Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Grand Theft Auto IV -- A Skeptical View 2

So it looks like Grand Theft Auto IV may have become not only the best-selling game "OF ALL TIME"; if Strauss Zelnick is to be believed (according to a Gamasutra story) it has earned the most first-weekend revenue of any entertainment product ever. So I acknowledge that my earlier skepticism regarding GTA IV's sales numbers was wrong.

But why was I wrong? Why has GTA IV sold like this?

Is it really the content? Are so many normal people really so eager to play a game where you shoot lots of people in the head and steal various vehicles? (I'm not even getting into the whole "drunk driving" thing, which is probably overblown.) Is there truly such an attraction to pretending to do this kind of stuff to give GTA IV the greatest launch of any entertainment product ever?

I have to think there's something else going on here, that it's not really the content of the game that's responsible for its outstanding sales. I don't see how the content alone can account for such extreme sales numbers.

One possibility is the blitz advertising. It's thought that GTA IV took $100 million to make; if so, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that a meaningful chunk of that was devoted to advertising. (And this might be a good place to observe that there doesn't doesn't seem to have been any cannibalization of GTA IV sales by Iron Man or vice versa, as some claimed to fear.) Maybe a significant number of people found the GTA IV video ads compelling, or just figured anything advertising that much had to be a "blockbuster."

Or perhaps GTA IV is the beneficiary of the Hula Hoop Effect, as I think has been the case for World of Warcraft. If a bunch of your friends say they're doing it, you're likely to do it too in order not to be perceived as uncool. I suspect this is the major reason behind most high-volume sales experiences, including that of Grand Theft Auto IV.

Finally, there were the suspiciously hyperenthusiastic reviews of the game by pretty much all the known game reviewers, led by the completely over-the-top coverage by G4 TV's X Play. As someone who was closely following the development of Star Trek Online by the former Perpetual Entertainment, I haven't forgotten the admission by the former PR firm Kohnke Communications in their complaint against Perpetual that they were "successful in creating pre-release 'buzz' around Gods & Heroes, and in convincing reviewers to write positive reviews about the game."

Kohnke C. later insisted that "reviews" was a typo, and should have read "previews"... but what's the real difference? Either way, it highlights the reality that there are PR firms out there who are pushing game reviewers to express positive impressions of a game, regardless of the actual quality of that game. That, of course, is what a PR firm is paid to do... but reminding people that this kind of spin goes on in the gaming press does not create confidence in the objectivity of reviewers -- just the opposite.

So who did the PR for Grand Theft Auto IV? Looks like they earned their money.

No, that doesn't mean I think all the gushing reviews of GTA IV were biased by some insider deals. But I do have to wonder; again, are people -- including game reviewers -- really so hugely interested in dealing out urban mayhem? I earnestly hope there's something more behind their glowing reviews than that.

Sigh. My less-than-enthusiasic response to this game is probably generating thoughts of "but dude, you haven't even played it!" Not that I'd mind comparisons to some elements of Fox News, but the uninformed Mass Effect criticism is not something I want to copy. So I guess if I want to continue questioning GTA IV's wondrousness, I'll have to reward Rockstar's promotion of simulated inner-city violence with some cash of my own.

Bleh. We'll see.

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