores we expect to get... We'll do mock Metacritic scoring prior to release. We're usually reasonably good at predicting. Typically we beat our guidance, and that's a reflection of working really hard to do so, not a reflection of somehow cutting the guidance down."
With the publisher's acquisition of Zynga expected to close next week, we also ask about speculation of the mobile specialist bringing Take-Two's stable of core gaming franchises to mobile. We note that its successful mid-core or core games have mostly come through acquisition rather than being built in-house, and ask whether the learnings of more casual mobile hits like Zynga Poker or Words With Friends would translate to Take-Two's less casual franchises.
"I hope so," Zelnick says. "The deal's success is not reliant upon that. That would be a nice-to-have, not a must-have. We have not modelled any revenue synergies into our expectations for future results. The guidance we're giving [this week] is stand-alone. We'll give combined guidance in August, but even then, we would only include expectations on titles we know are going to be released."
He notes that many of Zynga's "forever franchises" were in-house creations, even if many skew to a different audience.
"In terms of whether we'll be able to create hits out of legacy core Take-Two IP, it remains to be seen," Zelnick says. "We think it's an exciting opportunity, but hit ratios for mobile are indeed much lower than they are for console and PC, and we have a healthy respect for that."
"...I can understand why for certain of our competitors, unionization might be an issue"
Finally, we ask a follow-up to a question we posed to Zelnick about unionization in 2019. At the time, he said that developers were compensated $100,000 on average annually and operated in a field where there were more jobs than qualified workers, then said it was "hard to imagine what would motivate that crew to unionize."
Two years later, the unionization push has not been coming from developers like the ones Zelnick described, but from QA staffers making far less in a discipline that rarely seems to run short of labor. We ask if his assessment of unionization has changed at all, or if the way companies are treating QA staff is changing more broadly. (Rockstar's treatment of QA staff in particular has come under criticism repeatedly, with crunch among the Rockstar Lincoln QA team criticized by staffers there, as well as by the former head of the studio itself.)
"We think our culture speaks for itself, we're really proud of it," Zelnick says. "And we're a colleague-first company. We care greatly about all of our people and I think we make that plain. We also pay at the very highest range of the business, and we're very selective, including in our QA division.
"So I think the same reasoning applies from our point of view, but I can understand why for certain of our competitors, unionization might be an issue."