Recently, news of GTA 5 having sold more than 70 Million copies – not counting the millions sold digitally – more than three years after initial launch. The game is one of the biggest success stories in the history of gaming, and has become the single most successful non-bundled game of all time.
Last year, Take-Two reported that GTA Online had an average of 8 million unique log-ins every week. While this year they didn’t release any numbers, they did state that it has increased. According to an analyst, the game brings in $700 million annually. The game’s microtransactions, called Shark Cards, have made a total of more than $500 million, which is more than the revenue of most high profile AAA releases.
Three years after launch day, GTA 5 is growing and growing. It is gaining players, and is still at the forefront of gaming media. This level of success and longevity is unprecedented in the industry. Even the biggest launch hits lose steam after about a year, and not even the most heavily marketed games break these sales records.
So what did Rockstar do in order to achieve this feat? Did they sell the soul of every employee to the devil? Did they recite the ancient occult incantation of commercial success during the summer equinox? Did they fund a secret scientific research initiative in order to gain control of the very fabric of the universe to boost sales?
No, nothing like that. In fact, the formula to GTA 5’s success isn’t all that complex. With a bit of luck and a whole lot of skill and hard work, the folks over at Rockstar planned out one of the most airtight business plans the gaming industry has seen, and damn did it pay off. We’ve ordered the main ingredients to the game’s success in this guide, so you can cook your own record breaking AAA hit.
1 – Prepare 9 years worth of brand recognition.
Now, if this is the first time you’re preparing this dish, the first step might be a tad difficult. The first GTA game was released in 1997, to moderate commercial success. While it didn’t sell 70 million copies, it was critically acclaimed and pretty popular by the standards of that era. More than a dozen games have been released in the franchise since, across countless platforms. Pretty much every single game in the franchise has been popular, well recieved and critically praised.
But it takes more than the praise of reviewers to turn a game’s name into a household word. Rockstar wasn’t afraid of opening several cans of worms repeatedly with each game, and GTA quickly became one of the most controversial franchises in the industry. It made the news globally, with countless attempts to ban it in various countries. While these efforts ultimately failed, however they ensured that everyone and their cat knew what GTA was.
The name became known widely even among non-gaming circles. People who have never held a controller in their hands would shout something along the lines of “did you learn to drive in GTA?” after reckless drivers. Ask any odd Joe on the street and chances are they’ll know what you’re talking about.
Now, this has also lead to the game becoming known to the audience which elevated it to success- the group of people open to playing video games who in spite of their potential interest do not follow the medium in an active capacity. Add to this the group that gamers sometimes derogatively refer to as the “casuals” – typically console players who only buy one or two games every years or so, and those games are always mainstream hits like CoD or FIFA – who also adopted the franchise, and boom, you have a massive audience.
2 – Add a large helping of marketing
This isn’t really a thinker. Any company with enough cash can finance a massive marketing campaign, and Rockstar did so too. It wasn’t just online ads and billboards either – GTA 5’s cover art and other promotional images were plastered on trams, buses, the sides of tall buildings and all over cardboard cutouts dominating electronics stores worldwide.
The given brand recognition of the game made such a wide range of marketing even more worth it. Take a very, very casual gamer. Faced with an ad for a new IP or a franchise not widely known outside gamer circles, they’ll just walk past. However, since our subject is familiar with the GTA franchise, but doesn’t follow gaming news, if they are presented with a billboard advertising a new GTA game, they’ll recognize it and consider the purchase.
The marketing campaign backing GTA 5 was immense, but more importantly, it was immensely efficient. It hit all the right targets, and won countless buyers.
3 – Separate the dough into 3 parts, pre-heat 3 separate ovens, and cook the 3 part for different amounts of time. Serve in ~1 year intervals.
This move was the one that was really well executed, and the one which has secured the game’s continued success. While steps one and two together would result in a large success, it was this that ensured the massive levels of unprecedented popularity and sales: the staggered release schedule.
GTA 5 was released across 5 platforms in three waves. Initial launch saw the release of the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions. About a year later, the Xbox One and PS4 editions were released, with improved graphics and a first person mode among other improvements. Yet another year later the game arrived on PC, this time with mod support and the Rockstar Editor.
This release schedule benefited the game in multiple aspects. Firstly, it ensured that a percentages of buyers would become buyers again, as the various versions were upgrades of the former. Though by all means a minority, there is a fraction of GTA 5 players who own, or have owned, all three editions of the game.
Second, the former release boosts the success of the latter. If both the 7th and 8th generation console editions were released simultaneously, not only would have Rockstar lost the second sales for returning players, but they might have also lost a large number of 8th gen players who initially had no interest in the game, but the success of the 7th gen release piqued their interest.
Thirdly, spreading the launch of your game out over the course of three years keeps it new and relevant. Technically, the PC version of the game is but a year old, even though we’re talking about a “three year old game”. Sales, understandably, are highest during launch day and the following week or so. Most games get one “launch spike” in terms of sales, whereas GTA 5 got three.
4 – After you’ve taken it out of the over, add seasoning.
While paid DLC is become more and more of a staple in the AAA sphere, most games don’t change much compared to what they were like upon launch. Some bugs might be fixed and a few missions or maps might be added, but in the end, you’re dealing with the same gameplay structure.
While GTA 5’s single player mode has been neglected in this regard, GTA Online has changed greatly since release. Rockstar’s free DLC model is a major contributor to the game’s success. GTA Online today is pretty much nothing like it was three years ago. Between updates like Heists, Further Adventures in Finance and Felony and Bikers, player activity has changed in the game. The other DLCs constantly changed the racing scene. The methods for acquiring cash in the game are changing with every update.
The game is being kept fresh, which is attracting new players. The DLCs keep the game popping up on the front page of news sites, they keep generating publicity which attracts new players, and they keep current players occupied while also encouraging them to purchase Shark Cards.
And so, your meal is finished. Serve to investors for praise and generous contributions. Thing is, much of what contributed to the success of GTA – the mainstream brand recognition, the highly publicized controversies – just cannot be replicated easily, under normal circumstances. As much as other AAA publishers may want to believe it, unfortunately hitting 70 million sales just isn’t like baking a cake.
What factors do you think were most crucial to GTA 5’s success?
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