There’s a good chance you’ve heard about a little game called Grand Theft Auto 5. After all, the game has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide, not accounting for digital sales. Either your kid plays it, a friend plays it, or you yourself hop into the virtual world of Los Santos for an hour or two after work once in a while. GTA 5 is the best selling non-bundled game of all time.
How does a game become so popular?
If you’re not familiar with the Grand Theft Auto franchise, the basic rundown is this: Since 1997, the open-world games have focused on players acquiring money through criminal acts, with vehicles playing a major role in gameplay. As of GTA 3, the first 3D installment in the franchise, the games have also had a narrative focus, telling complex stories with several unique characters.
Quality, controversy, and good marketing have contributed to GTA’s sales, but I think the most important factor in GTA’s success has been the turn of the console cycle.
Video game consoles are grouped into generations, with each gen typically containing one console from each major manufacturer. GTA 5 was released near the end of the 7th generation, which included the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, among others. Initially, the game was only available on these two platforms—not on PC.
However, soon after the game was released, the 8th generation consoles—the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One—arrived on the market. GTA 5 was re-released a year after initial launch for these platforms as well. It wasn’t until another year later that the series returned to its native platform, the PC. The 8th generation and PC versions brought with them a first-person mode, increased capacity in online game lobbies, continued DLC support, better graphics, and additional cheat codes, among other improvements.
The way sales cycles of AAA games work is that launch day sees the biggest amount of sales, with the first week being comparatively high, but these sales are followed by a sharp dip. Sales drop even more until they level at a low number until the end of the game’s commercial availability. These launch spikes usually account for the vast majority of sales.
In an exception to a rule previously thought to be universal, GTA 5 sold more copies in 2016 than in 2015, and more in 2015 than in 2014. The launch year of 2013 still saw the most sales, but instead of a constant downward slope, after the initial drop the sales curve angled upwards. In fact, the sales numbers of GTA 5 are still trending upward.
Additionally, GTA’s developer, Rockstar Games, manages to keep GTA Online, the game’s multiplayer component, in the news. The game is kept relevant and fresh with a constant stream of new downloadable content available to all players absolutely free. This way anyone who is on the fence is getting constant nudges towards buying the game, as the content perpetually increases. Additionally, as one of the most played multiplayer games, word of mouth helps drive sales.
Of course, the game’s massive marketing campaign didn’t hurt sales either. GTA 5 was one of the most expensive games to create, with a budget of $265 million. The thing is, approximately half of that was reportedly spent on marketing, which showed—all across the world there were billboards, liveries on the side of public transport, massive ads painted on the sides of buildings, and GTA 5 ads on every gaming site.
GTA 5’s success relied on many factors, so it is unlikely to be replicated at any point in the future. If there ever happens to be a game that one-ups GTA 5, we’re guessing it’s going to be called Grand Theft Auto 6.