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GTA makes a run for gaming’s triple crown — and will likely achieve it

Grand Theft Auto V was the bestselling game on the PlayStation 3. It was also the bestselling game for the PlayStation 4. And, as improbable as it might seem, it could top the PlayStation 5 when all is said and done.

Sony’s decision to lead off its PS5 unveiling with a seven-year-old game baffled some people. Why show off the future by spotlighting the past? The simple answer is: In this case, the past was (and still is) just too big to ignore.

GTA V is not only the bestselling game of all time, it’s the highest-grossing entertainment property. And thanks to the robust addition of GTA Online, it’s a title that continues to evolve and attract players.

“It’s by no means a traditional game,” says P.J. McNealy, CEO of Digital World Research. “This is the new world for mega franchises. This is reliable revenue on an ongoing basis with in-game purchases, and it’s a vibrant world that every other developer wishes they’d developed.”

GTA V started as a single-player game and that component is still a popular part of the game, but the growth of GTA Online has transformed the franchise into something that’s more akin to Fortnite, a multiplayer title that constantly evolves and offers all sorts of ways for players to explore (and spend).

Including the remastered/expanded version of GTA V on the PS5 (and, without doubt, on the Xbox Series X) was, in many ways, a given. Hardcore gamers — the whales of the industry — will be the first to buy new consoles, and Rockstar Games and Take-Two Interactive Software wanted to be sure they could still easily play GTA Online.

“Take-Two wants to migrate those players over to the new consoles, because they know that over time, the number of players on the PS4 and Xbox One is going to shrink, so they need to get people moved over to the PS5 as early as possible,” says Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners.

The bigger question is: How will Rockstar and Take-Two drive new players to the game? In May, the Premium Edition of GTA V was given away for free on the Epic Games Store, with demand so strong that it overwhelmed the servers. Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Take-Two told Digital Trends in May that he believed it was a blend of current owners and newcomers to the franchise who took advantage of that offer.

McNealy says he expects the publisher to move more toward giving away the game to help build the GTA Online audience. Handler, though, notes that the PS5 offer for a free stand-alone version of GTA Online is only a three-month promotion. What happens beyond that is still to be determined. It’s certainly possible that players will be required to buy a copy of the base game to continue playing — something that might annoy some players, but if they’re emotionally invested in the game at that point after three months, something they’ll do.

Handler also says a remaster of Red Dead Redemption 2 is likely on the way as well.

“As Take-Two wants to keep its GTA Online game an evergreen property it would seem logical to assume the same scenario holds true for Red Dead Online,” he says.

The other big question: Is all of this GTA V activity the start of a slow-burn marketing campaign for Grand Theft Auto VI? Rockstar, per usual, has been silent about its next project, though it’s widely assumed to be the next installment in the series.

If that’s true, Handler says it won’t be out anytime soon. Launching a title that big — and that critical to the publisher’s financial health — isn’t something a third-party game maker would do at a system’s launch.

“I think the next installment in the series is being worked on,” he says. “But you’re not going put it out when the installed base of the next-gen consoles is so low. You want to get a critical mass so you can sell 20 million copies.”

McNealy, though, says he doubts Rockstar will release a sixth stand-alone version of the series — or, if so, no time soon.

“You can keep iterating the GTA V base for quite a while and it’s highly profitable,” he says. “The economics are just different today. … Call of Duty has been measured as a franchise as something that can generate over $1 billion in the first month of its release. But GTA has changed the thinking of how valuable a franchise can be as a service instead of just as a seasonal game or annual franchise.”

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