Screenshot from Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto V. Rockstar Games
The demand for Grand Theft Auto 5, which launched on Tuesday, has been so high that one analyst has predicted the videogame will pull in $1 billion US in sales in the first month alone.
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But GTA is more than just a lucrative franchise. Tech experts says it has changed people's perceptions of videogames and their audience, and had a transforming effect on the gaming industry itself.
"What Grand Theft Auto did was helped establish how sophisticated games could be — that they weren't just for teenage males," says Scott Steinberg, a strategic innovation consultant at TechSavvy Global.
As a result, the series helped "the industry to mature into the large, sprawling and much more sophisticated business that it is today."
Developed by U.K.-based RockStar Games, this often violent series puts players in a number of fictional locales based on American cities. The objective of the game is open-ended: gamers have the option of stealing and driving cars, or committing more cunning felonies in an effort to move up in the criminal underworld.
Since the first instalment in 1997, the series has sold over 125 million units, and each new title has been more visually and narratively arresting than its predecessor.
As the series has progressed, the developers have used movie actors such as Samuel L. Jackson and Dennis Hopper to voice the characters, and music by artists such as Phil Collins and Kanye West to enhance the aural mood.
As a result, the Grand Theft Auto games have come closer than any other video game to matching a "Hollywood-style production," says Steven Butts, editor in chief for gaming site IGN.com.
Stephen Totilo, a writer and reviewer for the gaming website Kotaku, calls Grand Theft Auto 5 "an incredible feat of engineering." It is such an immersive, cinematic experience, he says, that when you park a car in the game, "you can hear the rattle of the engine cooling."
Grand Theft Auto's film-like atmosphere helped make it a breakout hit among people who didn't ordinarily gravitate to video games, says Steinberg.
The original Grand Theft Auto was "one of the first titles, like Tomb Raider and Call of Duty, that helped introduce millions of players to the videogame universe and made it less of a cultural stigma to be a quote-unquote gamer," he says.
While the series has enjoyed phenomenal sales, it has also received negative press for seeming to glorify anti-social behaviour — players are allowed, if not encouraged, to maim and kill any character that stands in the way of their progress.
But as Totilo points out, another one of its draws is allowing players to indulge their inner gangster.
"GTA was ahead of the curve, because it embraced the villainous protagonist, the socially reprehensible protagonist, earlier than a lot of current TV shows," says Totilo, referring to cable series such as The Sopranos or Breaking Bad.
What's more, as the GTA series progressed, the navigation has become increasingly sophisticated. Totilo says Grand Theft Auto 3 (2001) is seen by many as a technical game-changer.
Through the introduction of a 3D game engine, an enhanced interface and "side missions," GTA3 gave players unprecedented choice in how they could explore the environments.
A user could either follow the storyline, or while away their time committing casual crimes to see how long it took for the cops to show up.
"It's a game that afforded players more liberty than just about any game before it," says Totilo.
As a result, other game publishers felt the need to replicate that style of play.
"There are a lot of games that have followed the model that RockStar established with Grand Theft Auto 3, and iterate on that same basic design, of that open-world game with shooting and driving game-play, go-anywhere, do-anything-type propositions," says Butts.
Like its predecessors, Grand Theft Auto 5 takes videogame storytelling to a new level, Totilo says.
This time out, the player controls three different characters — Michael, Trevor and Franklin — who eventually come together to execute a series of daring heists.
"You're playing three games at once and basically creating an interactive ensemble TV drama," says Totilo. "You can hop from one character to the next. I've not experienced anything like this in an interactive form before."
The early reviews for GTA5 have been ecstatic; the headline for the review in Wired said "Grand Theft Auto V Blows All Other GTAs Away."
If history is any measure, Butts says the new GTA will inspire other publishers to step up their game. In the meantime, he says the series has left a "psychic footprint" on the culture at large, he says.
"A lot of people [who make] games are hungry for games to be seen as analogous to movies. Now, I don't particularly care for that comparison, but I will say that Grand Theft Auto has made some progressions in that area."
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