RETRO – Rockstar Games is a gaming titan known for megahits like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. Few studios generate as much anticipation, and the enormous impact of GTA V has made the long absence of GTA 6 increasingly agonising for enthusiasts.
A decade ago, Grand Theft Auto V made its groundbreaking entrance into the market. Exceeding even the lofty expectations of its legendary predecessors, the game’s financial achievements were beyond anyone’s wildest predictions. Reaching the $1 billion mark faster than any other form of entertainment and setting the record as the highest-grossing product of its kind, GTA V has sold a staggering 185 million units and generated a staggering $8 billion in revenue for publisher Take-Two Interactive.
Yet even after its unparalleled triumph, and through numerous changes in pop culture – 25 Marvel movies, five British prime ministers, two Olympic Games and a global health crisis – the gaming community is still waiting with bated breath for the sequel. In the past, GTA has provided players with sprawling virtual representations of American cities, from the sun-drenched Vice City (modelled on Miami) to the towering skyline of Liberty City (modelled on New York). And Rockstar used to release new titles on a fairly regular basis.
The gap between GTA V and its upcoming sequel, which the company only confirmed was in development last year, is the longest in the series’ history. According to Bloomberg video game journalist Jason Schreier, there are several factors contributing to this long wait.
“In the first decade of the 2000s, Rockstar was in a phase of almost annual game releases,” notes Schreier. “They had a global network of studios, so while their Scottish team was focused on GTA, the San Diego crew was crafting Red Dead Redemption (another expansive open-world game set in the American frontier).”
During this era, GTA, originally developed in Rockstar’s Edinburgh location, evolved from simple 2D simulations of movie-like car pursuits to an entertainment behemoth with an expansive universe and immense popularity. Transitioning to a three-dimensional format on the PlayStation 2 catapulted the franchise—and the surrounding debates over video game violence—into a whole new league. GTA III, the series’ first installment with a fully explorable open-world, became the top-selling game of 2001. Its rapid follow-ups, Vice City (2002) and San Andreas (2004), enjoyed even greater success, with the latter selling over 27 million copies.
Rising Stakes for Development Teams
However, as Rockstar’s projects grew more ambitious, starting notably with 2008’s GTA IV and 2010’s Red Dead in the HD era of PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, the workload on development teams escalated correspondingly. No longer could a single studio carry the weight of these expansive games. Instead, multiple Rockstar locations globally collaborated, expanding each game’s development staff from hundreds to thousands.
This approach allowed for the creation of larger and more intricate game worlds but also extended development timelines considerably. For instance, 2018’s Red Dead Redemption 2, which boasts the largest map in any Rockstar game to date, took a whopping eight years to develop. Rockstar North, the Edinburgh studio famous for GTA, joined the San Diego team behind the original Red Dead to fulfill the grand visions of studio founders Sam and Dan Houser. By the project’s conclusion, an estimated 2,000 individuals had contributed, and analysts speculate that development costs ranged from $170 million to $240 million—exceeding the budgets of many Hollywood blockbusters.
Workplace Pressure and Uncharted Waters
Although Red Dead Redemption 2 received both critical acclaim and commercial success, its launch was marred by allegations of a “crunch culture” that supposedly had some staff working grueling 100-hour weeks to complete the game. Schreier, who has done in-depth reporting on the studio’s work environment, notes that there was a longstanding ethos of “we’re lucky to be here, making games is a dream job, so let’s pull all-nighters to get it done.” He adds that Rockstar has been making strides to “create a more humane work environment,” which could potentially lead to more realistic deadlines for its employees.
The pandemic didn’t spare Rockstar either. Even with the advent of new gaming consoles from PlayStation and Xbox, the gaming community faced a drought of new titles in 2020 and 2021, as remote work and supply chain disruptions wreaked havoc on development timelines. This scenario breathed new life into older titles, and GTA V was a prime beneficiary. Distinct from its predecessors, GTA V features a highly popular online multiplayer component that has kept players engaged and spending.
Schreier points out that the sustained profitability of GTA V, bolstered by its re-releases on newer platforms, means there hasn’t been “the same pressing need” to launch GTA 6. “They’ve created one of the best-selling games ever,” he says, “outperforming not just individual titles, but even some of the biggest gaming franchises, like Assassin’s Creed and Final Fantasy.”
