Grand Theft Auto's back, but 16 years on, has it hit skid row?
It is among the biggest, baddest video game franchises of all time, with more than 130 million copies shifted in its 16-year history. Now the world is braced for a new onslaught of Grand Theft Auto mania as the fifth instalment in the violent and irreverent series is unleashed next week.
Online pre-orders for Grand Theft Auto V – a gleefully OTT crime romp set in a cartoon Los Angeles – have surpassed three million, while gaming stores globally (including GameStop in Ireland) are marking the launch with midnight openings on Tuesday. Some industry pundits predict the title will generate sales of $1bn (€0.75bn) by Christmas, dwarfing all but the most successful Hollywood blockbusters.
Rockstar, the studio behind Grand Theft Auto, will hope such forecasts are accurate. Half a decade in the planning Grand Theft Auto V is, by a very great distance, the costliest video game to date, its budget topping $265m. Adjusted for inflation it is more expensive than any movie ever made with the exception of the $300m Pirates of the Caribbean III. If Grand Theft Auto flops – or even under-performs – there's going to be a lot of weeping and gnashing of control paddles.
That it is even possible to express doubt over GTA V having the same impact as its predecessors speaks to systemic changes sweeping gaming.
Through Grand Theft Auto's glory years of the 2000s, the video console was king. If you were serious about games you owned a Playstation or Xbox (possibly both); 'mobile' gaming meant flickery black and white dreck such as Nokia's notorious 'snake' puzzler.
In the age of the iPad and the smartphone that is assuredly no longer the case and it can be argued that the heyday of old-school video-game blockbusters such as Grand Theft Auto is drawing to a close. In 2013 gaming's superstars are the quirky, lightweight likes of Angry Birds (1.7 billion downloads since 2011). Hollywood-style blockbusters increasingly resemble relics from a bygone era.
Regardless of how the latest GTA performs, nobody questions that the console business is at a cross-roads. For manufacturers such as Microsoft and Sony the figures make for an eye-watering read. A recent survey by the American market research group NPD found that 64pc of teenagers played games on smartphones or tablets, an eight-fold jump on 2009. That's just 3pc behind the total for consoles and computers, indicating 'traditional' gaming may be about to enter a period of eclipse and decline.
"More people will use mobile devices for their primary gaming activity," tech analyst Horace Dediu told Business Week recently.
Certainly, console gaming is no longer a young person's hobby. A study in July suggested the average age of a video game player in the UK is 35. From one perspective that's encouraging for publishers as people in their 30s tend to have greater disposable income than teens.
On the other hand does anyone seriously believe middle-aged gamers will still be crouched over a console in 10 or 15 years?
Even if the new GTA resists the trend, it is unlikely to have the impact of its predecessors, it is argued. Quite simply, the series' mix of edgy humour and self- parodying violence is now old hat.
"I think the impact of each successive Grand Theft Auto has been a little smaller than the last," says Kyle Orland, of the gaming website Ars Technica. "Grand Theft Auto III stood out for being one of the first major implementations of a 3D open world. By the time its successors came around, many others had emulated the formula.
"While Grand Theft Auto has successfully advanced things with each game, it's hard to match the sheer industry-changing impact of the [latest] entry in the series."