Nearly five years after “Grand Theft Auto 5” first launched, the game continues to quietly dominate. As of late June, nearly 100 million copies have been sold.
It’s the third best-selling game of all time, just below “Tetris” and “Minecraft.” That’s because it keeps selling — “GTA 5” has been on the top 20 best-selling games in the US every month since it launched, barring a single month where it dropped to number 21.
And the studio that made “GTA 5,” Rockstar Games, is on the verge of releasing a brand new game: “Red Dead Redemption 2.”
It’s for these reasons, broadly speaking, that we’re likely still years away from the next entry in the “Grand Theft Auto” series.
But, as you might expect, it’s much more complicated than that.
1. “GTA 5” keeps selling.
Games like “Grand Theft Auto 5” — third-person, story-driven, open-world action games — don’t usually enjoy sales performance like “GTA 5” does. Most games in general don’t enjoy the type of sales performance of a title like “GTA 5.”
It is an anomaly, statistically speaking. “Its performance is just other worldly,” The NPD Group’s Mat Piscatella told me in a recent email; NPD tracks game sales data in the United States. “No other title comes anywhere near close.”
Since “GTA 5” went on sale in September 2013, it has appeared in the top 20 best-selling games list 57 out of 58 times. “The only time it didn’t was October 2014 when it hit at #21,” Piscatella said.
Simply put: Why release a new “GTA” when the last one is still selling so well?
In fact, Rockstar Games re-issued “GTA 5” in a “Premium Edition” earlier this year. It comes with additional content and a bunch of virtual money to use in “GTA Online” — the massively popular online component of “GTA 5.”
2. “GTA Online” is very popular.
Speaking of, “GTA Online” is quite popular. It’s not clear exactly how popular it is, as Rockstar Games doesn’t release player numbers. When we asked, representatives declined to answer.
Here’s what we do know about how popular it is: Rockstar Games said in January that “GTA Online” had more players in December 2017 than any previous time. Which is to say that more and more people are playing “GTA Online” over time.
It’s not surprising, either. With 100 million copies sold, that means that even if only 1% of buyers are playing “GTA Online,” that’s still a million people. And given Rockstar’s previous comments on player growth, we can assume that it’s probably much more than 1%.
We also know that it’s popular enough that Rockstar keeps making major additions — and those additions aren’t cheap to make.
Part of what makes “GTA Online” so alluring is it takes the open world of the offline game and turns it into a multiplayer playground. You can take on heists with friends, or go racing around San Andreas, or become a business magnate.
Better still: It costs nothing to play other than the initial price of the game. There are virtual items and bonuses you can buy within “GTA Online,” but it’s otherwise an infinite extension of an already massive open-world game.
3. It doesn’t make sense to release a new “GTA” game anywhere near “Red Dead Redemption 2” because it could hurt sales of both.
Games like “Grand Theft Auto 5” are rare.
Not just open-world, third-person action games — there are lots of those every year — but games with massive worlds brimming with possibility. Those games tend to be beloved. I’m talking about stuff like “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” or “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.” The kind of games where players spend hundreds of hours exploring, long after the main story has ended, just for the thrill of it.
These are also the games that sell huge, record-setting numbers. They break out of the “core” gaming audience and enter the mainstream. And they sell for years.
But there can only be so many of those games. They are the exceptions — mainstream audiences will only buy so many games, and even the most hardcore players don’t have time to focus on multiple massive open-world games.
In so many words: Putting out a second massive open-world game in “GTA 6” anywhere near the release of “Red Dead Redemption 2” would be a mistake.
It could limit both games as people chose one or the other, or fell off of the first one to pick up the second, or simply skipped the first for the latter. If history is any indication, Rockstar intends to continue selling “Red Dead Redemption 2” long after its initial launch in October.