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Technology

Grand Theft Auto creator Rockstar thrives by breaking the law

Grand Theft Auto creator Rockstar thrives by breaking the law
This publicity photo released by Rockstar Games shows a screen shot from the video game, "Grand Theft Auto V." (AP Photo/Rockstar Games)
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Rockstar Games doesn't play by the rules.

Not that anyone would expect the creators of the massively successful "Grand Theft Auto" franchise to operate like other game designers. And while that's created an undeniable mystique around this week's release of "Grand Theft Auto V," it's also raised some questions.

Q: Why now?

Sony and Microsoft are about two months away from unleashing powerful new game consoles. And yet, the biggest release of the holiday season has been designed for their aging workhorses, the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360.

Rockstar Vice President — and "GTA V" writer — Dan Houser says the old consoles are perfectly capable of delivering his team's vision. "The fact that hardware's so mature right now is exactly why we're able to go on to the next level," he told Japan's Famitsu magazine last year.

Besides, he added, "All the best games for a console come out at the end of the life cycle, right?" And in a year that's featured stunners like "BioShock Infinite," ''The Last of Us" and "Tomb Raider," he has a point.

The other advantage for Rockstar is the huge combined user base of the PS3 and Xbox 360, which translates into much bigger sales than "GTA V" would rack up among the new consoles' early adopters.

"The demand for (new) consoles appears to be very strong," said GameStop CEO Paul Raines, "but I think 'GTA' is a separate animal — and we will sell a lot of copies of 'GTA V.'"

On the other hand: Won't the absence of "GTA V" hurt sales of the forthcoming PlayStation 4 and Xbox One?

"People are going to buy new consoles because they're ready for a new console," said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. "They're not going to say, 'Oh, "GTA V" isn't on it? I'm not buying it.' Nobody is going to buy a new console just to play one game — and no one game is going to keep them from buying a new console."

Q: So what's new here?

Rockstar doesn't participate in the kind of public relations that typically accompany a big-budget video game. It didn't show "GTA V" at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the annual convention where all the big publishers compete for attention. Instead of a steady flow of previews across every tech news site on the Web, Rockstar has carefully parceled out a screenshot here, an in-game video there. Many critics — even at some huge gaming sites — found themselves frozen out of review copies.

Most gamers, then, won't know what's in "GTA V" until they play it. It's set in the sprawling city and outlying areas of Los Santos, Rockstar's tongue-in-cheek take on Los Angeles. The developers have boasted that the game's virtual footprint is larger than all previous editions of "GTA" combined. Instead of one protagonist, players switch between three criminals: veteran Michael, twisted Trevor and newbie Franklin.

Expect plenty of the franchise's two cornerstones: driving recklessly and killing frequently. Beyond the usual mayhem, you can also play golf and tennis or invest in the stock market. Houser has said it's 100 hours long.

The game will also feature "Grand Theft Auto Online," a separate multiplayer experience.

Q: Wait ... online?

"Grand Theft Auto Online" is far more ambitious than anything Rockstar has tried in the past. The company describes it as "a dynamic and persistent online world for 16 players that begins by sharing gameplay features, geography and mechanics with 'Grand Theft Auto V,' but will continue to expand and evolve after its launch." Rockstar is promising a steady diet of missions, solo and team-based, as well as the ability for "GTA" fans to create their own missions.

The bad news: It doesn't launch until Oct. 1. The good news: It will be free — to anyone who buys "GTA V," of course.

Q: But will it sell?

Of course it will.

"Grand Theft Auto IV," the previous full-fledged "GTA" installment for consoles, shattered entertainment industry records, selling 6 million copies and earning $500 million in sales its first week of release in 2008. That record was later captured by "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" and each subsequent "Call of Duty" launched over the past four years.

"We've had very strong triple-A competitors every single year we've released a 'Call of Duty' game," said Eric Hirshberg, CEO of "Call of Duty" publisher Activision, when asked about "GTA V." ''This year is no different. Maybe the competition is more intense this year than usual, but if we put out a great game, our fans will appreciate it."

A widely circulated report from The Scotsman newspaper estimated that the development and marketing of "GTA V" cost £170 million (or about $265 million). Pachter believes the game's actual cost outside of marketing is more like $100 million.

Whatever the number, Rockstar and Take-Two will surely surpass the success of "GTA IV," which sold 25 million copies. Pachter expects 15 million to 18 million copies sold by the end of the year.

"It's a juggernaut," said GameStop's Raines. "It's a beast."
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