Whenever GTA 6 does make its debut, it will enter a landscape significantly altered since 2013—changes not solely attributable to the pandemic.
Mocking the Mockery
In addition to its lifelike renditions of American cities, high-speed car chases, and violent escapades, GTA is most famous for its piercing satire of American society. Whether it’s tackling issues like police violence, gun culture, or consumerism, the game isn’t subtle (consider a coffee cup replacing Lady Liberty’s torch) but dares to push boundaries more than most of its counterparts.
The series has always courted controversy, not least when GTA III’s casual depiction of violence ignited tensions in an America still shaken by the 1999 Columbine shooting. The furor likely reached its apex with San Andreas, when hidden adult scenes were discovered by players, leading the US game ratings board to swiftly change its rating from M for Mature to Adults Only.
Two decades later, writer Trevor Strunk believes GTA has moved beyond such criticisms. “Video games have become ingrained in the daily lives of countless individuals,” he observes. “GTA has played a huge role in that transformation—many people who found these games controversially violent in their youth now have the resources to play them as adults. The 40-year-olds who once criticized the game are now its players.”
However, Strunk, author of “Story Mode: Video Games and the Interplay Between Consoles and Culture,” warns that GTA’s unapologetic penchant for upsetting people might have turned into one of its own pitfalls.
“In today’s post-Trump landscape, lampooning America has become increasingly complex,” Strunk comments. “Rockstar is keen on mocking societal norms, but the world has caught up in unexpected ways. The challenge of crafting satire in this new context could be one reason why we’ve been waiting so long for GTA 6.”
Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser seemed to echo this sentiment in a 2018 GQ interview, suggesting that America might now be “unsatirizable.” Although he has since left the company, his brother Sam continues to lead as its president.
The huge leak that revealed game’s direction
Regardless of any creative challenges facing the team working on the next installment, their woes likely intensified after a significant leak last year. In a major cybersecurity lapse within the gaming world, multiple videos featuring heists, firefights, and free-roaming driving sequences were uploaded to an online platform.
Rockstar had to issue a formal statement, confirming a “security breach where confidential data was accessed and extracted by an unauthorized individual.” While the company expressed deep regret that the upcoming GTA details were “revealed in this manner,” the executives assured that the game’s development would remain unaffected.
The leaked footage seemed to affirm the game’s return to Vice City and introduced dual protagonists in a story reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde. Significantly, it also included the franchise’s first-ever playable female character. Given the series’ less-than-enlightened portrayal of women—ranging from provocatively dressed models on game covers to explicit scenes and interactive strip clubs—this marks a noteworthy shift.
‘Craving for a Female Anti-Hero’
Game writer Leigh Alexander, known for her contributions to Game Of Thrones and Love Island adaptations, advocates for Rockstar maintaining its boundary-pushing ethos. “GTA has always been indiscriminately irreverent,” she observes. “Playing it as a young woman, I found its indiscriminate, often caustic attitude towards everything oddly liberating. It mocks societal flaws, and guess what, women have our own set of darker emotions too. There’s a decade-long trend of featuring female protagonists, but often they’re sanitized, positive portrayals. Women want to unleash chaos in GTA just like men do! I’d love to embody a frazzled, edgy female character in GTA, frantically navigating traffic with smeared mascara, confronting protesters, and wreaking havoc on the police.”
Alexander believes there’s a willing female audience for such a subversive fantasy. Various streaming platforms like YouTube and Twitch regularly feature female gamers deeply engaged in GTA V’s expansive online mode, allowing for a variety of player identities. “The player base has already diversified its representation,” she notes. “It’s Rockstar that’s tardy in catching up.”
The Long Haul Continues
Regrettably for the fan base, Rockstar’s ‘arrival to the party’ seems to be delayed further. A recent financial briefing from parent company Take-Two indicated that they’re projecting “unprecedented operational success” in the next fiscal year, fueled by a “significant milestone” that many speculate might pertain to GTA 6. But even if that’s the case, the launch could be deferred to as late as March 2025. Bloomberg’s Schreier suggests that even this could be optimistic, given the game’s “monumental and intricate scale.”
However, the old saying goes, ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ and the level of expectation for this game could very well be unparalleled. Once GTA does make its comeback, it likely won’t take long for fans to affirm its worth.