Rockstar Games’s wildly successful Grand Theft Auto franchise is set to make its return with GTA VI in 2025. It may not only succeed – but blow its predecessor’s revenue out of the water.
It’s been condemned by Britain, Germany and France. It’s been outright banned in Brazil. Its violence and vehicular mayhem has drawn the ire of organisations including the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the UK’s Freedom from Torture organisation. It’s also spawned memes and a singular cult fandom.
This subject of both controversy and culture – Grand Theft Auto – is expected to make its return in 2025 with Grand Theft Auto VI, widely known as GTA 6. It’s the first release of the game since 2013 – and to call it “wildly anticipated” in its community is a great understatement.
Regardless of whether you feel the game represents the worst of digital humanity, or herald its bold creativity and innovation, GTA is a pop-culture force nearly impossible to ignore.
When the long-anticipated first GTA 6 trailer leaked online in early December, the surge of excitement forced developer Rockstar Games to release the official version of the trailer earlier than planned (with the game seemingly headed for a 2025 release, the prevailing notion was that fans wouldn’t get that sneak peek until sometime in 2024 at the earliest).
The teaser got huge views, dominated conversation and signalled what could be a massive pay-out for Rockstar Games as well as the companies the enable game-play, such as hardware developers and retailers.
GTA is already a wildly financially successful franchise. This year, Take-Two Interactive, the parent company of Rockstar Games, revealed that Grand Theft Auto V has sold more than 190 million copies as of September 2023, bringing the whole franchise up to 410 million units sold and a net revenue of $781m (£623m). These figures include sales of the game across multiple platforms and consoles, remastered re-releases and in-game purchases. All told, the franchise has earned more than $8bn (£6.4bn) since 2008.
Expectations are high for GTA 6, not only for its graphics and playability, but also for its business potential. Grand Theft Auto V holds claim to the best opening week sales in video-game history, earning $1.15bn (£1.2bn) in just five days.
Yet despite this extremely high bar, Dmitri Williams, a gaming business expert and professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communications, in California, expects the new release to perform even better.
‘A bigger pie’
The value of the video game industry is staggering. By the end of 2023, experts project revenues to reach $250bn (£199bn).
The popularity of esports and free-to-play games that generate massive revenue through in-game purchases and licensing partnerships plays a big role in the astounding financial footprint; as has the introduction of other blockbuster titles, which have also broadened the market.
The film and television industries have also cashed in on gaming’s cult fandom through licensing. HBO’s The Last of Us series (based on the 2013 Sony game) pulled in more than 4.7 million viewers for its premiere alone; while the Super Mario Brothers Movie grossed $1.36bn (£1.08bn) worldwide, in addition to scoring three Golden Globe nominations – boosting Nintendo’s profits to more than $1bn (£800m) for 2023.
This overall global industry growth stands to boost GTA 6’s revenue potential once it hits the market, says Williams.
“The brand is as strong or stronger than it was before, but additionally the game industry is larger. If it maintains the same slice of the pie, it’s going to be big, because it will come from a bigger pie,” he says. “The games industry is simply massive globally, and is no single genre or platform. It’s so large and so varied that even fractions of it are larger than whole parallel industries like movies.”
Big spending for a big pay-out
Experts identify the release of 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III as a turning point for the game’s massive popularity. Video-game development grew by leaps and bounds from the late 90s through the early 2000s. Those improvements were on display with GTA 3’s innovative and ground-breaking game-play, which propelled it from a novelty to an absolute must play.
Rather than following a linear storyline or trajectory, players could spend hours simply wandering around and exploring the world within the game. Now, this is more the norm, with nearly all major games built within a free-form, open world – but at the time, GTA’s approach was a huge innovation.
Creating this ground-breaking type of game has been expensive for Rockstar Games. At the time of its development, GTA 5 was one of the most expensive games ever made, with a budget of $265m (£212m). Of course, the price tag went on to be plenty worth it, accounting for that $8bn it’s made since.
For as expensive as Grand Theft Auto V was to create, game-industry analysts are betting that Rockstar Games is going in even bigger this time around. Some speculate the total cost of development and marketing for GTA 6 could be in the $2bn (£1.6bn) range. If that pans out, it’d be it the most expensive video game of all time. But yet again, the eye-watering development cost could also be a savvy investment – industry pundits expect GTA 6 to clear $1bn in its first 24 hours.
The fact that fans have been waiting more than a decade for a new version may be a key driver to help Rockstar Games achieve these sales. But experts say the game’s repellent-to-some content may also be a key revenue driver for Grand Theft Auto.
In the past, outrage around the franchise has been good PR and marketing that’s converted curiosity into fandom – and fandom into sales. If the company pushes the shock-factor envelope with GTA 6 – effectively dousing past versions with gasoline and lighting them on fire – sales could spike.
Williams says although the Grand Theft Auto franchise is no longer unique in its style of game play, “the buzz and shock value will continue to be a key part of its appeal”.
There are a few pieces of the puzzle, however, that may limit GTA 6’s big pay-day potential.
First, Williams believes the gaming industry at large is no longer as reliant on singular blockbuster titles than in the past. “We tend to focus on splashy games like GTA, but the industry is much larger and more varied now, with vastly more players on their phones than on a traditional console,” he says. So, although industry analysts expect a big splash upon release, their predictions may be calibrated to a market that’s since evolved.
Additionally, it remains to be seen how many players will own or adopt the hardware the game requires. In 2013, Grand Theft Auto V was able to straddle console generations, releasing versions for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One (and later, remastered versions for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S), which helped it reach a substantial audience. Grand Theft Auto VI will only be available for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S.
Adoption of these next-gen consoles has been slower than in the past. For one, Sony experienced massive stock shortages and shipping delays exacerbated by the pandemic. Plus, both consoles weren’t the kinds of massive leaps forward that might drive people to upgrade their hardware; the improvements were largely received as more incremental than mind-blowing.
Yet despite these factors, signs appear to be in Rockstar Games’s favour.
Sony, for one, has seen a huge uptick in sales for the PS5 lately. Not only has it resolved the logistical problems, but the recent success of Spider-Man 2 has also driven consumers to upgrade (Spider-Man 2 was also a PS5 exclusive). This could be a signal that Grand Theft Auto VI will drive those who have been hesitant or unable to adopt next-gen consoles to finally take the leap.
Ultimately, the Grand Theft Auto franchise’s combination of fandom and notoriety – in addition to the full decade of anticipation that has been building for the next instalment – seems poised to make Part 6 not only successful, but even the kind of release that dramatically changes the game industry.