Take-Two Interactive Software is a large AAA publisher with two large development studios under its control. One of them, Rockstar Games, developers of GTA 5, release new games relatively rarely and seldom work on more than one project at a time.
The other, 2K is churning games out like crazy. 2K themselves have a few other studios under them, though most of them have been rebranded to be “2K [insert city name here]”. Firaxis is among the best known to retain their name.
2K also happens to be the developer of the Mafia franchise. The Mafia games are set in an alternate version of the United States where locations are based on real cities but given fictitious names. The player controls a character from third-person view and is tasked with performing a number of criminal activities in an open world. Organised crime acts as one of the main themes of the story, there is an emphasis on vehicles and committing criminal acts will increase the player’s wanted level, resulting in NPC police forces chasing them.
Now remove the first sentence of the previous paragraph and replace “Mafia” with “GTA” in the second. Notice anything? Yeah, the two franchises are a tad similar. Granted, currently GTA takes place in a modern setting, but over the course of the series, players have explored various eras and decades. The main thing that differentiated Mafia from Rockstar’s somewhat more popular franchise was its centered focus on the Italian mob, hence the name.
GTA games have always hopped across the country, placing players into the shoes of all kinds of diverse characters. With the exception of Inuits and Native Americans, pretty much every major group has been represented as a playable character in story mode – not to forget there being no women protagonists of course, which is pretty sad if you think about it (though they are playable in GTA Online… and apparently don’t get killed as much). Players took on the roles of street gangsters, immigrants, rich middle-aged white men who have fallen from grace, assistants, leaders of biker gangs, drug addicts and moderately high-ranking members of the dominant crime syndicate of a given region.
On the flipside, Mafia always gave players control of an Italian-American who gets involved with the mob reluctantly – and by “always” we mean “both times”. So there was at least a clear thematic divide. Well, with Mafia III, that goes out the window, since you’re playing as a biracial, part-African-American Vietnam war veteran who is also an orphan and is not affiliated with the Italian mob.
So what is going on here? Well, Mafia III maintains its ties to the franchise by making the titular organisation the main antagonist of the game, showing it to be the dangerous, double crossing syndicate which achieves its goals through murder, extortion and betrayal. The game then tasks the player to set up their own crime syndicate which achieves its goals through murder, extortion and betrayal. But you’re totally the good guys.
Anyway, looking at gameplay trailers for Mafia III will show players that they are dealing with a game very similar to GTA V. Being three years newer, the game also looks marginally better than GTA 5 does on max settings. It is rather odd for a large publisher to have two contesting games in their portfolio, is it not?
Well, we think the reason Take-Two greenlit 2K’s Mafia III project is simple: Strauss Zelnick and his team knows M3 won’t hurt GTA 5 for a number of reasons. With TTWO’s recent earnings report showing that Grand Theft Auto V is still one of the primary sources of income for the company, they would be insane to release a game that could damage those sales.
And while publisher oversight is often brought up as a negative point in AAA development, it is rarely as apparent as it is here. Mafia III is getting tons of hype and was pretty much the only Take-Two property at E3 this year worth mentioning. It’s getting attention, press coverage and a neat collector’s edition.
What it isn’t getting, however, is multiplayer. Now, one of the keys to GTA 5’s longevity is Online. The multiplayer mode is among the most popular AAA online experiences to date, with more than 8 million unique log-ins every week, an avid fan base keeping the publicity going and a booming microtransaction market.
GTA Online is outperforming pretty much every other AAA heavy-hitter. Shark Cards have made well over half a billion in profits, while the microtransactions of Halo 5, for example, are struggling to hit three digits before the million.
Many reasons contribute to the success of GTA Online. Brand recognition, praise, acclaim, marketing, quality, polish, constant free DLC updates. The list goes on, however there is one other core reason: there are no alternatives. Sure, there are a few Grand Theft Auto clones out there, but they either don’t have a multiplayer mode, aren’t popular, or are a functional mess like APB.
Should Mafia III, a newer, better looking and sufficiently hyped game gain a strong multiplayer mode, hardcore gamers might be enticed to move away from GTA Online. Granted, a large percentage of Online’s players are the kind of people who buy CoD and FIFA every year, buy the new GTA whenever it comes out and that’s it.
Most of these people don’t even know Mafia (as in the game franchise) is a thing. However, there is still the large percentage of gamers in the playerbase who also play other games and anticipate new releases. Since gaming is an important hobby for these players, they are also more likely to drop cash on microtransactions than those for whom this is a forgettable pastime.
Take-Two probably shot down the idea of a strong Mafia III multiplayer mode to ensure GTA Online doesn’t bleed players. Of course, they could make it so the mode would be vastly different from Online in mechanics and gameplay, but the reviews would inevitably compare the two games. Straddling M3 with a poor multiplayer mode in order to tick the box but not compete with Online would hurt the game further.
But why would it matter if players switch from one Take-Two game to another? They’re still giving their money to the same company at the end of the day, right? Well, GTA Online is pretty much the foundation on which Take-Two now stands. It is a constant and guaranteed source of income which requires minimal investment. The GTA name also ensures it to be successful.
On the other hand, Mafia III hardly has the same level of brand recognition. It lacks mainstream popularity. Mafia 2 disappeared from Steam some time back and few people took notice, while older GTA games are still being reinstalled all the time. Mafia III’s success isn’t guaranteed. What if Online players switch to Mafia III multiplayer, play for a week or two, and then switch again to some non-Take-Two property?
In spite of being a third installment, having a solid marketing campaign and promising previews, the success of M3 is not guaranteed – not even remotely. Every AAA game is something of a risk these days. Spectacle and flashy graphics are priorities, inflating budgets into colossal figures. Even international hits end up being a net loss. GTA 5 was an exception, primarily due to mainstream popularity.
M3 lacks that mainstream backing and based on the advertised features, the team more than likely required massive funds to develop this game. With success not guaranteed, risking a sure source of income would be a terrible business decision. GTA Online is showing absolutely no sign of slowing down, so there is no point in endangering it.
Of course, there is more to the current standing of the Grand Theft Auto franchise and Online. Earnings show that actual sales of the game are a greater source of income than Shark Cards and many players are still interested in single player experiences. M3’s story mode may have many similarities to GTA from a functional point of view, but that cannot be avoided due to the history of the franchise. Even so, once the players of M3 are finished with the game’s content, they’ll all come flocking back to GTA Online.
Are you interested in Mafia III at all, or is GTA 5 pretty much your only interaction with gaming?
What do you think? Sound off below!