Grand Theft Auto V: Took 3 days to reach $US1b in sales.
An hour after it went on sale at midnight last month, Scott Rhodie bought the video game Grand Theft Auto V. He played it for two hours, slept, then had another five hours immersed in fictional southern California the next day.
Over the next fortnight, the 38-year-old spent 55 hours playing the game on an Xbox in his Marrickville lounge room, with more to come once play moved online. During breaks, his girlfriend played for another 20 hours.
”I wouldn’t say it’s compulsive but it’s a lot of fun,” says Rhodie, until recently the digital communications manager for the national broadband network. ”I had time off. But if I was working, I would probably have taken some time off to play.”
Like gamers around the world, Rhodie wanted to get in early for what’s known as ”GTA V”, spending $90 then exploring a visually sophisticated, complex, interactive world that parodies American culture.
If there was ever any doubt that video games are eroding Hollywood’s dominance of mass entertainment, it vanished when creator Rockstar’s latest instalment became the fastest-selling entertainment product in history. Worldwide sales topped $US1 billion in three days.
That made the sales of another action game, Call Of Duty: Black Ops II, look almost slow. It took 15 days to reach $US1 billion last year.
While Hollywood ticket sales often seem mind-boggling, only 17 movies have ever reached that mark at box offices worldwide. Avatar, which became the highest-grossing movie when it overtook Titanic four years ago, took 17 days to get there.
According to Dr Bruce Isaacs, who lectures in film studies at the University of Sydney, the Grand Theft Auto launch was the video game equivalent of Avatar‘s release.
”It’s just a big pop culture product,” he says.
While Hollywood has been resilient to challenges from prestige television drama, social media and piracy, studio executives have good reason to be worried about the popularity of video games among people who might otherwise go to the movies.
Compared to the patchy reviews for many Hollywood blockbusters this year, there has been widespread acclaim for Grand Theft Auto V from critics and gamers.
A review in The New York Times called the R 18+ rated game ”the best plotted, most playable, character-driven, fictionally coherent entry in this 16-year-old series”.
There were reservations that could be controversial outside the gaming world – a game about hoodlums and thieves starts with a burst of cop killing, the interactive pastimes include bong hits and lap dances, women are largely portrayed as lustful airheads and a gruesome torture sequence involves waterboarding – but the game was praised as a ”hugely enjoyable” spectacle.
Having joined 200 people for the midnight launch in Brisbane, writer John Birmingham described the game as art. ”A hugely successful and commercialised form, yes, but art nonetheless.”
Birmingham wrote that the Rockstar creators might finally receive the credit they deserve from mainstream culture: ”Maybe the tabloids and talkback and network TV will at last accept and acknowledge both the scale of their achievement and the quality – the integrity and vision – of their vast imagined world and the characters living within it”.
After 55 hours of play, Rhodie says the game is up there creatively with the best TV and movies. ”As a TV show, it’s in the style of Boardwalk Empire but I’d put it as a Sopranos or a Game Of Thrones,” he says. ”As a movie, it’s The Avengers. It’s big action, big fun.”
As well as dicing for entertainment dollars, video games are colonising the film business in other ways. Two new games were launched in Australian cinemas in the same week recently – Beyond: Two Souls, which stars Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page, and the football game FIFA 2014.
Grand Theft Auto V even featured at the New York Film Festival last week, with panels on storytelling and game development and a live concert of the game’s music as part of a convergence program.
Edward Fong, the managing director of Ubisoft Australia, which publishes such games as Assassin’s Creed, Just Dance and Ghost Recon, says it is not simply a case of Hollywood needing to be scared by the growth of video games. The two industries are collaborating closely for their mutual benefit.
”We made the Avatar game,” he says. ”There are great examples of the games studios collaborating with the movie houses to make better content across every platform.
”Movie directors see the games platform as an opportunity to expand their stories. As [one director] said, they’ve only got a canvas of about two hours to tell their story in the movie but in a game they’ve got 30. They see it as another creative outlet.”
Ubisoft has formed a division to develop movie franchises for Assassin’s Creed, Ghost Recon and Splinter Cell – adding to the long list of games-based films that includes Mortal Kombat, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Pokemon, Resident Evil, Doom, Prince of Persia and, before too long, Need For Speed and Angry Birds. ”A lot of companies have been trying to cash in by making a movie that probably wasn’t up to scratch,” says Fong, also chairman of the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association.
”But the days of the quick movie cash-in are gone. Any games project that’s going to be converted to a movie has to be top quality.
”That means engaging with the best directors, producers and writers. And there are big budgets there as well.”
Popular games also have Hollywood-scale budgets – Grand Theft Auto V reportedly cost $US115 million with another $US150 million outlaid to market it.
Its success is expected to boost Australian video game retail sales of $1.16 billion last year – ahead of cinema box office of $1.12 billion – according to the association’s figures.
As players shift from consoles to online and mobile games, this year another $700 million-plus is expected to be spent on these formats, including so-called virtual goods transactions.
Despite all these advances, it will be quite some time before video games match the storytelling and moral dimensions of great movies.
For all its creativity, Isaacs says Grand Theft Auto is not a mature or sophisticated form of storytelling.
”Most gaming still targets mass demographics, so they’re still fairly formulaic and fairly generic,” he says. ”I think it’s going to be a long time before we start seeing that change.”
While the average age of an Australian gamer is 32, Isaacs believes there is a problem with Grand Theft Auto’s popularity – parents who take ratings less seriously for video games than for movies are buying it for their children.
”You wouldn’t take a kid to see an ultra-violent, morally questionable film but are you going to be concerned about your child playing an ultra-violent, perhaps morally questionable game?” he says. ”I think there are different standards.”
According to Isaacs, the game puts players in questionable situations. ”You can have sex with a prostitute,” he says. ”You can then beat up that prostitute. You can get into a car and run over civilians trying to escape cops.
”You can do these things that are absolutely transgressive but because it’s within the framework of a narrative game, the perception is that it doesn’t have the same effect [on the player]. But, of course, many people question that perception.”
Rhodie has no qualms about what takes place in what he calls the game of his generation.
”The name of the game is Grand Theft Auto,” he says. ”Originally it was about stealing cars. Then it became about crime syndicates and stuff. But you can switch on Goodfellas or any of the crime shows that are on TV these days – and let’s be honest, there’s a lot of crime shows on TV – and you’ll see the same kind of stuff.
”You see reports from people saying video games are the cause of the gun violence in America but gun violence was happening before video games existed.”
Whether a threat or an ally in chasing the entertainment dollar, filmmakers are taking notice of video games in stylistic ways.
The Nicolas Winding Refn-Ryan Gosling movies Drive and Only God Forgives are almost filmed versions of ultra-violent, action-packed games.
”Games have shown the studios how to provide huge spectacle experiences,” says Isaacs. ”For someone like Michael Bay, when I watch Bad Boys II or Transformers, I can’t help but see some aesthetic convergence between cinema and gaming.
”And when I saw Christopher Nolan’s Inception, I thought of it as the most sophisticated convergence of cinema and gaming that had yet been produced by Hollywood – completing levels, taking on certain positions, entering virtual spaces.
”The narrative structure seems to really powerfully draw on the kind of experiences you can maybe have as a gamer.”