This summer’s movie blockbusters will feature familiar heroes such as Indiana Jones and Batman. But don’t be surprised if a brutal bad guy named Niko Bellic outperforms them all.
Bellic is the anti-hero of Grand Theft Auto IV, the latest chapter of the massively popular and controversial video game series. And there’s a good chance that as the $60 (Rs2,406) game hits store shelves on Tuesday, it could generate more than $300 million in sales in its first 24 hours—a far better one-day take than any movie in history.
Microsoft Corp.’s science fiction adventure game, Halo 3, set the record last year, with sales of $170 million on its first day. “This could double that,” said Billy Pidgeon, gaming industry analyst for IDC Corp. in New York.
Expect double the controversy, too: The Grand Theft Auto, or GTA, series has sparked international outrage over its cheerful depictions of drug dealing, prostitution and murder. Developer Rockstar Games has already been forced by the Australian government to remove some explicit scenes before the game’s release Down Under.
The GTA games are famous for their engaging dialogue and lavishly detailed urban landscapes. While most adventure games force the player down a tightly scripted series of incidents, GTA players can break away from the main storyline and strike out on their own. “You can go off and interact with anyone and anything in the universe,” said Pidgeon. “You don’t have to follow a story path.”
Philip Tan, executive director of the GAMBIT Game Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said millions who’ve grown accustomed to computers and the Internet are hungry for complex, interactive amusements that only a computer game can provide. “Being able to create an artificial world...that’s extremely compelling to an audience that’s comfortable with that technology,” said Tan. “I think it’s just the most compelling medium we currently have.”
While other interactive games immerse players in futuristic or medieval fantasy worlds, the GTA games serve up grim slices of present day reality. GTA IV takes place in Liberty City, a thinly disguised version of New York. Bellic, a newly arrived immigrant from Eastern Europe, discovers that the streets aren’t paved with gold; to pay the bills, he takes up a life of crime.
Rockstar has a tradition of outraging authority. One of its games, Manhunt 2, has been banned in Britain, Germany, Italy and Ireland for extreme violence. A previous GTA title, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, was pulled from store shelves worldwide after it was disclosed that the game contained an explicit sex scene.
The incident stoked efforts to ban retailers from selling video games with adult content to people under age 17. However, courts in several US states, including California and Oklahoma, have struck down such laws, finding them violating the First Amendment. That fact hasn’t deterred Boston mayor Thomas Menino, who backs the passage of a similar law in Massachusetts. “Parents basically need help keeping this stuff from their kids,” said Larry Mayes, Boston’s chief of human services.
But Pidgeon said the GTA games have a lot more going for them than relentless brutality. “Not only does it have that violence that hard core gamers do like, but it’s also a very good game,” he said.
Earlier GTA titles have sold 30 million copies in the US alone, according to the market research firm NPD Group. But most of these games were designed to run on Sony Corp.’s popular PlayStation 2, or PS2, game console. GTA IV is designed for more powerful next-generation gaming consoles and won’t be available on the PS2. Gamers will need either the more expensive PlayStation 3 or Microsoft’s Xbox 360.
Michael Pachter, gaming industry analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities Inc. in Los Angeles, said this will limit the potential sales of the new game: There are more than 100 million PS2 consoles in use worldwide, but only 18 million Xbox 360s and 11 million PS3s.
But Pachter said the new game will likely lead to a surge in PS3 sales as loyal GTA players upgrade. “This is the first game that a PS2 owner is going to see that really makes them want to upgrade to a PS3,” Pachter said.
He predicted that GTA IV will sell 18 million copies over the next two years. That would generate sales of more than$1 billion.
Sony officials hope GTA IV will help the PS3 catch up with the Microsoft machine. “GTA is a great franchise, and it’s one that grew up and was built on the PS2,” said Peter Dille, senior vice-president for PlayStation marketing. “We’re pretty confident that a lot of these guys will maintain their PlayStation loyalty.”
The debut of GTA IV also comes at a critical time for Take-Two Interactive Software Inc., Rockstar’s parent firm. Electronic Arts Inc., the giant game maker best known for titles such as the National Football League game Madden, has offered to acquire Take-Two in a deal valued at $2.1 billion. But Take-Two executives have rebuffed the offer, saying their company is worth much more. A spectacular success for GTA IV could prove them right.
©2008 The Boston Globe