As legions of fans salivate over trailers for "Grand Theft Auto IV," two things continue to follow one of the most violent, prolific and best-selling video game franchises out there: innovation and controversy.
Set to debut on April 29, the long-awaited latest installment of the often lambasted and extremely popular game is set in Liberty City, a near-exact replica of New York City, with a similar plotline to past games: Players are submerged in an urban criminal underworld, where they must shoot, rob and kill their way through the city.
The game, though plagued by criticism of its violent content, has only become more popular with each new edition of the series. According to NPD Group, the original, which came out in 1997, and second versions of the game sold 1 million and 1.2 million copies, respectively. GTA 3 went on to sell 6.2 million units, "GTA: Vice City" sold 7.2 million and "GTA: San Andreas" sold 9.2 million. Compilation packs alone racked up 7 million in sales.
"Grand Theft Auto IV" is one of the year's most anticipated video game releases for "both good and bad reasons," said Hal Halpin, president of the Entertainment Consumers Association, a lobbying group for gamers.
"Gamers are anticipating it because they're expecting the whole next iteration — compelling game play and leaps forward in graphics," Halpin said. "I'd say that's why the vast majority of people will buy it."
One of those innovations has been the franchise's radio stations, which allows players to pick the kind of music they listen to as they drive. But now players will no longer be confined to the songs in the game. Rockstar, the game's publisher, announced last week that a new game function will allow players to buy songs they hear on their in-game radios.
If players hear a song they like on any of the game's radio stations, they dial a number on their in-game cell phone and receive a text message with the song's title and artist as well as an e-mail with real-life information on how to buy the song at Amazon.
"I think what's happening to the music business in general is there's significant fragmentation in the way we discover and listen to music," said Russ Crupnik, vice president and senior industry analyst of entertainmen at NPD. "As time is starting to pass, you're going to see more of these kinds of microdeals. They're not as mass market as what we're used to, but they're geared toward a small but important market niche."
This is a new way for the music industry to target an audience that may be used to getting its music for free, Crupnik said.
"A lot of this audience isn't used to paying for things. This starts to help with the challenge of 'can I engage someone with the music in the game?'" he said. "'Can I start to create some cracks in an unwillingness to pay?' …This is a cool way to do a transaction."
But as the game's release draws closer, so does another kind of buzz — the negative kind, from groups that typically voice concern about violent media of all types, but particularly video games.
"The game's certainly become the poster child for violent video games," lobbyist Halpin said. "It's held up as the example as what video games are, which is unfair to the sector as a whole. … Really [critics] should treat this as another season of 'The Sopranos' or another sequel that they really like, but that's created for adults."