Why do gamers keep going back to Grand Theft Auto V?

In the flurry of announcements surrounding the release of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, one fact surprised nobody: Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto V will get a next-gen re-release, making it perhaps the only game to be released for three successive console generations, having first come out in 2013.

GTA V is, by most estimates, the most profitable media product of all time. It has sold at least 135m copies to date, making well over $6bn, more than double the takings of the most profitable film, 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. The fact that people continue to buy this game is intriguing: in gaming years, 2013 is practically the Cretaceous period. With so many shiny, innovative games coming out each month, why do millions continue to flock to GTA V?

The answer is multi-faceted, and reveals much about how the tectonic plates of the gaming industry have shifted over the past decade. GTA V offers, first and foremost, a stellar single-player experience, casting you as a trio of colourful criminals who fall into a series of daring heists. Rockstar’s signature tone is biting satire, and this edition takes aim at social media, reality TV and wellness culture, with myriad pop culture references — if a player heads to Raton Canyon at 7pm, they’ll see two women careening off a cliff in a convertible, in a nod to Thelma & Louise. This is one of many hidden details that reward dedicated explorers of the virtual state of San Andreas, a smart pastiche of California and an environment of unparalleled character and detail.

‘GTA V’ is set in the virtual state of San Andreas

Despite the compelling story, the real reason for this game’s enduring success is its multiplayer component, GTA Online. Though it was considered a flop on first release, Rockstar has steadily upgraded the online mode into a highly polished product, and it’s not just for diehard fans: in 2020 GTA Online hit a new record number of players. Regular updates to the city of Los Santos offer players new missions, vehicles, and the chance to run nightclubs where they can launder their ill-gotten gains. The introduction of fluorescent alien body suits this year led to an all-out war in which players formed armies of green and purple extraterrestrials and hunted each other across the city — Rockstar has provided the tools for players to create their own virtual culture and history.

The smartest updates were those that encouraged players to build communities, to form biker gangs or hire each other in complex mob hierarchies. GTA Online slowly evolved from an absurdist crime simulator into a virtual life where people simply went to hang out with friends and drive cars they could never afford in the real world. Simultaneously, players latched on to the rising popularity of video platforms YouTube and Twitch to post videos of themselves playing to massive audiences — at the time of writing, 11m hours of GTA V were watched on Twitch in the past week.

One vibrant community performs elaborate stunts in the game world, spending countless hours practising driving off ramps or skydiving through the outstretched arms of pylons on the slopes of soaring Mount Chiliad. Another group thrives on role-play servers, where players are assigned everyday jobs and perform their roles in character, be they postal workers or ambulance drivers. Some work real-time eight-hour shifts as virtual cops, arresting drug dealers and handing out fines for traffic violations. Role players make their own theatre in-game, improvising soap-opera storylines which viewers lap up in their thousands.

Rockstar made the clever move early on to allow players to tinker with the game’s software. It introduced an editor mode which lets players direct the world’s time, weather and denizens to create films with video game casts (known as “machinima”), which range from nature documentaries to three-hour Bond rip-offs. Those who want to dive deeper can join a community of “modders” who edit the software to update graphics or add features such as superheroes or an LGBT pride parade. The best mods are the strangest: hack the game to run around the city not as a human but as a peaceful deer, or harness the power of magnificently surreal guns that shoot cars or sharks.

The continued success of GTA V points to how game development is evolving. Players no longer buy titles for a single experience, to be completed and left behind. Now games are built as platforms that are updated over time, from which developers continue to profit from microtransactions. This business model divides the opinions of gamers, but it allows a single game to stay relevant over generations of consoles because there’s always something new to do. The fictional state of San Andreas has become a playground and home for gamers like no other. While they await news of GTA VI, it is easier to return to these familiar haunts than try something new. They have grown up with this game, and it has grown with them, too.

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