Market Insight

Grand Theft Auto's biggest forthcoming challenge

April 02, 2020

Steve Bailey Steve Bailey Principal Senior Analyst, Games

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Rockstar Games, the developer behind the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series, has seen some high-level staff departures, leading some to question the future of the series. But there’s a bigger matter that’s been looming for the franchise, in particular the follow up to GTA 5: Just where does GTA: Online position itself in relation to the next main entry into the series, aka GTA 6?

GTA 5 has remained a chart-topping sales proposition for the whole of the past console generation, a span of over six years. This is thanks in part to GTA: Online, the online-multiplayer portion of the package that’s only accessible through buying the main game. GTA: Online is regularly expanded and updated and drives the long-term engagement for GTA 5 as a combined package. Moreover, GTA: Online features scope for repeat purchasing in the form of virtual currency, realised via numerous add-ons and bundles that take in a wide range of value (some in excess of $100). This sophistication of commercial positioning has allowed the game to implement regular, deep discounting on console stores over the past two years, driving visibility, engagement and revenue.

Offering GTA 5 and GTA: Online as a conjoined packaged has been a success but creates a continuity problem: GTA Online is thriving, but GTA 5 will soon need to be superseded if the franchise is going to retain its prominence and set the agenda for incoming hardware generation.

If it runs GTA: Online as a separate, ongoing concern, then GTA 6’s presence will likely feel curtailed, and will struggle to match the sales volumes achieved by its predecessor. If it attempts to keep GTA: Online bundled as is, does this limit just how much of a leap GTA 6 may feel to be, in order to keep development of the two in line? Or does Rockstar launch a whole new ‘GTA Online 2’ as part of GTA 6, then face the challenge of transitioning its audience across?

We think that the lattermost suggestion is the most likely to happen. The company is in strong enough position to weather the short-term challenges, and the long-term upside of achieving a similar presence is a lucrative indeed. Not many franchises are in a position to even attempt this.

Still, managing continuity between two ‘live’ games is something unproven for Rockstar, and could be fraught. Competition for player attention from connected, service-led experiences on console is greater than ever, so any missteps here could be much more punishing than they were a generation ago.

The single-player experience has always led what GTA means, but perhaps that era is coming to an end. The internal tension at Rockstar on whether the single-player or online version of GTA should lead development, must be significant. It’s a clash of paradigms that’s leading as much to a new Rockstar Games as a new Grand Theft Auto, and could be the backdrop for some senior staff departures.

It’s a tussle that many games companies (of all different types) have gone through, over the past 15 years. But few of them have been so singularly tied to such an enormous IP, that’s accompanied by such huge weight of expectation.

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