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."
Plagued by Controversy
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."
"Grand Theft Auto" has drawn ire from critics for years, not only for its violent and sexual content (in one version, players get points for having sex with hookers), but also for hidden, hackable content that some critics say would have increased its rating from M (Mature) to AO (Adults Only).
In "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," for instance, developers embedded a minigame called "hot coffee," in which the player could invite his girlfriend in for "coffee" and have sex with her.
Mainstream electronics stores refuse to carry video games rated AO. "Grand Theft Auto IV" is rated M.
"The 'Grand Theft Auto' franchise is definitely a game for adult players … The premise of a lot of the games is illegal activity," said David Walsh, the director of the National Institute on Media and the Family, a group that releases a video game report card every year. "It's a very violent game. We don't know what's in it ["GTA 4"] yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if the edginess in sexual content is pushed a little further."
The group released a study in late 2007 that found that retailers didn't enforce the age-related ratings system nearly half the time.
Although Walsh believes that retailers and parents are part of the equation in keeping violent video games out of the hands of kids, he believes game developers still have a responsibility to consider the boundaries of "good taste."
"Major game publishers have looked at a finished product" and decided not to go with it as is, Walsh said. "Take-Two, as a company, has never done that. They've made their reputation as being the renegade company that's willing to push the boundaries."
Dan Hewitt, a spokesman for the Entertainment Software Association, says that the industry takes the necessary steps to address Walsh's concerns.
"The industry has a responsibility to empower parents to make appropriate choices and we do so in a number of different ways" with a game ratings system and parental controls in video game consoles, he said. "The average video game player is thirty-three years old. We're a mass market entertainment industry."