The run-up to "Grand Theft Auto IV" has been considerably less ballyhooed than last year's over-the-top "Halo 3" debut. Yet when "GTA IV" parks on store shelves on April 29, the latest entry in the controversial video game franchise could be the most lucrative launch in entertainment history - and one that many people may not even know about.
Analysts predict Take-Two Interactive Software and Rockstar Games' open-world, action-driving game will easily top last year's record-breaking $300 million first-week sales of Microsoft and Bungee Studios' first-person shooter "Halo 3" - and without a similar marketing bonanza.
"Rockstar wants to control the message all the time," says Sam Kennedy, editorial director for the gaming site 1UP.com. "They want this to be seen and perceived exactly the way they want. That's why - outside of the official trailers they released - people haven't seen a lot of gameplay footage in advance of 'GTA IV' shipping. They want to build that hype."
Take-Two and Rockstar declined to comment for this story, but following a 90-minute demonstration of the game in January, "GTA IV" writer and Rockstar vice president Dan Houser told The Associated Press that the infamous game developer, who's also responsible for the "Manhunt" and "Bully" games, was being overly protective for one very important reason.
"We want people to be really excited and not know everything by the time they play the game," said Houser. "Of course, we want them to understand what they're buying, but we want there to be surprises along the way."
The desire for intel about "GTA IV" has been mounting since the game was announced at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2006 and again in August when Take-Two revealed "GTA IV" would be delayed until 2008. Other than four popular online trailers and some embargoed press previews, there hasn't been much information.
The silent treatment is a savvy business move, according to Steve Fowler, vice president of strategy for the Ayzenberg Group, a company that specializes in interactive entertainment advertising and marketing. Fowler worked as a product manager on the original "Halo."
"'Halo 3' took the approach of going after a less core consumer, but they had an ulterior motive," says Fowler. "Microsoft was using 'Halo 3,' their biggest property, to try and sell more Xbox 360s. Take-Two and Rockstar are free of that constriction because 'GTA IV' is on both platforms, so they're only motivated to be true to what their game is and sell copies of their game."
Thus far, Rockstar's advertising campaign has consisted of several outdoor elements - billboards, bus wraps, building murals, phony wanted posters - spread across North America and Europe as well as a few viral videos featuring satirical commercials for fictitious "GTA" businesses posted online. GameStop and Microsoft have also aired their own TV commercials featuring the game.
The less-is-more approach might also have something to do with the controversial series' M-rated content. "GTA IV" anti-hero Niko Bellic, an imigrant-turned-gangster from Eastern Europe, isn't exactly one of the Mario Brothers. As Bellic, players can hijack cars, earn cash for criminal activities, flee from police, drive drunk, kill innocent bystanders and patronize strip clubs.
"If you look at their marketing, that's not a selling point at all," says Fowler. "They've gone with this comic book look and feel. It's not about graphic violence. It's not about profanity. It's more about the feeling, expression and the emotional attachment to the characters and the world."
The drama extends beyond Liberty City, the game's fictional locale, and into the real world. Video game publisher Take-Two, which owns Rockstar, has been subject to a hostile takeover bid from Electronic Arts since February. Take-Two has been holding out, refusing to enter formal talks with EA or any other suitor until April 30, the day after "GTA IV" goes on sale.
Huge first-day "GTA IV" sales could certainly boost the value of Take-Two's shares. The lack of a "Halo 3"-sized advertising campaign isn't expected to affect sales, according to video game analysts. Unlike the Xbox 360-exclusive "Halo 3," the ninth "GTA" game is being simultaneously released for Sony's and Microsoft's consoles, a first for the 10-year-old gaming franchise.
"The addressable market at launch is about 24 million consoles," says Michael Pachter, video game analyst at Wedbush Morgan. "So how many will sell in the first week or month or few months? Nine million. That's the number. That's about a 35 percent attach rate. By year's end, it'll be somewhere between 11 and 13 million because more consoles will be sold before the holidays."
By comparison, "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," which had the highest grossing film debut in 2007, fleeced $404 million in its first six days around the world. However, a movie ticket is significantly less than the $59.99 price tag for "GTA IV." And software sales are usually less concerned with opening week figures, according to Pachter.
"Opening week doesn't have any bearing on lifetime sales," says Pachter. "With box office, three to five times opening weekend sales is what movies usually do. Games can slip under the radar and be slow and steady sellers like 'Wii Fit' will be or highly anticipated like 'GTA IV' and literally sell half of their lifetime units in the first week."
Such sales would beat the record held by "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," the previous "GTA" console game that sold over 9 million copies when it was released for the PlayStation 2 in 2004, according to NPD Group, which tracks video game sales. To meet the demand, retailers such as GameStop and Best Buy are opening their doors at midnight for special "GTA IV" launch events.
"I would expect April to be a monster sales month for the video game industry, one that is likely to break all sorts of previous records," says Anita Frazier, video game analyst for NPD Group. "We release our April sales data on May 15, and I get goosebumps thinking of the numbers we'll see on that day."
By Derrik J. Lang