For a gaming studio that owns one of the most successful and lucrative franchises in the world, Rockstar is surprisingly secretive when it comes to PR. Indeed, their rather elusive nature is perhaps at odds with the flamboyance of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, but therein lies part of their undeniably effective marketing strategy. Unlike other well established publisher/developers, Rockstar rarely flaunt their up and coming content or video game development progress, typically preferring to surprise us with sporadic information after long periods of radio silence.
Recently, however, Rockstar has garnered some unwanted publicity after recent reports have revealed the studio has made somewhere in the region of $500,000,000 from Shark Card microtransaction’s featured in Grand Theft Auto 5’s immensely popular online game mode. The inordinate amount of money has caused many gamers to question the ethics behind the system, and also perhaps goes some way to explaining GTA 5’s lack of single player DLC. Financially, singleplayer DLC makes little sense, but only time will tell whether the commercial benefits of GTA online have caused Rockstar to completely abandon the idea of including a narrative story expansion. Though what we can be absolutely certain of, however, is that after making $800,000,000 on the GTA 5’s first day at retail, and going on to sell fifty-seven million copies worldwide, Rockstar are working on a sequel; Grand Theft Auto 6 is coming.
Though we hardly needed confirmation, news that GTA 6 was in preproduction did arrive recently by way of Techradar who had been in communication with an inside source at Rockstar Games. Given that many games, especially ones as large as Grand Theft Auto, are typically in production for many years, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that GTA 6 is already underway. Indeed, a far more interesting outcome of Techradar’s report was that Rocker had previously considered Tokyo as a location for a Grand Theft Auto title during the PlayStation 2 era, and that a locale for GTA 6 had not yet been settled upon. According to their source, the original Tokyo project was cancelled after the team had decided the city’s unusual road design wasn’t suitable for high-speed driving and car chase sequences. Moreover, quite apart from problems with the city’s infrastructure, Rockstar were also reportedly off put by an inability to effectively convey the Japanese culture, and that maybe goes some way to eluding why a change in location for the game could prove hugely problematic for the Grand Theft Auto series.
The news has caused a stir among the gaming community, with many open to a change in location for the next instalment in the series. While there is arguably a case that a move to a more exotic location would help to breathe new life into the series, it’s also worth considering the core of what has made GTA so popular over the years. Rather than the actual urban setting of its sandbox, what has differentiated the Grand Theft Auto series from other open world games is Rockstar’s superb ability to make satirical observations of western capitalist life, to ridicule societies obsession with material wealth, and illustrate the lunacies of first world problems.There are so many distasteful aspects to society that we have grown accustomed too, and GTA does such a fantastic job of highlighting these through its satirical dark comedy. Narcissism, greed, corruption; nowhere are these values typified more vividly than in the USA, a nation defined by its pop culture and consumerist society. Especially in sprawling metropolis’ such as Los Angeles, Rockstar’s exaggerated version of commercial culture seems so appropriate and so believable.
What has always been so charming about Grand Theft Auto games is the manner in which they are able to transcend tough social issues such as racism, poverty and drug abuse, while maintaining a tone that isn’t overly bleak throughout. It is black comedy at its finest; a concept that was particularly well executed in GTA 5, in which each of its three protagonists, all violent criminals, were instantly recognisable as characters from familiar American pop culture. There was Michael De Santa, the wealthy retired bank robber whose wife was sleeping with her tennis coach; Franklin Clinton, the African American who dreams of leaving the hood and making it big time, and Trevor Philips, the mentally unstable criminal. It’s this relatability to both the characters and the oddities of modern culture that is inherently part of GTA’s DNA, and what has helped to give the franchise its ambience.
It’s understandable why there is an interest in changing location to a foreign setting. Certainly, the notion of exploring a giant exotic city sounds appealing, but would a GTA 6 set in Tokyo, Hong Kong or Paris capture the essence of what has made series so unique? At one time, perhaps after GTA 3 moved the game forward with its breath-taking switch to fully 3D rendered cities, did the notion of exploring photo-realistic recreations of metropolis feel as though that was at the forefront of the franchise appeal. But we’ve experienced bland sandboxes before, and to make an environment feel alive it requires far more than just aesthetic. Watch Dogs recreation of Chicago epitomises that sentiment absolutely; it’s uninteresting urban environment failing to accurately convey the nuances and identity of the city.
A change in Grand Theft Auto’s location to somewhere outside of the USA, and an attempt to describe a foreign Mafioso faction could just end up feeling like another Sleeping Dogs or Yakuza. The caricatural gun slinging, car stealing, and get rich or die trying themes of GTA are best kept Stateside. We shouldn’t lose sight of what has made the GTA series so adored; its whimsical and satirical portrayal of everything that is so inherent to modern American pop culture. In the end, it is that aspect to GTA that has resonated with gamers on a far deeper level than the glamour of its location or the scope of its role-playing mechanics.