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GTA Online’s growth complicates a Grand Theft Auto 6 launch for Rockstar

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Grand Theft Auto V and the connected world of GTA Online continue to drive revenue growth for developer Rockstar Games and parent company Take-Two Interactive. Rockstar has now shipped 145 million copies of GTA V. At the same time, GTA Online surpassed its previous record number of active players during Take-Two’s fiscal fourth quarter. Through that same period, GTA Online also generated its second-highest quarter ever for in-game spending. And yet that success comes with its own series of complications — especially when it comes to navigating a transition to a Grand Theft Auto 6.

In its annual earnings report, Take-Two said that Grand Theft Auto V “exceeded our expectations.” Rockstar produced new content, and that led to record engagement from new and returning players. GTA Online’s in-game spending also grew by 31% to a new high through a 12-month period.

And the plan for the next year is to maintain support for Rockstar Games, according to Take-Two’s earnings report:

Throughout the [next] fiscal year, Rockstar Games will continue to support both Grand Theft Auto Online and Red Dead Online with more content updates to keep new and returning players excited and engaged.

Take-Two expects to generate slightly less revenue in its fiscal 2022. Where it brought in $3.4 billion in fiscal 2021, it is aiming for $3.1 billion next year. That signifies that a Grand Theft Auto 6 launch is unlikely by March 2022. And while that might seem obvious, it does mean the franchise is approaching a decade since its last new entry in 2013.

The path to Grand Theft Auto 6 is fraught for Take-Two and Rockstar

So then what about the next Grand Theft Auto? Rockstar is certainly working on Grand Theft Auto 6, but the studio will have to navigate a difficult path to launch that game. And that’s because Take-Two doesn’t want to disrupt the growth it’s still getting out of GTA Online.

In fiscal 2021, Grand Theft Auto generated $985 million in revenue as a series. And Niko Partners analyst Daniel Ahmad published a chart on Twitter that illustrates that leap in sales.

Now engagement and spending were up last year thanks to the pandemic, but Take-Two thinks global stay-at-home orders had a permanent effect on people’s relationship to video games.

Here is Take-Two’s statement on the pandemic from its earnings report:

We believe that the pandemic initiated a transformational shift in entertainment consumption, revealing the possibilities of interactive entertainment to a much broader market, with interactive entertainment becoming the number one entertainment vertical. We anticipate that the overall addressable market for our industry will be notably larger going forward than it was pre-pandemic. However, as the world returns to a new normal, we expect a moderation of the trends that benefitted our industry over the past year.

Put plainly, Take-Two expects to make a little less this upcoming year, but it goes on to say that it is anticipating even more growth in 2023 and beyond. And one of the easiest ways Take-Two can ensure it capitalizes on a larger market is to continue growing a platform that is already working.

GTA Online 2, free-to-play, and other questions

GTA Online is the proverbial bird in the hand as opposed to GTA 6’s two birds in the bush. While a new GTA is a massive event waiting to happen, Rockstar cannot predict what that will mean for GTA Online. And that will depend on how the studio approaches the relationship between GTA 6 and GTA Online.

Does the company make a GTA Online 2 that is only accessible to players who purchase GTA 6? Or does GTA Online just get a major update with a new map? Or maybe it’s the same GTA Online map but with new content brought in from GTA 6? And maybe GTA Online should go free-to-play, but then does that hurt GTA 6’s sales relative to its predecessor?

These transitions are not easy. And even Rockstar doesn’t have the power to create the next GTA Online at will. Red Dead Online, while far from a failure, is not the same kind of revenue driver as GTA Online or NBA 2K, according to Take-Two.

None of this means that a GTA 6 will never come, of course. Even in the unlikely scenario that Rockstar botches GTA 6 and loses its GTA Online audience in the process, it has the brand power and talent to bounce back. But it does mean that Rockstar is going to continue taking its time to try to get this right — and GTA Online ensures that the studio can afford to do that.

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